Brandon Woller ’17/University of St. Thomas
Travis Clark.

Travis Clark Impacts Native American Policy From Washington, D.C.

As a paramedic, Travis Clark (Tzi-Zho-Ki-He-Kah – Eagle Chief) responded to hundreds of calls across Cherokee Nation. It didn’t take long before he started to notice patterns.

“Every day was Groundhog Day – seeing the same health emergencies over and over again,” Clark said. “I felt like a gerbil on a wheel.”

Travis Clark.
Brandon Woller ’17/University of St. Thomas

An enrolled citizen of the Osage and Cherokee Nations, Clark grew frustrated by the seemingly endless repetition of life-threatening crises across his community. Each week, he’d respond to frequent drug overdoses and diabetic ketoacidosis.

“What becomes very readily apparent when you’re dealing with these issues every day as a paramedic, is that we were never addressing their root cause,” Clark said. “And that’s when I started thinking seriously about law school.”

Looking to expand his impact beyond triaging symptoms and toward the root causes – Clark overhauled his career aspirations: “I blew it all up.”

Once on track to attend medical school, Clark ’14 J.D. instead accepted a scholarship to attend the University of St. Thomas School of Law, and now serves as chief of staff for the Bureau of Indian Education in Washington, D.C.

“I knew with a legal background I could have my hands on the policy,” Clark said. “It would give me more options than just trying to address the same issues whack-a-mole style as a paramedic.”

Clark considered offers from law schools across the country. But a trip to the St. Thomas campus in Minneapolis – and a chance to chat with faculty and students – made the decision an easy one.

“When I went to other schools, the message was ‘Look what we can do for you,’” Clark said. “When I came to St. Thomas, the message was much different. Instead, it was ‘we’re going to equip you with the skills to do things for other people.’”

From a young age, members of the Osage and Cherokee Nations learn that they each have a role to play in their collective success. Emphasis is put on the tribe, rather than the individual. For example, stories passed down from generation to generation rarely use names, as names and individual accomplishments are considered immaterial.

Clark quickly felt the parallels between his tribe’s longstanding values, his own Catholic faith, and the School of Law’s mission, as a Catholic law school, to prepare attorneys ready to work for the common good.

As a law student, Clark was president of the Native American Law Student Association and a senior editor for the Journal of Law and Public Policy. He also served as a law clerk in Washington, D.C., at the Native American Rights Fund and the Office of the Solicitor’s Division of Indian Affairs.

“My St. Thomas experience impacted me deeply … and the quality of education really did give me the tools to be successful in my career,” Clark said.

Clark kicked off his new professional career in South Dakota as an attorney for Fredericks, Peebles & Morgan, which specializes in federal Indian law. But it didn’t take long before Washington, D.C., – and the chance to directly impact policy – came calling.

In 2016, the Obama administration decided to reorganize the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE), going on a hiring spree in the process. Looking for outside experts and fresh perspectives, Clark was on the top of their wish list.

He’d serve as the BIE’s first chief performance officer and as a senior legislative and policy adviser, before eventually accepting his current role as chief of staff. Clark now helps oversee a department tasked with the education of students on 64 reservations and an annual budget of approximately $1.5 billion.

He’s most proud of developing the bureau’s first ever strategic plan, setting long-term goals for reforming Indian education, and hitting the reset button on tribal relationships. And it’s paid off. Graduation rates are on an upswing.

“We still have a long way to go, but it has really demonstrated to me that the ideas I had as a paramedic were right: that policy really does address root issues,” Clark said. “If you’re addressing those root issues, you can see real substantive change for the good.”

Most recently, Clark completed the Department of the Interior’s Senior Executive Service Candidate Development Program. And while he’s not certain what the future may bring, he does know that he will continue to play a role in his tribe’s success.

“We all have a role to play within our communities,” Clark said. “No role is more important than another. But we must play our roles to move forward together.”

This story is featured in the summer 2024 issue of St. Thomas Lawyer.

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