When Jodi Gillette was growing up in Kyle, South Dakota, she never imagined that one day she would be working on some of the most important social, political and economic issues for Indian people in the 21st century. As a special assistant to President Obama for Native American affairs, Gillette helped push dozens of policy initiatives into fruition during her tenure.
This week, however, after six years as one of the highest-ranking Native women in the Obama administration, Gillette is moving in a new direction, having joined the law firm of Sonosky, Chambers, Sachse, Endreson & Perry as a policy advisor for tribal clients.
According to many observers in Indian country, President Obama made good on his promise to honor and uphold the treaty obligations and federal trust responsibilities to the nation’s 566 federally recognized tribes. Beginning with the annual White House Tribal Nations Conference in 2009, President Obama has advocated and put into motion more legislation, executive orders and agency initiatives on behalf of Native communities than perhaps any president in U.S. history.
“Jodi has been an invaluable member of our team and a tireless public servant. During her more than six years with the administration, she helped launch Gen-I, engaged Native leaders and communities in federal policymaking and helped bring the challenges of Indian country to the forefront of the president’s agenda,” Cecilia Munoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, told ICTMN. “This administration’s accomplishments in Indian country are unprecedented; Jodi’s hard work is a significant part of the reason why. Her advice has been instrumental and her enthusiasm unmatched. We are grateful for her contributions and wish her all the best.”
For Gillette, however, a gig at the White House wasn’t in the script for a young Indian woman from the Northern Plains. Like most of her career, it was a convergence of time, place and opportunity in a new administration that turned its attention to Native concerns that had languished in many previous administrations.
“I never thought I’d end up in at the White House, but I am truly grateful for the experience,” says Gillette. “Our team worked extremely hard to improve Native lives and build communities.”
Gillette, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe of North Dakota, was raised in Kyle, South Dakota, where her father, David Archambault Sr., was an educator and one of the early leaders in Indian higher education and the tribal college movement. Her mother, Betty Archambault, is also an educator and teacher at the Standing Rock Community School.
“My parents felt very strongly about the values of education and giving back,” says Gillette, who has three children of her own. “And the great thing about growing up in Kyle was the goodness of the people and being raised in the Lakota tradition, where people speak the Lakota language. There was a lot of emphasis on the importance of our cultural uniqueness and traditional ways. All of those things are still very important to me.”
Later, as an all-state basketball player and gifted student in Bismarck, North Dakota, Gillette spent summers during high school at the rigorous STEM program at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, before earning a bachelor’s in government at Dartmouth College.
After college, she made the unconventional decision to spend seven months in Mexico, followed by stints working on documentaries about American Indian History, grantwriting, and later as an economic development planner at Standing Rock. Along the way, she also picked up a master’s in public policy as a Bush Fellow at the University of Minnesota.
But it was the 12 years at the Native American Training Institute in Bismarck, a non-profit that provides consulting, technical assistance and culturally-relevant training and curriculum to professionals working with Native children and families in Indian child welfare, that enabled Gillette to continue and strengthen her lifelong passion for community development and cultural preservation.
During her time at the White House, Gillette worked on a number of important initiatives, including the tribal jurisdiction provision in the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), MOU’s for sacred sites and tribal consultations, as well as the president’s tribal consultation directive in 2009.
“As a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation, Jodi’s personal connection to and passion for tribal communities have been invaluable assets to President Obama’s administration. She will be thoroughly missed, but we know that her thoughtful contributions over these last six years will continue to reverberate throughout the administration’s policy toward Indian country,” said Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to President Obama.
Among the most important accomplishments of this administration, says Gillette, was the forward momentum across agencies to ensure a more cohesive and consistent approach to Indian affairs.
“It was extremely important to break down those silos to ensure that we were working across the board to achieve our goals,” says Gillette. “We were forward-learning on self-determination and sovereignty in both our responsibilities on Native issues, as well as moving agency timelines at a faster pace.
“This administration wanted to partner with the tribes – not tell them what to do – while working toward progress in a multi-team approach. This was groundbreaking, because I couldn’t have done any of this alone. None of us could. Teamwork is the way we do things.”
Though her new position at Sonosky Chambers will allow Gillette to be engaged in many of the same policy and development issues for tribal clients, she will be based in Bismarck. It was a decision, she said, that involved her family.
“They want to go home,” says Gillette. “My daughter will be a junior in high school next year and she wants to be closer to our family and cultures. I also want to go home because I want to continue the work in helping to rebuild our communities, which can be difficult, but it’s necessary.”
“At both the White House and the Interior Department, Jodi demonstrated great dedication and skill in her work on critical Indian issues, helping to shape effective Indian policy within the administration. We are delighted that she is joining our firm, where she will be a tremendous asset to tribal governments across the country,” said Sonosky Chambers partner Mary Pavel. Pavel, who formerly served as staff director and general counsel for the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, heads the firm’s government relations team. “I have known Jodi since we attended college together, and it is a special pleasure for me to welcome her to our firm.”
For Gillette, who says infrastructure, economic development and cultural preservation are some of the biggest challenges facing Indian communities in the 21st century, her commitment to help all tribes achieve lasting prosperity and stability as sovereign nations is unwavering.
“There’s so much work that still needs to be done,” says Gillette. “People always ask me what they can do and I say, ‘Go help the tribes.’ Even if it’s one or two years, go into the communities and see what needs to be done. Because people need to understand the unique issues facing tribal communities at the ground level. That’s where we can really affect change and improve lives. That’s where it becomes real.”