Building Native Nations

A Harvard Kennedy School course tackles governance in sovereign Indian territories.

Joseph Kalt
Joseph KaltPhotograph courtesy of Harvard Kennedy School

Ethel Branch ’01, M.P.P. - J.D. ’08 grew up in Navajo Nation. As a child, she says, she had a “pivotal” moment while walking to the outhouse on a hot summer morning: “I was like, damn, I would really like a cold bowl of cereal. And I can’t have it, because I live on the reservation.” As she walked, she could make out Winslow, Arizona, the nearest city. “Those kids that I can see from here—they’re 20 miles away—they all have access to electricity and cold milk,” she thought to herself. “They have a bathroom where they can flush the toilet…. They have air conditioning. Why is my life so different?”

An acceptance to Harvard was her “way out”—but Branch continued to think about home. In an undergraduate American history class, she learned about how the law was weaponized to systematically dispossess tribes in the U.S.’s period of Western expansion, and began to answer that childhood question about why her life was “different.” She decided she wanted to help her people secure access to capital and wealth—and that’s when she found a course on nation-building offered jointly by the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) and Graduate School of Education.

“Native Americans in the 21st Century: Nation Building I” focuses on “the challenges that contemporary Native American tribes and nations face as they endeavor to rebuild their communities, strengthen their cultures, and support their citizens.” The five-day wintersession course presents a slate of guest speakers to discuss best practices and experiences concerning “political sovereignty, economic development, constitutional reform, cultural promotion, land and water rights, religious freedom, health and social welfare, and education.” The course assigns students two briefs that center on contemporary issues—to prepare them for class simulations—as well as a final paper in which they must relate the course’s “themes and structures” to their own area of academic or professional interest.

Having struggled with academics at the College, Branch finally felt like an “expert” in the classroom. “I was in this foreign environment and on this trajectory to get as far away from home as possible,” she said. “[The course] reinforced to me that these things mattered…. It was worth dedicating my life to tackling these challenges. It reminded me of how much I love my community and my people,” says Branch, who went on to serve as the attorney general for Navajo Nation, and recently raised $18 million for a Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund. 

Creating the Next Generation of Tribal Leaders

Ford Foundation professor of international political economy emeritus Joseph Kalt, who has led Nation Building I for more than two decades, said the course originated in the late 1990s as a push “to make the Harvard University Native American program more than a very fine student-support organization [and] to bring it into the mainstream of the University’s main outputs, which are research and teaching and outreach.”

“To get involved in American Indian affairs often is seen in the educational arena as advocacy,” Kalt said. “We like to remind people that the United States Constitution recognizes the American Indian nations as sovereigns, and there are 574 federally recognized tribal governments in the United States. As school kids, we all get taught there are 50 states and so forth. Well, there are actually 50 states and 574 Indian tribes, and they have powers that are very similar to each other, with their own courts and police and taxation and regulations and everything else.”

“If I were to… teach a course… to provide information and knowledge to assist developing countries around the world, to better their communities, no one would find that to be advocacy,” he continued. “But if you do it around American Indian affairs, somehow, it’s seen as advocacy of some sort. That very perception sort of illustrates the problem.” 

Kalt said Nation Building I typically draws a large contingent of Native students from across the University—including those indigenous to Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Tess Kelly M.P.A. ’23, though not herself Indigenous, took the course this past January because of her work with an Aboriginal-community-controlled health service in Australia. “I have a particular interest in supporting First Nations and Native people in achieving self-determination,” she said, explaining that she focuses on the intersection of health inequities and the overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in the prison system. Her participation in the course was “quite timely,” she added, because “there’s national discussions in Australia about constitutional reform and the creation of the First Nations voice to Parliament.”

“In places like Australia, New Zealand, Canada, most particularly—but parts of Latin America, Africa—we are seeing Indigenous communities get on this strategy of nation-building, as a route toward changing things in their communities,” Kalt said. “You’re seeing more and more Indigenous communities looking to the examples in the United States: ‘Oh, that’s interesting. That’s how you set up your own juvenile-justice program…your own schools… your own housing programs. That’s how you run your own police department.”

