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2017-07-05 / Top News

Indian government employees gather at Ft. McDowell

By Maxine Hillary

If you search “American Indians in the Federal workforce” in Google, the first result you will get is the link to the Society of American Indian Government Employees (SAIGE). The second is the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which lists Native Americans as only 1.7 percent of the entire Federal workforce, the majority employed with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian Health Service. And that didn’t happen until 1988 when Indian preference was added to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requiring that qualified enrolled American Indians be given preference for positions impacting Native American people.

Fast forward almost 30 years and while the numbers are still small, Native Americans are working in almost every Federal agency. Earlier this month, the organization founded by some of those Federal employees held a conference at the We Ko Pa Resort and Conference Center owned and operated by the Ft. McDowell Yavapai Nation. While images of speeches, finger foods, and team building sessions might come to mind, the SAIGE conference, like the organization itself, has an agenda that goes well beyond.

In its 15-year history, SAIGE has evolved from a society founded so that Native Americans working in Federal agencies would have better opportunities for recruitment and retention to a multi-chapter organization where members share information on job and educational opportunities, issues in Indian Country, and where youth and Native veterans are prioritized. The yearly conference provides a chance for members to reconnect, and more importantly, receive up-to- date training in job-related areas, and because the conferences usually take place at tribally-owned operations, opportunities to learn how tribally-run programs funded through federal and other sources operate in Indian Country. If there was ever a chance to see how the Federal trust responsibility can play out on the ground, this is it.

Jay Spaan is a senior analyst for the Government Accountability Office. An enrolled Cherokee from Oklahoma, he’s also a SAIGE board member. Observing that most people working for the Federal government have next to no understanding of the relationship tribal nations have with the government coupled with a stereotypical view of American Indians in general, Spaan considers the conference a place where Federal employees can see the government-to-government relationship between the U.S. and tribal nations play out. Says Spaan, ”It’s an opportunity to not only teach Federal employees about that, but also to encourage interactions where we can have tribal employees and federal employees can come together.”

Indeed, holding a four-day conference in close proximity to an Indian community has the benefit of being able to meet with tribal leadership and to see how tribes approach everything from over-populations of wild horses to healthcare at local clinics to how tribal colleges and universities are combining traditional knowledge with western climate change science to managing tribal data. Federal employees living and working in their own communities outline how they make federally-funded programs effective in culturally relevant contexts. There’s also nuts and bolts workshops that discuss how to enhance one’s career by using the Federal government’s jobs website more effectively, how to use laws and policies relating to non-discrimination, how Indian preference can be used in contracting, and the Federal trust responsibility— at the core of it all.

Stephen Pevar is an attorney who’s been working with Federal Indian law for over 40 years and has litigated numerous Indians rights cases. The author of The Rights of Indians and Tribes, an invited speaker, Pevar has attended almost all of the last 14 SAIGE conferences. He challenges the notion that tribal members who work for the Federal government cannot advocate for Indian Country because Federal agencies by law, cannot lobby.

“I really respect [tribal members] who work for the Federal government despite how much criticism the government receives about their Indian policies,” Pevar said. “They chose to work from the inside. I do hope that American Indians who work for the government realize that they don’t have to be neutral on everything. Congress has made certain decisions that promote tribal sovereignty. So they’re not advocating when they promote tribal sovereignty they’re fulfilling what Congress wants them to do. Tribal members shouldn’t be shy about promoting tribal self-determination.”

Pevar is also senior staff counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. His most recent litigation includes securing a Federal injunction against South Dakota child welfare officials who have been violating another congressional mandate, the Indian Child Welfare Act, which Pevar considers the strongest legislation ever passed toward ensuring the survival of tribes and Indian families.

“They’ve violated ICWA hundreds of times,” says Pevar.

The conference also attracted numerous Native American politicians, performers, leaders, and artists. Chairman of the National Congress of American Indians, Brian Cladoosby, the Honorable Eric Descheenie, Arizona State Senator and leader of the movement to establish the Bears Ears National Monument, and Anthony “Morgan” Rodman, Executive Director of the White House Council on Native American Affairs offered presentations.

But it was Patricia Michaels from Taos Pueblo whose designs got her runner up in Season 11 of Project Runway that really brought down the house. When she’s not navigating the cut-throat world of high fashion, she goes back to Taos. Her advice to attendees, many of whom were part of SAIGE’s Youth Track was to use their identities to claim their creativity.

“Natives have been stifled,” Michaels said. “We’ve been contained in some sort of so-called ‘preservation.’ It’s a suffocation. If [Indian] people allow themselves to really explore their creativity, they will see that that’s who we always were and how we’ve evolved to be the intelligent survivors that we are today.”

She emphasized the need to stay focused and not get caught up in the visions of those who don’t know Indian Country and might have pre-conceived ideas of who Native people are.

“It’s not my responsibility to worry about what they’re thinking,” Michaels said. “I’m focused on what I’m doing and I’m already onto the next thought process and designing the next collection. Whatever they’re stuck thinking about – I’m already out there doing something else.”

The conference received support from several Federal partners and longtime sponsor, Geico Insurance. Eric Impram manages the portfolio that outreaches to groups like SAIGE. The son of Ghanaian immigrants who settled in Tucson, Impram says Geico supports SAIGE because Geico was originally set up to service Federal employees. He also recognizes the connections SAIGE members have with their communities in Indian Country. For a national insurance company, whatever they contribute to the national conference can mean much more.

“We do rely on the awareness of members as part of our relationship with the organization,” Impram said. “SAIGE members know Indian Country and can help us identify where the greatest needs are.”

In addition to special efforts to attract and nurture youth to the organization in efforts to grow a strong future American Indian Federal workforce, SAIGE also places special emphasis on veterans. Long before American Indian Preference, Native Americans fought on behalf of the United States government. The first Native American Federal employees were in the military. Each year a special luncheon is held and local veterans are invited. Special trainings are offered to veterans and a SAIGE Warriors Society plans trainings and special events for Native veterans.

The conference drew together several local cultural groups from the nearby Hopi, San Carlos, and White Mountain Apache communities. Keith Secola performed “Ndn Kars” and several other musical offerings to a packed ballroom. As the conference wound down, local vendors in the lobby put away their wares and members bid each other farewell until next year when Wisconsin is the site of the next conference.

SAIGE president and member of the Oklahoma Caw Nation, Fredericka Joseph, a 29-year Federal employee commented, “This is a tough time for Federal workers. The administration wants to run the government like a business and it’s not a business. There’s a lot of mistrust and concern among Federal employees right now and they propose to cut funding to a lot of programs that are important to Indian Country—that’s our families.”

Reflecting on the changes she’s seen in the hiring and retention of American Indians at the Fed, she says there is still a lot of progress to be made: “Diversity isn’t just checking a box to meet a quota. Diversity is big and it captures a lot of things. Even now we don’t always have qualified Natives filling tribal liaison positions – It’s not just enough.”

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