LAPWAI, Idaho -- Women have been assuming ever-increasing leadership roles
on the Nez Perce reservation, and 2005 saw several women assume top-level
positions with the tribe.
Topping the list was the election of Rebecca Miles as chair of the tribal
executive committee. Miles is the first woman elected to that office.
Achieving that position, both as a woman and someone just 32 at the time,
is an amazing accomplishment.
"I grew up on the reservation with many families like mine. I didn't grow
up going to the longhouse with traditional songs and practices, but my
family did practice many cultural traditions," she said. She came from a
Presbyterian family and had a grandfather who was a Presbyterian minister.
Following graduation from Lapwai High School, Miles enrolled at Washington
State University and met an elder, Ron Pond from the Umatilla reservation,
who was working on his doctorate. Miles credited Pond and his wife with
encouraging her to seek out tribal ways and history, saying one was never
too old to learn those things.
She graduated from Washington State University in 1997 with a degree in
criminal justice. While she enjoyed criminal justice, she soon realized it
would be difficult to find a job with her own people, and she began looking
at other options. She credits her years at WSU as providing a lot of
real-life experiences. "I was a leader in all the various organizations on
campus, probably more than as a student. I was drawn to those types of
things. In my present job I still remember some of those real-life
experiences I got as an undergrad," she said.
She enrolled at Gonzaga University in 1999, now with two young children,
and began a masters program that eventually led to a master's degree in
Miles returned to the tribe as a full-time communications specialist and
newspaper editor. She was also involved with a tribal department that works
with the Department of Energy on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Then it
was on to the Lapwai School District for about three years while also
serving as general council chairman for the tribe for about four-and-a-half
years, all the time gaining more experience.
At that point she again applied to WSU. "I always wanted to go back and
work on a doctorate," she said. An opportunity also came up to run for the
Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee. "I was back and forth," she added. "I
finally decided to run for office and was elected so turned down the
position at WSU. I have many friends there and hated to turn it down.
Someday I will definitely go back to WSU for a Ph.D."
One week after being elected, the United States, the state of Idaho and the
Nez Perce Tribe released the terms to the Nez Perce Water Settlement, one
of the most significant actions in many years. "It was a very difficult
time and place to be because it was one of the toughest decisions to make.
The hardest thing was educating our people about what it was and what has
gone on the last 17 years with our water," she said. "We held 17 or 18
meetings. I only missed a few. It was tough and I received a lot of
criticism. I was the first to come out and say what my decision would be,
so I took a lot of criticism for that as well."
What about being the first Nez Perce female chair? "I think more about my
age and less about gender," she responded. "A lot of criticism comes with
the territory. No job at this level comes without criticism. With the
colleagues I work with now, I don't see gender being an issue and think for
the most part I am supported.
"I have heard more criticism than I expected because I was raised here.
People have a tendency to think you change the minute you become a
committee member. That's just not the case. I think people change around
you rather than you changing. I also receive a lot of compliments and
support as well, probably equal to the criticism." Miles continued,
"There's a pace in this job I need to keep. I understand the job very well
and if I slow down enough to think about it I become a bit overwhelmed
about how big the responsibility is."
"The work has been very good. We work mostly on those issues the tribe
faces as a whole. We don't spend a lot of time on issues like hiring and
firing; that's not what we're created to do. Sure, we have disagreements,
but we are together. I am quite fortunate to be experiencing this -- more
"I never had my eyes set on being in this position, as the chair. I did not
see it coming because this is just my first term and there had never been a
woman elected to the position, even though many women before me were worthy
of this seat. I originally thought I'd see how it was for three years and
then maybe go from there. Hopefully I've been of some influence," she