Walk into Kristine FireThunder’s office and you’ll notice the smell of cinnamon, the bouquets of fresh flowers, and the holiday decorations. (“I love Halloween,” she says. “I only love Christmas more.”) You may also see evidence of her two young daughters’ artwork, and her rabid love of ASU football. You’ll certainly see a series of clipboards organizing the week’s work—a lengthy list advising Governor Jan Brewer on issues related to Arizona’s 22 American Indian tribes.
“In addition to providing strategic analysis and advisement to Governor Brewer, I am a senior-level liaison to the Arizona Indian tribes and tribal community members,” she says. Her official titles are Policy Advisor on Tribal Affairs for the Governor’s Office and Director of the Commission of Indian Affairs. But with a coy smile she says, “I prefer to be called mommy, but Mrs. FireThunder will do.”
FireThunder has now worked for two governors, but her path to working in politics was unexpected.
“My plan was to join a large architectural firm to live the dream of designing culturally competent health care facilities,” she says. “I was encouraged to become more familiar with the procurement processes of state and local governments as many of the jobs would be municipal projects. Come to find out the only way to do this was to get a state job. Having a fulltime job as a design student was next to impossible and I ended up volunteering at several state conferences before I came across an opportunity as a management intern. I have learned so much since that time that I feel that this is where I need to be.”
FireThunder was raised in the West Valley, spending one year attending parochial school on the Hopi Reservation in northern Arizona. She says being a tribal member and working in these positions proves both rewarding and trying in unexpected ways.
“Nothing about my job is predictable,” she says. “For example, my paternal grandparents passed away years ago but I continue to meet people who knew them well. The first time this happened I cried. How often do you meet people who knew your grandfather and tell you what they were like growing up?
“And on the other hand, as a member of the tribal community, it is not any different to me than working with members of my own family. As you can imagine, dealing with family can be rough, but you learn how to work through the rough patches.”
There is often confusion from the public about the mission of the Arizona Commission of Indian Affairs, she says.
“The commission does not speak on the behalf of any tribal government,” she clarifies. “There is a perception in the non-Indian community that we represent the tribes. This is not the case. We are a designated resource for state agencies that may need assistance in providing programs and services to tribes and tribal community members. To obtain information from the tribal community, it is necessary to contact the tribal councils directly. This may be where some may feel that tribal outreach is a daunting task.”
How can the average Arizonan learn more about the tribes of Arizona? FireThunder suggests taking the opportunity to review the State of Indian Country Arizona report, published by Arizona State University, which covers a wide range of topics involving the tribes, including an overview of the challenges and opportunities Native peoples in Arizona face.
“Covering topics including cultural rights, demographics, education, health and human services, natural resources, sustainability and economic development,” reads an official description, “the report includes highlights and issues facing diverse tribal populations in Arizona, as well as ideas to address public policy issues.”
Header photo by Wolfgang Staudt via Wikimedia Commons
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