His official title is Senior Advisor and Liaison for Native American Affairs for the Office of the Secretary of Defense, but you can call him Joe. And call him you should.
Joe Sarcinella is the go-to person for American Indian, Native Hawaiian and Alaska Native tribal leaders negotiating the complexities of the federal bureaucracy in matters involving the Department of Defense. He puts people in touch with the officials who can help with environmental mitigation, cultural resource preservation, NAGPRA proceedings, contract fulfillment and myriad other issues.
“I’m the catch-all Native person for DoD,” he says. “If you have a need from DoD for anything, contact me and I will put you in touch with the best person possible to get what you need.”
Saracinella manages DoD’s Native American Lands and Environmental Mitigation (NALEMP) Program. “We will mitigate environmental damage on tribal land that was directly caused by DoD. We enter into cooperative agreements with the tribes so we can directly fund them to do the cleanup themselves. We provide training and build capacity in Indian communities.” The environmental hazards include everything from unexploded ordinance in the Southwest to World War II-era gas leakage in Alaska to building debris removal from military bases.
DoD’s impact in Indian country is significant, says Sarcinella. “DoD is one of the largest federal land managers and right now, for example, we have about 160 sacred sites which are actually located on military installations. There are times when tribes need access. A tribal leader or government might need to know who to speak to in order to make certain that they have access to a particular sacred site.” Sarcinella estimates that DoD activities affect as many as 290 tribes.
“Another example could be flight training routes. The military has different training routes that go all over the United States and a lot of those routes end up going across tribal land. If you are in the middle of a ceremony or a fair and you’re going to have a low flying training route going over the top it can be a little disconcerting.” The tribe can contact Sarcinella and he will put them in touch with the people who can find out if there’s a way to reschedule the training.
Sarcinella is also responsible for making sure DoD personnel consult in an appropriate and timely way with tribes. “We are very cognizant, especially in the Northwest, of treaty rights, especially for fishing access and hunting. There’s a very large military presence in the Northwest, so we make certain that DoD and military personnel are all trained as to how to conduct consultations appropriately and effectively.”
Sarcinella liaises on behalf of tribes with other DoD programs. The DoD Indian Incentive Program (IIP), for example, has a Native American fund set-aside that provides an incentive for prime and sub-tier contractors to work with Native American/Alaskan/Hawaiian owned enterprises as sub-contractors.
The Innovative Readiness Training (IRT) Program provides services to rural communities, including American Indian/Alaska Native tribes. “We send National Guard and Reserve service members into rural environments to provide engineering, medical, dental and other assistance as a means of training our personnel to be mission ready in remote rural environments,” says Sarcinella, who can put tribes in touch with the manager for the program that offers the type of assistance they want. Sarcinella can also help tribes find the right person to talk to about funding offered under the Research & Education Program for Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Minority-Serving Institutions and the Legacy Resource Management Program.
Sarcinella’s maternal grandmother was Hunkpapa Lakota and Assiniboine from Canada; his maternal grandfather was mixed blood Creek from the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. “I grew up roaming around California. My mom was very, very active in every tribal community we lived near. She really wanted to make sure her kids had a very high level of cultural fluency. I grew up in ceremonies and was a pow wow brat and a grass dancer and hoop dancer,” he says.
Football scholarships took him to Boise State University and then to California State University in Sacramento. “I pretty much got injured every year,” he says, so he decided to focus on his studies. He graduated with degrees in political science and business, earned a Masters from the College of Justice and Social Inquiry with concentration in Federal Indian Law and Policy from ASU, attended the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, also on scholarship, and graduated from the Indian law program with a certification in Indian law and Policy.
Sarcinella has held positions with the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe and the Navajo Nation’s Washington office as well as doing pro bono work for a number of California tribes.
This is the first in a series of artciles introducing federal officials with portfolios in Indian country.