Aliyah Chavez
Indian Country Today

In President Joe Biden’s White House, there are hundreds of staffers working in the executive office to help him run the nation. In this sea of staffers, four Native professionals are working to make sure Indian Country has a seat in these important discussions.

The executive office of the president was established more than 80 years ago by former President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as a means to provide the president with “the support that he or she needs to govern effectively.”

Every day, staffers research and write memos for President Biden to read overnight — many involving topics ranging from coronavirus case numbers and vaccination rates to national security threats.

Aides brief him on meetings he may attend the next day or experts he may speak to, while members of the press team send the president’s schedule to reporters so news organizations can plan their coverage accordingly.

For the Native staffers, holding high-level positions within the executive office serves as a point of pride for themselves, their families, tribal nations and communities.

They say many reactions vary when community members learn about their jobs.

Some people ask how things are going at the Interior Department, others ask if they’ve met the president yet. Most of these kind-hearted expressions serve as an opportunity for them to educate community members about the vast nature of the federal government. This aspect, of educating, is something they don’t mind doing.

There are currently four Native staffers — Libby Washburn, Tracy Goodluck, Amanda Finney and PaaWee Rivera — working in the Biden-Harris White House. (Screenshot by Aliyah Chavez)

“I don’t know that anyone from my community has worked in this position before,” said PaaWee Rivera, Pojoaque Pueblo, who serves as a senior advisor and tribal affairs director in the White House office of intergovernmental affairs.

His primary responsibility is to work closely with the nation’s 574 federally recognized tribal governments and leaders to ensure Indian Country is included in critical policy discussions.

Rivera’s position is located in intergovernmental affairs, an office that is tasked in working with state, local and other governments — something, he says, shows tribal nations are in equal standing with the other governments the White House works with.

“It’s no small task,” Rivera said.

The senior advisor brings a lot of experience to the table. Before serving as the western coalitions director for the Biden-Harris campaign, he was a Colorado state director for Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign.

He also formerly held the Native American political director role in the Democratic National Committee and holds a degree in government from Dartmouth College.

In April, Rivera and Libby Washburn, Chickasaw, had the opportunity to join the first meeting of the recently reestablished White House Council on Native Affairs meeting. It happened virtually and included 10 Cabinet secretaries, and other leaders.

“That was very exciting to be on,” Washburn said.

(Related: White House plans tribal nations conference this year)

Washburn is a special assistant to the president on Native Affairs in the White House domestic policy council.

Like Rivera, Washburn can be found developing policy agenda for the Biden administration specifically on Native affairs. Her role also includes working on budget issues, legislative proposals, interacting with tribes and fielding questions from tribal leaders.

“We do a little of everything in this job,” Washburn said.

Her position of special assistant to the president was previously held by two others in the Obama administration: Kim Teehee, Cherokee, and Jodi Archambault, Hunkpapa and Oglala Lakota.

Prior to joining the Biden White House, Washburn worked in leadership roles at several universities in New Mexico and previously worked in the Interior department under the Obama administration. She holds a law degree from the University of New Mexico.

Amanda Finney – the only Native staffer physically working at the White House now due to COVID-19 safety precautions — says walking through the building itself is powerful.

“The history is all around on campus. Between the east room, the blue room, the Roosevelt room. There’s portraits hanging of first ladies and past presidents who don't quite look like us,” Finney said. “But we’re now a part of this history and we are paying it forward in that regard.”

Finney, Cherokee and Lumbee, works as chief of staff to the White House Press Office and is a special assistant to Press Secretary Jen Psaki.

The White House press team hosts the televised daily press briefing where reporters can ask questions directly to the administration. Psaki answers and serves as a spokesperson for the president and vice president.

The questions are wide-ranging including updates on Biden’s conversations with dignitaries, or when the administration will host a state of the union address. (Sometimes the questions are more light-hearted, like wanting to know when the White House cat will arrive on campus.)

Finney coordinates the logistics for these press briefings, all while making sure the press team has prepared talking points for Psaki before she goes live in front of the nation to answer reporters’ questions.

“There is never a dull moment in a 24-hour news cycle,” Finney said smiling on Zoom.

Previously Finney worked as an associate director of policy and communications for Sidewalk Labs, an urban innovation company. She also has experience working on previous presidential campaigns including former Mayor Mike Bloomberg, former President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She holds degrees from Wake Forest University and Syracuse University.

The positions, like many others who are public servants, are demanding.

“Not everything is glamorous,” said Tracy Goodluck, a policy advisor to the White House domestic policy council. “These are hard and challenging positions too, especially because they’re high profile.”

Goodluck, Oneida Nation of Wisconsin and Mvskoke Creek, added that the job can be high-pressure with tight deadlines and what feels like not enough hours in the day.

She is a career federal employee who usually works in the Interior Department but is currently completing a detail in the White House.

