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Serving Indian Country by Creating Opportunities

In 2008, Colors of Influence profiled the work of Elizabeth Asahi Sato in helping nonprofits and businesses develop to their full potential through her consulting firm “Rise to Excellence.”

About three years ago, Elizabeth decided to implement systems change in Indian Country as Human Resources Director for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. In this Q&A, Elizabeth shares the joys and challenges of her current journey in serving the Tribes with utmost humility and self-awareness.

What is your primary charge as Director of Human Resources at Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs?

My duties are to oversee all Human Resources activities including personnel, compensations and benefits, Workforce Investment Opportunities, and Higher Education in collaboration with all government departments and a dozen Tribal Enterprises.

In this role, it is important to me to lead continuous improvement of human resources functions, tribal employment activities and ensure best practices in service to 800 tribal government employees, 650 tribal enterprise employees, and 5,500 local community members and dozens of nearby stakeholders. I work with 14 General Managers and Directors who manage 53 departments and I report directly to the Secretary-Treasurer/CEO who answers to the Tribal Council.

Working in Indian Country, what are some of the most edifying aspects of the job?

In 2014, I was humbled by the blessing of being nominated and elected to the National Native American Human Resources professionals Board of Directors. These HR Directors represent the 562 remaining federally-recognized tribes in the U.S. of A. I also engage with Tribal HR Directors throughout the Pacific Northwest and I am continually in awe of the level of commitment, compassion and profound leadership capability of my brothers and sisters throughout Indian Country.

I have had the honor of meeting some of the greatest leaders of our time who do not even realize just how exceptional they are simply because the mission of service is so much more important than the personal recognition for the work. The work is very daunting and yet the dedication of these leaders is awe-inspiring.

Elizabeth, third from left, top row, at a training for new staff with Milliman Inc. 

What do you most challenging?

The most challenging aspect that my HR colleagues and I discuss is how economical, educational and workforce barriers prevent tribal members from recognizing their own gifts and the impact hopelessness devours any sense of motivation to move toward individual and collective opportunities. These opportunities are what the general population takes for granted. Indian Country Demographics from NCAI (National Congress of American Indians) help illustrate why there is such despair. I see it every day, I live it and the despair impacts even me, a woman who is very positive and hopeful.

  • Indian youth have the highest rate of suicide among all ethnic groups in the US and is the second-leading cause of death for Native youth aged 15-24.
  • About 32 percent of Natives are under the age of 18, compared to only 24% of the total population who are under the age of 18. The median age for American Indians and Alaska Natives on reservations is 26, compared to 37 for the entire nation.
  • Native people die at higher rates than other Americans from 600% higher tuberculosis: 510% higher alcoholism, 189% higher diabetes, 229% higher vehicle crashes 152% higher Injuries, 62% higher suicide rates which are beyond daunting to overcome.
  • The rate of aggravated assault among American Indians and Alaska Natives is roughly twice that of the country as a whole (600.2 per 100,000 versus 323.6 per 100,000).
  • 1 out of 10 American Indians (12 and older) become victims of violent crime annually.
  • Only five percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives have received graduate or professional degrees, compared to 10 percent for the total population, and only nine percent of American Indians have earned bachelor’s degrees compared to 19 percent for the US population.

What successes are you most proud of?

I am most honored to have personally transformed by greater awareness and genuine engagement. When I first arrived at the Rez, I thought Creator called me to help transform everything—yup, everything. I sometimes actually believe I can have that kind of impact. I was trained in corporate America, educated in mainline institutions and while my heart had genuine intention— I soon realized my approach was really no different than the “white man.”

My former employer and mentor Atwai (now deceased) Dr. Richard Twiss (Lakota) Wiconi, International coined it best in a book he entitled “500 Years of Bad Haircuts.” Richard subsequently changed the title to something more palatable to general society but the Native/Indigenous experience has been arduous. The truth is there have been significant treaty violations, disregard and disrespect of culture and an annihilation of an amazing people with diverse cultural contributions.

Research by some scholars provides population estimates of the “pre-contact “Americas to be as high as 112 million in 1492 and more than 5,000 tribes extinguished , literally wiped out to now just 500 tribes. While native blood runs through my vein, I did not understand (initially) that my role was not to save anyone, transform any organization or bring significant economic relief but to simply respect and serve.

Truthfully, when I took a proverbial spiritual deep breathe, slowed down my pace I realized that I had more to learn than I had to give. Native people inherently have a brilliance and tenacity that most highly educated or highly successful mainstream recruiters overlook.

I recall how a major statewide stakeholder who came to engage in work contracts stated: “Well, Indian people just do not have the soft-skills.” When I pressed she shared, “Well, you know, the proper eye contact, showing up to work right on time and the ability to engage with others.” I realized that the “soft-skills” she mentioned were more about mainstream society’s ignorance about indigenous people than about indigenous/Native people lacking anything.

I am very happy that I established an Employment and Information Center at the Tribes replete with nice computers and Job Boards announcing the latest information. I am happy that I could genuinely assess the strengths of my HR Staff and mentor them to excellence while embracing their unique cultural soft skills and untapped talents. I am happy that I was able to turn around a critical department that was buried in fortified silos to empower staff to understand the critical importance of collaboration and mutual decision-making. I am happy that I held many vendors to their word and hold their feet to the fire.

