Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Traditionally a new president appoints thousands of people to federal jobs to shape policy and be the face of the new administration.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have also set the goal of creating an administration that “looks like America” and includes people of color, women, diverse ethnicity and faiths, LGBTQ and disability.

The National Congress of American Indians hosted a webinar Thursday with current and former American Indian appointees explaining how to get some of those jobs.

Clara Pratte, Navajo, is the Biden-Harris campaign’s former tribal engagement director. She said the incoming administration wants to make sure they have American Indians and Alaska Natives in positions of leadership at agencies that provide services to Indigenous people.

“We’ve been working really hard to make sure we get lots and lots of Native candidates into the pipeline for these tribal-specific positions because we don't want them to be languishing too long without a voice.” It’s important to have as many people at the table right from the start “because the processes get set up and we want to have our voice there day one,” Pratte said.

She said the incoming administration is also working toward “great diversity” in traditionally non-tribal spaces.

“We don't want to pigeonhole people that just because they are tribal, they need to serve specific tribal positions. They should be across the board. And that's how we start to effectuate change and have really good representation,” Pratte said.

Positions range from entry level with opportunities for training and mentoring on up to reporting directly to the president. And the jobs are throughout the federal government, with positions at agencies ranging from the departments of justice, interior, and education, to transportation and labor. Positions to be filled by appointment, their location, and pay grade are outlined in the "Plum Book."

The Plum Book lists 4,000 political appointee posts–1,200 of which are subject to Senate confirmation–the new administration will be filling, along with location, pay grade, and other details.

Kim Teehee, former Senior Policy Advisor for Native American Affairs, White House Domestic Policy Council, and current Cherokee delegate-designate to Congress, said for people interested in a political appointment, one of the first steps is to see if you’d be a good fit in the new administration.

She suggested people look at the Biden-Harris transition papers, “because any position that you're seeking, you're probably going to have to know those policies and the plans and the commitments and have a strategy worked out on how to execute those plans,” Teehee said.

Also, she suggested people give some thought to the nature of the job. 

“Recognize that the federal government is a highly structured environment. It's highly regulated. You're working in a world of law and federal regulation, ethical restrictions, conflicts of interest. You've got to know this. It can be quite paralyzing if you don't know how to maneuver in that environment. You're subject to public scrutiny, the higher level of your appointment, the more you're subject to scrutiny,” Teehee said.

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Panelists on a webinar, "Indian Country's Participation in the Appointment Process," hosted by the National Congress of American Indians, included current and former American Indian political appointees.

Senior Associate Director Matthew Dannenberg, Bad River of Lake Superior Band of Chippewa, of the presidential personnel office said the paperwork and clearances to get these federal jobs also are no joke. The process involves disclosing finances, travel history, relationships abroad, police records, citizenship, and employment history.

“For me, I think the thing that took the most time was places where you've lived, because as an organizer and someone who's been interested in experiencing lots of different communities, I've hopped around from year to year. So finding old landlords and people to verify housing information was, it was a lot of fun,” Dannenberg said.

Once selected, he said, applicants may be asked to quickly give their response to a job offer then start their new job as soon as possible.

Some of the positions are important, influential, and provide opportunities to shape policy at the highest levels. However, Alison Grigonis, Pokégnek Bodéwadmik, or Pokagon Band of Potawatomi, a former senior policy advisor to the assistant secretary of Indian affairs, and a senior director of cabinet affairs at the Obama White House, said some elements are far from glamorous.

Some posts involve long hours, being on call 24-7, and doing everything from research to clerical tasks. At the White House, “I think you kind of are a team of one or a one-man-band in a way. There really isn't the [support] staff,” Grigonis said.

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a long-time Alaska journalist.

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