BHSU to award honorary doctorate to former Presidential advisor during spring commencement ceremony

Author: Paige Schuurmans/Wednesday, April 27, 2016/Categories: 2016

Black Hills State University will award an honorary doctorate to Jodi Archambault-Gillette, former special assistant to President Barack Obama for Native American Affairs, during the University's 171st Commencement Ceremony Saturday, May 7 at 10 a.m. in Donald E. Young Sports and Fitness Center. Gillette will address the campus community during a public presentation Friday, May 6 at 1 p.m. in Meier Hall. Photo credit: Tracey Brown, Papercamera

Black Hills State University will award an Honorary Doctorate to Jodi Archambault-Gillette, former special assistant to President Barack Obama for Native American Affairs, during the 171st Commencement Ceremony Saturday, May 7 at 10 a.m.

In addition to her commencement address to graduates, Gillette will also present a special lecture Friday, May 6 at 1 p.m. in Clare & Josef Meier Recital Hall at BHSU. Both events are free and open to the public.

Gillette, an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, grew up in South Dakota and spent her formative years on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Reflecting on that time in her life, she said she feels lucky to have close connections to relatives and to traditions, experiences which continue to impact her work to this day.

"There is still so much richness and important thought about how to live on this earth that is hardwired into the Lakota culture," said Gillette. "That worldview is a huge asset of the Dakotas."

While living in the town of Kyle on Pine Ridge, Gillette recalls her mother, Elizabeth Nelson Archambault, taking classes and playing fast-pitch softball at BHSU. Elizabeth eventually became a kindergarten teacher but was first "a wicked softball shortstop," says Gillette.

The Black Hills continue to be a source of inspiration for Gillette and her family.

"Black Hills State is in the most beautiful part of the country, right in the Black Hills. That should be seen as a real source of strength and good energy to do great things," says Gillette.

With parents that were both educators, Gillette jokes that she had no choice to be a life-long advocate for children and families. She earned her bachelor's degree in government and Native American studies from Dartmouth College in 1991. The award of a BUSH Fellowship in 2002 paved the way for Gillette to pursue her master's degree in public administration from the University of Minnesota.

Her work with get-out-the-vote efforts for the 2008 election was noticed by the Obama Administration. After being appointed in 2009 as the first Native American to hold the position of deputy associate director of intergovernmental affairs, Gillette then served as a special assistant to President Barack Obama on Native American Affairs.

While in the White House, Gillette worked to resolve long-standing disputes between the United States and Indian nations. One such issue with national level implications and local level impact was Keepseagle versus USDA, a class-action lawsuit crediting Native American farmers and ranchers who applied for credit and faced discrimination.

"These ranchers and farmers knew something was wrong. They looked around the region and saw that they weren't getting the help their neighbors were receiving. For too long Indian tribes have brought up issues like this and have been ignored," said Gillette. "We had a lot of success turning that chapter and achieved several important milestones."

Gillette also created the White House Native American Affairs Council to increase the visibility of Native American issues at the highest level of government, coordinated with Native American communities in response to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, and worked on provisions of the Violence Against Women Act to recognize rights of tribal nations.

Gillette continues to advocate for tribal clients in her current role as a policy advisor at the law firm of Sonosky, Chambers, Sachse, Endreson & Perry, LLP. In her work both past and present, Gillette says she aims to be a collaborative leader.


"Part of being a leader is asking people how to address an issue, and then actually listening to what they're saying. If you don't listen, then those important partners won&rsquot have the buy-in and ownership needed for long-term success," said Gillette.

In June 2014, Gillette accompanied President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama on a historic visit to Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. She says the trip was just one example of how the President built bridges between the tribes and the United States.

Six young people of Standing Rock met with the President during the visit, and Gillette says the impact and influence between the youth and the President was mutually beneficial.

"The youth shared with the President about the reality and challenges they face. They opened up his mind and his heart to issue areas that wouldn't normally reach to the President, to that level of understanding," said Gillette.

The President and First Lady were bothered and disheartened to hear the youth remark about the uncertainty of their future, recalls Gillette. They resolved to do everything they could to further inspire the strength, brightness and potential they saw in the native youth.

That trip resulted in the Generation Indigenous Initiative (Gen I), a leadership support program led by Gillette that empowers youth to become leaders in their communities. A mother of three, Gillette knows the importance of removing as many barriers as possible to ensure the path to success is open to all youth.

When asked about how her family has inspired her own path, Gillette remarks that her grandmother was a shining example of generosity and sacrifice. Gillette recalls her grandmother, Francine "Fanny" Nelson, telling her the story of when she received her Indian name, a day Francine told her was one of the best of her life.

Her grandmother had dressed Francine in a penny dress along with a beautiful shawl. At the end of the naming ceremony, amongst a large gathering from her tribe, her family began "the giveaway," a Lakota tradition honoring the occasion.  Francine's grandmother gave away her treasured shawl, an action of sacrifice of something important or meaningful allowing for personal growth. Gillette says that simple act inspired a lifetime of generosity in her grandmother that has impacted her descendants to this day.

"My grandmother said ever since that day, she wouldn't attach herself to things." We should be able to give away anything, things come and go," said Gillette. "I watched her give everything away, to us, to her children, other relatives. She was honoring her people and through those actions we learned generosity."

As she prepares to speak at BHSU commencement, Gillette knows the importance education brings both to the graduates themselves, and also to their families and communities.

"Do as much as you can, as hard as you can, as long as you can. Leave it all out there," says Gillette. "Understand that life may not always be fair, but you can't take that personally. Use your energy in a good way and make it into something positive."

This is the third honorary doctorate BHSU has bestowed in recent years. Michael Shann, producer of the Closing Ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, received the honor in May 2015 and Jerome Greene, National Park Service employee and award-winning author, was awarded an honorary doctorate in December 2015.
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