Sedelta Oosahwee is only 35, but already she has made her mark serving tribal governments in Washington, D.C. Oosahwee, Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikira Nation/Cherokee, talked to ICTMN about her work.
Could you tell us about your background?
I was born and raised in Talequah, Oklahoma. I have an undergrad degree in public affairs and administration and a Master’s in adult higher ed from the University of Oklahoma.
I’ve been lucky in the jobs that I’ve had. I’ve worked at Northeastern State University in Talequah, for the Cherokee Nation and at a consulting firm here in DC.
I was working for the Cherokee Nation when I had the opportunity to apply for the position of associate director at the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Nation Education. I put in my resume really unsure of what was going to happen. It kind of felt like a shot in the dark, but it also looked like a dream job.
I got the job and worked at the WHIAIANE for about three years and then I came on a detail to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s Office of Tribal Relations last summer. I loved the people here, I loved the work we were doing and I was appointed as a senior advisor here in January.
What is the scope of your job?
I work with our director Leslie Wheelock to connect tribes to the resources and programs at USDA, such as Rural Development and the Food and Nutrition Service. We have seven mission areas and 17 agencies. The work we do at USDA affects people’s lives every single day. It’s just been amazing to be a part of that.
Could you give some specific examples?
I could go on and on with the wonderful things that we’re doing every day that affect our lives. For example, a lot of the food that we eat is inspected by USDA and we have different things that are helping to make sure that it’s safe, whether it’s being brought in from different countries or it’s domestic.
Also, our food and nutrition services provide children with school lunches and after school feeding programs. In some places we’ve helped build rural water facilities. I was visiting a rural village in Alaska and they had a sign thanking USDA for helping to support that water facility.
Do you work with tribes that are growing food to take to market?
Our office doesn’t do that directly but we can direct tribes to the right people and make sure that we’re all in on the conversation and working to do something that would be productive and helpful. I’ve found that this department has been really willing to work with the tribes and find ways to make the programs fit and to be helpful.
What are your personal priorities at USDA?
Because my background is in education I always try to focus on the youth component of a program, whether it’s new farmers, or the 1994 [Tribal Land-Grant Colleges and Universities] Program, or whatever it is.
Recently USDA partnered with the Health and Human Services Dept.’s Administration for Native Americans for a youth tour. We went to six different sites this spring and had listening sessions, put on different workshops for college and career readiness, and had motivational speakers. Each of us had an opportunity to talk about the work that we’re doing and different services that could be helpful for youth. Some sites also had internships and college booths. That was something I really enjoyed.
There’s been a lot of discussion of food insecurity on reservations and about food sovereignty. Could you talk about how USDA is involved in those efforts?
One of the things that I worked on specifically was convening a working group to talk about the Native American food distribution program on Indian reservations, called FDPIR. About a month ago we had tribal leaders from all over the country come to Oklahoma City to talk to USDA officials about how can we improve the food package for the program.
It was interesting to see how the tribal leaders were able to come together and have a good dialog with our people here at USDA to voice their concerns. We’re going to have another meeting to continue working with them to make sure that we’re doing all we can to make that package healthier, including adding more traditional foods.
What are some of the areas in which a tribal leader might not think to consult USDA, but in which you could be helpful?
I think the biggest program that I have seen that I really wasn’t aware [before] of is the Rural Development Communities Facilities [Loan and Grant] Program.
Seeing the different things that they’re doing is pretty incredible. For example, Warm Springs is building a school. And the program gave loans in Bethel, Alaska, for a hospital and for diabetes centers [to serve the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation] in New York.
If tribes need a loan, this is a great place to look. It will be a long-term, low-interest loan. People in the program are willing to be creative about [structuring loans] and working with the tribal leaders to see what they can do to be helpful.
What have we not talked about that you would like to have included in the article?
The most incredible part of working for this administration is that we seem to be creating a new reality for young people in Indian country. We’ve created a place where it’s normal to have access to the White House, to see themselves reflected in political leadership throughout the departments, to have principal Cabinet members come to their communities, to hear the president mention them. I’m really excited to see how that plays out in 10 years, 20 years for the young people.
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