Connection and Commitment: The Career of Carrie Billy

Volume 27, No. 2 - Winter 2015
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Carrie Billy’s mission is to show as many people as possible the hope that tribal colleges offer. Photo by Marvene Tom (Diné)

When Juliette Gordon Low founded the Girl Scouts organization more than a century ago, her dream was to bring girls out of isolated home environments and into community service while tackling society’s most important issues.

She must have had Carrie Billy in mind.

Billy, a member of the Navajo Nation and CEO and president of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC), attributes one of the country’s oldest youth organizations for opening her mind to the possibility of creating change for countless citizens.

Seeing the Jefferson Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial, the spot where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, was a world away and a powerful experience for a young reservation girl visiting Washington, D.C. on a Girl Scout trip in 1976. “I grew up on the rez and had never seen that: people making a big impact nationally. For the first time I knew this was possible,” says Billy, who’s been at the helm of AIHEC since 2008. “It gave me an awareness that people are creating change and making change that impacts us, even on an Indian reservation in Arizona.”

That trip would lay the foundation for Billy’s career over the following four decades. She began working at a large law firm and as a senate staffer before beginning her current nonprofit work as the head of an organization that unifies 38 tribal colleges and universities and their 27,000 students.

Tom Davis, who’s worked for various tribal colleges as president and administrator, says Billy’s career path and background as an attorney and powerful senate staffer has been key in protecting AIHEC. He credits Billy for steering AIHEC clear of a lot of the Congressional cutbacks that many organizations have experienced in recent years. “She’s enormously dedicated, highly intelligent, intense, a no-nonsense person and doesn’t want to mess around,” he says. “She really is focused on tribal colleges and she understands it’s really about the students and community. It’s not about (Washington) D.C. and what radiates from there.”

Billy grew up on the Navajo and White Mountain Apache reservations in Arizona. She was born in Kentucky, but her father’s career took the family back to Arizona. After high school she went on to attend the University of Arizona in Tucson, where American Indian students were inconspicuous. “They had no programs for American Indians and they didn’t really care about American Indians. But I finished there,” she recalls.

She had intended on being a sportswriter, but instead earned a second undergraduate degree from Salish Kootenai College in Montana before her acceptance into law school at Georgetown University. Graduating in 1986, her focus at law school was on public service. “I was the only Indian in the class and maybe there was one other before me,” she says. “I look at it now and there’s a lot more.”

Indeed, in recent years Billy has seen an increase in the number of American Indians who enter the field of law. “It’s probably not statistically enough but more and more are graduating every year. We need American Indian lawyers in all types of service and public sectors,” she maintains.

Earning a law degree helps a person learn negotiating and communication skills, and the ability to work with all types of people. These skills are valuable to American Indian people, she says. “When you are a lawyer, you look at every side of the issue. Essentially, you look at every possible aspect and you communicate effectively with other people,” Billy contends.

Unfortunately, at many of the meetings in Washington, D.C., it is older White males advocating and representing American Indians. “It’s important to have American Indians represent American Indians at all times,” she says.

“She’s enormously dedicated, highly intelligent, intense, a no-nonsense person.”

After Billy earned her law degree, she went on to take a position in a large firm that once worked on the decades-long Navajo–Hopi land dispute. But Washington, D.C. and her old dreams of change and obligation called her back. And so from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, Billy worked for the office of U.S. Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico), described as a “workhorse” in the Washington media and a key ally for environmentalists and minority groups.

Bingaman, who retired in 2013, and his office were grounded and in touch with the state and his constituents, Billy says. “I felt we had the freedom to bring a whole plate of issues that are important to American Indians and New Mexicans. If he saw an inequity we could propose to address it,” she recalls. “I grew up on the rez and saw all of the dysfunction and lack of economic development base. I knew education is the key.”

It was her legal background that helped her work on Title III legislation. Issues involving Indian affairs, health policy, and education continually crossed her desk. It was also her first time working with tribal colleges in developing legislation for key vocational education programs and in securing long-term funding for the Institute of American Indian Arts, the nation’s only institution of higher education dedicated to American Indian art.

While in Bingaman’s office, she helped to pass legislation designating tribal colleges as land-grant institutions while also devising policy to help Hispanic-serving institutions secure more federal funding. “Democrats and Republicans were working together. It was probably the best time to be working there,” she says.

When it became clear Congress was changing and the spirit of cooperation was headed out the door, Billy went back into nonprofit work and took a job as legislative counsel for AIHEC. Two years later she was appointed by President Clinton as the first executive director of the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education, which would bring historic change to tribal colleges.

During that time, she traveled with former Education Secretary Richard Riley to her alma mater, Salish Kootenai College in Montana. While there, Riley learned that out of the 450 teachers on the Flathead Indian Reservation, only six were American Indian. Looking for a solution, Riley and Billy proposed that President Clinton fund an “American Indian Teacher Corps.” Today, hundreds of American Indians are now teachers and many more are in the pipeline, Billy says.

As the White House appointee, Billy’s success came from her ability to get other agencies to pay attention to the President’s executive order. “She was really the only director who knew how to be powerfully successful,” Davis maintains. “We missed her when she wasn’t reappointed to that position by President (George W.) Bush.”

But Billy took her knowledge and talent to AIHEC, where she has devoted the past 14 years to helping the country’s tribal colleges. She refers to tribal colleges as the “last great hope” for Indian reservations and their people. Billy believes that community-based education founded in culture, stories, and songs is a lifeline to the past and the future. “Education is important because it will be what lifts the community out of poverty,” she states. “We are producing our next generation of nurses, teachers, and tribal leaders.”

As tribal governments and leaders spend most of their time focusing on their programs and social problems, tribal colleges have the courage and skill set to create positive change. Along with education comes the responsibility of job creation for local residents. “We have more freedom and are more focused. Tribal colleges have a connection and commitment to make change,” Billy says. “If we wait for someone else to create jobs, they’re not going to do it.”

For Billy, the key to a lot of problems on reservations is simple: tribal colleges. Her mission for the past decade and a half is to show as many people as possible the hope that tribal colleges offer. With the help of her culture and belief system, Carrie Billy has found her calling.

Richard Peterson is an enrolled member of the Fort Peck Assiniboine & Sioux Tribes of Montana and is a freelance journalist.

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