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Teehee’s top priority

WASHINGTON – Less than a month after being selected by President Obama to fill the newly-created position of senior policy advisor for Native American affairs, Kimberly Teehee settled into her new job with the same sense of anticipation she experienced when she first learned of her appointment.

“I am elated and excited to be here,” Teehee, a Cherokee, wrote in an e-mail interview with Indian Country Today a few days after she began her new White House job earlier this month.

When asked about her first impressions, she praised her colleagues for their generous help.

“I am impressed that our whole team brings so much to the table and everyone is eager to help. My colleagues are impressive as they offer expertise in so many areas; [they] have unbelievable professional experiences and connections that will serve the Native American community well. I look forward to working with them as we work to advance President Obama’s goals for Indian country.”

Establishing a senior policy advisor on American Indian affairs was one of Obama’s campaign promises. The idea was to strengthen the relationship between the nations and the federal government – a goal most people in Indian country see as a reversal of former President Bush’s anti-Indian policies.

Teehee’s appointment was announced June 15 in taped remarks by President Obama at the National Congress of Americans Indians’ Mid-Year conference in Niagara Falls, N.Y.

“Kim Teehee will be a tremendous asset to our team as we work to strengthen and build on the nation-to-nation relationship between the United States and tribal nations,” Obama said in the video appearance. “She is rightly recognized as an outstanding advocate for Indian country, and she will provide a direct interface at the highest level of my administration, assuring a voice for Native Americans during policy

making decisions.”

As the first senior advisor on Native American affairs, Teehee said her top priority will be furthering Obama’s commitment of including Indian tribes in domestic policy decisions.

“He announced during the NCAI (conference) that the White House will hold a Tribal Nations Conference in the fall. This conference is a priority for the president and it will give tribal leaders an opportunity to assist us in developing an agenda for Indian country,” Teehee said.

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She brings years of experience in Indian affairs to the position. Teehee served the last decade as a senior advisor to Congressman Dale Kildee, D-Mich., co-chair of the House of Representatives Native American Caucus.

She was director of Native American Outreach for the Presidential Inaugural Committee for President Clinton’s second inauguration. Prior to that, she was deputy director of Native American Outreach at the Democratic National Committee. She has also held various positions with the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, including serving as a law clerk in the Division of Law and Justice.

Teehee received her Bachelor of Arts in political science from Northeastern State University and her Juris Doctor from the University of Iowa, College of Law. While in law school, she was honored with the Bureau of National Affairs Award, and served in leadership positions in the National Native American Law Student Association and the Iowa Native American Law Student Association.

She has received the seal of approval in her new position from some important Indian leaders.

“I can’t think of a better person for this position than Kim Teehee,” said NCAI President Joe Garcia.

Teehee aims to achieve Obama’s commitment to tribal nation building and empowering Native Americans in the development of the national policy agenda. That means working with tribal governments to ensure that Native Americans have greater access to health care, better educational opportunities, and addressing “severe socioeconomic conditions and violent crime in Indian country.”

She thinks one of the biggest challenges will be keeping on top of issues and events as they unfold.

“We work in a fast-paced environment so a challenge is quickly figuring out how best to take advantage of opportunities in the national agenda in a way that is responsive to the unique needs of Indian country.”

Teehee’s new job comes loaded with expectations – her own, Obama’s, and those of many Indian leaders. How does Teehee plan to manage them?

“The greatest expectation is that we elevate and improve the relationship between the United States and tribal nations. My appointment is an acknowledgement of that expectation and the president’s commitment to strengthening the nation-to-nation relationship.”