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Wanda Batchelor: The First Tribal Chairwoman of the Washoe Talks About Empowering Her People

Wanda Batchelor has broken through many barriers in her lifetime. She became the first Native American cadet graduate of the Auburn Police Department. She was the first full-blooded Native American female State Park Peace Officer. And in 2010, she was elected as the first female tribal leader of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California.

Batchelor never intended to carve herself a place in history as the first in many areas. She has simply followed the guidance of her family, who have always encouraged her to break the mold and follow her gut, and, most recently, pursued her vision to empower her people. "The people must have their voice," she said shortly after winning the election.

“I come from strong leaders, and as a traditional practitioner, I am wise in what I need to be doing for my people,” she told Indian Country Today Media Network.

Batchelor beat out seven men for the role as tribal leader. Now in the second year of her four-year term, she is looking ahead to what she wants to leave behind for the 1,532 enrolled members of the Washoe tribe, the first people of the Lake Tahoe region.

The Washoe leader, who is married to a man named Rocky and has two adult sons, shares her vision for the future of her tribe, and tells us what she believes is her most important mission.

Why compelled you to run for Tribal Leader?

I didn’t even make the decision to run until the day of the election, when it was time to put your name in the hat. I had asked my family, and they said, “Go for it!” I feel it was a great opportunity to bring all my expertise and experience to the table to envision where we are going next.

What qualities do you hold that make you a strong leader?

To aspire to be a leader, you must be a good listener, well-read, educated, have a strong work ethic, a strong back and a good heart. I strike a good balance. All the gifts that have been given to me from the Creator have brought me to this place to accept this challenge, and I am very comfortable in that. Not only have we made history, but it is an opportunity to shift the paradigm to another place where we need to go.

As a woman, what do you bring to the role of chairperson to create positive change in your community?

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I think a woman could be a part of this change, but it must be the tribal membership first—what do they want? A lot of them want economic development for job opportunities, housing and to be in management positions. Slowly, but surely, with education as a priority, you push it in that direction.

Do you work with other female tribal leaders?

Yes, I do.Right now, we are pushing forward with a violence against Indian women reauthorization. All the tribal women leaders pull together. We have a sisterhood, so we rely on each other for guidance and professional development.

If you had one solitary mission as tribal leader, what would it be?

To strengthen our language. It’s in limbo. Our fluent speakers are passing on. It’s paramount that we step up and learn our language because it defines who we are and differentiates us from others. The Washoe language is very unique.

What are you doing to keep your language alive?

We have language classes and are developing a special language revitalization program. We also teach Washoe to our children in our schools. Because our families are intermarrying, many of the children are trilingual in Washoe, English and Spanish.

Your ancestral homelands include Lake Tahoe and the valleys along the eastern face of the Sierra Nevada mountains of Northern California and Nevada. What significance does this area hold to you and your people?

It still is ours. This is the aboriginal homelands of the Washoe people. The lake is the jewel of the Sierras—and our healing waters. My elders said if you have problems, go to the waters and wash your face. Forgive and heal and move forward. In a perfect world, we would love to have a large land holding come back to our people. But we do understand that everyone wants to live in Lake Tahoe.

What is your vision for your people?

That we all learn to forgive each other. Sometimes we carry on past hurts, but our past doesn’t define us. What does define us is how we embrace that and move forward in a good way. My vision is that we have a strong, stable nation where everyone’s needs are met, where we are all responsible and accountable for each other. And honor each other.