Michelle Sauve and Katherine Chon

Recorded June 9, 2021 Archived June 8, 2021 41:36 minutes
0:00 / 0:00
Id: ddv000857


Michelle Sauve [no age given] talks with her colleague Katherine Chon [no age given] about her childhood, her family, and how her childhood memories and family roots in Native American communities led her to pursue a career supporting Native American youth.

Subject Log / Time Code

Michelle talks about her childhood and time she spent at the Bureau of Indian Affairs while she was growing up. She reflects on its influence on her career path and talks about how she started working at the Administration for Native Americans.
Michelle talks about her family ancestry and where her family members have lived in the US. She talks about her upbringing and community.
Michelle talks about her family. She talks about when she realized they didn't have as much financially as other children from families in the area.
Michelle remembers encouraging her mom to apply for a new job, and talks about her mother's encouragement for Michelle to go to college.
Michelle talks about her college search and her interest in finding schools where she could study American Indian development and economics.
Michelle talks about learning her worth in professional spaces.
Michelle talks about the youth she works with today and how they give her hope for the future.


  • Michelle Sauve
  • Katherine Chon


Partnership Type

Fee for Service


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00:00 Hi, my name is Katherine Chon. Today's date is Wednesday, June 9th, 2021. I am in Washington DC. The name of my recording partner is Michelle Sunday, and we are colleagues at the US Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families. My name is Michelle Sauve and it is Wednesday, June 9th, 2021. My recording partner is Catherine shown. We are colleagues at the US Department of Health and Human Services Administration for children and families in Washington, DC.

00:43 Hi, Michelle, so I'm thankful for our time today. And you know, I was reflecting on how pre-pandemic we would always be in work meetings together, run into each other in the hallway, talk a lot about our collaborative work. But we never ever have had an opportunity for a personal conversations. I know very little about your personal life, your journey, the stories that brought you to him. How were able to work together in these recent years, and I'd love to learn more of your public service and I'm just having a space to connect at a human level.

01:37 Things Katherine. And I really appreciate that too because one of the things that I've been reflecting on this year and actually one of my goals is is actually to become more human-like treat myself and other people and relate to them as fellow human beings. And I and I think one thing do my observation, we share in common as were very like, work focused when we're at work and we do have conversations all the time about our partnership about how we can collaborate and serve native communities together better, but then we don't just kind of have those other conversations about how we are connected, just as humans. So very happy for today. So Michelle just to start off with like, how how did you end up at the administration for Native Americans?

02:37 How long have you been there? What brought you there? Did you ever think you would work in a government agency when you are younger? So I did at the very young child, think I would work in a government agency. But the one, I thought it would work in is the Bureau of Indian Affairs. So for a lot of us at, you know, about, you know, certain age. I'm in my forties. And if you are an American Indian or Alaska, native person had some sort of role in your life. Even if you did not grow up on a reservation. So, for myself, that Bia, what are local office was literally down the street from me. I'm in Syracuse, New York, and their staff did cultural and language programs. At my elementary school. They hosted a Christmas.

03:37 Cities where they would give gifts to the kids for the holidays. And it was almost like a, like a home away from home, because the staff there were just so welcoming. And that's probably not something most kids experience with a federal program, or federal staff. So, I did think I might work for the Bia one day, and then I went to college and was exposed to a lot more of like the federal American Indian policy, and how that has shaped the world. We as American, Indian Alaska, natives live in in what was once our land here today, and I also learned about how the Bia had really been.

04:33 Co-opted and had issues with a lot of in institutional racism and internalized racism. And so I still thought maybe one day I'll work there and I'll try to change the system from within. So I went to graduate school for public policy and did want to work still in the federal space on federal policy, wanted it to be on issues addressing poverty, and the root causes of poverty. And also hoped that I'd be able to work on American Indian policy as well. So, I had the chance to move to Washington DC and it was not working the federal government. I'm able to work at American University, do as a director of an internship program for American Indian Alaska, native and Pacific Islander students and do a lot of our probably 99% of our intern place.

