A role model to Native women

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As a Native American woman in the business world, role models who looked like me, and could talk about my kind of life experiences, have been rare.

But they've been powerful.

One of the most famous women of power from Indian Country in the modern era, Eloise Cobell, made her name fighting for a $3.4 billion settlement for Indians against the U.S. Department of the Interior.

That settlement was a monumental sign that Native Americans were taking back control of their rights. For decades, the Department of the Interior withheld royalty payments for oil, gas, timber and other rights, legally set aside for Native Americans and tribes. Cobell was treasurer of her Montana Blackfeet Nation tribe when she discovered the foul play. She'd already won a “genius grant” for launching the first U.S. reservation bank owned by a tribe, and she used the grant money to help push suits against the Interior's royalty theft.

Cobell's Blackfeet National Bank sought to expand its model of assisting financial progress in Native American communities by inviting national tribal investors. Native American Bank was formed and moved to Denver, now owned by 32 tribes and tribal corporations.

Today, one of my other role models, Congresswoman Deb Haaland of New Mexico, has made her name as the choice to lead the Department of the Interior.

I met the congresswoman in Albuquerque once, and I was struck by her fierce protectiveness of Indian lands and her frank warmth about her personal life. She's proud of her law degree, but is quick to note she was a single mom still paying off law school debts while running for Congress.

These are facts to cheer for, from a mom like me trying to promote Indian opportunity as a community development bank executive, while also managing my kids' remote schooling.

Haaland has a sharp focus on environmental justice, and now she's going to be the first Native American to lead the Department of the Interior. For most people in Indian Country, that's a full circle. She exemplifies the idea of Native Americans as stewards of the land.

There's a sense of justice. The Department of the Interior oversees 507 million acres of land, or about one-fifth of the surface area of the United States. All of that land was once inhabited or controlled by Native Americans long before any national government was set up to mark the boundaries.

A key section of the $20 billion-a-year department is the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) — one of the most important, and for a long time, one of the most despised institutions in the life of Indian Country.

There's so much bad history with the “old” BIA — from outright theft of Indian lands to notoriously cruel family separations, boarding schools to corrupt agents, and to promotion of culture-destroying alcohol, to name a few.

By the time I worked for BIA in 2009, it had transformed for the better. I had the honor of working with talented and driven people who shared the goal of protecting tribes' hard-won, nation-to-nation relationship with the federal government.

My childhood home is just outside the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming where my Northern Arapaho family lives. I wish I could say I grew up knowing all about Cobell, other leaders like her and every challenge that was overcome to arrive at this moment. But that kind of pride and learning from elders came later for me.

With the worthy elevation of people like Haaland, young Native American girls won't have to wait to discover role models that look, sound and think like them. The importance of moments like this is for Native American children to have role models that make any racial stereotypes they've grown up with a little less powerful, a little less hurtful.

A cabinet-level appointment like this for a Native American is validation of tribal sovereignty, and assures representation of Indian Country at the highest levels of U.S. government.

It lifts the spirits of all of Indian Country.

Shannon Ward of Littleton is a member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe and serves as vice president and chief lending officer for Native American Bank, which is a national, tribal-owned community development bank headquartered at 201 Broadway in Denver.

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