Former tribal leader Karen Diver, now teaching at UMD, discusses her time with the Obama administration
What do you do after finishing a job where you helped shape federal policy and occasionally ran into the leader of the free world?
For Karen Diver, fresh off a 14-month gig as President Barack Obama's special assistant for Native American affairs, it's something completely new: teaching.
The former longtime Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa chairwoman, who championed environmental issues during her tenure and greatly improved the band's economy and infrastructure, was able to take on a last-minute vacancy in the University of Minnesota Duluth's Master of Tribal Administration and Governance program. It's a program she helped build several years ago.
"There is nobody with the experience she's got right now," said Tadd Johnson, an attorney and member of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa who directs the program at UMD. "I'm guessing the discussions are going to be on a totally different level."
Diver is teaching a course on leadership and ethics to a class of 18 students — one from as far away as California — who were "elated" to learn of their mid-year replacement instructor, Johnson said.
"Having somebody of Karen's ability and her stature in Indian Country is unmatched," said Paul Ninham, a student and former tribal council member for the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin. "I'm 59 and I feel like a little kid; the knowledge and skills and wisdom she brings is just really profound."
Diver became known to Obama during her 2013 appointment to his administration's Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience. This past year at the White House, she worked with a number of cabinet secretaries and assistant secretaries as well as the Obama administration's councils on domestic policy and Native American affairs. Her work included a lengthy report released in January on progress made in improving the relationship between the U.S. government and the country's 567 federally recognized tribes.
Her time as a federal officer moved at an unrelenting pace, and while it included long, packed days, there were some nice perks.
She was able to see the nomination of Supreme Court candidate Merrick Garland in the White House Rose Garden. She traveled to New Zealand as an official visitor for the State Department and spoke at a women's leadership event there. And she flew with First Lady Michelle Obama to a commencement ceremony at a Santa Fe, N.M., school.
She said recently that she had "unequivocally" made the right choice in leaving her chairwoman post to work for the Obama administration.
"It does feel like I got to make a difference," she said.
Now that she's home she's exploring new work, and has no immediate plans to re-enter tribal politics. She has no interest in any other political arena. For now, she's happy to be spending time with family and digging into her class.
The responsibilities of tribal governments are growing, along with their regional roles in building social capital, Diver said, and UMD's program addresses that.
"This is about developing a real cadre of leadership with people who are willing to take on programs, service delivery, elected leadership and volunteerism," she said.
The following are excerpts from a conversation with Diver about her time in Washington D.C.
Describe the pace of the job.
Every day started at 6 a.m. It was a late workforce; most started between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. but they stayed later. It was important for me to have some time in the evenings to connect with my family. (Diver's husband stayed in Minnesota and her daughter, who works on indigenous human rights issues, lives in San Francisco.) I left work between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. depending on the day. It wasn't always my choice. If I had a 10-hour day it felt like I was leaving early, and that was constant the 14 months.
What was your involvement in the Dakota Access pipeline project?
There were real gaps in infrastructure permitting in terms of how to do tribal consultation and how to apply the National Historic Preservation Act. ... There was a learning opportunity within the federal family.
What are your thoughts on protests surrounding it and how the Trump administration has handled the issue?
People need to respect that that's Standing Rock's decision. (To protest.) While it was heartening to see them build allies in so many ways to get mainstream media coverage ... and spur civic activism on their behalf, it's starting to dilute the leadership responsibilities of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and its elected leaders.
From the federal side, I consider (the current administration's stance) executive overreach. People were frustrated that President Obama didn't direct regulatory agencies. But that's not good governance. ... For an administration to weigh in so directly and tell an agency how to regulate, while industry may like it now because the perception is they are getting their way, there is an awful precedent. (If a future administration has differing environmental beliefs), will they be as supportive of executive overreach then?
What was it like working for the federal government, considering the centuries of animosity between it and Native Americans?
The building I was in — the Eisenhower Executive Office Building — was the original Department of War. The very first Department of Indian Affairs was in that building. A lot of the nefarious history of the federal government was in our building. The building is historic, and many office suites have been restored to their grandeur. When tribal leaders would come to visit me because they had an issue they wanted to talk to someone about, I always tried to make sure I booked one of those rooms and I would point out what happened in that building. Probably some of the Indian wars were worked on in those offices, and now there is somebody sitting in the White House to be their advocate. We often found the irony in that, but being native people we also had a pretty good laugh.
Was it difficult to work within that system?
No. There are still treaties to be upheld. I worked with over two dozen federal agencies that had some part of working with Indian Country or regulating Indian Country. What I found were very dedicated public servants who wanted to do the right thing. I found in many cases that a lot of them were very much enjoying a supportive presidency and the direction they were given and they were really thriving and being very entrepreneurial, and picking up some of the slack for all those years when they didn't have that level of support. Not to say every issue went easily. I still had to be an internal advocate.
What was it like working in the White House?
In the beginning you walk around with your mouth hanging open, but pretty soon you are slugging yourself into work. Every once in awhile something cool would happen that would remind you you aren't working in a normal place. I saw Marine One, the presidential helicopter, take off. (From the White House lawn.) The first time I saw the Joint Chiefs of Staff coming through, it was like, what's going on? I would watch the news to see. The first time I ran into the president in the hallway I was shocked. He nodded his head and was like, 'What's up, Karen?'
What surprised you about the experience?
That it functions so well considering it's such a huge bureaucracy. There were lots of fingers in every pie but they still managed to get a tremendous amount of work done. ... I could see why a lot of people didn't last long, because it wore you out. But just when I thought I had enough something really cool happened. Once when I was homesick and tired, the phone rang at 4 p.m. They said, 'Karen, can you be in the dip room at 7:30 a.m. tomorrow?' They said you are going with FLOTUS to the Santa Fe Indian School to watch her give their commencement speech. Then I had to run across the hall to find out what the 'dip room' was. (It's the Diplomatic Reception Room, a South Lawn receiving room, often for visiting heads of state.)
Q. What work were you involved in that you are most proud of?
A. The Indian Child Welfare Act guidelines were updated for the first time since the 1970s, and there were trainings for district court judges and social workers on what the new regulations mean.
I helped break down some of the barriers within the Executive Office of the President. Work could be held up at any number of levels. I was that internal advocate saying I am personally watching this and we're getting it done.