Casey Sixkiller is the first to admit that his surname attracts its fair share of raised eyebrows.
“We’ve heard various stories [about its origin],” Sixkiller said. “In Cherokee Nation, there’s everything from Onekillers through Tenkillers. People tell me, ‘Oh, you’re just about average.’”
An enrolled citizen of the tribe, Sixkiller joined SNR Denton last month as a senior adviser in the firm’s Indian Law and Tribal Representation practice as well as the broader Public Law and Public Strategies practice. His work helping the Cherokee Nation open a Washington office in 2001 and his past experience on Capitol Hill have prepared him well to counsel the law firm’s clients—particularly tribal governments—as they navigate the ins and outs of Washington, Sixkiller said.
Sixkiller’s addition to SNR Denton comes as public policy issues related to Native Americans are receiving renewed attention under the Obama administration. In 2009, President Obama appointed Kimberley Teehee, also a member of the Cherokee Nation and a former colleague of Sixkiller on the Hill, to the new position of senior policy adviser for Native American affairs.
In June, Obama signed into law the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010, meant to bolster law enforcement and combat high rates of violent crime on Indian reservations. Most recently, the administration tapped a former principal at SNR Denton, Tracey LeBeau, to lead the new Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs at the Department of Energy.
Although he has spent much of his career consulting and working with tribal governments, Sixkiller grew up thousands of miles away from the Cherokee Nation’s homelands.
His father, Sonny Sixkiller, was born in Tahlequah, Okla., the capital of Cherokee Nation, but economic depression in the state prompted the family to move to southern Oregon for better job opportunities when Sonny was an infant. The Sixkillers themselves were not participants in the official government program, but many Cherokee were taking part in a similar exodus in the 1950s as part of the federal Indian relocation policy, which encouraged Native Americans to leave their reservations and “assimilate” into the general population.
Sonny Sixkiller went on to an illustrious career in college football, becoming starting quarterback for the University of Washington Huskies and gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated in October 1971 as the “Washington Wonder.”
Despite their physical distance from the wider Cherokee community, Casey Sixkiller and his brothers nevertheless always felt a kinship with their ancestry. “We never lost touch with who we are—each of us is very proud to be Cherokee,” Sixkiller said.
In 2000, he graduated from Dartmouth College with a degree in government and Native American studies. He soon landed a job as a legislative assistant to Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., on the House Ways and Means Committee. A year later, when the Cherokee Nation was seeking help in opening up a Washington office and Sixkiller was a young Hill aide, he was eager to sign onto the effort.
With only one other staff member, he was charged with building a government affairs operation from the ground up in Washington and forging relationships with Congress, federal agencies, and administrative offices, as well as with other national organizations and tribal governments.
“Chief [Chad] Smith—he had a vision back then that as Cherokees, we needed to own our relationship with the federal government,” Sixkiller said. “It was an emotional experience for me to be this young kid coming off the Hill and having a really fast reality check.”
The job also allowed Sixkiller to travel to Oklahoma each year to commemorate the signing of the Cherokee Nation Constitution and rediscover the place where his grandparents had grown up.
Sixkiller took an interest in politics and policy at an early age. He remembers attending a forum with a Seattle City Council member as a student in middle school and speaking out about chronic underfunding of his neighborhood. “I asked a question about why is this the way it is,” Sixkiller said. “And she kind of looked at me like, ‘You’re just a kid, what do you know?’”
But being young wasn’t enough to deter him from diving into policy work, Sixkiller said. Following his stint with the Cherokee Nation, he went to work with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., as her principal policy adviser on transportation, housing and community development, and Native American affairs.
Sixkiller has also served as executive vice president of McBee Strategic Consulting, where he led the firm’s tribal practice from 2007 to 2010. In July, he launched his own government and business consulting firm, Sixkiller Consulting, where he will continue to serve as president even as he takes on new responsibilities for SNR Denton.
Casey is married to Mariah Sixkiller, senior policy adviser to Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who moves today from House majority leader to minority whip.
“If I wasn’t able to work on tribes and local governments, then I wouldn’t be here anywhere,” Sixkiller said of his turn in Washington. “It’s so important to touch and feel and see the fruits of your labors and the opportunities to do that are few and far between.”
This article appears in the January 5, 2011, edition of NJ Daily.