Cherokee Nation leader an ambassador for Americans for Indian Opportunity organization

July 22, 2013

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The Cherokee Nation’s executive director of government relations was recently selected as an ambassador for the Americans for Indian Opportunity leadership program.

Courtney Ruark-Thompson, 32, waded through a lengthy application process and was accepted to the program this past April. The 17 ambassadors represent five countries and 18 tribes and serve a two-year term. Ruark-Thompson participated in the first gathering July 7-14 at the AIO headquarters in Albuquerque, N.M.

“It is an honor to be an AIO Ambassador in the 2013-14 class,” Ruark-Thompson said. “As an ambassador, I am surrounded by amazing leaders who are all going to create positive change in their communities.”

The AIO Ambassador Program is a leadership development and community building initiative based on traditional indigenous values for Native Americans. Ambassadors are asked to propose an initiative during the application process and, if selected, implement their initiative within their community.

Ruark-Thompson is using values-based messaging and traditional storytelling in Cherokee Nation communities to talk honestly about experiences with mental illness and substance abuse.

“The initiative I have developed is how to talk about subjects that may be taboo but that we all experience in our own families and see in our communities,” Ruark-Thompson said. “I am most passionate about behavioral health issues, such as mental health and substance abuse. I’ve experienced some of these personally and so has my husband. These illnesses can be hereditary, so our son could potentially experience them as well.

“By the time he could potentially encounter these issues, I do not want there to be a stigma attached to them, and I believe the best way to erase that stigma is to start talking about them.”

The project aims to teach people how to share their own stories and be vulnerable to show others they are not alone in what they experience.

“The AIO Ambassadors is an important national leadership program for Native professionals,” said Principal Chief Bill John Baker. “Courtney’s selection and participation will allow her to bring back everything she learns to the Cherokee Nation and help drive good policies that help our citizens. Developing talented staff who wants to make a difference in our Cherokee communities is important to me, and I am proud Courtney is able to represent the Cherokee Nation."

The Kingfisher, Okla., native and Cherokee citizen graduated magna cum laude from the University of Oklahoma with a degree in political science. Ruark-Thompson currently lives in Tahlequah with her husband, Grant. The couple has one son, John Oxley. She is the daughter of Kim Glazier of Edmond and Kirk Ruark of Vinita.

Before being hired as the Cherokee Nation executive director of government relations, Ruark-Thompson directed the Native American Leadership Program for Wellstone Action and served as a legislative assistant for U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, who is currently the co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus.