Joaquin R. Gallegos ’14, who studied public health at CU Denver, was recently appointed Special Assistant to Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs within the Department of Interior. Gallegos and other DOI appointees “work to advance President Biden’s agenda to tackle climate change, protect endangered wildlife, and honor relationships and trust responsibilities with Indigenous communities,” according to a department press release states. Gallegos (Jicarilla Apache Nation/Pueblo of Santa Ana) earned his position in the Biden-Harris administration after succeeding as a student—even though he didn’t expect to attend college.
Serendipity & American Indian Student Services
Serendipity played a role in Gallegos’ life, as it did with other first-generation college students (see Mallozzi and Tangchittsumran profiles). “Finding my way to higher education was an accident,” Gallegos said. “Although I was raised to reflect upon the world, I did not see college on my horizon, believing the opportunity was out of reach. To secure a meal for my family during a challenging time, I attended a Title VI – Indian, Native Hawaiian, and Alaska Native Education college fair.”
That’s where American Indian Student Services (AISS) recruited him. With their help, Gallegos got connected to the American Indian College Fund, which enabled him to attend college at CU Denver. “AISS is fundamental to my development because it helped me to navigate CU, provided resource referral, and advocated for my academic and financial needs,” he said. “AISS helped me to secure the courage in myself to elevate and provided me opportunities to learn as an American Indian first-generation student, which perhaps is an isolating experience.” Gallegos’ sister Anjelica Gallegos also ended up attending CU Denver.
AISS also helped Gallegos make important connections. “Early on, AISS helped me to train at the Centers for American Indian and Alaska Native Health at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus, where I worked with premier Indian health leaders including Spero Manson, Terry Batliner, and Ursula Running Bear,” he said.
Indigenous Professors Served as Mentors
At CU Denver, various Native American professors helped Gallegos learn important lessons—inside and outside the classroom. In the Department of Integrative Biology, Associate Professor Timberley Roane, PhD, (Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina) helped Gallegos value science. “Professor Roane strengthened my training in the classroom to understand complex biology and refreshed science opportunities for Native students, including the CU Denver American Indian Science and Engineering (AISES) and Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) chapters,” Gallegos said.
Gallegos also explained how Political Science Associate Professor Glenn Morris, JD, influenced him: “Professor Morris and the Fourth World Center energized me to thrive because I learned federal Indian law and trained to engage global and federal leaders by participating in the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and other real-world mechanisms to advance Indian policy needs and priorities.”
Shifting from Medicine to Law
As a full-time student at CU Denver and part-time worker at the Centers for American Indian and Alaska Native Health at CU Anschutz Medical Campus, Gallegos developed important leadership skills. “I supported research that influenced policy-making, including the Affordable Care Act, and engaged Indian Country from the Alaskan tundra to the Badlands in South Dakota,” he said.
This may have been a turning point for Gallegos. “While I originally worked to become a medical professional, I eventually learned law and policy can reshape the health and well-being of Indian Country and the nation,” he said. After he graduated from CU Denver, he shifted his focus. “I went on to serve as a policy fellow to former U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan at the Aspen Institute where I supported the Obama Administration’s Indian policy development, including the creation of the Generation Indigenous initiative, the first-ever comprehensive policy matrix focused on Indian youth, and helped bolster the Indian Child Welfare Act,” Gallegos explained.
After that experience, Gallegos decided to study law at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. During and after law school, he was able to use his legal skills to focus on Native American issues. “I served as a legal fellow to former Vice Chairman U.S. Senator Tom Udall on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. After graduation, I served as a legislative staff attorney to the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe,” he said. “Most recently, I served as a law clerk to Judge Allison H. Eid on the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.”
Indigenous Expertise & U.S. Evolution
Gallegos’ personal experiences help him bridge Indigenous knowledge and government policy. “Growing up in New Mexico, Colorado, and Montana and working across other parts of Indian Country provides me with first-hand rural and urban perspectives,” he said.
Native American Heritage Month is a good time to reflect on the relationship between Native Americans and the U.S. government. Gallegos discussed important connections: “Tribal Nations are critical to the evolution of the United States, as recognized in the U.S. Constitution and centuries of Supreme Court, congressional, and executive activity in Indian affairs.”
Gallegos thinks Native American knowledge may help address current issues. “Indigenous expertise is needed now more than ever to address the pressing questions of our time,” he said.
Native American Heritage Month also presents an opportunity to honor Native American veterans, something that affects Gallegos personally. “I especially honor Native veterans and service members of the Armed Forces, including my grandfather, a WWII Japanese POW and Bataan Death March Survivor, and two uncles, combat veterans in Vietnam,” he said. “For over 200 years, American Indians and Alaska Natives have defended the U.S. during every major conflict and continue to serve at a higher rate than any other ethnic group.”
Gallegos is honored to serve in the Biden–Harris administration as Special Assistant to the Assistant Secretary. The Assistant Secretary’s office works to strengthen government-to-government and nation-to-nation relationships with American Indian and Alaska Native tribes, as well as to advocate for AI/AN tribes.
Gallegos acknowledged that his mentors and experiences at CU Denver paved the way for his success. “My achievement stems from direct investment by AISS, the American Indian College Fund, and educators who saw the potential in me, even when I doubted myself,” he said.