05:32 With the federal government, so I got to slowly learn about agencies outside of the Bia. And one year. We were hosting a powwow at a, you with the students and our head woman dancer was the daughter of the division of program operations for the administration for Native Americans. And so as I'm reading about the bio of the dancer and I am hearing about the administration for Native Americans,

06:07 It was the first time I ever heard about an A and I was like, you know, what, a nice sounds like what we wish the Bia was we wish it was more about community-driven Solutions and not a top-down approach. And that let me know that the ending was really flexible instead of being in a really prescriptive about what you could do or, you know, you just you decided what you're, you know, what your goals and objectives and how you would have value with your progress. Like all of that was so amazing to me. I blew me away and this was probably in the summer of 03 or 04 and I said to myself, one day. I want to work at 8. Is my dream job and so I started at a n a in December of 2010?

07:03 So I'm a big believer of like, speaking your truth out there in the universe and you don't know when that might happen. But it just, it's you do it. Did open up, and I was able to drive and talk been here for over ten years and it has been amazing. And what was it? Like, growing up in Syracuse, has had your family been there for Generations or moved around? What was your childhood? Like? So my Heritage is a mohawk and French Canadian and my father grew up in Syracuse but his parents, you know, immigrated from from Canada. And their first language was French, the French Canadians and

08:03 My mother, her family is from Aqua Saucony, which is on the Canada u.s. Border and that's where both of her grandparents. I mean, her parents, her mother and her father, my grandparents on my mom's side. That's where they grew up, but Mohawks are kind of famous for being iron workers. And where can I buy steel construction? And that's what my grandfather did. He was a high-rise steel construction worker. So my mother told me that when she was a child, she kind of grew up all along the Eastern Seaboard, they would move from location to location following those high-rise still construction jobs. So when she was a teenager was when they settled in Syracuse for a while and that's when she met my dad and you know, they got married at a relatively young age. She was 17 and he was

09:03 19 +, and then. So that's where that's where I grew up. And that's where we stayed my mother. My grandmother ended up moving back eventually to nearby the reservation that were from. And, and then, but I had my, my father's siblings and in, in Syracuse and grew up with them. We also grew up near some cousins and that in the city of Syracuse is really close to the Onondaga Nation. So Mohawks are part of the Confederacy of Six Nations. So Mohawk is one night at Caillou got Tuscarora and Seneca. And so the Onondaga are waiting here by bright outside.

10:03 Elementary School in the neighborhood and then I had cousins who lived a block away from us. So, you know, everyone was in the same.

10:30 Kind of Social and economic status of things kind of felt equal. Do you know, when you start to realize that you do and when when was that first moment for you, when you realize that?

10:51 Not everyone lived, under similar circumstances, and

10:56 Some things were different for other people.

11:00 This really for me happened in 6th grade and it happened for two reasons. So, I'm part of a big family housing and we were actually

11:19 I'm the youngest of eleven and we had a double unit in public housing. So it was like two units that I can buy but have been combined until four bedrooms and two bathrooms which which felt like luxury and public housing could, you don't have a lot of apartments that have two bathrooms and so as my siblings moved out of the house, we had to move because we didn't have enough occupants. You have to justify four bedrooms. So we were looking for places to live and this was going to be and at the same time I was able to transfer schools out of the neighborhood. So, you know,

12:10 For the first time experience, you know, going to school with kids, whose parents have had cars. We didn't have a car, whose parents had a phone. We didn't have a phone call when you have a lot of things that other people had. Until while I was going to this new school, you know, I was like, well, you know, we have to move, but why are we going to move within the same neighborhood? And so I was asking my mom, quote.

12:43 Why do we have to live here?

12:48 And I didn't realize that we couldn't afford to move out of the neighborhood. So we actually moved down the street to a very affordable house like basically in the same neighborhood.

13:07 And,

13:09 I feel bad now questioning her because she was doing the best she could and I'm sure she probably didn't want to live there. But I mean, that's what we can afford. And at the time I think she was the only like a steady income. My dad's, you know.

13:31 Mr. Klein of like a blue collar jobs. He had lost his job at Asian. You know, he just, he just didn't have a lot of qualifications to get a similar well-paying job. So he had jobs like painting houses or, you know, doing some groundskeeping at a place in the summer that did clambakes. And and weddings at sea level jobs set when, when it was winter in Syracuse.

14:13 You know, he would be laid off cuz if they didn't have work for him and so he was having cycles of you know, if you collect unemployment spring-summer would come he'd work again for a few months. And so by the time I was in high school, my mom was definitely the time right? Right by her, but she also didn't have a high school diploma. So she also had mostly, you know, entry level jobs and you know and puts always steady income and you know, we we had enough. So

14:53 Have you ever had a conversation with your mother later in life, about like that particular moment in time or season of your childhood, you know? No we didn't have a specific conversation about that. I remember,. You know, one of the last job she had was in housekeeping, at a senior senior, assisted living facility.

