With more than 25 years in human resources, Karla Bylund has become a partner and advocate for many Indigenous nations across the United States.
Six years ago, the Schropfered family descendant started her own business offering a wide variety of human resources services to Tribal governments and enterprises.
Soaring Bird Solutions offers expertise in recruiting, crafting policy and procedure, handling employee investigations or grievances, employee training and development, compensation studies and strategic planning.
Many of her clients are smaller tribal nations with fewer than 100 employees, she said. When the tribal entity doesn’t have a dedicated human resources department, Soaring Bird Solutions can supplement HR or provide all the HR services needed.
The staff includes four full-time and two part-time employees. Bylund enjoys customizing services to fit a tribal nation’s diverse needs.
“We’ve done about 25 compensation studies for tribes, tribal casinos, tribal governments, tribal entities, and other large projects such as strategic planning or developing policies and procedures and HR audits,” she said. “We pretty much run the gamut of all HR and organizational development.”
Bylund has a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a master’s degree in organizational psychology. She holds a certificate in diversity and inclusion from Cornell University; and a senior human resource certification from the Society for Human Resource Management. She has served as a speaker for the National Native American Human Resource Association, the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development and the TribalNet Annual Conference.
Working across Indian Country
While working full-time for an organization in Washington state, Bylund also established a few consulting contracts. Through word-of-mouth, those contracts gradually multiplied until she found herself working 70-80 hours a week between her full-time job and her contract clients. She knew she could combine her HR expertise with her desire to serve Indian Country.
“Number one, I love the opportunity to meet other tribes, learn about the culture. I get to be introduced to their homes and what they do, and the different enterprises that they have. It’s pretty exciting for me because I just love learning about different tribal cultures,” Bylund said. “I also have flexibility and freedom to work from anywhere. I can do so much of it remotely.”
Bylund’s clients rely on her human resources knowledge and appreciate her respect for culture. She is uniquely positioned to meet their needs.
“I’m able to navigate through tribal culture and politics. There is a lot to say about having that knowledge of Indian Country and being a tribal member myself and having a sensitivity to the culture,” she said.
That knowledge has helped guide her. She understands the value of building relationships. She recalled one instance where she and a tribal leader spent an hour talking about tribal traditions before they even discussed the tribe’s business needs. Another H.R. consultant may not have realized they were expected to get to know the client first.
“In my career, I’ve seen numerous times where H.R. people were recruited from the outside, and it’s a different world. They can fumble because they may have all of the knowledge, but they don’t have all of the soft skills that it takes to navigate in Indian Country,” Bylund said.
Making a difference
Each day, she is grateful for the opportunity to be able to help tribal nations solve problems.
“My life motto is to make a difference,” Bylund said. “It’s very rewarding when I can go in and I can solve a problem. I’ve had so many clients who come back to me as repeat business, which tells me that they appreciated what I’ve done for them. We built a relationship.”
She is also excited about the moments when the knowledge she shares during training begins to click.
“I’m standing up there, and I see the lights go off and I see the ‘a-ha’ moments. It’s very rewarding for me. I was doing a supervisor skills training and afterwards one of the participants just came up and hugged me and said, ‘Nobody has ever taught us any of these things.’ It’s kind of a daily prayer of mine to make a difference and to be of value to my clients,” she said.
Bylund also offers her clients a unique understanding of the importance of sovereignty and tailors her services to help safeguard the nations she serves.
Some tribal nations may use a “copy and paste” approach when it comes to policy by using existing federal policy, she said. Bylund carefully reviews tribal policies and procedures to ensure their sovereignty is safeguarded.
“Sovereignty is very important to me. One of the things that I do when I go in and I work for a tribe is I look at their policies and procedures and make sure that they aren’t inadvertently waiving their sovereign immunity. I always recommend, ‘Write your own labor code, build your own labor code into your constitution and have your own laws so that there’s never any question you’re not waiving your immunity,’” she said.
Many Native nations are facing continual efforts by state governments to chip away at tribal sovereignty. Bylund is steadfast in her resolve.
“We have to continually battle to keep the states and the federal government from assuming control because (tribes) are sovereign,” she said. “A lot of tribes are very savvy and they do understand it, and they do fight it every step of the way. But some of these smaller ones just don’t have the resources, the team of attorneys, and they struggle. There’s many, many times that I’ve rewritten the policies to help them maintain their sovereignty.”
A nod to her heritage
The name of her business, Soaring Bird Solutions, was chosen for a very special reason.
“My Potawatomi name is Bird Who Soars. My aunt Betty is the one who named me. And honestly, with a name like Bird Who Soars, I felt like I didn’t have any choice but to go far in life,” Bylund said. “So, I called my business Soaring Bird Solutions to reflect my Potawatomi name. It reflects my culture and my background. And it’s also symbolic to strive to soar. One of the things that I say when I’m doing a proposal is, ‘We want our clients to soar.’”
Karla Bylund founded Soaring Bird Solutions in 2015. She has more than 25 years of experience in human resources and has worked with more than 30 tribal nations. The firm specializes in services including policy review, engagement surveys and more. They use a network of human resources professionals made available to the firm’s clients. Soaring Bird Solutions has exhibited at the National Center’s Reservation Economic Summit. During the coronavirus pandemic, the firm was able to serve its clients through connections made at past RES events. Bylund believes when Indian Country works together, all can prosper.