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Native American Women Are, Increasingly, Family Breadwinners

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We just talked about how more women than ever becoming the breadwinners in their families. That goes for Native American women too. One in four Native Americans lives below the poverty line. But even so, Native American women are getting higher educational degrees and better paying jobs than ever before. Wyoming Public Radio's Melodie Edwards brings us the story of one casino on the Wind River Indian Reservation, where the female workforce is almost 60 percent.

MELODIE EDWARDS, BYLINE: When Delinda Burning Breast started with the Wind River Casino 10 years ago, it wasn't even a casino. It was just a bingo hall.

DELINDA BURNING BREAST: I was just a regular floor worker, just like when they sell sheets and stuff for bingo.

EDWARDS: But it didn't take long before she moved up to floor supervisor. And then, after the casino opened, she moved into the finance office. Along the way, she got pay raises and benefits, which helped when her husband couldn't find work and ended up as a stay-at-home dad - that is, until this past fall, when he passed away.

BURNING BREAST: He was, like, kidney failure and liver failure.

EDWARDS: Burning Breast says she's been taking her husband's death pretty hard. But even though she felt dazed at work and couldn't stop worrying about her kids, she needed to keep working to pay her bills. So that's when her managers stepped in.

BURNING BREAST: They kind of had, like, a 50-50 fundraiser for me. And they helped me out with some money, made me cry (laughter). And I was like, I don't know, I just couldn't believe it.

ANDREA CLIFFORD: We knew she needed help.

EDWARDS: That's Andrea Clifford, the casino's assistant manager. She says supporting women like Burning Breast isn't charity on the part of the casino. The casino needs them. Women are often the most qualified, with more education and work skills than men.

CLIFFORD: The phenomenon that I'm seeing - the last 10 to 15 years - really seeing women go out and be the breadwinners. The males of the household tend to stay home and take care of the kids.

EDWARDS: But Clifford says casino work is tough for moms. They're open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. That's why the kind of support that Burning Breast received isn't uncommon around here. Clifford says it's good for business to make sure moms aren't worrying about their kids and can focus on their jobs. That's why they started tackling the problem of child care.

CLIFFORD: We went out and visited the day care sites so we could see for ourselves. Even some of the day cares extended their hours and went to swing, which was really good.

EDWARDS: It's only one of many programs the casino offers to help women succeed as breadwinners - household budget trainings, child care at the local gym.

LORENDA SANCHEZ: For a casino, I think that's very unique.

EDWARDS: That Lorenda Sanchez, who sits on the Native American Employment Training Council, a national group that advises the U.S. secretary of labor. She says the Northern Arapahoe is unusual because they can channel casino profits into such programs. Many tribes, Sanchez says, are finding it harder to provide good support programs since the 2008 recession.

SANCHEZ: Part of that's attributed to the decline in federal government support for these programs, whether it's a child care program, even training programs.

(SOUNDBITE OF CASINO GAME SOUND EFFECTS)

EDWARDS: But with more tribes developing economies around casinos, Wind River manager Andrea Clifford says things are changing for native women in the workplace.

SANCHEZ: Woman, we are the backbone of the family because we're the caretakers of our kids, yet we come to work. We're dependable, and we're starting to make the tough decisions.

EDWARDS: And Clifford says the Wind River Casino is depending on women to help it grow the tribe's economy well into the future. As part of its five-year plan, she says the casino even intends to build an on-site child care facility. For NPR News, I'm Melodie Edwards. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.