Jacqueline Pata holds one of the most important positions in Indian Country, but her story's not a simple one.
As the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, Pata works to advance the recommendations of tribal leaders on the ground and in Congress, but her dedication to her heritage began as a young member of the Raven/Sockeye Clan of the Tlingit Tribe in a fishing town in northeast Alaska. For many years she helped clan leader Austin Hammond run a culture camp where elders taught the campers fishing, basket weaving and language. She described the camp as a "language nest where we practiced the traditional language and lived very much like our ancestors did in a communal space."
Pata's first office job was in the Housing Authority of her tribal community, where she became "consumed" by issues ranging from inadequate housing to black mold infestations, and quickly realized that the Housing and Urban Development-funded programs "were not addressing tribal needs." Within three years, she rose to the position of executive director, became the chair of the Alaskan Association for Housing Authorities, and was nominated to be a tribal housing representative, which took her "way out of her comfort zone"—all the way to Washington, D.C.
In D.C., Pata continued her advocacy and ascent. Growing frustrated by what she describes as "the lack of self-determination, and the tribe's inability to design their own residences suitable for Indian Country," within the existing HUD programs, she convened a meeting of 200 tribal leaders and asked them what they would design for their communities if they did not have government restrictions.
With the input from 200 tribal leaders in hand, she went to Congress, where she was asked to draft a proposal which ultimately became the Native American Housing and Self Determination Act. After the bill passed Congress, she was asked by the Clinton administration to return to D.C. to implement the bill.
Pata may have started outside her comfort zone, but in her current position with the National Congress for American Indians, she's getting tribal leaders' concerns before Congress—an approach she called "a winning strategy."
When she started at NCAI, Pata said, "it was a closed community within Indian Country. We had great conversations about Indian Country, about ourselves, to ourselves, and then I realized that we needed to reach out." So she opened communication with the civil rights community, policy research centers, and environmental groups. And under her leadership, for the first time, the NCAI opened its doors to the media. Pata believes that NCAI must "educate, in order to create stronger advocates and alliances."
Following the National Congress of American Indians Address in Washington, D.C. I sat down with Jacqueline Pata to discuss her swift rise, self-help books, and her advice for young people.
MD: What was your childhood like?
JP:Originally, my family lived in the village of Juneau, but they relocated when urban renewal initiatives moved all the Indians out of the village to be assimilated. Like most folks in Indian Country, we didn't have a lot. My mother went to boarding school and was a very young teenage mother. I knew early on that I had to make decisions for myself, and I set goals about who I wanted to be as a person.
While I was working my first job at the tribal Housing Authority, I thought that with my cultural camp background I would end up working for the tribal heritage foundation. When I applied for a job and didn't get it, I was devastated. Then I realized that the tribal heritage job wasn't the job that I needed. I wanted to implement culture into our daily practices, and so I began naming the roads in the community in our tribal language. When a native community member came to me and said, "We can't say that word," I replied, "Then learn it.'" The native language gives us a connection to who we are; language and culture are priorities I have kept at NCAI.
MD: Who are your mentors?
JP: My great mentor and teacher was clan leader Austin Hammond. He taught me that leadership is something that comes from hard work. He said, "A leader is a leader because they are the person that others choose to follow, not because they choose to be a leader; and a leader has to sacrifice much more than anybody else." One day while we were fishing, Hammond told me to nurture relationships and alliances with non-natives. He said, "When you run that culture camp, don't forget to let the non-native kids come, because when they learn about who you are, and when they know more about you and feel comfortable, then they will become your strongest advocates."
MD: What advice do you have for youth who might not have many resources, but do have dreams?
JP: I encourage everyone to go to school if they can, but even if you can't, if you are always seeking knowledge, then you can always find it. I am a great fan of self-help books. I did not have many resources when I was younger, so I read a lot of books and always tried to improve myself.
One of my favorite books is [Jack Canfield's] Dare to Win, which includes the advice "Get over your fears" and "Know what kind of person you want to be, and set goals to work towards that." I keep those words written on a card in my purse, and every day I look at the card and engage in a process of personal evaluation. I try to set goals with realistic timelines, because some changes cannot happen overnight.
MD: Your rise was relatively meteoric. What do you think distinguishes you from other people?
JP: I apply a result-oriented approach to any problem and always look for solutions. I feel very strongly that people should not complain about a situation unless they are offering a solution or have a [proposed] recommendation. People who whine and complain without offering a solution can cloud the issues. If you aren't prepared to suggest a solution or advocate for a proposed solution, then step off the stage!
MD: Who inspires you?
JP: I am most inspired by the next generation. My dream job is to work with youth every single day, teaching them leadership principles, helping them map out their lives, setting and revising goals, and helping them set a path. The youth leaders inspire me every day.
Maggie Dunne is President and Founder of Lakota Children’s Enrichment, Inc., a nonprofit that empowers youth on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Maggie was the 2012 Grand Prize winner of Glamour Magazine’s Top Ten College Women Contest, and in 2013 she was included in the Women in the World’s inaugural class of “Next Generation Leaders.” She tweets @mhope13.