Obama’s top adviser on Native American issues tells of stubbornness in the face of injustice

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Karen Diver is the first woman and first elected tribal leader to serve in her White House position. (Photo by Blake Thorkelson)

President Obama’s top adviser on Native American issues told students at a Trumbull College Tea Nov. 17 that Obama is “the first president ever to pay concerted attention to Native American affairs.”

Karen Diver, who serves as special assistant to the president for Native American Affairs and a member of the Domestic Policy Council, told the audience that Richard Nixon’s administration — contrary to what many people expect — also was supportive of Indian Country, helping to rebuild tribal homelands and devolve authority from the federal government to the tribes.

Diver previously served nine years as chair of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, and she is the first woman and first elected tribal leader to serve in her White House position. Nearly all federal agencies touch on Native American affairs in some way, and Diver’s job is to coordinate them as they develop policy and consult with the approximately 570 federally recognized tribes.

“It’s like drinking from a fire hose,” she said. “But I have a good grip on that hose.” She added that her experience as a tribal leader and earlier as a social-services agency leader gave her added weight in her interactions with other government agencies. “I wasn’t putting up with nothing!” she joked.

Diver told the audience about her path from poverty to the White House. As a child, she lived in inner-city Cleveland, where her parents had moved as part of a federal relocation program. Even as a teenager, she was involved in Indian youth groups and local politics. To access college scholarships, she moved to Minnesota with her young daughter. Following college Diver was chosen to lead the YWCA in Duluth, and “spent the next 12 years calling people out,” in her words, on hidden racism, housing redlining, low graduation rates, and other social problems facing Native Americans in the region.

Diver later studied at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government on a mid-career fellowship, then returned to the reservation and eventually ran for chair, garnering 74% of the vote. While filling out her predecessor’s term, she was advised not to move too quickly in making changes. Diver said she disagreed with a go-slow approach. “I had to have the strength of conviction that what I was doing was right,” she said.

As tribal chair, Diver oversaw a staff of 2200 people, a police force, a health clinic, housing stock, schools, a college, a casino, a radio station, and timber interests. Her leadership attracted the attention of President Obama, who asked her to join the administration in November 2015.

Asked what motivated her, Diver cited her daughter’s well-being and her own stubbornness in the face of injustice. “I’ve been lucky to be in seats where everyone else didn’t look like me,” she said.  When certain voices are not being heard, “if you can be that voice, it’s a moral obligation.”

The tea was hosted by Trumbull College Head Margaret Clark, and was part of campus events celebrating November’s Native American Heritage Month.

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