Prior to her current roles, she served as a consultant for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and for the Tribal Leaders Project at Portland State University’s Hatfield School of Government. Gay’s previous roles include co-founder of Kingman-Wapato & Associates, associate at the International Institute for Indigenous Resource Management, director of public relations and director of the Seminar Institute at the National Indian Gaming Association, and executive director of the National Congress of American Indians. She spent 25 years in the education field as a teacher and administrator, and was elected as president of the National Indian Education Association. During her time as an EPFP Fellow in Washington, DC, Gay was on the transition team that created the U.S. Department of Education under President Carter. She currently serves on the board of directors for the Institute for Tribal Government at Portland State University’s Hatfield School of Government.
Education in the GPTCA
The GPTCA addresses everything from health care to law enforcement to education for the member tribes. On the education front, we’re working on legislation with the Bureau of Indian Education, which manages tribal schools on reservations, where a majority of Indian students are enrolled in public school. We’ve taken official action that tribes will be in charge of their own schools and will determine their own accreditation and teacher education processes. Historically, the education system has not been the best for Indian students, so tribes are moving toward developing their own standards and practices for educating their students.
Tribal Government Leadership
In the Great Plains, our tribes have huge areas of land; in some cases, they’re bigger than Rhode Island or Connecticut. Tribal governments are full-service operations with their own health care, transportation, and education systems, and leadership is very important in all of those areas. Leadership styles may differ between tribes—some are small, some are big, and they all have their own unique needs and strengths—but leadership is critical to all of them. Tribal governments depend on strong leaders in order to run effectively, and government officials need to trust each other and work together in order to manage all of their systems.
In an effort to show the importance of leadership in tribal governments, I worked with the Institute for Tribal Government at Portland State University to develop a course in leadership with an emphasis on tribal leaders. Students viewed videos of tribal leaders talking about their experiences and then were able to pull out the leadership qualities that the tribal leaders exemplified. We wanted to show students how tribal governments worked and what was important to tribal leaders.
Cross-boundary leadership is a big part of my role as executive director of GPTCA. We’re made up of 16 member tribes of different sizes, and part of my responsibilities is to bring them together and work with the tribal leaders on policies and legislation that are important to the member tribes. It involves working across different sectors that interact with each other, either directly or indirectly, to get the solutions that we need.
For example, my reservation is 180 miles long and many of our roads are poor, especially in inclement weather. This transportation issue affects many other sectors, including education, as school buses need to travel on our roads to get students to and from school. Leaders from both transportation and education have to work together in order to determine the best policy changes to improve our roads to make them safe and to allow our students to get to school throughout the year.
Leading across boundaries comes with its own set of challenges as well. A big part of my work involves working with members of Congress and other policymakers to share with them our perspective and encourage them to pass legislation that affects our tribes. It can sometimes be challenging to inform them about what life is like for us on reservations, or to educate them about common Native American stereotypes and help them to see beyond those. But working together to improve policies that impact our tribes is critical and I continue to create and build those relationships with leaders in Washington, DC.
Leadership Lessons Learned
One major thing that I gained from my participation in EPFP that it opened up a whole new world to me in Washington. I was able to better understand how the government worked and build paths that led to the Administration and Congress and the judiciary branch. Now that I’m in South Dakota, I know who to call and where to go to get assistance or create policy. It helped me understand the importance of a network and how all of the people and parts fit together.
Another leadership lesson I’ve learned is that you don’t always have to take what is first presented to you. If something doesn’t feel quite right, or you think it can be better, it’s worth it to speak up and make changes where they are necessary.
In addition to providing me with a better understanding of how the federal government worked, EPFP gave me the knowledge and foundation to interact with others in a policy setting. My career has changed drastically in many ways over the years—I spent 25 years in education before becoming a leader in Native American policy—and throughout all of it, I was able to build upon what I learned in EPFP to inform my work.