“I always explain that it’s like being loaned out like a library book,” Goodluck said.

At the time of interview, Goodluck was on her second day in the job but had previously completed two details working in the White House under the Obama administration. She can be found working on issues in Indian Country, ultimately working to ensure the federal trust responsibility to tribal nations “happens.”

After Goodluck’s detail is completed, she will return to the Interior department, led by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland of Laguna Pueblo, to continue working on Indian water rights settlements.

Goodluck brings her experience as a teacher and school administrator in tribal communities, such as Hopi, Navajo and Tulalip and co-founded the Native American Community Academy in Albuquerque in 2005. She holds degrees from Dartmouth College, the University of Washington and a law degree from the University of New Mexico.

Despite the 24/7 grind, many of the Native staffers try to maintain a sense of humor through it all, even while joining video conferences in their living rooms and kitchen desks.

“The pandemic has impacted our tribal nations at such a high rate. I think all of us are very conscious and aware of that, which is why we are following the COVID protocols … but I do look forward to the day I can sit in the same room with Libby, PaaWee, Amanda and our colleagues — and maybe someday brief the president, vice president of our senior leaders,” Goodluck said.

The first 100 days

The Biden administration’s first 100 days in office marked key shifts for Indian Country. Much of it was largely spurred by behind-the-scenes staff like Washburn and Rivera.

Big news happened hours after Biden took his oath of office and became the nation’s 46th president. He revoked the permit of the Keystone XL pipeline, a move met with praise from tribal leaders. Then he placed a moratorium on all oil and gas activities in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, ultimately halting drilling on the grounds that Gwich’in Athabascan people hold special ties to. Days later, Biden signed three executive orders focused on strengthening nation to nation relationships with tribes.

Change came in other ways.

A painting of Andrew Jackson, a strong proponent of Indian removal, was removed from the Oval Office after being redecorated between presidential administrations. It was replaced by a sculpture of the “swift messenger,” created by Allan Houser, Chiricahua Apache, the Albuquerque Journal reported in January.

(Related: 100 days on Capitol Hill)

Washburn says much of this was a team effort between many offices, and the fact that she was hired early served as “a unique opportunity” to start working quickly. She frequently studied Biden’s tribal nations plan, a document of campaign promises he ran on, and used that as a guide to lead these initiatives.

“We want to make sure that he follows through on all those campaign promises,” Washburn said. “I’m proud of what we’ve done in a hundred days.”

Washburn added that her non-Native colleagues in the White House frequently ask her how Indian Country can be included in other policy positions. “I think across the White House everybody is looking out … it feels very pro-tribal right now in the White House,” Washburn said.

(Related: Joe Biden: ‘Tribal sovereignty will be a cornerstone’)

Another key campaign promise of Biden included having a staff that was as diverse as the country.

A major promise kept was appointing the first ever Native person to lead a Cabinet agency in the confirmation of Secretary Haaland.

Most recently, Haaland visited the White House in April during a daily press briefing, a feat made possible by the Native staffers hoping to boost visibility of Native professionals at the highest levels.

To Goodluck, a career employee working for several years, the hiring and appointment of Natives in high-profile positions was “phenomenal,” citing not just White House staffers but other employees across the government who have been hired.

Some of Biden’s Indigenous appointees:

  • Heather Dawn Thompson, Cheyenne River Sioux, director of the Office of Tribal Relations, U.S. Department of Agriculture
  • Zach Ducheneaux, Cheyenne River Sioux, the first Indigenous person to lead the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Services Agency
  • Bryan Newland, Bay Mills Indian Community, principal deputy assistant secretary of Indian Affairs, Department of the Interior
  • Wahleah Johns, Diné, director of the Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs, Department of Energy
  • Arlando Teller, Diné, deputy assistant secretary for tribal affairs, Department of Transportation
  • Michael Connor, Taos Pueblo, assistant secretary of the army for civil works, Department of Defense

“From the get go of this administration, you felt that inclusivity of everybody’s voices,” Goodluck said. “You see it reflected in the people you’re working with side by side on the issues and that’s a refreshing change.”

Future goals

Finney says her goal is to help the Biden administration rebuild trust by providing access, being transparent and providing correct information.

For Washburn, a personal goal is “to get as much done as I possibly can for Indian Country in the short time that I’m here.”

“I think one of the most important goals for all of us is to ensure that representation in a place like the White House, across the administration, in Congress, and as a Cabinet member becomes a commonplace for Indian Country — and that Indian Country knows that we have a space in the highest seat in government,” Rivera said.

Rivera sees his time as a senior advisor as a position he stewards, adding that he hopes to create a path for future Native staffers.

“I hope and pray that there’ll be many after myself to carry on this work and push the boundaries and continue to push the priorities of Indian Country well into the future,” he said.

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