A reckoning is happening across the world, though particularly in the United States.
From the systemic to the individual level, people are reevaluating the prevailing structures and ideologies that fuel racism, discrimination and exclusion, and prevent equal opportunity.
And for those of us who fall into the category of BIPOC, Black, Indigenous and people of color, we are faced with either the burden or responsibility of educating and creating pathways to justice and inclusion, depending on your perspective.
It’s a tall order to build a bridge of understanding, as we live in a society that continues to deny and gaslight historical truths about the origins of this country. It requires spiritual fortitude and mental and emotional resilience. It can also demand resources — financial support, platforms to educate and elevate awareness, and individual and organizational allies — that are not always readily available at our fingertips.
In which case, we must use all means possible to amplify our voices. I believe that our efforts in the racial justice movement are not only worth it, but essential to honor the struggles of our ancestors and to create a more equitable society for future generations.
Corporate America plays a major role in this.
After my husband Gary Davis (Cherokee Nation) and I spoke at a PNC Bank event on Indigenous Peoples’ Day 2019, a woman thanked me afterward, and told me that that was the first time she had ever heard anything about Native American representation and inclusion in the workforce.
I was shocked — yet she also brought to my attention once again the inescapable reality that Native Americans are the invisible minority in the United States. When we are included in the conversation and in corporate diversity recruitment and inclusion commitments, it is often as an addendum to more prominent minority groups.
The fact remains that the plight of Indigenous peoples is largely overshadowed by other atrocities in history, and the modern-day education system (not to mention other socio-political structures) does little to teach or acknowledge the hard truths about the systemic Indigenous eradication and cultural oppression that the United States is founded upon.
This, and more, has led to the massive oversight of Indigenous peoples in corporate America. Nothing exists within a vacuum. Lack of historical context leads to the ongoing suppression of Native history, voices and fair representation in the corporate sphere.
As Indigenous peoples, we are often faced with the hurdle of fighting for mention and awareness alongside other minority groups. Our smaller population base does not defend our exclusion. Just 2% of the U.S. population, or less than 6.6 million people, identify as Native American or Alaska Native, compared to 41.4 million Black/African Americans. That’s because we are the first, and one of the most, historically oppressed groups in the United States. Ninety percent of the original Indigenous population in the present-day United States, nearly 55 million people, were killed off after the arrival of settlers. To offer just one exmaple, the Gold Rush led colonizers to murder tens of thousands of Indigenous peoples; the Indigenous population of California fell from as many as 150,000 in 1848 to 16,000 in 1900. Cultural genocide persisted for centuries through an ongoing war to “Kill the Indian.”
Forced removal and relocation, severance from our traditional foodways replaced with commodities that have fueled disease and shorter life expectancy, cultural white-washing through the boarding school system, and much more have instigated and perpetuated the current-day socioeconomic disparities across Indian Country and systemic discrimination against Native Americans in every facet of society.
The virtual erasure of Native Americans in the cultural zeitgeist has been consequential across the board, including in our underrepresentation in corporate America and disproportionate integration into corporate and public-sector supply chains.
While it’s critical that we call out glaring failures of corporations to include Native Americans in their diversity and inclusion efforts in order to incite deeper reflection and correction, it’s more important that we build bridges to deeper understanding and greater opportunity for Indigenous peoples.
After the tragic death of George Floyd in May, racial tensions rose to a boiling point. In response, corporations have been actively reevaluating the integrity of their commitments to workforce diversity, at every organizational stage from entry-level recruitment to the C-suite.
Now, more than ever, is the time to hold corporations accountable, and to invite them into a conversation about increasing Native representation and inclusion — and why it’s within their best interest to do so. Strong evidence reveals that more diverse companies are more innovative, yielding better business performance. And Indigenous people not only contribute to that, we are innately innovative and resilient.
It’s also to corporations’ advantage to hire diverse talent. Diverse and inclusive businesses make more money. “Diverse and inclusive cultures are providing companies with a competitive edge over their peers,” states a conclusion from The Wall Street Journal’s first corporate ranking released in late 2019 that examined diversity and inclusion among S&P 500 companies.
Many other studies by economists, demographers and research firms have also proven time and time again that attracting, developing and retaining a diverse workforce, from entry-level to corporate leadership, is not only the morally right thing to do, it’s the advantageous thing to do for business.
And yet, BIPOC professionals, and especially Indigenous peoples, remain grossly underrepresented in corporate America.
