When Jake Schellinger first visited the National Congress of American Indians Embassy of Tribal Nations in Washington, D.C., in the summer of 2011, he immediately knew it was a place he’d one day want to work if the opportunity presented itself.
Schellinger was then a student at the Arizona State University Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law, and he was spending the summer in the nation's capital for the Udall Foundation’s Native American Congressional internship program. He recalls being impressed by the building, the people who worked there and the fact that tribal governments had an embassy in Washington, D.C.
“I remember walking into the embassy and just being truly amazed by it and just thinking, ‘You know, this is the place that I would really, really like to work at someday if the opportunity ever arises,’” said Schellinger, Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians.
Funny how the universe works.
Schellinger was hired at the National Congress of American Indians as a staff attorney in 2017 and went on to serve as its government affairs director and, most recently, vice president of government relations. He is leaving the post next month and returning to private practice in Phoenix.
“It's been an immensely gratifying experience to work at NCAI and to work with everybody," he told Indian Country Today. "I've learned just a ton from numerous people that I've interacted with, both inside and outside the organization."
During his time at NCAI, Schellinger has worked on everything from the Farm Bill to moving the needle on advance appropriations for Indian Country during a government shutdown. Most recently he’s done a lot of work on COVID-19-related legislation and said it’s something he’ll remember for the rest of his life.
“I think what will be with me throughout my career, both in terms of just incredible, you know, dedication and commitment of so many people across Indian Country and having been able to have sort of a central role in a lot of the work,” Schellinger said. “Not saying that I am more responsible than anybody else or something like that, but just to be a part of the push to get such a significant portion of resources for Indian Country in that bill.”
There’s no doubt he will be missed, said Kevin Allis, Forest County Potawatomi Community, chief executive officer of the National Congress of American Indians.
Allis thoroughly enjoyed working with Schellinger, saying that they had a similar passion and recognition of the importance of how their work impacted Indian Country.
“Jake was amazing, a true professional. Dedicated, disciplined, passionate, and it was reflected in his work,” Allis said. “The thing about Jake is that he knows his material better than anybody I've ever worked with. I could ask Jake a question about legislation that passed five years ago, and it could be a very nuanced question, and he would either know it or know exactly where to go get it and have information for me within a very short period of time. Most of the time he just knew it.”
Allis also credits Schellinger for the hard work he put in to reshape the way the organization does policy and advocacy. Allis described advocacy as the "heart of the beast” at the National Congress of American Indians and wanted to make sure they did it right.
They took a more business-like approach and spent a lot of time mapping out who does what and how to gauge success in regards to resolutions that were put forth by membership.
“That was one of my biggest projects coming in, we had to get that right. NCAI was put together in 1944 to advocate for Indian tribes,” Allis said. “That back to basics, back to, you know, where we came from and making sure that was solid and Jake did a wonderful job there with that.”
Schellinger is mild-mannered, even-keeled and humble. You’d be hard-pressed in finding someone who dislikes him. Members of his policy team certainly had nothing but high praise.
Fatima Abbas, Haliwa Saponi, director of policy and legislative counsel, government relations department, valued Schellinger’s willingness to try new things as the policy department grew.
“Jake is an exceedingly hard-working, diligent and committed advocate who set a high bar for NCAI Government Relations work,” Abbas said. “As a NCAI newcomer, I appreciated his openness to innovation and his development of a growing department that is dynamic in order to be responsive to tribal advocacy needs.”
On top of that, Nicholas Courtney, Makah, policy analyst, said Schellinger is a great mentor and knows he will continue to do good work on behalf of Indian Country.
“Since I have arrived at NCAI, Jake Schellinger has been an incredible supervisor, mentor, and has taught me an immense amount about government relations and Indian Country policy,” Courtney said. “I am forever grateful for the time I have had to learn from Jake’s expertise and would not be where I am professionally today without his mentorship. Our entire government relations team is excited to see the successful things Jake does next.”
Schellinger's next role will be as an associate attorney in Indian Law at the Phoenix Office of Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie LLP.
While he is leaving the organization, Allis said Schellinger will always be a part of the National Congress of American Indians family and that part of his foundation was built at the organization.
Allis added that Schellinger is going out on top and should be proud of the work he’s accomplished during his time there.
“He's going out on top and should be proud of himself ‘cause I'm certainly proud of him,” Allis said. “I know my [executive] board is and Indian Country needs to know this and they need to be proud of him also.”
Schellinger echoed those sentiments and was equally thankful to the people he’s worked with over the years.
"I leave this opportunity feeling like I have gained a lot in terms of experience and knowledge,” he said. "I feel like I will never completely leave the NCAI family because there is a huge network of alum.”
Kolby KickingWoman, Blackfeet/A'aniih is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today. He is from the great state of Montana and currently reports and lives in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter - @KDKW_406. Email - email@example.com
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