Being the Only American Indian in the Room

March 13, 2018
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In 1991, when I decided to move to Washington, DC with my future wife, I left the safe confines of my Tribal Community of southeastern North Carolina. It was my first experience with people who do not look like me, talk like me, act like me or think like me. When it came to finding other people in my in-group in the nation’s Capital, it was slim pickings since few Native People live in the Washington, DC area.

Even though I had moved out of Indian Country, it did not take long to find people with Indigenous blood in their veins. I discovered American Indian public servants at other federal agencies as well as pockets of Native activism outside of work.

Despite these connections, the one place I never felt any connection with my personal identity was the federal agency I was working in. Most of the time I was the only American Indian on my team, staff or business unit.

Here are some of the painful lessons I have learned over my federal government career regarding being the only American Indian in the room.

Pressure to Represent

I am frequently asked to speak for American Indians at various events, in an advisory capacity or as a technical consultant. While this type of attention can be flattering, it is disconcerting that if I make a mistake in this role that it may impact the future of others like me.

Oftentimes, I am expected to know every little fact and history tidbit on each square inch of Indian country that is the equivalent to the size of the New England states. Sorry, but I do not know in detail the culture and history of the 573 federally recognized tribes in the country. It has taken me a lifetime just to master my own Tribal identity.

While my supervisors know where to find me in the room when it comes to American Indian consultancy, they were nowhere to be found when I raise American Indian social identity concerns to them.

Don’t Depend on Assistance from Other People of Color In the Room

Natural allies from another subordinate group are in scarce supply. You think this would be exactly the opposite. That other underrepresented groups in the workplace would understand that the American Indian problem is everyone’s problem. These disengaged groups are slow to work on the challenges of other marginalized employees since they fear their very limited pool of resources and energy will be diluted if other voices are added to the mix.



I do not relish the benefits of privilege enjoyed by employees in dominate groups in the room due to my membership in a subordinate group. This lack of privilege is on display when I seek information or feedback on American Indian issues and in turn, get labeled as needy or incompetent. On occasions when I make a complaint or seek justice about American Indian issues, my group membership is often called into question.

What people who dominate the room say to the one American Indian in the room is we are not going to give up our power and privilege to make you feel like part of the room. For to relinquish this power, we would have to admit that we are ready to recognize and embrace you.

One way they wield this power while they are still in the majority is to rally their fellow like-minded people to join the effort to put down this one person rebellion as they coalesce around their shared power. This is easy to do since most of their members come from places of privilege and power in the first place. We must put these upstarts in their place they grumble. They can sit at that table but they can just coexist.

Sometimes when they are desperate they will defend their privilege from a nuclear arsenal of other sources such as the media, history, religion, education and government. These are easy repositories of resources for them since they have exclusive access to these institutions any way.

Walking in Two Worlds

The biggest challenge is negotiating two distinct cultures while being in the room. Federal government workplace culture is heavily dependent on individual achievement and competition. I was raised in a Native culture with emphasis on group success and cooperation. Individual progress was measured on how well the group fared. One person’s good fortune should cause everyone’s boats to rise. No one was left behind because the group’s welfare was based on cumulative personal achievement. If a Tribal member is hurting, then the entire Tribe is hurting.

This is not the case in the room. It is everyone for themselves.

Negative Micro-Messages

As an American Indian federal government employee, I have received my fair share of negative messages while in the room.

  • When I see you, I don’t view you as an American Indian. Message- your racial experience is not valid here because I am colorblind to your existence.
  • You are so articulate for an American Indian. Message- it is unusual for someone like you to be intelligent so I am basing your intelligence level on the rest of your racial group.
  • You do not look like an American Indian. Prove it. Message-we will define who you are in this room.
  • If you work hard, you can succeed like everyone else. Message- If you don’t succeed, you have only yourself to blame. I must work twice as hard as anybody else in the room.

Being the only one of something in the room leads to racial fatigue syndrome. A term coined by Dr. William Smith from the University of Utah, it refers to the cumulative effect of micro-aggressions, implicit humiliations, subtle slights imposed upon the only person of something in the room by the dominate group.

I often dream as to what it would feel like if American Indians controlled the room. Then it dawned on me that we were the architects of the original room. When we welcomed a group of strangers with the right hand of friendship to our country only to have to learn the skills of coexistence from them as we struggle to stay in the very room that we created.
Being the Only American Indian in the Room
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