Eddie F. Brown, DSW,, is a social work scholar, policy advocate, and Indigenous Elder whose work has made a lasting impact on Indian Country. Brown has served at the highest administrative levels in federal, state, and tribal governments as well as within universities and social work education. He is known for skillfully navigating roadblocks and shaping policies, research, and services, while mentoring large numbers of American Indian social workers to make lasting changes in the lives of Indigenous people and communities.
Brown served as Chief of the Division of Social Services, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Washington, D.C. (1984-1986), Director of Arizona Department of Economic Security (1987-1989), Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, U.S. Department of Interior, Washington, DC (1988-1993), Executive Director of the Department of Human Services, Tohono O'odham Nation (1993-1996), associate dean and the director of the Center for American Indian Studies at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work, Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri (1996- 2004). From 2002-2015, Brown served a member of the U.S. President's Board of Advisors on Tribal Colleges and Universities and as director of American Indian Studies and co-executive director of the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University (2005-2015).
After retiring from Arizona State University, he served as co-chair, National Congress of American Indians National Research Center Advisory Board and on the board of directors of Tohono O'odham Nation’s gaming enterprise, bringing his insight and expertise to spaces not often occupied by social workers.
Brown’s career spans decades but especially noteworthy is his early work in the era of Indian Self-determination, accomplishments as the assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, legacy as director of the Buder Center, and overall impact of his work.
Brown earned his DSW from University of Utah in 1975, a key juncture in our nation’s history for social policies for American Indians, often known as the Self-determination Era. As one of very few American Indians with a doctorate in social work, he frequently worked with federal and state authorities on government programs for American Indians. He crafted proposals, subsequently funded, to develop a mechanism giving tribes direct access to federal funding allocated for state block grants, thus solving the problem of a tribe compromising its sovereignty by receiving funding from a state. Soon after, he filled a new position created by Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt to define how Arizona would interact with tribes in various arenas, creating a model that could be replicated nationwide.
Brown worked particularly closely with Senator Daniel Inouye, chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, and Senator John McCain, from Brown’s home state of Arizona. He frequently testified about issues and needs of American Indians, shaping initiatives on aging, health, and tribal self-determination. His work in Arizona became a prototype, leading other states to establish American Indian liaison officers and to develop mechanisms for tribes to have input into all areas where they have a stake. Brown’s work led to Native people having a seat at the table in many arenas.
In 1989, President George Bush nominated Brown to serve Assistant Secretary of the Interior. Brown was the first social worker to serve in this role. While Assistant Secretary he led a charge for self-governance legislation that recognized the rights of tribes to contract with the federal government to run their own programs. He was serving in this capacity when the Gaming Act was passed, providing the legal scaffolding for tribes to pursue economic development through building casinos, regardless of state laws that often prohibited this class of gaming. He was responsible for approving the first 50-60 tribal-state gaming compacts. Although this legislation challenged his personal belief system, he quickly realized the tremendous economic potential of gaming. Casino revenue ultimately enabled select tribes to develop scholarships and tribal colleges while improving infrastructure for health services, children’s services, and tribal law enforcement.
For eight years, Brown directed the Kathryn M. Buder Center, a scholarship program for Native students in the School of Social Work at Washington University. As its second director, Brown expanded the center’s vision beyond simply recruiting and educating students to include research on social work practice with American Indian communities, using findings to influence federal, state, and tribal social welfare policy development. In a university not known for having many Native American students, and in a state without any federally-recognized tribes, Brown’s influence made an impact well beyond Washington University and Missouri.
Brown’s innovative planning and creative strategies for growth helped build the Buder Center into a premier American Indian academic center, respected and recognized nationally for the advancement of Native social work students and the study of American Indian issues. His effort to procure almost $4 million in grant monies continues to positively impact current scholars. Brown piloted an American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) graduate recruitment program on a national scale and hosted the first National Pre-Graduate School Workshop for Native American College Students on this campus.
The recruitment strategies he initiated continue to play a part in graduating Native MSW students. He also conducted extensive research and co-authored numerous publications on a wide variety of American Indian social welfare issues, gaining national recognition for his work on child welfare and family services, welfare reform, American Indian youth and mental health services, and tribal asset development. These efforts established a foundation to influence practice and policy issues in Indian Country.
Perhaps his most important legacy from his work at the Buder Center was mentoring indigenous students in scholarship and capacity building of the center, and increasing the number of social workers prepared to serve Native people in both urban and tribal settings. He paved the way for many first-generation American Indian college students to succeed academically and enter the social work profession. Students he mentored have become leaders in the social work profession and national organizations including the current Executive Director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association while others have served in tribal government roles.
