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Gillette reflects on White House role

WASHINGTON – Jodi Archambault Gillette, Standing Rock Sioux, was named last February by President Obama as one of three deputy associate directors of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs.

No other American Indian has held the position, which is meant to serve as a conduit between tribal governments and the White House.

Gillette previously served as the North Dakota First American vote director for Obama’s presidential campaign. Before joining the campaign, she was director of the Native American Training Institute, a tribally operated nonprofit. She has also long been a respected traditional Lakota dancer.

Since her appointment, Gillette has met with many tribal leaders nationwide. Several have offered positive assessments of her early performance, saying she is working diligently to reach out to them.

The following is an interview with Gillette:

Indian Country Today: What do you do on a daily basis?

Jodi Archambault Gillette: We’re seen as the front door to the White House, so what we do is interact with different governments, with one being tribes. I’m here as an associate deputy director, and I mainly interface with tribes.

One of the first things we’ve been dealing with heavily is the Recovery Act [the $787 million stimulus plan signed into law by President Obama in February]. As different initiatives are passed and as we work towards the future, the Recovery Act might seem like a long time ago, but there is still a lot of implementation taking place.

ICT: On the Recovery Act, have tribes contacted you to try to understand how to get certain funds efficiently?

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JAG: I think the questions are generally more specific. So, a tribe might be really interested in bonds and how they can use them. The Treasury [Department] is going to decide who gets to utilize that. People are very interested where their proposals [in regard to increased stimulus funding to agencies, like IHS] sit.

ICT: Are there complicated questions that come up that you might not know the answer to?

JAG: When there’s not information that’s publicly available that can be posted on a Web site, what I usually do is take the questions, and then I try to take it to the appropriate agency or internal person. What I strive to do is be as useful as possible. If I can get an answer back quickly, then I’m able to be [useful]. More times than not, I’ve had to come back and say that information is not available. Until the spending plans are approved in some of the agencies, we can’t release some of the specifics on how this is going to take place. And the Recovery Act on the whole is still being built in terms of how people are going to be informed and how tribal accountability is going to be employed.

ICT: Does it ever become complicated for you personally as a Standing Rock Sioux tribal member with tribes looking to you as a Native American who should be looking after their best interests – but sometimes maybe you aren’t able to, due to the constraints of the federal government system?

JAG: The best way to handle anything is just to be honest. I’ve been honest when people are asking me for various things. … Folks want to be given the truth. They don’t want to be told one thing, and then something else happens. That’s how I approach information that might not be welcomed information. ... We’re just trying to be open and communicate the best that we can in terms of how the president has set forth his standards in openness and transparency. When there’s something that I can covey, then I will definitely convey that.

ICT: As you well know, many Native Americans have long had questions about how the federal government works and how it can work better for them and tribes. Is it strange to be a member of a tribal nation, but to be working within the federal government?

JAG: Going into this, I understood that [issue]. ... Most often times, though, we have a lot of the same common interests. If you look at it only where there are differences and only focus on that, then it could be somewhat overwhelming. But if you look at some ways we can address the problems that face our nation as a whole and own the problems both as Indian nations and the United States. ... I don’t think that it’s as conflicting as one could frame it.

ICT: You’re not from Washington. How have you acclimated to the nation’s capital?

JAG: When you work here, there are a lot of hours that are spent here at the office. I have a wonderful team. I really lean on them, and really appreciate the different people who are part of the intergovernmental affairs office. In terms of personally how I’ve adjusted, I think it’s been a slight transition. But I went to school out here, so I’m not a foreigner completely to the East Coast. It is different, but I knew what I was coming into when I took the job.