© Copyright 1999 by the Wyoming Department of Employment, Research & Planning

Employment and Unemployment on the Wind River Indian Reservation
by: Garth Massey and Audie Blevins, Department of Sociology, University of Wyoming, Laramie, WY 82071 October 6, 1999

"Fremont County consistently has the state's highest rate of unemployment, much of which can be attributed to the exceedingly high unemployment of persons living on the Wind River Indian Reservation."

Although there are significant exceptions, American Indian reservations are characterized by a high level of poverty and unemployment, long-term joblessness, low educational attainment, and the myriad social problems associated with a lack of resources and gainful employment. Nationally the poverty rate on American Indian reservations is 50.7 percent, while official unemployment is 25.6 percent. The Bureau of Indian Affairs estimated in 1995 that nationally 51 percent of the potential labor force of Indians living on or near reservations were employed, up from 43 percent in 1993. Reservation employment reflects not only a shortage of jobs but heavy dependence on government employment. Nationally, 45.6 percent of all jobs held by Native American residents on reservations are with a local, tribal, state or federal government.

The Wind River Indian Reservation (WRIR - see Map) is no exception to the national picture. Educational attainment on the WRIR is 11.7 years for persons 25 years of age and older, more than one year less than the U.S. population. Not counting individuals currently enrolled in school, 37 percent of persons age 25 or older have attended a post-high school educational institution. Nationally this figure was 48.3, but for Black Americans the figure is 39 percent. Of those who went on to college, 18.2 percent received an associate degree, 13.3 percent received a BA or BS degree, and 5.9 percent hold a graduate degree. Nationally 23.9 percent of adults 25 and older hold a bachelor’s degree, but for Black Americans the figure is 13.3.

In the 1990 U.S. Census, Indian residents made up 18.5 percent of the total population of Fremont County. The low income of households on the WRIR meant that they contributed only 8.5 percent of the county’s total household income. In the 1990s, Fremont County has been one of Wyoming’s more economically depressed areas. Its 1989 per capita income was 80 percent of the state average. Fremont County consistently has the state’s highest rate of unemployment, much of which can be attributed to the exceedingly high unemployment of persons living on the Wind River Indian Reservation.

WINDS-2 Project.

The Wyoming Indian Needs Determination Survey of 1998 (WINDS-2) is the second major census of the Wind River Indian Reservation (WRIR) carried out on behalf of the Joint Business Council of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Tribes. The first WINDS Project was conducted in 1987. By 1998, many things had changed on the Reservation and new information was needed. WINDS-2 was authorized by the Joint Business Council to meet this need.

Excluding the Bureau of Reclamation area in the center of the WRIR and the city of Riverton which lies within the boundary of the reservation, the WINDS-2 project estimates that approximately 7,680 persons reside on the 2.1 million acres of the WRIR. Of these, 1,580 are non-Indians. Among the Indians, 3,810 are members of the Northern Arapaho tribe and 1,630 are members of the Eastern Shoshone tribe.

The WINDS-2 project was carried out in 1998 and 1999. In the last seven months of 1998, interviews were sought with an adult member of each family on the WRIR. Interviews were conducted in 82 percent of all Indian residences and 56 percent of all non-Indian residences. The survey gathered information on family composition, health, education, employment, job training, personal security, housing, recreation, transportation, income, social services, and media use. The project provides the most accurate and complete picture to date of employment and unemployment on the WRIR.


More than half of all adults age 18-64 living on the Reservation are employed. Two-thirds of employed persons work 40 hours per week, while 17.7 percent work less than 40 hours per week and 15.5 percent work more than 40 hours per week.

Table 1 shows the percent of employed WRIR residents by occupational category. It also distinguishes between Indians and non-Indians. There are few differences between these two groups. Non-Indians are more likely than Indians to be private managers, professionals, teachers, and health technicians. We estimate that half of all employed persons are working for a tribal, local, state or federal entity, approximately the same as Indians living on reservations nationwide.

Table 2 shows the rate of adult participation in the paid labor force for persons 18 to 64 living on the WRIR. Differences between Indians and non-Indians are obvious. Slightly less than half of all Indian adults are working for a wage or salary, while nearly 71 percent of non-Indians are employed. There is a significant difference between Indians and non-Indians of both sexes, though the difference is not as pronounced for women as it is for men. In looking at age groups, the trend is similar, with Indians and non-Indians more likely to be employed if they are age 35 to 54, while they are less likely to be working if they are older or younger. Non-participation in paid labor is particularly pronounced for young adult Indians.

Not surprisingly, as education increases so does participation in the labor force. The difference between Indians and non-Indians is small for individuals who have not completed high school. It increases for high school graduates and persons with the Graduate Equivalency Degree (GED) and is equally wide (a difference of about 25 percent) for persons with some college. Employment of non-Indians age 18-64 who hold an associate, bachelor's or post-graduate degree is higher than the national average (75.0 percent), while employment of similarly educated Indians is five percent lower.

Married persons are the most likely to be in the work force. More than three in five married Indians and nearly three in four married non-Indians are employed. With the exception of those who are widowed and in most cases between the ages of 55 and 64, single Indians are least likely (fewer than two in five) to be working for a wage or salary.


To be unemployed means that one is employable but does not have paid work. Only unemployed persons who could reasonably be expected to have a job--but do not--are considered unemployed. Unemployed persons may be seeking work or may be discouraged workers who have given up trying to find a job. Persons who work seasonally but are not working at the time of the interview are also included among the unemployed.

There are several reasons an adult may be temporarily or permanently unemployable. Some have full-time responsibilities caring for another person, such as primary responsibility for young children, a disabled family member, or an elderly person in the family in need of, but without, accessible home health care or daycare. Unemployable persons also include those who:

Of the 46.7 percent of persons age 18-64 who are not in the paid labor force, more than two in five are currently unemployable. These persons are not counted among the unemployed.