15:33 And they had a job opening for unlike a social and activities coordinator, and

15:42 You know, my mom really like really wanted that job and wanted to apply but of course, they wanted somebody with a PA. They wanted somebody who studied like gerontology work, you know, but you know, my mom has been working there probably for like maybe 10 or 15 years by then. And she had a great rapport with all of the residents. So it was a job. She could have. But because she didn't have the degree, he hoped they wouldn't even consider her for the position and I think I didn't you don't buy in Christ. And, you know, I think I don't, I don't remember if she did or she didn't. But, I mean, I remember, we had conversations about it. And so, you know, I knew like we had conversations about how our opportunities are limited and and she was a real shoes.

16:42 Acme going to college. And I think because she didn't want to see any of her kids have the same limits that she had to struggle.

16:54 And it's a growing up in.

17:00 That Community where you were start. As you're getting older starting to notice like the sum of the inequities were just wondering why, why is our experience in this way when other people are experiencing something different? Was there. Some point in time? When you felt that you had like agency to do something like that was what at what point did it go from like, observation to

17:31 Grilling something Beyond.

17:40 I mean parley, I think they were definitely like other champions in my life, like champions for like, for me with education, teachers, who, you know.

17:57 You don't encourage me and supporting me to do, you know, I always like to my best academic Lee and Ann. Honestly, probably one of the biggest changes was going to a different middle school and high school that had mix socio-economic groups, because suddenly, I had friends, whose, you know, who is mom was studying to be a doctor. And so, you know, or you have other other people's parents who were who are professionals. And at that time, you know, my, my siblings had not yet achieved that status, they were, you know, they were young adults but many of, you know, you did not go on to college right away or didn't, you know, started and dropped out after a semester and had more entry level jobs, so,

18:57 Have you no shame to have friends who had professional Parenthood, professional more professional. Who had done a college. I think made me see that, you know, that

19:14 But there were opportunities and, and always, you know, my, my, my parents did encourage us, you know, to, to pursue higher education, but, you know, they didn't have necessarily resources to fund it. So, if it were, you know, if we weren't able to get scholarships that paid or, you know, for whatever reason, I didn't, you know, couldn't keep going. There wasn't a lot that they could. You personally, I was really lucky. I got a full scholarship to go to college, so I didn't have to worry. And why are you? So as the youngest in a pretty large family? Were you the first thing to be able to go to college?

19:59 So I had, you know what? I had two brothers before who started but now I think, you know, one dropped out after a semester and the other one dropped out after a year. And, you know, maybe part of it was Financial part of, it might have just been, they weren't ready. Or so. I was the first one to complete a ba degree. And I then after I did have siblings that went back and either got an AA degree or got a, a ba degree or got a Nursing degree. One is an x-ray technician, but those, those Milestones happened, you know, while I was in college already or after after I finished College.

20:58 So, can I help the family break through that wall?

21:03 I think so, I think so. And I think that

21:08 Some of the opportunities were different, right? When my parents were coming up. If you could get a factory job, you could get a job where you can work there for the rest of your you do for your career. And, and even if it was a blue-collar job. It was a steady job. But you know, Syracuse is part of the Rust Belt and a lot of the the factories were and other Industries for people worked close down, you know, in the 80s and move to other states or moved out of the country. And so, you know, just I think people realize, I like my family, my siblings realized that they had to pursue additional education because the opportunities that you know, helped

22:04 My parents at least have always enough weren't the same anymore for them. And so if they didn't want to have two or three jobs, I'm with my sister did for a while when she was a single mom. She worked two or three jobs, like, you know, you had to have more education. Just so you could, you know, not have more than one job. Was there ever a moment in? Or I guess I'm just curious as you're going through your various educational points and increasingly meeting people outside of your community. How, how conscious were you of your identity as a Native American and what kind of influence did that?

23:04 I've been shaping your path forward. Actually had a pretty big impact in terms of, you know, being comfortable pursuing, higher education.

