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Spokane's new mayor sworn in to the beat of the drum

SPOKANE, Wash. - ''I, Mary Verner ... will faithfully and impartially perform and discharge the duties of the office of the mayor according to law to the best of my ability.'' Those words proclaimed Verner as mayor of Spokane, the first mayor with Native ancestry in this city bordering the river and ancestral homeland for the Spokane Tribe.

Verner, who has Muskogee ancestry, defeated the incumbent mayor and was sworn in Nov. 27 during a ceremony that reflected her Native ties.

Verner was introduced to the several hundred in attendance by Spokane Tribe Chairman Richard Sherwood. ''It's a great honor for me and as a member of the Spokane Tribe,'' he said. ''She's done a lot for Indian people since coming to the Northwest. She worked for the Spokane Tribe in our Natural Resources Department and did wonders. The effects of her being there are still felt today in a very positive way.''

The Lotmip drum group from the Spokane Reservation was introduced and sang an Honor Song, ''a song held in high esteem by the tribe in memory of an incident that occurred in the mid-1800s,'' Conrad Pascal commented, a Spokane elder and member of the drum group. That was followed by a ''happy dance.'' The final song was a Prayer Song, all sung in honor and respect for Verner. Verner was also offered a seat at the drum which she accepted.

Verner had laughed earlier about plans for the ceremony. ''I can say with confidence that this will be the first time we've had a drum for the swearing-in of a mayor.''

Pauline Flett, Spokane tribal elder, gave a prayer in the Salish language, further tying in the Native connection at the swearing-in ceremony.

Verner's speech lasted but two minutes. ''We all share values of respect and personal dignity. We place strong faith in our community. We share mutual goals of prosperity for everyone and hope for a world that will be even better for our great-grandchildren than it is for us today. ... I submit myself in service to you ... I look forward to serving you as your mayor.''

The city of Spokane is the largest city east of the Cascades in Washington and hub of the entire Inland Empire which includes portions of three states. The population slightly exceeds 200,000 and of that number, roughly 8,000 are Natives representing 127 different tribes.

Nearby tribes had voiced their support for Verner during the campaign. A letter signed by tribal leaders from the Coeur d'Alene, Spokane and Colville reservations reflected that support even though they are outside Spokane and thus not eligible to vote.

Verner's background makes her well qualified for the position. She holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology, a master's degree from Yale in environmental studies and a degree in law from Gonzaga University. She has been serving on the Spokane City Council, the Human Rights Commission and as executive director of the Upper Columbia United Tribes.

The campaign was long, expensive and, at times, somewhat bitter. At a reception before the election, she commented about the cost. ''It bothers me to place yard signs in medians and know there are people living in that car parked on the street. It caused me great discomfort to know we've had to spend this much to get a mayor elected. I'm recommitting myself, and to you, to work on campaign finance reform. This is ridiculous.''

Bitterness erupted when her opponent commented at a public forum where she was speaking that she shouldn't be trusted because of her association with tribes and how she would bring a tribal casino to downtown Spokane if she were elected. ''I got so angry,'' she said. ''Not because it was a slam on me but because he was stereotyping the people. It wasn't the first time my association with tribes had been used against me. Every time I heard it I felt honored.''

She decided to turn that into a ''teachable moment.'' ''Not what's wrong with being associated with tribes, but what's right about it. What's right about honoring the people whose ancestors were buried here 10,000 years ago?''

''That [negativity] really backfired on my opponent,'' Verner commented. ''It was very encouraging because it says there is certainly a really strong and fixed thread here in Spokane, a thread of respect for the tribes whose homeland the city sits on.

''At one point, I was labeled the liberal, tree-hugging Indian activist, or something to that effect,'' she laughed. ''My environmental background and record have really contributed to the success of this campaign. We have a comprehensive plan adopted in 2001 that's largely based on wanting to protect our natural environment. My background and experience in natural resources management made me a natural fit for a large segment of our voting population.

''The themes of my campaign carried through from beginning to end. They should be familiar themes to Native people: respect, inclusion, decisive leadership. Those really resonated with citizens of Spokane. I have some themes I wanted to bring to this campaign. I want to serve all the people and bring respect for this beautiful place, this place that's the homeland of Indian people by the river. I'll never forget this city was built on tribal homeland.''

Verner concluded, saying, ''It's interesting that all over the region folks have heard about and followed this race. My e-mail basket has just been full of congratulatory notes from colleagues in the coastal tribes, the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission and friends in Portland. I think folks have been tracking it at a level that I really didn't realize.''