White House Tribal Nations Conference, Washington, D.C., December 3, 2014
President Obama takes the podium and someone in the crowd cries out, “We love you!” Love is all around with 566 tribal leaders, Native youth and elders in the room. “Love you back!” Obama replies. A few minutes later, he remarks, “I’m proud to have Native Americans serving with dedication and skill in my administration, including somebody I love — Jodi Gillette of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.” The crowd of Native leaders cheers in agreement and recognition for Gillette, a woman known for her mile-wide smile and her high-wattage intelligence.
Bush Fellow Jodi Archambault Gillette (’02) is quietly powerful, unshowy, humble — still, people love her like she’s a rock star. In fact, serving as special assistant to the president for Native American affairs does make her a star in Indian Country. Jodi Gillette gets things done and done right. What’s not to love?
For a Lakota woman to have the love of the people means her leadership is true and strong. And with no experience working in Washington, Gillette’s Lakota upbringing and culture have been an unusual, but valuable, skill set as well. “My Indian name means the people watch her,” she explains. But the name implies a two-way gaze. “My grandparents and my mother always reminded me that someone’s watching me too, and it is important to always be very careful of my words and actions.” That early advice prepared Gillette for the spotlight in which she now must serve not only Lakota people, but hundreds of tribes: “I never imagined that I would have a platform to be in front of so many people. But my family helped me become self-aware, which is very useful in my current position. I hope to continue to honor my name and the dignity of my family.”
Gillette’s doing a good job there. And her work is noticed. Kevin K. Washburn, assistant secretary for Indian affairs in the U.S. Department of the Interior, says, “Jodi works as though all of Indian Country is riding on her shoulders. She is a great example of how talented people can make government work better.” Washburn goes on to note, “She can also be tough, which is an important qualification for the White House position. I have seen her fight to ensure that her constituency needs are heard loud and clear among numerous competing priorities at the White House. She may not win every bureaucratic battle, but she wins a lot of them because she never goes down without a fight.”
“Words cannot describe the honor and pride I have in our President. He gets it. He understands that nobody in the United States should be left behind. He sees the urgency and magnitude of the work that we have to do as a country and within our own borders. I'm excited that I get to work for a president who wants to make lasting change now and not wait for the next administration to take action."
In 2009, the new president appointed Gillette deputy associate director of intergovernmental affairs. It was an historic honor — she was the first Native American to hold that position, which acts as the “front door” to the White House for tribal nations. Over the years, Gillette coordinated the disbursal of $3 billion in funds for Native American communities via the Recovery Act, and she conducted intensive efforts on provisions of the 2013 Violence Against Women Act, which finally recognized the inherent right of tribal nations to prosecute non-Indians who commit violence against women.
In 2012, President Obama appointed Gillette to her current position, in which she advises him as a member of the White House Domestic Policy Council. In a statement announcing her appointment, President Obama said, “Jodi Gillette will be an important member of my administration’s efforts to continue the historic progress we’ve made to strengthen and build on the government-to-government relationship between the United States and tribal nations. She has been a key member of my administration’s efforts for Indian Country, and will continue to ensure that Native American issues will always have a seat at the table."
AN HISTORIC VISIT
During President Obama's historic visit to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in June 2014, he and First Lady Michelle Obama posted with Jodi Gillette's family. From left, Gillette; parents Dave Archambault I and Betty Archambault; the Obamas; brother Dave Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe; sisters Billi Hornbeck and Sunshine Archambault Carlow; and sister-in-law Nicole Thunder Hawk Archambault. (Photo Pete Souza, White House)
The Road to the White House
The Standing Rock Sioux Reservation straddles North Dakota and South Dakota. Gillette lived in both states growing up, as well as on Pine Ridge Reservation. When asked to identify three moments along the road from Standing Rock to standing next to President Barack Obama, she said, “I actually have four.”