23:20 When so I looked at a few schools in New York state, but I really had my heart set on going to school at West. So my that the high school guidance, counselor suggested. I look at UC Berkeley and Stanford, and if both of those places, I was able to visit when the Native American like student group, and the person who took me on the tour at Stamford, I remember, she was Alaska native and I talked to her a lot about how she was able to afford Stanford and you know, she, you know, she mentioned that she had a scholarship from her chive and work-study from the school. And she's, you know, she just really sad that, you know, Stanford did everything it could to make sure that Financial need was Matt. And

24:20 You know, you'd be able to afford it and go there. So I was late submitting, my financial paperwork to Stamford. So I didn't know yet what my opportunities would be there. Similarly, you know.

24:39 Interviewed at with you to Berkeley for a scholarship and it just so happened that the faculty member, who interviewed me was Tracy Wilson, who were the Native American faculty member at Berkeley and we bonded over both having done, volunteer work at senior centers in high school. So I did it with my girl scout troop, and he I think he said he had done like he'd been kind of a quarterly or some kind of a job at a Senior Living Center as well as

25:20 You know.

25:23 I was just saying like I didn't know, you know, so in both I felt like they could both be a good fat because I had a strong like native.

25:34 Student population of Oregon Pinot out, kind of organized group that connect with. And, you know, I have, you know,

25:45 I'm so, so both of those and I look for the same thing, when I apply to grad school and it in particular. I was, I was interested in the grad school, I chose because it had a project on American Indian Economic Development. And to me that was like meeting both of my passions for, you know, working with American Indian populations, but also addressing Economic Development needs. And since I've been to college, you know, I had a much better understanding of what those needs were across the country. I did my undergraduate thesis on the impact of gaming, on the social economic and social economic and cultural implications on reservation. Just so, you know, embracing gaming. And so I having others who were America and Alaska native who may have grown up in

26:45 Experiences, even though I didn't grow up on a reservation and I think that

26:51 Just having the ability to connect on that level and having similar cultural values was really important to the place. You can just relax and just, you know, be myself and people won't question either my Identity or, or if I belong here and that feeling of belonging or questioning or an, even not wanting to be questioned. Whether you belong. Did you did any of those mentors are other guiding people in your life? Give any advice that stuck with you as you moved forward.

27:42 So, the one, so one piece of advice that I always try to share with other people.

27:53 Is like, I don't count yourself out like, don't undervalue yourself or your self-worth like enough other people will do that for you. And that was like a bound. A piece of like, job application advice that one of the genes for my graduate school is giving me because I was actually I didn't know whether I should apply for that job at American University and because it said PhD preferred and I only had a master. So it's like, you know, he told me about the job and she's like, I think you should apply and I said, I don't know. Like it says, they want someone with a PhD and he's like, don't ever count yourself out like, always put yourself forward and to me, that kind of relates to a value. That was sort of

28:40 My mom tried to instill in all of us, but like, when I was a teenager, I only got half the message and then like, 20 years later. Someone else said the same thing, but said, it the way I see, now that I was adult that I could kind of hear it and take it in. So because I did well in school. My mom would always say, like, does it have value to like to be humbled have humility to not brag on yourself? And so that way she would say, like you're you're not better. You're not smarter than any of your siblings, right? And put the other side of the messages. No one else is better than you. So you know, and so as a teenager, I kind of took it as self-critical like I shouldn't think I'm smarter than

29:40 No one else is also.

29:41 Market that are smarter than

29:44 There's a

29:47 How to treat people as equals and not see yourself as better.

29:51 So I think that those two pieces of advice of like don't count yourself out. You have value, you have self work, is something that has been. I think it's important to share, especially for a community that I'm come for lot of economic distress. You feel that if you grew up poor, you did something wrong. And your family. And there is a lot of like, some of what you were sharing of the trauma that internalized messages.

30:31 And like, so, what giving your own life experiences and the experiences of your family, your community, the work that we've been doing in recent Years Around violence prevention, the linkages between human trafficking and missing and murdered indigenous people. What does that mean for you? And how, how do you feel a connection to that mission?

31:01 Well, I mean I think won the messages, we get from society around, you know.

31:14 The, the lower.

31:17 Worth of people who are

31:20 Or, you know, don't have enough. That's the message that gets internalized and and there's a lot of factors ISO one. You're in a situation of not enough resources to go around. So people are desperate and do desperate things and often, you know, you live in a high-crime area because people are trying to get things anyway, they can't do it. Like there were several times going up or my dad just in our neighborhood, just coming home and I think that

32:06 Violence, prevention is around, you know.

