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Between Two Worlds - Being Native American and a Government Employee

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Date: November 23, 2022

The lives of American Indian/Alaska Natives (AI/ANs) are a mystery to many. This is largely the result of stereotypes about their look or whereabouts and overall neglect in American society, as evidenced by Tribal citizens being the most undercounted group on the U.S. Census. Despite this, Native Americans are very much ingrained in American culture. Examples include U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, member of the Pueblo of Laguna, and National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Nicole Aunapu Mann, member of the Wailacki of the Round Valley Indian Tribes, who recently became the first Native American woman to travel to space aboard the Space X Crew Dragon capsule.

AI/ANs have also made their presence known in the Federal government. Those well-versed in U.S. history are aware of the government’s relationship with Tribes, which has had devastating consequences for Tribal citizens. Examples of this include the Indian Removal Act and the legacy of American Indian Boarding Schools. Nevertheless, several Native Americans occupy Federal government spaces, working to advocate for AI/ANs and strengthen relations among policy makers and Tribes.

During mid-October 2022, several Tribal citizens who work at SAMHSA were interviewed about their involvement with the Federal government and gave opinions on how they navigate that space while living in or staying connected to Indian Country. Those interviewed were CAPT Karen “Kari” Hearod, Director of the Office of Tribal Affairs and Policy (OTAP) (Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma), Maria Howeth, Grants Management Specialist for the Office of Financial Resources (Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma), Kristie Brooks, Regional Administrator for Region VI (Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma), and Steven Whitehorn, Public Health Advisor at the Center for Mental Health Services (Otoe-Missouria Tribe of Oklahoma).

Working in the Federal Government with a Tribal Background

When asked about working in Federal government as a Tribal citizen, CAPT Hearod stated it is sometimes difficult to navigate. Supporting Tribes is her number one priority, but to do so one must understand how the Federal government operates. Ms. Howeth, however, felt there can be improvements regarding how Federal employees interact with Tribes. Though relations are not necessarily bad, there is always room for growth. According to Ms. Brooks, who is new at SAMHSA, some offices within the U.S. government, may feel somewhat disconnected from what Tribal nations are doing in their regions, saying at one point, “If you know one Tribe, you know ONE Tribe.”

Mr. Whitehorn believed there is a large difference working at the local versus Federal level. Moreover, those AI/ANs who no longer live in their Tribal community and instead work in Federal government may feel more disconnected from their community. As Mr. Whitehorn puts it, “You can’t just afford to go home every time there is a celebration.” Of the interviewees, CAPT Hearod, Ms. Brooks, and Ms. Howeth still live on their Tribal land. Being among her Tribe in Oklahoma has allowed CAPT Hearod to witness certain characteristics she feels should be more visible. Rather than focusing solely on challenges occurring in Indian Country, which the OTAP Director admitted are concerning, she argued more time should be spent highlighting the innovation happening in Tribal communities.

Advice to Tribal Citizens Not Knowledgeable About the Federal Government

As mentioned before, the relationship between AI/ANs and the Federal government has been a complicated one, resulting in mistrust among many Tribal members. When asked about advice he would give to Tribes working with policy makers, Mr. Whitehorn stressed the importance of setting aside any prejudice. While Federal government has passed laws that are harmful toward AI/ANs in the past, he argued Tribal citizens should investigate the work being done by policy makers to help this population today. CAPT Hearod stressed that the Federal government has a trust responsibility to AI/ANs. The Federal Indian trust responsibility, first referenced in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (PDF | 62 KB) by Chief Justice John Marshall, legally mandates the United States to protect Tribal lands, assets, treaty rights, and resources, as well as carry out the directives of Federal law with respect to AI/AN Tribes and villages.

According to Ms. Brooks, Tribal governments and Federal governments have several similarities. Both have laws and decisions to be made that can sometimes take time to process. She encouraged Tribal citizens to view lawmaking through this lens. Seeing Secretary Haaland at recent Tribal events is an example of Native American progress. Mr. Whitehorn agreed that being a Tribal member in a high position holds value. “It can be very rewarding working for the Federal government if you’re in a [certain] position and staying focused on what is it you’re doing to help Tribal citizens,” he said. A common theme displayed among all interviewees was that working with the Federal government could result in desirable outcomes for Native Americans. Regarding this point, Ms. Howeth asserted if one treats the Federal government as a partner, instead of the enemy, it can strengthen relationships.

How the Federal Government Can Better Connect with Tribes

When asked what the Federal government can do to better understand Tribes and address their needs, both Ms. Brooks and CAPT Hearod stressed the importance of listening to Tribal members. Specifically, Ms. Brooks said Tribes like to talk and have stories to tell, oftentimes based on generations of culture. These interactions with AI/ANs may occur through Tribal Consultation (PDF | 6.6 MB), defined as a formal, two-way, government-to-government conversation between Tribal representatives and Federal agencies. According to Ms. Howeth, Tribal consultation can be strengthened. She also stressed that people on the Hill (i.e., Senators, congressional members) should be better educated on who Tribal leaders are and understand how sovereignty works with Native Americans. Adding to this point, CAPT Hearod said those who are able should visit Tribal Nations. Being in this place and space can increase understanding of Native American people and Tribal communities.

