I started this blog post to describe my career experiences working for Native Nations in Indian Country. Indian Country is a term used to describe any area with land holdings, headquarters, and/or communities of Native American presence. While I was writing, I realized it was important to establish my background as a lead up to my career experience. So, with this post, I want to tell you about my background and educational journey that has led me to the career I enjoy today. I have the privilege of working with Native Nations on building and infrastructure projects, but a lot had to happen to make that possible.
I grew up within the boundaries of Cherokee Nation’s jurisdiction in northeastern Oklahoma and most of my family and friends were of Cherokee and/or European heritage. I grew up with my parents, an older brother and a twin brother. My immediate family still lives in Claremore, Oklahoma, and we have extended family in Tulsa and Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Until going off to college, I had not spent a lot of time with families from other Native Nations. My time at the University of Oklahoma (OU) gave me time and opportunities to get to know students with diverse tribal backgrounds. Before getting to OU though, I spent my freshman year of college at Abilene Christian University (ACU) in Abilene, Texas which is three hours west of Dallas. I began my interior design education there and received a great foundation for earning my bachelors degree. I was homesick and felt as if I was the only Native person in west Texas. Abilene is not a significantly diverse place but would historically have been home to the Caddo, Comanche, Kiowa and other southern tribes who controlled large areas of land and major trade routes.
Interacting with People who Are Different than Me
I have extended family in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, so I was not far from my support system. Even so, I deeply missed the hometown community feeling I had in Claremore, the humor that my family brings out in every situation, and people who understood my background. I was asked once in Abilene if I rode a horse to school after telling a fellow student about my Cherokee heritage. Don’t get me wrong, ACU is a wonderful university with great professors. I enjoyed my time there and learned a lot of foundational design skills that still serve me today. Their interior design program is rated highly among other accredited college design programs. I made some wonderful friends and hardly skipped class, since I enjoyed them so much. The student cafeteria was extremely nice and always had healthy options that helped me keep off the freshman 15. They even had Texas-shaped waffle makers and a live piano player at lunch time.
Being a part of this new college campus and the community it created allowed me to meet people from all over the country. I was enrolled in a variety of classes my freshman year but still kept my focus on design. This first year of college helped me internalize the concept that the world is much bigger than I am, and there is so much to learn from others. I really enjoyed walking to class and hearing different languages being spoken by students which is something not everyone gets to experience. Those passing experiences would remind me that there are billions of different versions of the same day happening in that moment. If I was feeling homesick or stressed, it helped me to remember that my little world is important, but there are also countless other lives and experiences happening around me. It is refreshing and rejuvenating to listen to and talk with people with different backgrounds than me. I think that all people have something to offer as well as something to learn from others. If we were all more interested in and accepting of different perspectives, I think the world would be a better place.
Finding My Place
After my freshman year, I made the choice to transfer to OU. I quickly got involved in student life and design classes to help create a smoother transition onto a new college campus in a new community. I remember being really excited to find out that the Office of American Indian Student Life was active and existed to serve the Native student population at OU. There was also a large American Indian Student Association as well as a Native American fraternity and sorority. I worked to get involved, make friends, and be a valuable member of these organizations. We had a lot of fun, and I was able to serve in some leadership roles throughout my three years at OU. It took me about a semester to know that I had found my place, and I wanted to stay at OU and finish my degree there.
I have generally been a reserved, quiet person. I was pretty shy in high school, but slowly gained confidence and spoke up more by the time I graduated. Categorizing myself as a “quiet” person was a crutch I sometimes used to avoid new, challenging, or uncomfortable social situations. I had to learn to retell my story. I can still be a quiet person, but that doesn’t have to be the end of the story. I also love making new friends and building new relationships. It is fun to get to know a person and find out ideas and interests you share. This retelling of my story has helped me pursue professional relationships that have helped me advance my career. I am less timid about starting conversations and can focus more on the benefits that come from building a strong professional network.
I continue to work on improving my interpersonal skills, and I am grateful for the progress I have made so far. The relationships I’ve had until now have helped me go after new opportunities, learn about myself and others, and choose a direction for my career.
Throughout my years of college, I worked multiple jobs and was working on deciding what I wanted to do with my career. I have always wanted to do work that benefits Native Nations. I feel as if it is my responsibility to give back to the community that raised me by using my skills and education. I also knew I was passionate about interior design, the built environment, and sustainability. So, I earned my bachelors of science in Sustainable Design with a minor in Native American Studies. Now what?
I was able to secure my first job out of college with an architecture firm that focused on doing projects for tribal communities. Perfect, right? I was so excited to have found this opportunity, and it would not have been possible without the support system and relationships I had. I gained experience, knowledge, and responsibility at this firm for the next four years. Our team worked on projects like new food distribution centers, medical staff housing, healthcare facilities, and several renovation projects. Our clients included the Crow Nation, Blackfeet Nation, Osage Nation, Pawnee Nation, Delaware Nation, and many others. The interior design work I did incorporated tribal values and cultural elements whenever possible. We also worked on climate adaptation plans that encompassed tribal infrastructure, emergency management, and cultural resiliency.
I hope to continue this work with Seam. With five years of industry experience under my belt, I understand more deeply the need for sustainable practices in the building industry. The lack of sustainability does and will continue to lower the quality, longevity, and health of buildings. So, Seam exists to promote sustainable building practices on building projects.
Recognizing What I Have
Growing up, my brothers and I never had to worry about going hungry or not having support from our immediate and extended family. We were never wealthy, but we had a wonderful, loving family that did their best to take care of each other. Because I was young and always had everything I needed and more, I did not yet have a good grasp of how much it cost to support a household. Even during college, I got scholarships, and worked and paid for my expenses, but I did not yet know the extent to which countless people had sacrificed for me to be there. My parents and grandparents had saved college funds for my brothers and I for longer than we had been alive. Thanks to their sacrifices, I never had to wonder whether or not I could pursue a college degree. It was always an option for me if I wanted it. I still have student debt, but the amount has been mitigated by my loved ones contributing to my education. I owe significantly less than a lot of young professionals my age.
In addition, there are many intangible ways that others have contributed to me becoming a better person overall. Teachers, friends, and colleagues have communicated their trust and respect in me which has helped build my confidence. These individuals’ support has also encouraged me to say “yes” to opportunities that come my way.
All that to say, my childhood and adulthood experiences up to this point give me perspective on all of the many blessings I have received and continue to receive. I am able to recognize the many small and big ways that I am taken care of. Since fully recognizing the many ways others have contributed to my life, I can now recognize ways to pay it forward. I look forward to the day when I can contribute to my young nieces, nephews, and cousin’s education. I do my best to connect colleagues with people and resources I think will help them. I try to keep a positive attitude and make people feel important and respected, because I know how important it has been to me to be on the receiving end of that respect.