An Indian summer in the Capitol

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In the past, my summer vacations typically consisted of working a minimum wage job, living at home and going to a Minnesota lake on hot days. That’s what a summer break from college is supposed to be about – relaxing, recouping some money and giving your mind three months off after saturating it with facts and figures.

However, last summer I tried something different. I wanted a new experience, something that would help me grow as a person, allow me to learn a few things, and have fun in the process. As a political science major and a young American Indian, I thought it only natural to seek a politically-based internship that dealt with issues facing Indian country.

After a short Google search I discovered the Morris K. Udall Foundation. The foundation was established in memory of the late Arizona Rep. Morris “Mo” Udall and aims to support college students who study environmental or Native public policy. The internship aspect of the program is offered every summer to 12 American Indian students from across the country and places them in government offices in Washington, D.C.

After completing the application process, I found out three months later that I had been selected for the program. I was excited to meet the other interns and spend my summer in Washington, D.C., learning about government and meeting prominent leaders. Our class of interns was a diverse group – Navajo, Apache, Cherokee, Kickapoo, Mohawk, Shinnecock, Santo Domingo Pueblo and Ojibwe tribes were all represented.

I arrived in late May and quickly realized that the other 11 interns were extremely intelligent, motivated and interesting Native students. I knew that I had as much to learn from these people as I did from my office placement.

After two days of orientation, I started my job in the office of Sen. Kent Conrad, the senior Democratic senator from North Dakota. Since I go to school at North Dakota State University and Conrad is on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, the placement made sense.

The office turned out to be a great fit for me. Maybe it was the “Midwestern niceness” of everybody, but I enjoyed every minute working there. Over the course of the summer, I attended congressional hearings, researched environmental issues for staffers, helped write letters to constituents, went to a meeting on pending Indian Affairs Committee legislation, sat in on meetings with the senator and wrote press releases. I learned more about the legislative process from my 10 weeks on Capitol Hill than I did in four years of college.

The program also ensured that the Udall interns met leaders in American Indian advocacy, including the White House Initiative of Tribal Colleges and Universities, the Secretary of the Interior Department, the National Congress of American Indians and the Native
Nations Institute. Each meeting allowed us to learn how these organizations are benefiting Indian country.

As the summer went on, I realized that my internship was not only about learning, but also about teaching. I discovered that a lot of people are ignorant about American Indian issues and had numerous conversations where I explained the unique American Indian cultures, the principles of tribal sovereignty and the problems facing many reservations. These conversations were a reminder that American Indians are grossly underrepresented in Washington, D.C. American Indians make up only about 1 percent of the national population, so it’s important that our voices are as loud as possible to ensure that we are represented by our elected representatives.

Thankfully, people like Conrad are actively seeking young American Indians to join the chorus of voices working for change. In addition to the Morris K. Udall Foundation, several organizations such as the Washington Internship for Native Students program or the Smithsonian Institute exist to give Native students the opportunity to learn the legislative process and gain the skills necessary to become leaders in their communities.

My experience in Conrad’s office taught me a lot about leadership and the importance of public service. I encourage all young American Indians to spend time in Washington, D.C., as an intern. Expand your horizons. Learn as much as possible and be a part of change. My experience not only gave me a great education but also gave me hope that better days are ahead for American Indian communities across the country.

<i>John Fetzer, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, is a senior at North Dakota State University majoring in political science.