Indian Country is also very big business. For example, the Tribes pour $3.5 million+ health care dollars alone in the local Jefferson and Deschutes counties, and yet I still witness disparate treatment amongst healthcare facilities. I am delighted with the individual lives I have been able to impact. Many HR trainees and staff have gone on to pursue higher education, have pursued healthier lifestyles and have challenged themselves to embrace their gifts and capabilities, and most importantly, to embrace hope.

Tribal Human Resources staff

How has your experience as an entrepreneur impacted the decisions you make in your current role?

Back in 2007, as the Founder of Rise to Excellence, my own consultancy company—I have grown considerably and honed many of my inherent skills. Entrepreneurship enabled me to “think outside of the box.” I formed Rise to Excellence purely out of survival instinct—as a newly single-Mom who unexpectedly was raising three young boys on her own. I did not want to raise latch-key kids and was committed to being involved in my three sons’ academic, athletic, spiritual and leadership training. My decision was spot-on as my now three adult sons (24, 25 and 26) have become incredible young men. I see that very same devotion every single day with Native parents rushing to attend little league or culture language studies or dance rehearsal. The local Warm Springs community is intricately involved in all-things community especially when it comes to children—I love it!

While respecting culture and diversity is vital—there are times when improving processes is critical too, especially in the HR arena. When I first walked into HR, I thought I stepped in to the 1970”s with the spiraling disco ball only the glitter was dusty, and the ball tilted sideways. There were stacks of paper everywhere, but few automated or electronic systems which are critical for record-keeping. HR was not a place of open doors and customer service focus, so in 33 brief months I encouraged (sometimes insisted) that our first goal was to serve employee customers and the local tribal community. It was not an easy task, and we are not perfect yet.

As an entrepreneur, the single greatest skill I brought to the tribes was my ability to negotiate, evaluate and insist vendors do what they promised. Many vendors had served the Tribes for decades without a review of their performance and some took for granted their relationship and just showed up once a year to pick up a hefty check—not on my watch, never. I have not only saved the Tribes critical funding in vendor service fees but also initiated a continual evaluation and collaboration of mainstream vendors who serve Indian country.

I am solicited daily by dozens of vendors chomping at the bit for a piece of Indian Country’s untapped wealth. I have no idea what the total value of Indian County potential business. Knowing profits for vendors and service providers are in the billions, I challenge them before we meet to articulate why they want to work with Natives—but more importantly what experience do they really have to serve.

While poverty is rampant in Native communities there are many in power who understands the potential of untapped resources in the once-desolate reservation lands where the government forced relocation. The Council of Energy Resource Tribes, a consortium of tribes whose aim is to augment Native American control over energy resources, recently estimated the total value of these resources, at nearly $1.5 trillion. It looks like the Trump Administration caught whiff of the potential resources (hence, money) that is why one of his first administrative acts was to interfere in the protest at Standing Rock.

“Christian Parish (SupaMan from Crow Agency) utilizes the power and beauty of traditional fancy dance with rap lyrics and a hip hop beat that engages and inspires. I thank Creator for this young man who dedicates his craft and his life to reach young people on the Rez. He is gifted and definitely anointed in his calling,” Elizabeth says.

How do you bring aspects of your diverse background to the work you do?

I have had the honor of working with the African-American, Latino American, Asian American and Native American communities so despite being tri-cultural—what I bring is a wealth of hands-on experience and ingenuity from all communities I have served including mainstream white culture. I have appreciated all of my many career and personal experiences and I share what I have learned wherever I am called. People of color are genius by the way: we are industrious, we work hard but we also have a lot of fun.

My HR Staff often chide me for not taking lunch or simply stopping work for a minute or two to rest. I never relaxed in my mainstream jobs at all however I now find time to delight and celebrate the beauty of true diversity working with communities of color and in this case a Native community.

Almost three years on the job, what three most important things have you learned?

The most important thing I learned is that we POC’s have more in our DNA than just the constant reminder of oppression. We continually told (by others and our own) that we Native/Indigenous people suffer from intergenerational trauma due to 500 years of deceit and oppression manifested sometimes in self-abuse and self-medicating with alcohol and drugs and violence. That stubborn DNA of self-abuse and hopelessness is not the only thing the surges within our spirit. Native/Indigenous people also have the DNA of our ancestors passed down through many generations and that transformative DNA surges deep in our veins. Our ancestors taught us courage-compassion-love-collaboration-honor-joy and respect for all things even the four-legged beings, winged ones and magnificent creatures of the sea. Each and every day when I drive in to work I call upon Creator to help all of us including people of color on other reservations whether you call them ghettos or barrios to be aware that our oppression and mistreatment is not what defines us or compels us.

I daily call upon healthy DNA and intergenerational wisdom of our foremothers and forefathers to sustain and encourage me to share hope to others. We ALL have the capability to call upon the positive DNA of human nature and to rise, rise up to the level of excellence we know in our heart of heart we can achieve.

Service is never ever about me. If you are called to serve it is about “Others.” My mentor Atwai (now deceased) Dr. Pastor Ron Mehl had a simple plaque on his wall: it read “Others.” I believe that in mainstream culture what we sometimes define as “advanced society” (technology, wealth, stuff) has really set us back morally and ethically. When we consider others, care for others and serve others, I believe we become the best human beings we can be.

We/I must also take good care of my/our physical, emotional and spiritual well-being to be able to do the tough work, to promote the cause of social and economic justice, to be able to celebrate even the tiny advances we have initiated on behalf of humanity. It is a personal challenge to me that I must overcome and I am still working on it—daily.