Achieving Native American Visibility
with Janeen Comenote of the National Urban Indian Family Coalition
Native Americans are underrepresented in education, employment and elected office.
Janeen Comenote, Executive Director of the National Urban Indian Family Coalition, discusses barriers that exist to increased representation and how allies and advocates can advance equity.
October 30, 2020
Anderson: Native Americans are underserved or underrepresented across many fronts in American society, including education, employment, access to healthcare and elected office. Hello and welcome to Comcast Newsmakers. I'm Tetiana Anderson. While the majority of America's indigenous people live in metropolitan areas, inequities still remain. Janeen Comenote is the executive director of the National Urban Indian Family Coalition. She joins me to talk about efforts to spread the word about the importance of inclusion and representation in spaces, systems, and institutions that have historically lacked indigenous voices. Janeen, thanks so much for being here.
Comenote: Thank you for having me, Tetiana.
Anderson: So, Janeen, why is it that Native Americans, a group of people who have been in this country longer than anybody else, have a seat at the table? Why is that?
Comenote: I think the biggest issue that we face as a population in the United States is really the issue of invisibility. You know, from our earliest educational experiences in this country, we're only taught that American Indians and Alaska Natives are a people from history and that we're not a contemporary people, when really we are here. And I think that that's the leading cause of why we're not seeing ourselves reflected in all of these different arenas throughout the country.
Anderson: So, the issue of visibility, or invisibility, as it might be the case right now, is why we don't see Native Americans. But what will it take to get that visibility? What will it take to get Native Americans a seat at the table?
Comenote: I think that really starts with being intentional about acknowledging our presence in this country, acknowledging the fact that, you know, anywhere you sit in the United States, you're sitting on somebody's homeland. So we think that that kind of visibility is really important and, also, for us to really begin to be louder about the fact that we're still here and that we're present and that we are contemporary people, and we really do see that happening all over the country.
Anderson: And we do see Native Americans achieving visibility, as you put it, in certain spheres of influence, like politics, for example. Can you give us some examples of where we are seeing success?
Comenote: Yeah. So, you know, as we know, when you look at sort of the political or civic arena in the United States, that's where a lot of those things that really impact our lives in a day-to-day basis happen, regardless of your race in the country. So for us, you know, the election of Deb Haaland from Albuquerque, Sharice Davids from Kansas City, Peggy Flanagan up in Minnesota, Ruth Anna Buffalo in North Dakota, we saw this slew of American Indian women being elected into office. And that really has impact for us simply because seeing yourself reflected in sort of the body politic in America is really, really a powerful thing, and also knowing that these women are really bringing their core cultural, indigenous cultural values into these tables where big decisions are being made about all of our lives.
Anderson: What do you think it will take for you to say that, you know, Native Americans are receiving the attention that they deserve and that, you know, your advocacy and outreach and education on this issue is working?
Comenote: You know, in the work that we do at the National Urban Indian Family Coalition, we work with the largest populations of American Indians in the country, which are the off-reservation and urban populations. And really, that's about encouraging our people, you know, whether they're on or off the res, to really begin to be vocal and advocate for ourselves and build bridges with other communities of color and build power with other communities of color so that, you know, we're included in sort of the broader American diaspora of life, in the media, in politics, in education, in all of these realms.
Anderson: So important building bridges. And, Janeen, if people want to find out more about what your organization does, the work that you have done, where should they go? What's your website?
Comenote: Our website is nuifc.org.
Anderson: Janeen Comenote, thank you so much for being here.
Comenote: Absolutely. My pleasure.
Anderson: And thanks to our viewers, as well, for watching. For more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the nation, be sure to visit comcastnewsmakers.com. I'm Tetiana Anderson.