That’s something that Michael Running Wolf, a software development engineer at Amazon and the President and Co-founder of Indigenous@Amazon, has worked to change. Indigenous@Amazon is one of about 10 affinity groups, also known as employee resource groups, at Amazon. Indigenous@ strives to make both an internal and external impact that celebrates and elevates diverse Indigenous cultures across Amazon’s global footprint.
“We have allies to fuel our ascent,” Running Wolf, an enrolled member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, who is also Lakota, recently posted on LinkedIn, promoting Amazon’s two-day summit called “Represent the Future, Success is Inclusive,” taking place now, October 20-21. Amazon’s first-ever virtual career enrichment summit is specifically designed to bring together Black, Latinx, and Native American professionals.
READ MORE: Amazon Is Ready to Represent the Future
During a panel titled “Amazon Affinity Groups: Intersections and Impact Leaders” on day one of Amazon’s virtual summit, Running Wolf said that the most substantial impact of Indigenous@ has been the formation of an internal community within Amazon. “There are not many Indigenous technologists, and we’re not very visible within the industry — particularly in Amazon before I joined. If we move it just a millimeter or a centimeter (forward), we’re making a huge impact,” Running Wolf said.
Indigenous@ has also partnered with the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) to create opportunities for up-and-coming Indigenous professionals in the tech space. That partnership has created a larger and growing Indigenous community at Amazon through internships, some of which have led to entry-level positions at the corporation.
The impact of Amazon’s sponsorship of AISES, Running Wolf said, stretches far beyond Amazon. Because of Amazon’s powerful, global influence, its support of an Indigenous organization focused on increasing Native representation in STEM fields and related disciplines has also compelled other organizations to team up with AISES.
“By partnering with AISES, we attracted attention to AISES. Other tech companies have started to sponsor AISES alongside us,” which is helping to increase the numbers of Indigenous technologists and scientists in the corporate world, Running Wolf said.
As Indigenous@ gains momentum and builds its presence at Amazon, Running Wolf is looking to advisors at other affinity groups, such as Latino@ and the LGBTQ community group Glamazon, for ways to shepherd its growth while “giving it an Indigenous twist with our own protocol and processes,” he said. “We represent Indigenous communities from across the continent, across North America,” added Running Wolf, pointing to the sheer diversity among Indigenous peoples. “How do we maximize this opportunity?” he asked rhetorically about growing the impact of Indigenous@Amazon.
Even small changes within this large global company “affect so much change” in the world, Running Wolf said. “I can see the potential. That’s what inspires me.”
At times, progress may seem incremental, but as Running Wolf illustrates, the implications of the Indigenous@ movement at the largest Internet company by revenue in the world, and the second largest private employer in the United States, are huge. It’s Indigenous individuals like Running Wolf who are raising the bar for Indigenous professionals and corporate America. And it’s corporations like Amazon that are helping to make this change possible, while setting a new standard for corporate inclusivity.
And while we in Indian Country hold corporate America to the fire, it’s important that Native Nations shine that light within our own systems too. Most Tribal enterprises serve as major employers of Tribal citizens, as well as members of their surrounding communities. Only recently are Indigenous peoples starting to infiltrate those executive leadership realms at increasingly higher levels and rates.
For instance, Seneca Gaming Corporation (SGC) announced a significant hire this week. Kevin Nephew has been named the corporation’s President and CEO, which marks an historic moment in the corporation’s 18-year history, as Nephew is the first Seneca Nation member to serve in this capacity.
In one of his prior roles at SGC, Nephew developed and launched Continuous Improvement, a company-wide executive development program with an emphasis on the leadership succession of Seneca Nation citizens. He is both the initiator and the product of his own creation and advocacy.
What both Running Wolf at Amazon and Nephew at SGC demonstrate is that change happens when we as Indigenous professionals take the initiative. When we do so, the ripple effect now and on future generations across Indian Country, the United States and the world is immeasurable.
It’s also a two-way street. We need allies. We need our corporations and businesses to create environments where Indigenous voices can not only be heard but uplifted, and where our innovative ideas are valued as actionable, and resources are deployed to affect change.
Native people innovated and had thriving, diverse and inclusive cities throughout North, Central and South America for centuries prior to first contact with European explorers. Architecting, implementing and advancing self-sustaining, holistic and equitable infrastructure, processes and systems is in our DNA. It is beyond time for the Indigenous people of this land to be viewed and embraced as a pillar community in diversity and inclusion, and no longer an afterthought. Ever. Together, Native Americans and corporate America can advance and further revolutionize business, while driving innovation forward. Respect, mutuality and reciprocity will serve as the vital key elements if an inclusive endeavor of any magnitude is to be successful.