Courtesy Nicole Willis
Nicole Willis, Confederated Tribes of Umatilla member

Sanders Hires Native American Staffer: Nicole Willis

Jacqueline Keeler

On March 21, the day after coordinating Bernie Sanders’ meeting with tribal leaders in Washington state, Nicole Willis, Confederated Tribes of Umatilla member, received the news she had been hired by his campaign as the National Tribal Outreach Director. She is the Sanders campaign’s first and only full-time Native American staff member.

"Senator Sanders and his campaign are deeply committed to elevating the issues of Native American communities,” Arturo Carmona, the National Deputy Political Director told ICTMN. “The hiring of Nicole as our National Tribal Outreach Director is just one more way for the campaign to seriously engage not only politically but also by elevating the strongest policy agenda of any presidential candidate. Nicole was one of the strategists who drove the Obama model of tribal outreach and we are now taking that to a whole new level with this campaign. Bernie 2016 is setting a new standard for campaigning in Indian country.”

Willis, an attorney, majored in history at Yale University and received her law degree from Columbia University in 2008. At Columbia, she served as president of the National Native American Law Students Organization. She was hired during then Sen. Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign as the First Americans Vote Deputy Director.

After Obama’s election, Willis served on the president’s first inaugural committee and was appointed as Special Assistant for Indian Affairs in the U.S. Department of Labor. There she assisted Secretary Hilda L. Solis to build meaningful relationships with tribes and participated in the White House Tribal Nations Conferences.

ICTMN asked Willis a few questions about her groundbreaking, new role:

In 2008, you served as First Americans Vote Deputy Director for Obama’s campaign. How has that experience prepared you for working on Sen. Sanders’ campaign?

It prepared me by informing me how a campaign works on the inside. For someone who has never worked within a campaign before, they can operate quite differently from how you might expect them to. It’s extremely fast-paced and ever-evolving, and being prepared to balance the primary schedule of events alongside policy development, outreach, media, and long term planning is a unique challenge. Having done this before has made it a lot easier for me to hit the ground running and accomplish more, faster.

You later got to help plan Obama’s first Inauguration. What was that like and how did you work to include tribal representation?

The ’08 inauguration was a great celebration, and it was wonderful to be a part of the planning committee. We had tribal groups representing seven different states in the parade and had a heavy presence at other events. Most people who were there will speak to the incredible energy of that week, the sense of relief and accomplishment. For me, it was exhilarating to see all our hard work come full circle, and to see the campaign's progressive inclusion of first Americans reflected in that week's festivities.

You were Special Assistant to Secretary Solis for Indian Affairs at the U.S. Department of Labor during Obama’s first term. I understand that Sanders plans to include Native American special assistants to every federal department. How do you think this will work, based on your experiences in this role?

It makes a tremendous difference just to have someone around who is informed in the area of Indian law and policy. Many officials and bureaucrats don't realize how much federal programs affect the day to day lives of Native Americans, and having someone there to inform the administration as to how and why goes a long way towards ensuring equitable treatment. It also allows for easier pathways to create new programs and pilot projects. Having tribal access at the highest levels saves a lot of time in the sense that agencies are equipped with foresight and not overlooking issues they otherwise may. Indian affairs is a highly technical field but each and every agency should be focusing on where their portfolio and tribal interests intersect.

What has been the most exciting thing that’s happened working on Sanders’ campaign?

That would certainly be the 12-minute segment of his extended stump speech in Flagstaff dedicated to tribal policy. Not to mention [Native Americans] being a regular part of a stump speech, period. The best part is that it’s all Bernie. I didn't have to fight for that, or even ask really. He did it of his own accord and genuinely cares; he wants it to be part of the national agenda and regular political discourse. Most candidates don't speak about it at all, or only to an exclusively tribal audience. Bernie is educating everyone. He's set a new standard.

What aspect of his platform are you most proud of?

Continuing to roll out jurisdiction and strengthen tribal courts is a big one—that is something I worked a lot on in 2007-08 and am proud that we have a candidate who understands how vital that is to our future. There are some pledges that Bernie quickly got on board with that I'm excited about too, like the dedicated [Office of Management and Budget] desk, mandated tribal appointments across agencies, opening up grants to tribes. These ideas have been around for many years and are invaluable tools in building a collaborative working relationship between tribal nations and the federal government, yet we haven't yet had a candidate who is willing to act. Now we do.

Willis served as the First Americans Vote Deputy Director during President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. Later hired as Special Assistant for Indian Affairs in the U.S. Department of Labor. (Courtesy Nicole Willis)

How receptive has the campaign been to your suggestions—both on policy and outreach to Native voters?

Extremely receptive. I think that is eminently reflected in the number of speeches we have been mentioned in, and the number of small meetings he's had with tribal leaders across many states. Not to mention the strong number of Native voters who are turning out for Bernie. The rate of Natives for Bernie in the Washington caucuses, for example, appears to be slightly higher than the margin of his state win.

What role do Native voters both on and off the reservation play in national politics? How do you see their power growing?

Every vote matters. Natives may be a small portion of the electorate but we have a direct, special relationship with the federal government that deserves to be addressed in mainstream politics. Our power grows when we insist upon high level engagement and inclusion; when we come to expect the level of dedication and engagement by candidates like Bernie Sanders.

This is the second presidential candidate you have worked for—why does it matter that Native people participate at this level? What has been your proudest achievement in this arena?

We have to participate at this level or risk continuing to be left out of the process. We've made great strides in recent years but there’s a long road of improvement ahead. The more emphatic and precise we are, the more ideas we have, the more progress we will see. My proudest achievement has been to be a facilitator, of working within campaigns and government to ensure that American Indians and Alaska Natives are being heard and paid attention to, and that their concerns are reflected by action. This campaign is breaking new ground in that area. We've had over a dozen tribal leaders meetings in almost as many states, and tribal nations are now part of a stump speech. That genuine connection between a candidate and Native voters, that is progress.

Jacqueline Keeler is a Navajo/Yankton Dakota writer living in Portland, Oregon and co-founder of Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry. She has been published in Telesur and The Nation and interviewed on MSNBC, Democracy Now and Native American Calling. Her forthcoming book is called “Not Your Disappearing Indian.” On Twitter: @jfkeeler.

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