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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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The Indian in the White House
by Dennis J. Neumann for
credits: Photo courtesy United Tribes Technical College

BISMARCK, N.D.—Jodi Archambault Gillette was back in the Thunderbirds gymnasium in front of appreciative fans. Only this time she wasn't dribbling through defenders in a basketball game.

She was the keynote speaker for the United Tribes Technical College 2009 commencement ceremony.

Neatly dressed in black gowns adorned with eagle feathers and seated in rows across the hardwood floor were the college's 93 graduates.

"Not that long ago I was sitting where you are now and waiting to receive my diploma. It was an exciting moment and I didn't know what would happen next," said Gillette, who was appointed earlier this year to a position in the Obama administration. "Just a few months ago I would've never imagined that I'd be in the White House ... working with the president of the United States."

Gillette gained national attention and praise across Indian Country in February when she became the first Native person to serve in a top White House position since the Clinton era. Gillette works in the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs as deputy associate director for tribal governments. She is in a position to link the nation's 562 federally recognized tribes with the White House and 20 government agencies.

Her academic qualifications included an undergraduate degree from Dartmouth College in government and Native American studies and a master's degree from the Hubert Humphrey Policy Institute at the University of Minnesota.

'What Got Me Here Today'
"What got me here today is not that I went away to school and got those degrees," she told more than 400 family members and friends surrounding the graduates on chairs and bleachers in UTTC gym. "It really had to do with how I started to understand my purpose."

Gillette is on her home court when in the Dakotas. She is an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Her parents, Betty and Dave Archambault Sr., raised her on the Oglala Reservation at Kyle, S.D., at United Tribes in Bismarck, N.D., and at Standing Rock, straddling the two states.

She said she used to believe that growing up and going to school on the reservation put her at a disadvantage in college. But now, at age 40, she realizes the value of that upbringing.

"It makes me feel solid in who I am and where I come from," she said. "I know my relatives. I know our traditions. I know what works for us and I know what doesn't work for us. And these things are fundamental in the way I look at the world."

Gillette had directed the Bismarck-based Native American Training Institute, helping Indian families for more than a decade. Then she got involved last year in the presidential election campaign as the North Dakota director of Native Americans for Obama.

After the Obama campaign withdrew its staff from North Dakota, Gillette said she continued to work for the candidate without pay because she knew he was committed to helping Indian Country. This, she said, was a reason she was considered later for the White House job.

"I was doing it because I was tired of everybody accepting the way things were," she said. "And that's why I was considered for the position. I wasn't doing it just for myself or to end up with a job."

Obama Won the Tribes, Lost the State
Obama carried the vote in North Dakota's tribal counties but lost the state. Gillette considered this a success because of the record turnout of tribal voters who typically participate less in state and federal elections than in tribal elections.

She believes the election of President Obama started a new chapter for Indian people. The theme centers on the value of community, something she and other tribal people instinctively appreciate.

"A Lakota word for leader is ‘sagye,' " Gillette said. "That translates as a cane, something you walk with. And this symbolizes that people lean on you to walk forward. That's something quite opposite from the European model of leadership with its ‘top down' approach. Lakota leadership is on the bottom with the common people and the communities at the top. And that's how you live your life. You help your people as a leader."

Gillette likened this Lakota model of leadership to the style of her new boss.

"Our president believes in the importance of building strong communities and strong families as the foundation of our future," she said. "He and people close to him understand American Indian issues. I've seen that time and time again. I have no doubt he's serious about changing the way the United States not only recognizes but strengthens government-to-government relationships."

At Work in the White House
In her work at the White House she is guided by thoughts of what will help Indian communities. She often asks herself: What's going to make a difference?

One answer is to take ownership in our own communities. Gillette pointed to the president's initiative, the "Summer of Service" program, as an example of how people can get involved.

"It's very traditional and very Lakota to be involved in community service," she said. "And there's an important position for young people — to take the lead in changing things that aren't working, to make a difference."

She urged the graduates to take their hope in the new administration and apply it to the places where they go.

"The president says time and time again, communities know what works best for their communities," she said. "Washington is a long way from places like Poplar, Montana; Pine Ridge, South Dakota; or Cannonball, North Dakota."

Gillette pledged to do everything she can to tell about the struggles in Indian Country.

"But our future depends on you," she said. "Our grandchildren depend on you. You are a shining example of taking the strength of our communities and becoming the dream that our ancestors prayed for."

Other Speakers at Graduation
Other speakers at the United Tribes graduation included Chairman Richard Marcellais of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and Turtle Mountain Councilman Jim Baker, both members of the college governing board of directors. Also presenting congratulations was Miss Indian Nations XVI Alyssa Alberts, Three Affiliated Tribes, New Town, N.D. The drum group Oakdale Singers provided honoring songs.

The May 8 commencement ceremony concluded the 2008-09 academic year. Members of the graduating class had earned Associate of Applied Science Degrees and Certificates of Completion in 16 academic and vocational programs. One student earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in Education conferred in cooperation with Sinte Gleska University. The graduates were from 17 different tribal nations. A reception followed at the UTTC cafeteria for family members, friends and the public.

In 2009, United Tribes celebrates its 40th year as a tribal college that serves American Indian students and their families. Find more information at the United Tribes Technical College Web site.

Dennis J. Neumann is the public information director of United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, N.D.

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