BISMARCK — Erica Thunder took over the top job in the North Dakota Department of Labor and Human Rights earlier this month. In a couple of weeks, she’ll turn 30.
Despite that relative youth, Thunder wasn’t daunted by her new responsibilities.
Her resume includes stints with the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, of which she is an enrolled member and where she worked as a staff attorney on contracts dwarfing the size of the Labor Department’s two-year budget of under $3 million.
And the small size of the Indian Affairs Commission, the state agency where she most recently worked, meant Thunder was involved in a wide range of issues affecting tribes in North Dakota.
“I’ve always been in this area where that weight on my shoulders has been present but it didn’t scare me,” she said. “I just knew that I had a job at hand.”
Gov. Doug Burgum’s latest Cabinet appointment may be an early sign of the shifting demographics in the workplace. Millennials like Thunder became the largest generation in the U.S. labor force last year, the Pew Research Center said.
In North Dakota, the median age has declined over the past decade and was below the national figure in 2017, according to census figures. Thunder said the state has plenty of opportunities for young professionals.
“There have been for me,” she said.
Thunder’s appointment may also mark the first time a tribal member has led a North Dakota state agency outside of the Indian Affairs Commission, which is responsible for acting as a liaison between state and tribal governments. Scott Davis, the commission’s executive director, couldn’t remember another instance of it happening.
“She just happens to be a woman and just happens to be a very proud MHA tribal member,” he said. “She’s got the credentials.”
Thunder said she was “immensely proud” to apparently break such a barrier.
Burgum, a Republican who has made improving tribal relations a theme of his administration, touted Thunder’s “ability to approach issues with impartiality and compassion and her commitment to fairness and justice” when announcing her appointment last month.
After growing up in Bottineau, N.D., Thunder earned undergraduate and law degrees from the University of North Dakota. She joined the Indian Affairs Commission as the judicial systems administrator in late 2016.
Davis called Thunder a smart and approachable public servant with “thick skin” who handled some contentious and complicated issues in his department. He complimented her for “keeping everybody on the same page” during the search for Olivia Lone Bear, the New Town woman who was missing for months before she was found dead inside a truck pulled from Lake Sakakawea last summer.
During this year’s legislative session, Thunder helped advance bills recognizing the Bureau of Indian Affairs police as a federal law enforcement entity and adjusting a major tribal oil tax agreement, Davis said.
“She earned a lot of credibility in those committee rooms and both houses by her approach,” he said.
Thunder is now tasked with overseeing an agency that enforces the state’s labor and human rights laws while educating workers and employers about those statutes. It’s a lean agency composed of just 14 full-time positions.
Thunder took over for Michelle Kommer, who was appointed to lead the state Department of Commerce late last year. Kommer said she was “thrilled” by Thunder’s appointment.
“I gave her the advice to be herself,” she said. “I think she’ll be extremely successful.”