In 1961, during his inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy delivered the memorable line in which he emphasized, “Ask not what your country can do for you- ask what you can do for your country.” While he meant to apply this statement to the United States and the world at large, I feel that it also applies to Indian Country and my personal philosophy of “Think Indian.”
For me, to “Think Indian” is to work in the family business of working for Natives everywhere.
My paternal grandfather worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs as a member of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, serving not only his own tribe but also all tribes in the United States. My maternal grandfather was a tribal council member for the Jicarilla Apache Nation for many years, served as the tribal president and vice president, and was on the founding Board of Regents for the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute. My parents both worked for the Indian Health Service and my father retired as a captain in the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps after 20 years of service. He worked for the White Mountain Apache and the Isleta Pueblo, and still occasionally works for the clinic at the pueblo. My family provided such a strong influence in my life that I knew working for all of Native America is how I can make a difference.
I am currently a student in the masters of public administration program at Arizona State University. While it is interesting to learn about the necessary applications of bureaucracy, vertical intergovernmental relations, and the continual resonance of federalism, I find myself wondering how the American Indian thought process fits into this. To put it more simply, how does learning about government help me to “Think Indian”?
In addition to public affairs classes, I am simultaneously taking a Contemporary Issues in Native Nations class to give perspective to my degree plan. We learn about the contemporary struggle of Natives everywhere and how the problems are being met head on. I see Natives working to progress their people in all levels of government and all branches of government, from the local Arizona legislature to Native legal scholars working to demand that a new precedent be put forward in the Supreme Court of the United States for federal Indian policy. The takeaway from this class is that the fight is ongoing and best way to go about working for Native rights is to know the system in order to find how it can work for Native America. Once I finish my degree, I am hoping to apply what I have learned from my Contemporary Issues class, synthesize it with my public administration education, and apply it toward working for Indian Country.
Overall, to “Think Indian” to me is not to just think Diné, Apache, or Lakota, but to think for all Native nations. I want to work for all American Indians to ensure that we all progress together. I am not looking to ask what Indian Country can do for me, but rather, to ask what I can do for it.
Cole is a first-year master of public administration student at the School of Public Affairs at Arizona State University.