Kalt said that Indigenous students who pass through Nation Building I go on to careers that have “tremendous impact.” “It’s just astounding. We’ve had students who’ve gone on to become members of parliament in New Zealand, ambassadors for Canada, tribal chairs and other chief executives within the United States. The major Native organizations in the U.S. typically have students who’ve come out of this course at the very highest levels.”

Karen Diver, M.P.A. ’03—currently the senior adviser to the president of the University of Minnesota for Native American Affairs—is one such alumna. She came to the class as a teen mom and first-generation college graduate, and only a few years was elected as the chair of her tribe, the Fond Du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. “I was tribal chair for just under nine years, and then I get a call from the White House: do I want to work for President Obama and be his adviser?” She said yes.

Larry Estrada, M.P.A.-M.B.A. ’10, who is Mexican American with lineage to a southwest Native American tribe, didn’t necessarily think his experience in the course would prove relevant when he started doing private wealth management at Goldman Sachs. But when a fellow Kennedy School graduate told him, ‘I think my tribe actually could use your help,” Estrada began providing financial advice, education, and investment management expertise to Indian Country.

“As I was talking to Professor Kalt, and I was reflecting on the Nation Building course, I saw this as really more of the start of a bigger relationship—something that could transcend just the investment portfolio—and then move into economic development,” he continued. “And so that’s where we’re headed now.” 

“I’ve been able to turn to the rest of our client base and network. And deals have been struck on reservations with Amazon and other significant companies,” he said. “Sometimes in your academic career, you take a course that you think, ‘Hey, intellectually, it’ll be interesting, there’s maybe some affinity and connection’…. You never think that down the road it will actually influence what you’re doing on a daily basis.”

Carrie Garrow, M.P.P. ’00, chief judge of St. Regis Mohawk tribal court in upstate New York, similarly said that the course—to which she returned this year as a guest speaker—was “one of the building blocks” of her career in the law.

Meanwhile, alumnus Robin McLay, M.P.A. ’99, director general for Fulbright Canada West and co-director of Honoring Nations Canada, said he recruited a number of fellow Indigenous Canadians to Harvard’s Native American program, and that the Nation Building course had a “profound impact” on their careers. One of these students went on to become vice president of TD Bank’s Indigenous partnerships, he noted.

“It’s pretty remarkable how well they did. And what’s even more remarkable, in some ways, is the impact that it’s had on their communities,” McLay, who is Metis, said. “It actually sent a message that education at institutions like Harvard is possible.”

Jackson Brossy, M.P.P. ’10, a member of Navajo Nation and the assistant administrator for the Office of Native American Affairs at the U.S. Small Business Administration, said Kalt’s nation-building course—and the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, an applied research and service program from which it draws much of its content—was “the reason [he] decided to come to Harvard.” 

“I’m happy with the foresight has Harvard has shown in creating this—there wasn’t anything like it when it was created,” he said. “Moving forward, I hope that the administration continues to support it…so that it’s something where hopefully there’s intergenerational knowledge that’s transferred.”

Kalt said that understanding the intersection of culture and authority in Native nations—and exploring attendant questions like “Who gets to have power? What’s a legitimate use of authority?”—“resonates very deeply with students across the board.” How these issues “map into the real-world institutions and decisions that you have to make as a schoolteacher, that you have to make as a political leader, that you have to make as a business leader—I think that resonates with the students,” he explained. “You see the students then asking themselves, do the structures that I will be working in fit the cultural norms of power and authority that I’ll need to tap into, to be able to legitimately launch a new public health program or reform a hospital system or whatever it might be?”

Confronting the Realities of Sovereignty

Nation Building I also has a “reputation” among students from developing countries across the globe, Kalt said. These students—from former Soviet Union Republics, for example—are interested in how to rebuild after decades of “political disarray” and “economic deprivation.” There’s also “the military contingent,” he added—a cohort “struggling with these issues of how do you help a country rather than hurt it.”

And then the course draws a number of students of color, who seek to understand how, exactly—despite centuries of oppression and disenfranchisement—Native communities are “bootstrapping themselves through their own efforts back to places of strength.”

The context for Native Americans is importantly different, of course, Kalt emphasized: unlike other ethnic groups in the United States, the law grants Indian tribes “powers of self-government over specific geographic territories.”