Unemployment figures are shown also in Table 2. The unemployment rate--unemployed but employable persons as a percent of all persons--of persons age 18 to 64 is 32.2 percent. It is nearly twice as high for Indians as for non-Indians. Like employment, the difference in unemployment rates between Indians and non-Indians is more extreme for males than for females, with a difference of 3.4 times for males.

Young Indians have a very high rate of unemployment, and it declines for each consecutive age group until age 55-59. A similar pattern holds for non-Indians, but with the 25-29 age group most likely to be unemployed. Unemployment is inversely related to educational attainment, with a dramatic difference between Indians and non-Indians who have attended some but less than two years of college. Interestingly, for non-Indians with an associate, bachelor's or post-graduate degree the rate of unemployment is nearly twice that of persons with only some college and only about five percent less than Indians with equivalent educational attainment. Indians and non-Indians have a similar pattern of unemployment by marital status.

The median length of unemployment is more than one year, but varies widely across the WRIR population, with many people experiencing unemployment for more than five years.

As shown in Table 3, "not able to find work" is the most frequent reason for not being in the paid labor force. The next most common reasons, in order of frequency, are: poor health, homemaker, retired, and student. A number of personal reasons for not being employed do not fall neatly into one of the above categories. These persons, along with seasonally unemployed workers and those who cannot find work, are considered employable. Men are more likely than women to say that they cannot find work, while women are much more likely to refer to their responsibilities as homemakers and persons on whom others are dependent for care that obviates their working outside the home. Men are also more likely to cite poor health.

Younger and middle aged persons are most likely to express an inability to find work, while poor health and retirement vary directly with age. Interestingly, being a full-time homemaker is a reason more often given by older women than younger women or women 35 to 44. This is probably due to dependent care responsibilities for aged relatives as well as for grandchildren.

Poor health and the inability to find work vary with educational attainment, the former inversely and the latter directly, up to the final group who have at least an associate degree. Retirement is often cited by those with less than 12 years of schooling, probably reflecting lower educational attainment among older persons. That 16.7 percent of those with 14 or more years of education should cite retirement can be explained by their working until they choose to retire, rather than leaving the workforce for another reason.

Off-Reservation Employment.

Among all adults, we estimate that 35.6 percent have left the WRIR at some time in order to be gainfully employed, with no significant difference for Indians and non-Indians. Among the unemployed, 67.5 percent are willing to work off the WRIR in order to find work, while only 64.3 percent are currently able to leave the WRIR for work.

Job Training.

Job training is widespread on the WRIR. Forty percent of adults indicate they have received job training at some time, while one in one hundred were currently in some kind of job training situation. It is possible that fewer people were in job training programs during the summer months (when most WINDS-2 interviews were done), contributing to this low figure.

The most common type of training is for secretarial and office skills (22.1 percent), followed by health care provider (15.3 percent) and construction skills (14.3 percent). Job Training Partnership Act training is the most often cited source of training (21.1 percent), followed by training provided by the firm or on-the-job-training programs (14.3 percent).

Three-quarters (77.6 percent) of those who had training found a job following job training. Nearly two in five persons (39.1 percent) are currently in a job for which they received job training. Of those who did not find a job, most said they were not able to find a suitable job.

Among the unemployed, 54.3 percent would like to receive job training, while nearly a third of the unemployed think they are too old to benefit from job training.


"Fremont County Per Capita Income: Indian and Non-Indian." Cooperative Extension Service, University of Wyoming, December 1997.

"Characteristics of American Indians by Tribe and Language." U.S. Census Bureau, 1993.

"Looking to the Future of the Wind River Indian Reservation." WINDS-2 Project Executive Summary. Department of Sociology, University of Wyoming, 1998.

"Indian Service Population and Labor Force Estimates." U.S. Department of the Interior: Bureau of Indian Affairs, 1995.

"Educational Attainment in the United States: March 1997." Jennifer Day and Andrea Curry. U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports P20-505, May 1998.

Addendum: About the WINDS-2 Project.

The Joint Business Council (JBC) established the agenda for WINDS-2 and authorized its conduct. An advisory council composed of JBC members, individuals from WRIR offices, and State of Wyoming offices was established to help design and approve the survey instrument. The University of Wyoming’s Wind River Initiative supported contacts between University of Wyoming (UW) and the WRIR, and UW became a partner in WINDS-2. Dr. Audie Blevins and Dr. Garth Massey coordinated the WINDS-2 Project. Molly O’Neal Holt was the WRIR Coordinator of the survey. All interviewing was done by residents of the WRIR.

Direct financial support came from the Northern Arapaho Business Council and the Eastern Shoshone Business Council, the Indian Health Service, the State of Wyoming Division of Aging, Department of Family Services, and Department of Employment. Generous financial and advisory support also came from the Community Service Office and its Director, Gary Maier. The Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Wyoming and UW’s Office of Research and the Provost’s office provided additional financial support, as did UW’s Wind River Initiative. The Johns Hopkins School of Public Health partnered in this project and provided financial support for a portion of the survey that gathered information important to its "Native Vision" Project. The WINDS-2 Project received support from the Fremont County Commissioners and valuable assistance from the Fremont County Planning Office and Mapping Office.

Trained interviewers conducted face-to-face interviews with an adult member of a household, usually the person described as head of household. Interviews lasted between 30 and 75 minutes, depending on the size of the household. Interviews were voluntary; families and persons were not identified by name on the interview form. The one exception to this was individuals age 55 or older who signed a release form to have their health and nutrition information released to the Division of Aging. Numerical values were assigned to answers given in the interview. A computer-readable data file was created and analysis was performed by means of the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences at the University of Wyoming.

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