It was the first sunny weekend of spring, and 18 women representing tribes from across the country were tucked away in the woods on Bainbridge Island. They gathered together for three days of leadership training at the second annual Native Action Network “A Seat at the Table” Advocacy Boot Camp.
The goal of the weekend was to provide the women with tools and confidence in their ability to be leaders, while also fostering a sense of community between them.
On the first night, Cecelia FireThunder, Oglala Sioux, the first female president of her tribe and a longtime Native women’s rights advocate, guided the participants through a grounding and centering exercise to help build a sense of trust and connection.
She lit sage and passed it around the room, telling the women to close their eyes and ask their ancestors for guidance. While each woman took a turn smudging themselves, FireThunder sang a song in her language called “People Depend on Me and What I Do.”
“You come from amazing women generations past,” FireThunder told the group. “All you have to do is close your eyes and ask them for help. You’re not alone, remember that … all the women you come from are inside you and cheering you on.”
One at a time, FireThunder and leaders from the Native Action Network called each woman to the front of the room. They wrapped each participant in a Native made, Eighth Generation scarf and all exchanged hugs.
“We want to show that we are wrapping you into the Native Action Network Family,” said Senator Claudia Kauffman, Nez Perce, Washington State Senator from the 47th Legislative District and cofounder of Native Action Network. “We want to provide (you) with encouragement and the knowledge that you have all these ladies behind you, that you’re not alone.”
Conversations with women in elected office
Kitsap County Superior Court Presiding Judge Jennifer Forbes kicked things off on Friday night.
“(Never) wait until your turn, because your turn may never come,” Judge Forbes said, speaking of her own experience with imposter syndrome. “Don’t ever question your ability to be a leader. If you’ve done the work and you believe in yourself then go for it and see what happens.”
Later that night, FireThunder took the stage and began to weave a story, through words and gestures, about her life and experiences as a Native woman tirelessly advocating for the rights of other Native women. For half an hour, FireThunder captivated the audience, eliciting laughter and cheers and encouraging audience engagement.
“One of the most powerful gifts that has been given to women, and men are jealous, is what?” she asked the crowd. “Bringing forth the next generation.”
Throughout the weekend, FireThunder connected with the participants of the boot camp by answering their questions, listening to their stories and sharing more of her own experiences — she spoke about the many times she has been the only woman and person of color in a room full of white, male politicians. She talked about working as a nurse during the AIDS epidemic and working to bring access to reproductive healthcare to the Pine Ridge Reservation. She told stories about leading a workshop for Native women, where she taught them about their bodies and self pleasure.
Throughout it all, FireThunder reminded the women that in order to be leaders and advocates for their communities, they must trust themselves and create bonds with other strong Native women.
“There are no guidelines to be a leader — how many of you know that?” FireThunder asked the crowd on the first night of the camp. “Women's intuition is amazing. Follow your intuition.”
Peggen Frank, citizen of the Northern Arapaho Tribe and Oglala Lakota, provided an update on the 2023 Washington legislative session and her work representing several tribes as a Washington State contract lobbyist.
After hearing from women serving in different leadership positions throughout the weekend, the boot camp participants reflected on the issues important to them and how they might become greater advocates.
On Saturday, between a training on communication styles and rounds of professional headshots, Washington Senators Emily Randall, 26th District, and Claudia Kauffman, 47th district, shared advice to the women in the camp, based on years of experience as women of color in politics.
“Don’t wait to be recruited to run for office, go do it,” Kauffman said. “You have all of us behind you.”
Both Kauffman and Randall spoke about being young activists and how that propelled them forward to pursue a career in politics. While they both encouraged the women at the camp to consider the impact they could have as politicians, they also spoke to the importance of advocacy work on a more local level.
“Look for ways to serve wherever you are,” Randall said. “Wherever you are, you have the ability to lead and hold power.”
“The aunties are coming” — leaders of the future
Jessica Elopre, citizen of the Tlingit and Haida Tribes of Alaska, currently serves as the tribal delegate from Seattle for her tribal council. She applied to the boot camp to strengthen her leadership skills and to gain knowledge on how to better advocate for her community both in Seattle and back home in Alaska.
For Elopre, one of her main takeaways from the weekend was the ability to build her network of other Native women, something she believes will help her be a stronger leader.
“For me, leadership is not defined by just one set of skills,” Elopre said. “Being able to cooperatively work with others is a big thing that our community as a whole has always done. We rely on each other and I think if we can get back to that as a larger community, Native and non-Native alike, I think it would benefit the entire community.”’