32:11 1 people having enough resources that they don't have, they don't feel desperate and are trying to get resources. Anyway, they can but also that you feel you don't deserve this type of violence to to live in this type of community that everyone deserves safety, but I think if you feel like you're in this neighborhood or, you know, housing situation because you somehow deserve to be there, it's harder to act resources and you're my sister works two jobs because she didn't want her children to see that, you know, that she couldn't provide, where is, you know,

33:11 Being a single parent, maybe the benefits she could have gotten, could have helped her, you know, spend more time at home with the kids, you know, forces, decisions children. So if we are a society that values, each other, and each other's Humanity, you don't let people get that done and on the issue of human trafficking of people being forced to work or exploited in other ways and commercially sexually exploited. Like, they're there a lot of interconnections to those route issues and have you do feel during your time, whether it's within the federal government or other time.

34:11 Span that they're bit that there has been progress on this issue within native communities. Where do you think we need to head next?

34:21 I think, I think that there's been progress in people understand more. There's more where there is more awareness of the issue. There's more awareness. I think that late sexual or labor exploitation is part of a bigger system. I think when we hear testimony, now, we hear that a lot that that there are systems that are enabling this exploitation, whether its economic systems or two, you know, today, show on Fort Smith Systems and just lack of Economic Opportunity, right? That people are lured into situations. I think we hear a lot. I'm in tribal communities that, you know, there's the promise of, you know,

35:18 Better lifestyle and you know, if there were other avenues for that opportunity and resources than those appealing, because they would be real perceived Pathways. And I just don't, you know, that's why I think that I think the awareness that there's two stomach issues, and it's not and it's not just

35:46 You know.

35:49 Kind of individuals who, you know, how to make mistakes. I think that's some progress. I mean, obviously, we have a lot further to go to help communities address those systemic issues to provide those economic Pathways. And to really heal a lot of the trauma that makes individuals particularly susceptible to, you know, sex trafficking and and other forms of expectation because they don't have the Southworth for Generations. They've been told that that they're not as worthy and they're not reflected in the schools in the curriculum. Do you know the jobs, everything is there? Just still you know, there's a lot of but there's a lot of good and there's a lot of opportunities that have been coming and there's

36:49 So much strength in the younger generation, I think way more than I saw when I was coming up. So that definitely gives me hope story of testimony or one of the Native youth. You've worked with through programming that kind of command capsule8. The hope that you're feeling right now for the future.

37:18 I won't say that there's one specific story. There's been, there's been several. You know, young people that I have heard speak out about, you know, the connection between healing from both historical dramas and recent, that intergenerational trauma in an explicitly making that connection to

37:47 Decreasing, you know, and preventing violence in our communities and

37:55 I mean.

37:58 I don't think I made those connections until much later in my career. And so to see people who are just starting out already having that understanding gives me hope that we're going to get much further even in my lifetime and we have, you know, in the twenty or so years that I've been doing this work.

38:20 And then as a as a final fight like anything that you so looking out 20 years from now, what do you think will be different based on the work about? Yeah, we're laying the work that came Generations. Before us. The works of the young people coming up. How do you think things will be different on these issues?

38:48 I think that they're going to know like what specific resources, they need. What position, what specific policies, they want an active and they have different platforms to get that message out that we had before. And so I'm just always impressed when, you know, people are able to mobilize and not to say this is what the issue is, but here's what you can do about it. And so I'm just I think for things like human trafficking and missing and murdered indigenous people were at a turning point where we think traction and people know it's a problem and once they know as long as they know how they can address it. Then we can start to get their resources, the momentum, and the will of everyday people to do.

39:48 I think about it. So I think twenty years from now. I'm hoping we're going to see a completely different landscape. I just, you know, I want us to be at a place where you wouldn't think about, you know, taking advantage of somebody's labor or sexually exploiting them, or harming them in any way because you see their equal value as a human being.

40:16 Call Michelle, thank you for your time today. I think you are are average called her Passing By Us in the building. Everyday. May not know the stories and the lived experience that let us to all work together. I'm on these issues. And now when we see each other, we want to learn so much more. I want to learn about your grandfather and what his life was like, working in and traveling with family with the large family. I have so many more questions and thank you for sharing part of something that's personal to you. And

41:10 And just connecting at this level. It it it feels so foreign in the day today and I feel blessed to have the special opportunity for us to have this conversation.

41:26 Well, thank you Katherine. And next time we talk. I want to hear all about your surgery.

41:34 Thank you.