Months after her departure from the White House, state and federal leaders called the work of a North Dakota Native American official who helped guide policy with tribes nationwide a rare opportunity to improve tribal life.
Jodi Gillette served in Washington, D.C., in multiple positions from 2009 until May of this year, helping coordinate between the Barack Obama administration and tribal leaders.
Gillette, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, has since joined Washington, D.C.-based law firm Sonosky, Chambers, Sachse, Endreson and Perry LLP as its policy adviser. The firm represents Native American tribes for litigation, lobbying and economic development.
She splits time between her D.C. office and Bismarck, where she lives with her husband.
In 2008, Gillette was hired by Obama for America to oversee statewide operations of the First American voting efforts. During the campaign, she said she became excited over Obama’s talk of Native American issues, including consulting with tribes on policy as well as veterans' issues.
“I hadn’t heard a presidential candidate speak to those issues before,” Gillette said. “Going from North Dakota into the White House was a pretty, I guess, it was a life-changing leap of faith.”
She served as an associate director of intergovernmental affairs at the White House in 2009-2010. In 2011, Gillette joined the U.S. Department of the Interior as deputy assistant secretary for Indian Affairs and, in 2012, was named Special Assistant to the President for Native American Affairs.
Gillette said the president didn’t have much background on tribal issues, and it took the administration time to get its bearings.
“He wanted to know what the tribal leaders had to say. He wanted to rekindle that fire and relationship,” Gillette said.
To jumpstart a dialogue, the White House Tribal Nations Conference was created in 2009 and has been held each year since.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said the move to consult with tribes is a big step.
“Far too often discussions are had without consultation. You’ve got to think of what happens in Indian country. They (officials) never think of tribal government as a political entity,” Heitkamp said.
Another major achievement was the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization in 2013, which included language allowing tribal jurisdiction in cases of women who are assaulted by non-tribal men on tribal lands.
“The Violence Against Women Act reauthorization was very important to tribal members. It can’t be understated,” Gillette said.
An effort also was made to address numerous pieces of litigation between the federal government and tribes. Two major lawsuits were settled between the federal government and tribes with a combined value of more than $3 billion expected to be sent to Native Americans. One of them involves a Standing Rock tribal member who sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture over loans denied to Native American farmers.
“We’ve been able to close the door on a time when the litigation was sort of defining the relationship,” Gillette said. “It restores trust.”
Obama also visited Cannon Ball in June 2014, an event Heitkamp called a major step in addressing tribal issues, particularly those involving tribal youth.
“That’s really a tribute to Jodi. Bringing him and taking some time with those kids will have long-term consequences,” Heitkamp said.
An emotional private encounter hearing the stories of tribal youth had an impact on Obama. Late last year, he announced several initiatives, including a report on challenges facing tribal youth, a project to support tribal schools and a national network to cultivate Native American leaders.
“It pushed the administration to a whole other level. That was when we really zeroed in,” Gillette said.
The efforts aren’t lost on tribal officials, including Gillette’s brother, Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II.
“I can’t think of another administration more willing to put attention toward Indian Country,” Archambault told the Tribune late last year.
North Dakota Indian Affairs Commissioner Scott Davis said he was proud of Gillette’s efforts.
“What she’s done at that level, from North Dakota and from Standing Rock, has been amazing to watch,” Davis said.
Davis said having someone being able to give North Dakota and the Great Plains states’ tribes a voice was an added bonus. He said there’s a sense of optimism among tribal leaders that he hopes can continue.
To keep that optimism, Gillette said a push to maintain momentum is needed once a new president takes office.
“People are excited that there’s an opportunity for a lot of things to be completed while the president is still president,” Gillette said. “There’s a tendency to walk things back under a new administration. I hope this isn’t one of those.”