Currently serving on her tribal council, the weekend may have inspired Elopre to strive for future leadership goals — perhaps even a dream to run for senator of her district in a few years, she said.
Other boot camp participants are also seriously considering running for elected positions.
Karen Elliot, also a citizen of the Tlingit and Haida Tribes of Alaska, ran for tribal council twice in the past and was not elected — but she left the weekend full of renewed vigor and determination to run again.
“Now I have new tools, speaking tools,” Elliot said. “The aunties are coming.”
Trisha Kautz, Quinault, grew up in a political family on the Quinault Indian Reservation. Both her father and grandfather served on tribal council and Kautz remembers listening to their conversations and being curious about what it would be like to be on tribal council. But Quinault tribe requires tribal council members to live on the reservation, and Kautz also knew she wanted to move off the reservation.
After participating in last year’s Legacy of Leadership Cohort with Native Action Network, an idea began to form, one that continued to grow during the weekend boot camp — she wants to advocate for the creation of a seat on tribal council that would be open to members who live off-reservation.
“If you don’t try, you’re never gonna know,” Kautz said.
Not only would this open up a seat for Kautz to run, but she believes it would benefit the entire community as more people live off reservation, in part due to lack of housing on the reservation. Kautz also proposed that if an off-reservation seat was created, that person should be required to spend a few days each month on the Quinault reservation.
Many of the other 18 participants expressed other forms of what advocacy and leadership may look like in their own lives. During a media messaging training hosted by Shayna Daitch, outreach director for Senator Patty Murray, participants chose an issue relevant to their community and practiced presenting a potential solution.
Among the key themes that arose: access to affordable housing, culturally relevant mental health care and the need for better school curriculum. The activity prompted some of the women to express interest in running for different boards or committees in their communities.
Though the boot camp itself only lasted three days, the women have a few other events lined up throughout the year. They include a public speaking and communication coaching session in June, an appointment boards and commissions workshop in September and, in December, a campaign training and graduation day.
“Boot camp, it’s all about creating an opportunity for these ladies to further along their leadership journey,” Kauffman said. “It’s all about knowing that you can do this, trying to do away with this self doubt that we all have.”
Creating a Native sisterhood
The word “leadership” is often used to represent the ability to take charge. It can be seen as a solitary position — sometimes equated to being the one in control.
Perhaps the biggest theme reiterated over the weekend was that good leadership is about community and connection.
“If you can create these connections and these safe spaces for women to have conversations, dialogue, dream, ask questions, be supported — they can do anything,” said Iris Friday, Tlingit, co-founder of Native Action Network and current board treasurer. “You can see it happening already. The wheels are spinning and they are thinking of ways they can have a larger voice, a seat at the table. And they now have this network of sisters who are going to support them.”
Between workshops and sessions with speakers, the women at the boot camp had time for intentional bonding — including the assignment of a random roommate.
The first night, after the scarf ceremony, leaders paired women up and told them to get to know each other and then introduce their partner to the group.
On Saturday, they participated in an active trust exercise led by an IslandWood staff member.
A short walk through the woods led to “the whale watch,” essentially a giant teeter-totter. The women had to work together as a team to get everyone on the platform and have it totally balanced, with a few participants staying on the sidelines to guide the process. Accompanied by laughter and cheers, the group was successful. Afterward, they reflected on the different communication styles and trust the activity had required.
Later that night, the women gathered by a fire and opened up about their lives. Some shared secrets they had never told.
“You’re not alone. We’re here for you,” said Misha Rodarte, Diné, vice president of Native Action Network. “That’s what this is all about. Our sisterhood, our community.”
On the last day, the group of women gathered outdoors in a circle. As they shared their reflections on the weekend, there was barely a dry eye in the group.
“Only Native women will laugh and cry at the same time so beautifully,” said Breanna Foulkes, Puyallup, a participant in the boot camp.
Going around the circle, the women expressed an overwhelming sense of connection, friendship, love, belonging, empowerment and a strong call to action.
“I want to say thank you to you because you invested in yourselves,” Kauffman said. “We as Native women need to do that. It’s really investing in the future.”
Lead photo: From left, Emma Jo Velador, Quinault and Mexican; Jeannette Allen, Niimiipuu (Nez Perce); and Christina Fernandez Laigo, Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate of the Lake Traverse Reservation, celebrate as the team successfully balances another teammate on the giant teeter-totter during a trust exercise at the Native Action Network “A Seat at the Table” Advocacy Boot Camp. (Nika Bartoo-Smith, ICT/Underscore News)