Moment One: My upbringing — being raised on a reservation — and my homeland have made me the person I am today. I could not know the things I know if I was raised somewhere else. My upbringing and my experiences living on the reservation impact my work each and every day.
One of seven children, Gillette’s parents are respected educators and administrators of schools and programs in Indian Country. She was also raised with her grandmother on Pine Ridge and often remarks on the influence of her elders. Family is at the center of Lakota values and for Gillette. She spent more than a decade serving families and children in North Dakota as director of the Native American Training Institute, which works to create a safe and healthy environment for children.
Gillette also shared her passion for basketball through coaching and has become a nationally known and competition-winning pow-wow dancer and traditional artist. These are all forms of leadership very much within Native culture, as Gillette explains. “My grandmothers were very inspiring, and they always emphasized the importance of dance and beadwork as part of our culture. I have danced and beaded since I can remember. I want to pass down the traditions of my grandmothers to my grandchildren, so that they know culture is important; being a Lakota is important. My beadwork and clothing is a way for me and my family to honor my grandmothers.”
Gillette’s fully beaded “two-hide” dress is on exhibit in The Plains Indians: Artists of the Earth and Sky at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in March. Inspired by an historic image of a Lakota woman’s clothes, Gillette designed and created the dance dress of deer leather, which is embellished with 15 pounds of beads.
Moment Two: I was very fortunate to go to great schools and have a college experience that opened up numerous opportunities. My higher education played an instrumental role in my career path and my desire to see all Native youth graduate from high school and enroll in higher education.
Gillette attended reservation schools in South Dakota and graduated from Bismarck High School in North Dakota. For a time, she planned to be an engineer. “I was enrolled in a science and math program in high school where, for the first time, I was exposed to successful people of color who were engineers and scientists. That experience opened my eyes to other professions.” But her call to public service was there from an early age as well. “I also considered becoming a member of the Peace Corps after the organization came to my community to discuss their work. I found their work very interesting since I always knew that I wanted to help people in some capacity.” Rather than enrolling in engineering school or working abroad, Gillette earned a degree in government and Native American studies from Dartmouth College in 1991.
In 2002, Gillette earned a Bush Fellowship, which she used to obtain her master’s degree in public administration from the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs. “I don’t think I would have gone to graduate school without the Bush Fellowship,” she says, adding, “The graduate degree was pivotal to my career, because it gave me the credentials and the self-awareness of what type of leader I would like to be.” That combination, much like her cultural upbringing and early education, serves Gillette well in that she says being self-aware fits the leadership style of the Obama White House. “Luckily, in this administration I’ve gotten to work side-by-side with several senior White House officials who do the hard work to make meaningful progress on important issues. They are humble and quiet leaders, and soldiers in the fight to make a better future.”
Moment Three: I was inspired to join the Obama campaign after the candidate gave a speech to the Crow Nation. That speech, his ideas and that he deeply cares about Native Americans motivated me to work on the campaign and do everything I could to get him elected.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Gillette led North Dakota First American Vote, a tremendously successful get-out-the-vote drive aimed at reservations. Not only had Obama impressed her with his speech to the Crow Nation, he made promises she would soon be helping him keep. “The idea for the Tribal Nations Conference was something the president talked about when he was a candidate,” she explains. Obama lost North Dakota but won the election, and soon after Gillette began her work in Washington. With her help, the president and his team have convened tribal leaders and cabinet members on a government-to-government basis for six years running.
Moment Four: My family is everything. My children and my husband have provided a different perspective on the work I do on behalf of this administration. They keep me grounded and focused.
Gillette has a lifelong commitment to families and children. She knows what the hideous statistics on suicide and dire dropout rate mean in real terms. In this job, Gillette says, “I have an opportunity to make real change for our Native youth and a president who supports my goal.”