Graduate School of Design student Kendall Nicholson, who is black, came to the class with an interest in understanding the “confluence of architecture, race, and education” and in “creating new theories for architectural practice and architectural education that centers people—and more specifically understands race, racism, and general disenfranchisement.” Nicholson said it took time to grapple with this key contextual difference between Native Americans and other marginalized groups. “What was the most surprising was that [the class] was not as race-focused as I would have thought. “It was more about what it means to be sovereign,” he said. “It didn’t take me long to understand that Native peoples are different from other racial groups, because of that sovereignty. But…it took me the full five days to really understand how to situate that difference in a larger context.”

The singularity of the Native American experience came into relief when some students expressed ambivalence that bolstering police forces features so prominently in strategies of establishing sovereignty. Students “who have been really influenced by the events of the last few years and may be part of efforts to defund the police or to channel resources from police departments to other kinds of social services” may be “surprised in some cases that tribes really need and want more public-safety infrastructure,” said UCLA law professor and Nation Building I co-instructor Angela Riley, J.D. ’98, who is also director of the Native Nations Law & Policy Center and chief justice of the supreme court of the Potawatomi Nation.  

Like other people of color, American Indians are disproportionately incarcerated in federal, state, and local U.S. jails, according to U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. But “there’s another dimension that doesn’t necessarily overlap with the question of race, which is the question of political identity, citizenship and sovereignty,” said Riley, herself an alumna of Nation Building I. A tribe’s ability to exercise criminal jurisdiction, enforce its laws, and protect its citizens is a key part of political sovereignty—and yet “public safety on some reservations is just nonexistent.” 

“There are some reservations where people don’t feel safe—Native women in particular,” she continued. “Helping people outside of Indian Country understand the issues [within] without seeming like you’re reifying or replicating the really destructive criminal-justice system of the United States that has wrongfully incarcerated and disempowered so many people of color is a really delicate conversation.”

Kennedy School student Vic Hogg M.P.P. ’23, a member of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi in southwest Michigan, acknowledged it was “tricky” to reckon with the role of police. Still, Hogg said, “I think it makes a lot of sense that tribes want to be able to exercise their own police forces so that they can protect their citizens.”

“As we stress in the course, the tribal nations in the U.S. and beyond are incredibly diverse. And it is just flat factually wrong to pigeonhole everybody into some particular ways of life [or] political views,” Kalt said. “You heard in class that the tribal leaders were very much about building capable police forces. Everybody wants, you know, the speeding drivers to slow down.” 

Another point of tension for some students was capitalism’s pivotal role in nation-building. Graduate School of Education student Nolan Altvater E.D.M ’23, a Passamaquoddy citizen from Maine, said his “anti-capitalist” stance was a source of “struggle” during the course.

“We try to emphasize in the class that when you have hundreds and hundreds of tribes, you have a huge range of belief systems and responses to questions like what is the role of government and how much of a free market should you have?” Riley said. “What I find exciting, is when tribes…want to engage in capitalism, they are finding ways to…selectively engage.”

“We heard, for example, from Chairman Greg Sarris, from the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria,” she continued. “They have a very successful gaming enterprise, but they also are maintaining essentially the highest labor standards in the region with the highest pay and the best benefits.” Kalt added that tribes may engage externally with capitalism—“What else are they going to do but try to sell you and me some commodities so that they can gather the resources to rebuild a house?”—but often adopt a “collective approach” towards solving problems internally. “You see tribes taking those resources and plowing them back into the community,” he said.

Joel Chastain M.P.A. ’22, who is a member of Chickasaw Nation in south central Oklahoma, said he benefited from hearing guest speakers discuss how they generated and diversified commerce within their communities. Tribal leaders “have to find some way to pay for vital social services that are going to tribal citizens,” he said, and it was “inspiring” to learn from them about projects like running a bank, buying a train, or operating a grocery retail chain.

Altvater acknowledged that there are some benefits to capitalism after the course concluded but argued that any participation in the system reinforces colonialist structures: “I don’t see [capitalist systems] being sustainable for mankind,” he continued. He also raised issues with the way the course treated the role of education in nation-building, expressing worries that the purpose of schooling wasn’t being sufficiently reimagined. “It just wasn’t taught in a critical perspective. And again, that wasn’t the purpose of the class, by any means. It wasn’t a critical methods class or philosophy class,” he said. “It was a good course, very informative. I just think we also need to have these critical talks.”

