SHRM State Council at Work on Native American Initiative

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek January 30, 2020
SHRM State Council at Work on Native American Initiative

​The Society for Human Resource Management's (SHRM's) New Mexico State Council wants to educate employers in other states about practicing HR with Native American business owners and employees.

"When you're working with these Native American tribes … the practice of HR is unique from one tribe to the next," said Sherry Johnson, SHRM-SCP. She is a member of the Chickasaw Nation and is SHRM field services director for Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas and interim director for Florida, New Mexico and Oklahoma.

SHRM affiliate programming does not always provide HR professionals with the information they need to work with Native Americans, Johnson said. Helping HR professionals understand the difference between federal law and tribal law—and teaching them that tribal law takes precedence, as the tribes are sovereign nations—is one piece of the education puzzle.

Margaret Lynch, SHRM-CP, is chief human resource officer at Fort Defiance Indian Hospital Board Inc., in Fort Defiance, Ariz., and co-director of diversity for SHRM's New Mexico State Council. As an HR professional and a member of the Navajo Nation, she has had to understand tribal laws governing Native Americans.

"Many tribal nations have on their books their own employment law code or policies. It can be hugely challenging for HR professionals to navigate the different policies and codes that different tribes may have," said Lynch, who is certified through the National Native American Human Resources Association as a tribal human resource professional.

Tribes, for example, are not required to follow the Fair Labor Standards Act or the Americans with Disabilities Act, although most do as a business practice, according to Vivian Santistevan. She is owner of Taos HR ganics in New Mexico. She said she knew from her work with Native American employees and business owners that they were "a huge, underserved population."

Native Americans have a greater impact on employment than many people may realize. Three dozen Native American tribal nations support more than 85,000 jobs in Oklahoma, for example, with a financial impact of more than $10 billion, according to a study by the National Congress of American Indians. 

Santistevan noted that each of the 573 federally recognized tribes in the U.S. is unique and most tribes can establish their own employment laws or rights.

Navigating tribal politics, she said, also plays a huge role in the practice of HR. The HR professional, and even the Native American employee, may be required to appear before a tribal council to settle potential lawsuits on workplace discrimination or disagreements.

"We need to have that knowledge set to help all these tribes be able to work through some of these HR processes and keep us on the same page when it comes to federal law." 

That was one of the reasons the New Mexico State Council decided—under Lynch's and Santistevan's direction—to create a multistate Native American Initiative. Arizona, California, Colorado, Oklahoma and Utah—all of which have federally recognized tribal nations—"are very interested in the idea," Johnson said. 

SHRM's New Mexico State Council won a 2019 Pinnacle Award for a program that grew out of the initiative—the SHRM Native American Chapter, which is still in the formation process. And SHRM's Oklahoma State Council won a 2018 Pinnacle Award for creating an Indian Tribal Conference in partnership with several tribal HR departments. 

Native Americans are an underserved population, Lynch said, and the hope is that SHRM's Native American Initiative will rectify that. 


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