A new staff association hopes to help Native Americans feel at home in D.C.
“A lot of us are away from home, and so there’s a community element to it. It’s harder to feel Indian sometimes in D.C. because you’re disconnected from ceremonies, cultural events,” said Kim Moxley, co-founder of Natives on the Hill. “It’s like a ‘battling homesickness’ mechanism.”
Moxley is a policy adviser for Democrats on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.
Natives on the Hill wants to help connect Senate staffers from both sides of the aisle with similar backgrounds.
“For those of us that are far from our homes, [the staff association is] to have a sense of community and be able to convene and share our culture and heritage and just being able to relate to one another in that way,” said co-founder Catelin Aiwohi, legislative assistant for Senate Indian Affairs Democrats.
Co-founder Renée Gasper, administrative director for Democratic Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, said, “That is so ingrained in our culture, the strong sense of community.”
Gasper is part of the Isleta Pueblo community in New Mexico, Aiwohi is a Native Hawaiian from Maui, and Moxley is part of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, the same tribe that Rep. Markwayne Mullin belongs to. Mullin and fellow Oklahoma Republican Rep. Tom Cole are the only two sitting Native American members of Congress.
“Finally having that community come together, it’s just exciting … every time we get a new person who says they want to be added to the list,” said Gasper, who first thought of starting the association two years ago.
Late this April, the three staffers had their first brainstorming and organizational meeting. The group now has about 30 people on its mailing list.
“One of the things that Indian country is constantly dealing with is educating others outside of Indian country about what does a 21st century Indian look like,” Moxley said. “That’s another key thing that we do a lot — educating people about Indian country, on a professional level, on a policy level. It’s helpful to sort of humanize everything.”
The three women had a working lunch last week with House and other Senate staffers to look at their association’s structure and bylaws.
They shared a survey with interested members to gauge what they would like to see from the group. Respondents said they want more cultural engagement, which includes anything from going to local powwows, visiting the National Museum of the American Indian and hosting potlucks.
“The way that we want to structure the staff association is to be very inclusive … [by] providing other congressional staff that are interested in Native issues an opportunity to learn about them,” Aiwohi said.
“We recognize that there are non-Natives who work on these issues and want them to be able to have the community with them too and outreach to them,” Gasper said.
Next month, the leaders will kick off a speaker series for the group to talk about different issues that impact Native Americans with leaders of tribal communities and in Congress.
“It’s particularly important for D.C. because, aside from making everybody aware that Indians still exist, almost all Indian policy is a federal policy,” Moxley said.
Aiwohi added, “In D.C., there’s a lot of antiquated images and stereotypes of Native peoples so one of our goals is to be that representation here and combat those narratives and those stereotypes that you see in logos and imagery.”