Hogg said the course may have given a “rosier” picture of Native nations than reality might warrant: “That doesn’t mean that the professors did anything wrong. What that means is that Harvard needs to have more classes on this stuff. We need more opportunities for this community to get together and really process.” 

Hogg and Chastain formed a Native Caucus at the Kennedy School last semester in service of creating those opportunities. They had their kickoff meeting this spring, and many of the fifteen attendees were from Nation Building I. “It was just so much fun to be with other people who are just as passionate about this stuff as I am,” Hogg said. “I have been waiting for that community since I got to Harvard—and kind of my whole life.”

Harvard Opportunities in Native Issues Education

This spring, Hogg, Chastain, and Altvater are all taking Nation Building II, a semester-long, hands-on, full-credit companion course in which groups of students are charged with “designing and completing a research project for a tribe, tribal department, or those active in Indian Country,” with an emphasis on “problem definition” and “client relationships.” 

Eric Henson, M.P.P. ’98, a citizen of Chickasaw Nation and a Nation Building I alumnus, is in his third year of teaching Nation Building II. He said his students this semester are thinking about how to expand the Navajo Code Talkers Museum; helping establish a pan-tribal Housing and Economic Development Authority for Chippewa tribes in Wisconsin; and working with Branch’s Navajo & Hopi families COVID-19 Relief Fund—among many other projects.

This spring, Henson is also co-teaching a class on land loss, reclamation, and stewardship in contemporary Native America at the Graduate School of Design.

Henson said he’s “encouraged” by Harvard’s increasing attention to Native Americans, and “smaller communities in general.” “The charter of the University in 1650 talks about how the school’s purpose is for the education of the English and Indian youth,” he said. “It seems to me that the University is finally kind of starting to embrace that part of its own mission statement.”

Still, Riley said Harvard could stand to offer even more opportunities for its students to engage with Native issues. She pointed to the fact that the Oneida Indian Nation endowed a chair in American Indian law at Harvard two decades ago, but the University has yet to fill the chair with a permanent faculty appointment, (although, as initially planned, a number of “outstanding” visiting scholars have taught in the role). “I feel like there is just unlimited potential for Harvard as an institution, at the Kennedy School but even far beyond that—including at the Law School—to really be a leader in many ways in this space,” she said. “Virtually every Native person I know who went to the Law School is working in some field to basically advance Indigenous rights. They might be in private practice. They might be working for the United Nations. They might be a professor. But whatever it is that they’re doing, there’s just such a commitment to giving back.”

“[Nation Building I] connect[ed] me to some really phenomenal classmates who were Native American and are doing just incredible, transformative work for Indian tribes,” Branch said. “We stay in touch, and I see what they’re doing, and they are role models to me. And I strive to rise to their level of efficacy.

Altvater pointed to a need for more Native-oriented coursework in the School of Education: “Education policy is very infamous for the genocide and assimilation of Indigenous youth and Indigenous people,” he said. “And it has not been talked about whatsoever.” He said he collaborated with his educational policy professor to offer an optional session on Indigenous education, policy, and history, and now hopes to work on instituting a compulsory class on the subject.  

Hogg, meanwhile, thinks that coursework on tribal governments should be mandated in the Kennedy School’s master of public policy program. “There are four different types of governments in the U.S.: federal, city, state, and tribal. And we’ve learned virtually nothing,” Hogg adds, “about tribal governments in any of my classes that are required for the M.P.P. program. I think that that’s just mind-blowing.”

Hogg noted that tribes are implementing progressive policies like universal basic income and housing for elders, “And we’re just not talking about that stuff in any of my classes, which I think is a really huge loss for students at Harvard.”

 “It’d be great if the Harvard administration would encourage or provide some sort of incentive for folks who graduate with a Harvard degree to learn more about Native American communities,” Jackson Brossy adds. “Unless you go out of your way to take a course like this or go live with Native people…you’re not going to have that opportunity to learn as much about the Native American experience.”


Read more articles by: Juliet Isselbacher

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