Gillette comes at the serious issues Native youth face by building on success. “We know that tribes are doing great things. But like tribal issues, Native youth issues sometimes are invisible because we are such a low percentage of the United States' overall population.” With such little attention paid by the nation, how will the Obama administration increase the visibility and voice of Native youth? Gillette is enacting a plan. “We hope to break through the silence by starting a Native youth network under the Generation Indigenous initiative. ‘Gen I’ focuses on removing the barriers that stand between Native youth and their opportunity to succeed.”
The Road Ahead
Four important moments brought Gillette from North Dakota to Washington, D.C., and to reflection on how her work makes a difference: “Several tribal leaders have told me that the Obama administration has provided hope where there was none. With progress like restoring jurisdiction to tribes over non-Natives who commit domestic violence, they tell me they feel like anything is possible.” Perhaps most remarkably, she says, members of America’s most marginalized group “feel like what they say matters, and that people from all levels are listening to them.”
That tribal leaders are now being listened to is due in no small part to a humble dancer from North Dakota. Assistant Secretary Washburn sees the long-term impact in Gillette’s work, “Probably her most important accomplishment is the creation of the White House Native American Affairs Council, which brings an all-of-government approach to serving Indian tribes.” Most of the president’s cabinet are members of the Council, which, Washburn says, “has succeeded in dramatically raising the profile of Indian issues among the highest level of government officials. We are working now to institutionalize the Council so that it will live long after this administration is gone. If we can succeed, that may be Jodi's most important legacy."
Gillette has made Native nations an integral part of how the federal government makes decisions regarding tribes. “It can only get better from here. Through tribal consultation and constant communication and dialogue we can get some amazing things accomplished.” And Gillette’s work is a big part of the reason things will get better, according to Assistant Secretary Washburn. “Her most important success has been earning the trust of the president.”
Where does Gillette see herself next? “Continuing to help improve the lives of Native Americans,” she says, adding, “at some point, I would like to return home and help the people on my reservation.”
Bush Fellow Heid Erdrich at the 2014 White House Tribal Nations Conference
A velvet rope separates me from the tribal leaders gathered in Washington, D.C. I’m a poet with a White House press pass — roped off with the photogs, gazing amazed at the dignitaries, the code talkers, the all-female Native color guard. I post myself in the back so I can stand. Good choice because soon I’m next to Jodi Gillette. She’s called her job “the front door to the White House” for Native people. Yet here she is, at the back door briefly, surveying the room, assuring elders a clear path to their seats, making history ready to happen.
We have been together like this before. In 1992, just out of college, Jodi honed her organizational skills as primary coordinator for Our Visions: The Next 500 Years. The brainchild of her mentor, Suzan Harjo, the gathering involved dozens of Native American tribal leaders, educators, and artists. Jodi had asked me to help wrangle elders (Ojibwe artist George Morrison, a Hopi prophet, an Alaskan carver) and to write notes. Here we are, decades later, in our same roles — only on a national level — at the sixth White House Tribal Nations Conference.
Native youth are attending the Conference for the first time; they bring a buzz to the room everyone can feel. When President Obama — the first president to visit a reservation since Clinton — announces a plan to uplift Native youth called Generation Indigenous, they know that, even though they are on the bottom by U.S. standards, today they are at the top of the American leader's agenda. He says it’s not just a promise — it will happen. And because it’s not just a promise, the president needs the right person to make sure it gets done.
No problem. Jodi Gillette is right there for him, at the front door.
JODI GILLETTE IN SIX
When I was a kid I thought I’d grow up to be… an engineer. I also considered becoming a member of the Peace Corps.
- Best advice I ever got was… always work hard; you never know who’s watching.
- People might be surprised to find out… I am a beadworker and my Lakota clothing is showing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in March.
- My mantra is… what would my grandmothers say?
- Our elders would never have imagined… that we, Native nations, could be such an integral part of how the federal government makes decisions regarding tribes.
- I let Native youth know they are special by… asking them what they are thinking and letting them know that they could be anything they want.