Throughout his career, Brown’s has endeavored to ensure tribal sovereignty, reduce poverty, and strengthen the sustainability of Tribal Nations, American Indian communities, and families, have been at the forefront of all his work. He pioneered an agreement that recognized tribal government sovereignty, took steps toward strengthening tribal capacity for self-governance, and guided the restructuring of the Office of Indian Education Programs. Brown directed research and demonstration projects on the impact of welfare reform on American Indian families and children, mental health assessment of American Indian youth, diabetes prevention in tribal communities, Title IV- E state/tribal agreements, Title IV-B funding for child welfare services, and state Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) compliance issues and is nationally recognized for his expertise working with tribal governments and community programs.
In 2014, Brown served as a member of the US Attorney General’s Task Force on AI/AN Children Exposed to Violence, a prestigious group that traveled the country gathering testimony to inform policy and practice recommendations. This ground-breaking work used a trauma-informed approach to collect data on violence in tribal communities, ensuring counselors were available to those providing testimony. Key findings include documenting that AI/AN children have extraordinarily high rates of exposure to violence and experience PTSD at the same rate as US combat veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The report emphasizes that treaties and trust responsibilities are mandatory, not discretionary, and offers explicit recommendations for how the federal government can live up to its responsibilities to secure and improve the wellbeing of AI/AN children and communities.
Brown continues to emphasize the importance of tribal- driven partnerships between universities and Indigenous Peoples with research priorities set by tribal nations.
He says that all aspects of research and social service initiatives must be tied to the tribal base that prioritizes issues identified by specific communities. Understanding sovereignty requires recognizing Tribal Nations have the right and ability to be self-governing, and this must not be undermined by anyone, including the federal government and human service professionals.
Brown opened the door to community-based partnerships in which tribes are fully involved in all aspects of data collection, review, and publications. This was on full display as Brown brought together, often for the first time, state, and tribal organizations to examine compliance with ICWA mandates. This important and enduring legacy has shaped our profession and country.
Dr. Eddie F. Brown was born December 26, 1945, in Ajo, Arizona, the youngest of eight children. He received his BS from Brigham Young University (1970) and both his MA (1972) and DSW (1975) in Social Work from the University of Utah. Brown became active in politics as a student, questioning how best to make an impact on behalf of American Indian people. Classes on community organizing, social policy, planning, and administration helped him envision pathways to change.
He is an enrolled member of the Pascua Yaqui Indian Tribe and affiliated with the Tohono O’Odham Nation. Brown’s commitment to strengthening families and children is reflected in his marriage of 50-plus years to Dr. Barbara Weems Brown. Eddie and Barbara have six children and some 14 grandchildren.
Significant Recognition and Awards
Details of his work and legacy can be found on his ASU profile at https://isearch.asu.edu/profile/750184.
Brown’s tireless work on behalf of all Native Americans was recognized in 2015 by the American Indian Policy Institute with the Silver and Turquoise Ball’s Honorary Leon Grant Award. https://aipi.clas.asu.edu/content/american-indian-policy-institutes-executive-director-dr-eddie-brown-be-honored-leon-grant
Brown was featured in a special issue of the journal Reflections: Narratives of Professional Helping entitled Honoring our Indigenous Elders in Social Work Education: Tovar, M. & Kastelic, S. (2015). A journey we’ve taken together: Dr. Eddie Brown. Honoring Our Indigenous Elders in Social Work Education, special issue of Reflections: Narratives of Professional Helping, 21(2), 45-48.
Brown was honored by the National Congress of American Indians in 2012 for his commitment to tribal sovereignty and his work to build strong, healthy Native communities. https://www.lakotatimes.com/articles/national-congress-of-american-indians-to-honor-professor-eddie-brown-in-washington-d-c/
Details of his work and legacy can be found on his ASU profile at https://isearch.asu.edu/profile/750184.
Brown, E.F. (2002). Capacity building and sustainability of tribal governments. Kathryn M. Buder Center for American Indian Studies.
Brown, E.F. (2002). Imagining a new future for American Indian human service systems. Kathryn M. Buder Center for American Indian Studies.
Brown, E.F. & Cornell, S. (2001). Welfare, work, and American Indians: The impact of welfare reform. Kathryn M. Buder Center for American Indian Studies/Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy.
Brown, E., Limb G., Scheuler-Whitaker, L., Clifford, C. Munoz, R. (2000). Tribal/State title IV-E intergovernmental agreements: Facilitating tribal access to federal resources. National Indian Child Welfare Association/Casey Family Programs (2000).