NEH’s First Strategic Advisor for Native and Indigenous Affairs Listens and Learns

HUMANITIES, Summer 2024, Volume 45, Number 3

We dah se Jason Packineau harani dosh. My name is Jason Packineau. I am a citizen of the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara Nation in present-day North Dakota, and, through my mom, tied to the Jemez and Laguna Pueblo communities in present-day New Mexico.

In January 2023, I was appointed as the strategic advisor for Native and Indigenous affairs at the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). For the first time in the agency’s 59-year history, a position was created to coordinate policy and engagement with tribal nations and Indigenous communities through the Office of the Chair. In assuming this position I’ve learned a great deal about myself and future possibilities at NEH.

Before this I worked in education. My first job out of college was as a fourth-grade teacher at Truesdell Elementary School in Washington, D.C. For seven wonderful years, I learned from an amazing set of colleagues, many of whom had already spent more than 25 years in the classroom by the time I started. These dedicated veterans instilled a set of values in me that I’ve used throughout my professional career. To be an effective educator, my mentors always emphasized three principles: listening, learning, and connecting. These actions, in practice, are the foundation for how I view my work with Native and Indigenous communities.

Engaging Indigenous communities could be seen as complex. There are 574 federally recognized tribal nations, dozens of state-recognized tribes, and a myriad of urban, rural, and nonprofit stakeholders. Add in Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, and Taíno and Arawak communities from the Caribbean, and the spectrum of communities might seem overwhelming. When I started at NEH, I accepted that learning would be my first task, but the challenge wasn’t understanding the Indigenous landscape; it was discovering what the humanities meant.

More specifically, I had to learn what the humanities meant to someone like me. If I couldn’t even find a level of comfort with the word humanities, how could I translate it into meaningful work? In the beginning, I felt like a humanities outsider, and not in a bad way, but in the way a second-language learner can think and feel ideas but lacks the words to define or express them. I’ll always remember volunteering in my son’s second-grade class and a young girl asking me what I did for a living. Having been at NEH for a couple of months, I painfully stumbled through a two-minute brain dump to her and the class. (Note: Second graders work best with 15-second explanations, not two-minute ones.) I did the humanities no favors that afternoon. Thankfully, after working day by day with outstanding colleagues and long-standing NEH staff, I feel better equipped for the eight- and eighty-year-olds of the world today.

What I quickly found is that I was anything but a humanities outsider. My own background was filled with obvious connections to the humanities that I had overlooked. In fact, I can now laugh at the thought that, since the age of eighteen, I probably could have tied my life journey to NEH opportunities every single year since I graduated from high school. In college, as a history major, I could have—and should have—applied to be an intern. After dropping out, I moved in with my grandparents in North Dakota and studied under my grandfather, Edwin Benson, the last birth speaker of the Nu’Eta language. This started a longtime commitment to Native languages that now makes me wonder about the number of grant proposals I could have dreamed up with my grandfather. As a teacher in Washington, D.C., EDSITEment resources would have been a welcome addition to my classroom, as would the professional development opportunities offered through the Education division. Even the time I spent in higher education, supporting Native and Indigenous students in their efforts to integrate their academic research with the ways of knowing and being that come from Indigenous communities, could have been connected to NEH. If I could easily overlook my involvement in humanities work, then so can many of the stakeholders we want to reach.

My time in this role has helped me realize the incredible connection between the mission of NEH and our Native and Indigenous communities. As an Indigenous person, I understand that the core values of understanding and respecting our ties to the past, present, and future—and to all the beings and forces that connect our world—are the same values that define the humanities. I love how NEH Chair Shelly Lowe, in many of her speeches and conversations, frames Indigenous creation stories as a fundamental humanities perspective. Stories are important vehicles to share culture and the more we identify NEH’s mission to preserve stories and culture, the stronger our relationship will be with Native and Indigenous communities.

It’s my goal to be the bridge that connects NEH and Indigenous stakeholders, but I also know there is a great deal of subtlety that comes with being the strategic advisor for Native and Indigenous affairs. For as much as I talk about a broad Indigenous worldview, I know from my own background that not every tribe, every village, or every Indigenous community holds the same perspective, or carries the same history. Broad appeal and genuine relationships will only come about from our outreach and through the act of being good listeners.

Going back to my principles as an educator, I’ve learned that telling someone an idea again and again only gets you so far. The final piece to understanding is listening. Listening requires you to know your audience, ask questions that bring clarity, and then analyze what you’ve heard to identify the gaps and find the ways to access a connection. NEH has started this work, and the Office of the Chair has engaged in listening sessions to hear feedback about the grants process and the needs of communities. Opening up in this way and seeking a common ground will be fundamental to our outreach and relationship building.

There are many new, exciting initiatives moving forward at NEH that I hope to share through upcoming announcements. There are proposals that center on Native languages, Indian boarding school history, and Pacific Islands cultural heritage. There is also the important work of our long-standing agency efforts to support cultural preservation and provide educational resources, as well as the groundwork of our state and jurisdictional councils. The teacher in me will always bend toward optimism and possibilities. If we arrive at a future where we’ve invested in Native and Indigenous communities, it will be because we listened, we connected, and learned how NEH can be in service of all.