Evan Ramstad
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We often think about resource development, whether in Minnesota or elsewhere, as a conflict between the environment and the economy — or between nature and people.

While lots of people take one side or the other, Nick and Nyree Kedrowski walk a tightrope between the two. And they've built careers teaching others to do the same.

They do it to help Native Americans find jobs, often people who haven't been working. And in the process, they provide a service to Minnesota by making the state's stagnating workforce bigger.

The couple, members of the Ho-Chunk Nation, for years worked separately on education and tribal employment, but together now run Five Skies Training and Consulting.

Three years ago, their work put them in the middle of the controversy around what was then the state's largest construction project: Enbridge Energy's rebuild of its Line 3 pipeline in northern Minnesota.

Few things in life are as binary as news accounts, political debates and academic arguments portray them. And while the Enbridge project is in some ways an extreme example, the Kedrowskis' response to the project is typical of the caution and deliberation many people take on the way to finding compromise.

"They wanted to share as much information as they could with the tribes," Nick said about the way he and other Native Americans dealt with the firm on Line 3. The tribes looked at Enbridge, he said, as, "We'll give you the floor, but, you know, hey, we're not inviting you to stay at the house."

In the past five years, the Kedrowskis have trained and placed hundreds of Native Americans from Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa in construction and manufacturing jobs, often union-represented work. Their retention rate is high for the Native community, well over 60%.

Five Skies' three-week empowerment workshop is given on Native reservations as a prelude to vocational or on-the-job training. Employers began hiring the Lake Elmo-based firm to help them fill jobs.

As it was rebuilding its Line 3 in 2020 and 2021, Enbridge needed to find thousands of workers and navigate several of Minnesota's tribal nations, where sentiment ranged from quiet skepticism to loud on-site protest.

The Kedrowskis weren't sure what to think about Enbridge at first. So they went to Canada, where Line 3 begins and where the company had already worked with First Nations leaders and employees.

"Almost to a person, the experiences they relayed were positive. You know, some of them thought more could be done," Nick said. "But I mean even the downsides, they [Enbridge] were still going above and beyond anything that you could actually anticipate."

They also attended meetings of the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, where Enbridge and opponents of the pipeline reconstruction squared off. Over time, the couple became wary of some of the dogmatic activists.

Before they agreed to recruit workers for Enbridge, the Kedrowskis set two conditions. The company had to let the couple teach their empowerment program, not some course that Enbridge designed. And they had to let the prospective workers, once the workshop was completed, have the final say on whether they took a pipeline job or another one in construction.

"We just want the lives of the individuals in those communities to be improved," Nick said. "And we know that once the pipeline project is done, they still need to go into some other work somewhere. So if they just go to that other work first, that's good with us."

Enbridge agreed and, in the end, about 300 people applied to work on Line 3 by taking training with Five Skies first. The energy company wound up hiring more than 250.

One of them was a young woman who had joined the protests against Enbridge and identified herself as a water protector. "At first, she was sitting there with her arms crossed," Nyree said. "But when she graduated, she decided to work on the project."

The Kedrowskis told me that developing a bigger perspective and accepting compromise are recurring themes in their empowerment workshop.

One example they gave that was surprising to me was how they need to teach forwardness for job interviews. "As Native people, we're not used to talking about our strong points," Nyree said. "You're supposed to shy away from saying, 'I'm good at this. I'm good at that.'"

But the most difficult example was how to deal with friends and relatives who hold job-seekers back, or don't want them to leave home or the reservation. One way the Kedrowskis address that is by portraying work, even when away from the community, as something that Native Americans have traditionally valued.

"Some will equate going out and joining, you know, the modern society with turning your back on yourself," Nick said. "We try to give our participants a different understanding. We tell them, 'You're doing the same thing your ancestors did, but the hunting is different. You're not going out to get game. You're going out to get money.'"

The sacrifice is also the same one their ancestors made.

"It's that time away from home," Nick said. "But ultimately that time away from home is making life better for everybody there waiting for you and relying on you to survive."