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Spotlight on Commerce: Jan Jacobs, Tribal Intergovernmental Affairs Specialist, U.S. Census Bureau

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Jan Jacobs at the I’n-lon-shka dances with her granddaughter

Ed. Note: This post is part of the Spotlight on Commerce series, which highlights members of the Department of Commerce who are contributing to the president's vision of winning the future through their work.

Guest blog by Jan Jacobs, Tribal Intergovernmental Affairs Specialists, Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs, U.S. Census Bureau

As Tribal Intergovernmental Affairs Specialist in the Census Bureau’s Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs, I work with Tribal, state, county and local governments directly or through our partner advocate groups. More specifically, I’m the Subject Matter Specialist on American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) programs and policy for Census – as part of that role, I offer guidance and support to the bureau’s divisions, branch offices and regional offices. 

My journey to this role began as a child growing up in the deer clan of the Osage Nation of Oklahoma. My father served for more than four decades as the high school’s band director near the Osage reservation. My mother made traditional Osage clothes to wear at the I’n-lon-shka dances, our traditional annual gathering. She made exquisite Osage ribbon work and won national recognition for her skill. I remember her being active in tribal affairs – both regionally and nationally – and she often took me with her to meetings and events. These experiences gave me an opportunity to travel around the country learning from a host of Indian people. I still return home every June with my family for my ceremonial dances, a time to reconnect with family and my Osage culture.  I am Osage every day, but the dances help to revitalize and re-energize me for the coming year.  

My upbringing differed from many others who grew up in and around the reservation. My father worked his way through college and my mother attended college at a time when most American Indian women were not able to do so. It was important for me to continue this tradition of valuing learning and so after I graduated with my Master’s degree, I taught for nine years in the Bureau of Indian Affairs system and I’m proud to say that all four of my children graduated from college and are active in their local Native community.

In April 2008, my passion for service took an unexpected turn. I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and that summer my oldest daughter organized Team I’na (“mother” in the Osage language) to walk in the National Race for the Cure in Washington. After a summer of chemotherapy, I decided I would have the energy to walk in Denver’s Race for the Cure. With my daughters' help and perseverance, we enlisted a team of 100 people and raised $3,000. To this day, we still sponsor Team I’na and I’m struck how, as great strides are made in breast cancer detection and treatment, each year we include more and more women into our circle of family and friends who are diagnosed. My work with them is important to me, and it’s an honor to complement my efforts serving in government with my work in that community.

My work with Census has never been more important. Tribal governments and AIAN organizations use and need Census data in program planning and funding requests. It is important to listen to tribal concerns in data collection as well as issues and policy concerns brought forth by tribal leaders and national AIAN organizations. In order to collect good data and deliver quality statistics we must be open to suggestions, criticism and concerns related to Census data.  By being responsive to tribal and AIAN needs, we are building collaborations and partnership that will pay off in more complete and accurate data in the future.

In particular, National Native American Heritage Month offers us all a time to bring a focus on the first Americans. By this, I mean individual tribal groups, such as the Osage, Seminole, Pawnee, Creek, Delaware and others—each having their own distinct cultures, languages, religions, life ways and history.  In today’s world, these tribes still have rich cultures, but have many battles yet to fight to maintain their sovereignty as distinct nations.  This month is a way to bring recognition and understanding to the broader community about the richness of Native American cultures, in addition to the policy and legislative battles they continue to wage. 

At the Census Bureau this year, our theme is Native Youth: Building a Future Using Census Data.  We invited interns from the Washington Interns for Native Students at American University and the National Congress of American Indians Fellows Program to share their tribal background, educational pursuits and future goals with Census staff. In addition, we showed three outstanding National Geographic American Indian and Alaska Native documentaries and provided tours to the National Museum of the American Indian. There are just so many ways Native American youth can benefit their own communities by learning more about the richness of Census data. There is much to do to deliver the most accurate and current statistics, counts, and information to these unique populations that use and need Census data for planning, economic development and funding requests. It is a team effort, and one that requires us all to work hard to achieve our goals. From the time I was small, my mother would say to me: “Can’t never did, unless can’t tried.” I think it holds just as true for an adult. To us all I say: Never give up, always keep trying, and no matter what the outcome, you can say you gave your best.

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