Posted at 12:08 PM
Ed. note: This post is part of the Spotlight on Commerce series highlighting members of the Department of Commerce and their contributions to the Open for Business Agenda.
As the Secretary’s Senior Advisor for Native American Affairs and Associate Director of the Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs Office, I serve two distinct roles at the Department of Commerce. In my Senior Advisor role, I advise the Secretary on matters of federal Indian law and policy and I oversee the Department’s work with Native American stakeholders across 12 bureaus on matters that range from international trade and economic development to data collection and analysis and telecommunications policy. In my role as Associate Director I am responsible for advancing the Department’s legislative priorities related to economic development on Capitol Hill.
I was born in Oregon near the Umatilla Indian Reservation but grew up in a working class suburb of Buffalo, New York, a Rust Belt city on the Canadian border. Growing up in a working class neighborhood and being raised by a hardworking single mother influenced my worldview. From an early age my mother instilled in me the importance of education as a means to move beyond a working class existence of just getting by. I was fortunate because my family took my education seriously. In grade school I was always a good student, but one of my fondest memories is the time I brought home a sub-par report card in 6th grade. My mother told me that she knew I could do better and then grounded me until I brought home good grades. At the time, the punishment seemed draconian, but as an adult, I look back at that experience and view it as pivotal in my development; in that instant I understood how important succeeding academically was. I went on to earn three degrees – a Bachelor’s Degree from the State University of New York at Buffalo, and both a Master’s Degree and a Law Degree from the University of Michigan.
I am blessed in that throughout my life, my hard work has been rewarded with open doors and good opportunities. The Department’s Strategic Plan – The Open for Business Agenda – is about making sure every American willing to work hard has an opportunity to succeed. But in order to do that, it is necessary to involve every community in the United States including Indian Country, and it is also vital that we have Congress’s support in advancing legislation that gives us the tools to spur economic growth. Serving in my capacity, I am glad to have a hand in these endeavors and I am fortunate to be working alongside some of the most highly-qualified and dedicated professionals anywhere.
November, as National Native American Heritage Month, is a time for Americans to reflect upon the contributions the first Americans have made and continue to make to this great country of ours. Native Americans, like other marginalized groups, often struggle to advance due, in part, to the persistent of inaccurate stereotypes. As a Native American, I think the best way to overcome these obstacles is to work hard, take advantage of opportunities, and to become living counterpoints to those stereotypes.
Whenever I advise young Natives who aspire to success I think of my quote in my Senior Year High School Yearbook entry which reads, “A man who wants to lead the orchestra must turn his back on the crowd.” Nearly 20 years since graduation, that quote perfectly foreshadowed my own journey from working class kid to Presidential Appointee and I think it applies to almost any situation where one seeks to rise above one’s predicament. Life brings many distractions. In order to succeed, one must focus on the task at hand and tune out everything else. Hard work and sacrifice eventually pay off.