Alum Sherri Berdine comes full circle to lead the University’s new Office of Tribal Relations

Sherri Berdine supports and strengthens the University’s relationships with nearly 40 tribal nations in the Pacific Northwest.

Sherri Berdine facilitates sharing knowledge, supporting research opportunities and promoting educational opportunities for tribal members and descendants.

Sherri Berdine, ’08, had a rocky start as a University of Washington undergraduate. She was the first in her family to attend college, and it took her a while to find her community on campus. All that changed when she joined First Nations @ UW, a student organization that focuses on cultural traditions and concerns in the Native community. Berdine also found a faculty mentor in the Department of American Indian Studies who encouraged her to pursue classes that interested and engaged her. “I really think those things led me to where I am now,” she says.

Now a year into her current role as the UW’s director of tribal relations, she reports directly to the UW’s president and to the vice president for external affairs. Her duties include managing the relationships between the UW and the American Indian tribes throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Berdine was raised in Washington with Indigenous values and traditions. Her heritage is Alaska Native (Aleut & CIRI Descendent). She met Professor Dian Million, also of Alaska Native heritage (Tanana), at a low point during her first year on campus. “She sensed that I was struggling,” Berdine says of Million. “She saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. I think it was really because of her guidance and patience and humility that I was able to quickly get back on track and feel confident in my abilities to complete my degree.”

Long intrigued by policy, Berdine took classes in sociology, American Indian Studies and political science without considering a major. When she finally met with a UW adviser about declaring a major, she was told she had already completed all the requirements for a sociology degree. By the time she graduated, determined to work with Native communities, she was just one course shy of a second major in American Indian Studies.

Volunteering in Sen. Patty Murray’s office let to a permanent job. Over two years, Berdine worked her way up from staff assistant to constituent services representative to intern coordinator. She was involved with tribal affairs as well, attending tribal events where she sometimes spoke on Murray’s behalf. “I was 21 or 22 at the time, so this was really big and exciting for me,” she says.

Next came a job in Washington, D.C. with Kauffman & Associates, one of the oldest and largest Native women-owned government consultancy firms. Again, Berdine quickly moved up the ranks. Her focus was managing government projects on behalf of tribes, serving as the intermediary between the tribal governments and U.S. government stakeholders.

Berdine stayed seven years, completing a Master of Jurisprudence in Indian law from the University of Tulsa College of Law while working full time. After establishing a Seattle office for Kauffman & Associates, she decided it was time for a new challenge—but it had to be the right fit.

Then she heard about the job at the UW.

Director of tribal relations is a new position developed by the UW in collaboration with tribal leadership. It was envisioned as the primary point of contact for tribes in relation to the University, with responsibilities that include coordinating visits with University leaders, providing access to UW programs, and helping UW faculty and staff build relationships and partnerships with Indigenous communities.

“When I saw the job description, I thought, ‘If I could draft my own job description, this is what it would be,’ ” says Berdine. “It included all the pieces that I liked from my last job and left out everything I didn’t like. It was really incredible.”

Berdine started in her new role in March 2022. She spent her first few months talking with departments and units across campus to understand their relationships with tribes and to identify opportunities for future collaboration.

“I’ve met with almost every college and department and learned about so many intersections and collaborations with Indigenous communities,” she says. “Based on what I’ve seen, we have decent relationships with a lot of tribes. But there’s also room for improvement. Relationship building is at the core of this position.”

Berdine notes other promising developments at the UW since her time as a student, including the adoption of land acknowledgments across campus, the appointment of the first Native American to the Board of Regents, and the opening of —Intellectual House, a learning and gathering space for American Indian and Alaskan Native students, faculty and staff. She is part of an effort to realize a long-planned phase 2 for —Intellectual House—a student-centered building adjacent to the current one. And she is involved in efforts to establish tuition waivers in Washington state for members of federally recognized tribes, similar to a program adopted by the University of California system.

There’s a lot on Berdine’s plate—and that suits her. “As an Alaska Native woman, I was always trying to figure out where I could find my place as a leader in my community,” she says. “It turns out that I found it here at the UW. As a UW undergraduate, I immersed myself in policy and tribal affairs, and that shaped my whole worldview and what was possible to me. Taking on this role now, it feels like I’ve come full circle.”