Raina Thiele is an Alaska Native woman currently serving as the Senior Advisor for Alaska Affairs and Strategic Priorities in the Department of the Interior (DOI) under Secretary Deb Haaland. She is from the same region as my family, and she is Yup’ik, like me, as well as Dena’ina Athabascan.
While interning at Bristol Bay Native Corporation (BBNC) this summer, I was fortunate enough to speak with Raina about her journey from being a young girl in Bristol Bay to her current position in the DOI.
Growing up in southwest Alaska, Raina spent time with her family fishing and doing other subsistence activities. She was always encouraged to pursue higher education, so from a young age, Raina knew that was the path she was going to take. Eventually, Raina applied to many universities, earning admission to schools like Yale and Dartmouth. She decided on Yale and graduated with a Bachelor of Administration in Political Science. Raina was the first one in her family to attend college.
After finishing her undergraduate degree, Raina lived in South America and taught English before choosing to study at the Harvard Kennedy School for Public Policy. Originally, she had been hesitant to return to the east coast, since there is such a cultural difference between that part of the country and Alaska. Her initial culture shock is an experience I relate to, as I also attend college on the east coast, far from home. The dichotomy between rural Indigenous communities and large cities in the contiguous United States can often feel stark and lonely, but Raina was able to adjust well.
Once Raina completed graduate school, she worked in The White House under the Office of Management and Budget for five years, and then became President Obama’s tribal liaison, a position she occupied for about three years. Towards the end of the Obama Administration, she left the federal government and started her own consulting company. Raina mentioned working with tribes and consulting for various environmental and international issues, which is part of her career that she remembers fondly.
When asked about a positive memory from her time in government, she recalled President Obama’s trip to Alaska, which Raina was largely responsible for orchestrating. As part of his visit, President Obama traveled to Dillingham, a village in Bristol Bay. The children danced for him in the traditional Yup’ik style, and she told me how special it was to witness the children’s excitement and wonder once he joined them. I have seen videos of the event, but I can imagine that they do not compare to the live experience. Raina and I agreed how impactful President Obama’s visit must have been for the children.
Raina is an inspiring person, and I am grateful I had the opportunity to speak with her. Our backgrounds are similar enough that I can see myself following in her footsteps and working on Indigenous and environmental policy. I admire her success as a fellow Native woman from Bristol Bay and appreciate that it is she who represents Alaska in the DOI. Raina is breaking barriers as the first Native person to occupy her position, but she will hopefully not be the last.