Every summer Native American, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian college students from across the nation come to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) as participants in the program Washington Internships for Native Students (WINS); I am one of them. For some of us, interning at APHIS is the first time we have ever lived off our tribal lands. For others, coming to Washington, D.C. is but another experience living in a big city. All of us, however, are linked in some way to the tribal communities we represent: the Omaha, Chippewa, Mohawk, Lumbee, Quechan, Laguna and Isleta nations.
WINS interns contribute more than just our skills and time; we add our voices. We speak as individuals from communities that are often underrepresented in government settings. We come to APHIS from states such as California, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and New Mexico and carry with us the unique perspectives of peoples from distant lands. Our respective cultures and histories, stories and languages are irrevocably parts of who we are and contribute to the way we view the world. WINS interns help bridge the gap between Washington’s governmental agencies and the people for whom they work. In the “People’s Department,” this bridge is priceless.
Just as WINS interns contribute to the APHIS mission, our employers help develop our writing and critical thinking skills—tools that will serve us well back at school and in future jobs. We work with the Lacey Act, write website text, review reports, and create presentations. We learn about agriculture and APHIS’ role at USDA. We will walk away from this summer having built relationships in the offices where we worked. Elizabeth (Lumbee) had this to say of her time at APHIS: “I learned so many valuable skills that will be helpful throughout my career. My supervisors were encouraging, fun and full of advice. I’m thankful to work here and would definitely intern here again.”
Personally, I leave my office at APHIS this summer with new skills but also with a better understanding of how I can affect change for those I care about on the lands I love. I live in the biggest city in my state which abuts multiple reservations—including mine—but it sometimes feels like we live millions of miles from the people who are actually making the decisions that affect us. I feel confident, though, as I go home: I came to Washington an intern and return home an advocate, able to utilize skills and knowledge that I gained while working here at APHIS. Miquela (Quechan, Laguna), my fellow “WINSer,” echoed this sentiment: “As a native person, it is interesting to think of how Federal policy that affects us is formed within this relatively small bit of land. I leave Washington with a better understanding of how different government agencies interact with one another and Congress to create the policies and laws I have to live by.”
As the author Sherman Alexie once said, “The world, even the smallest parts of it, is filled with things you don’t know.” For the past fifteen years, APHIS’ partnership with WINS has helped ensure both employees and Native American students from across the country are exposed to people, ideas, and perspectives that we might not otherwise have the opportunity to see. What better way to share the spirit than by learning from one another.