Native Women Warriors Set the Course for a Brighter Future by Hilary C. Tompkins
Stories told about Native Americans often paint a dark picture, with dire statistics of poverty, unemployment, suicide, domestic violence, and substance abuse. We know suffering, struggle, and disenfranchisement. But a lesser known and prevalent theme in Indian Country is one of enduring spirit and strength. We need to tell those stories because they are equally a part of our history and they will deeply influence our future. They also are often about strong, Native women.
This weekend, I attended the 25th Annual Environmental Film Festival’s showing of “100 Years: One Woman’s Fight for Justice” at the National Museum of the American Indian. The powerful cinematic piece tells the story of Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, and her quest for justice as the lead plaintiff in the largest class action suit filed against the United States on behalf of over 300,000 individual Indians. An unstoppable Native woman, who people didn’t take seriously at first, successfully took on big government and made it pay for past wrongs.
In 2009, I sat across the table from Elouise in settlement negotiations for the lawsuit in my new role as President Obama’s Solicitor for the Department of the Interior. At that stage of the litigation, there were deep scars on both sides and epic levels of mistrust. Elouise and I were on opposing sides—two native women, with our male negotiating teams. I witnessed Elouise’s strength first hand. She was tough, tireless, and committed to her mission. There was much wrestling back and forth. After nearly seven months of intense negotiations, we reached a settlement. A key element of achieving peace was rebuilding trust between the parties. At one point, Elouise and I had an exchange about how our native traditions, not the western legal system, meant we needed to find a path towards healing. I have no doubt that the connection between Elouise and me as fellow native women – both holding influential positions that we never sought – helped make settlement possible.
Elouise Cobell’s story is not the only one. There are countless, other untold stories that we must tell about our grandmas, aunts, mothers, and sisters – women who quietly, with little fanfare, changed our odds in life, leveled out the playing field, and achieved justice. I recently watched a video from the 1970s of an NBC News interview with my grandmother, Bertha Lorenzo, whose life’s mission was to improve education for Native kids. She was interviewed about a new school being built and run by the Ramah Navajo community – the first of its kind. My grandmother quietly talked about the need for Indian kids to go to school to learn their language. She nodded in agreement when the interviewer asked her if it was important for Navajo kids to go to an Indian school and not a white school. The interviewer noted that she had not graduated from high school. The piece showed a mild-mannered and soft-spoken Navajo woman, who was in fact a fierce and tireless advocate for Indian education. My grandmother, along with her fellow Ramah school board members, was at the forefront in obtaining passage of the renowned “P.L. 93-638” and the establishment of the first Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act school in the nation – the Ramah Navajo Pine Hill school in New Mexico.
Great spirit and fortitude can come from unexpected and humble places. I draw upon my grandmother’s strength from the spirit world as I take on new challenges as a Native woman and lawyer. All of us in Indian Country need to share our stories about our Native women leaders as they are part of our first line of defense in the healing process. In honoring our female warriors, we empower ourselves.
Top left photo: Turk Cobell, his wife, and me celebrating at the White House his mother’s posthumous award of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in November, 2016.
Bottom right photo: Taken from Ramah Navajo School Board, Inc. website