Improvements in Indian Country

With much of the earlier conversation centered on issues faced by AI/ANs when interacting with policymakers, interviewees were asked to shift their perspectives and highlight the positive work seen in Indian Country. CAPT Hearod focused on the innovation happening in Tribal health systems. She specifically shared that at a recent National Indian Health Board’s Tribal Harm Reduction Conference, she heard of how a Tribal harm reduction program had partnered with their Tribal health care system to provide naloxone and overdose prevention education in partnership with a drive-through COVID vaccination site. Ms. Howeth, who lives on her Tribal land, also spoke about the pandemic, asserting that COVID-19 exposed the need for better access to internet and broadband. Native American access to internet and other essentials, such as electricity and running water, are often limited, making telemedicine, remote work, and virtual schooling difficult during the pandemic. However, Ms. Howeth asserted that these issues brought about a need to focus and address internet and broadband use within Indian Country.

Feelings of hopelessness can serve as a risk factor for harmful behaviors such as substance use by triggering traumatic stress reactions such as grief and depression. Preparing for and educating people about the possibilities of developing these risk factors, given COVID-19’s impact on Native Americans, is important. The journey from traumatic stress to substance abuse also is depicted in the “Cycle of Historical Trauma,” illustrated in SAMHSA’s TIP 61: Behavioral Health Services for American Indians and Alaska Natives (PDF | 2.7 MB). Historical trauma was an area Mr. Whitehorn mentioned in his response, stating that colonization has led to a loss of language, missing and murdered Indigenous persons, and opioid misuse among Native Americans.

Ms. Brooks focused on how AI/AN populations have been working to improve their environment. She mentioned recently being in New Mexico and appreciating the grassroots efforts and collaboration between Tribal and state law enforcement when dealing with wildfires in the area. Ms. Brooks, who lives on the Choctaw Nation’s reservation, also spoke on the McGirt decision being an accomplishment for Native Americans inhabiting Oklahoma. According to this decision, state courts do not have the authority to prosecute crimes committed by or against Oklahomans who are also Tribal members. This decision also acknowledged that the reservation boundaries for the five Tribes in Eastern Oklahoma (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole) have never been de-established.

Misconceptions about Native Americans

Adding to their discussion about the positive work happening in Tribal communities, interviewees were asked to dispel misconceptions attributed to AI/ANs. Many of the responses centered on Tribes being thought of as homogenous. Mr. Whitehorn asserted not all Native Americans live in teepees, dress alike, have the same language, or eat buffalo. CAPT Hearod feels it is best for non-Native individuals to ask questions in a respectful manner. This can help bring about a better understanding of Tribal people.

Additionally, there was mention of negative stereotypes attributed to AI/ANs. Ms. Howeth stated many often believe Native Americans are uneducated, combative, and uncivilized. One might argue many of these beliefs are the result of limited, often problematic, representation in media and education. Moreover, CAPT Hearod said the lay public often has misconceptions regarding the sophistication of Tribal government and health care systems. Regarding the latter, AI/ANs today are often questioned about their involvement with traditional Native healing. In most areas, Native American patients go to their local Tribal community for traditional healing. However, western health care practices are still used.

Efforts to Help Indian Country

Given their dealings with the Federal government and personal connection to their Tribal communities, all interviewees were asked what they are doing to help improve and uplift Indian Country. Mr. Whitehorn highlighted his efforts helping other Native Americans on an interpersonal level, stating that he created a drum and gave it to young Tribal men so they could practice traditional songs and forms of music. He also made a medicine wheel for Tribal citizens and said this is accepted as being a symbol of connection. On a professional level, Mr. Whitehorn works for SAMHSA’s Indigenous Project Linking Actions for Unmet Needs in Children’s Health (I-LAUNCH) program, which promotes the wellness of Tribal youth, from birth to age eight, by addressing the cognitive, emotional, physical, social, and behavioral aspect of their development. Having worked in Tribal government and grants for over 15 years, Ms. Howeth felt her work is an important way to acquire funding for Tribal nations and help improve their quality of life.

Ms. Brooks stressed her commitment to showing Tribes that there are advocates for AI/AN communities in Federal government. “I want to be a connection, a conduit of sorts to bring folks together,” she asserted. As was mentioned on many occasions throughout the four interviews, education is a key part of improving the inhabitants of Indian Country as well as those looking to work with Native Americans. CAPT Hearod stated people must become better aware of Tribal communities’ needs and barriers. Her contribution to this comprises highlighting successes and innovation happening in Tribal communities, including her own, and ensuring that the voices of Tribal leaders and Tribal citizens guide SAMHSA’s policies and programs. “I’m trying to keep that connectedness,” she said. “Also, I’m making sure my granddaughter knows about her culture. She’s part of the future of our Tribe.”