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Women Empowering Women for Indian Nations Honors LaDuke, Cobell, Others

A story by Susan Masten about WEWIN honoring several women, including Winona LaDuke and Elouise Cobell.
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It’s hard to believe, but WEWIN’s (Women Empowering Women for Indian Nations) eighth annual conference is quickly approaching. WEWIN was founded to foster personal and professional growth of Native women. At every conference, we host an honoring luncheon to pay tribute to an impressive group of women for their hard work, dedication and contributions to their tribal communities. We must support other women in their endeavors and appreciate the sacrifices they make to create a better future for our young ones.

This year, we’re excited to honor Winona LaDuke, Ada Deer, Margo Gray-Proctor, Arlene Weous, and the late Elouise Cobell. Their life achievements will be highlighted during the honoring luncheon on August 22 at Mystic Lake Casino & Hotel in Prior Lake, Minn.

LaDuke is an Anishinaabekwe enrolled member of the Mississippi Band Anishinaabeg. She is a mother of three, an activist, environmentalist, economist, and prolific writer. LaDuke has devoted her life to protecting Native lands and lifeways.

She is the founder of the White Earth Land Recovery Project and also the executive director of Honor the Earth, where she works on a national level to advocate, raise awareness, and create support for native environmental groups. In 1996 and 2000, she ran for vice president alongside Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader.

She has a powerful presence and a strong voice for the land and people, yet is quiet and gentle. Her work has motivated many of us, particularly young women who see her and think, “Yes, I can do this.”

Ada Deer, a member of the Menominee tribe, has a history of firsts. She was the first Menominee to earn a degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the first Native American to receive a Master of Social Work from Columbia University. Deer led a successful campaign to restore federal recognition of the Menominees and became the first woman to chair the tribe. She was the first Native woman in Wisconsin to run for Congress. In 1993, Deer was appointed head of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, the first Native American woman to hold that position.

A lifelong advocate for social justice and a champion of the rights of Indigenous peoples, Deer has long demonstrated an ability to overcome great obstacles. It requires gratitude, optimism, and tenacity—qualities she possesses in abundance.

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Margo Gray-Proctor, a citizen of the Osage Nation, is a dynamic third-generation entrepreneur. She is perhaps best known for her service as the Chairwoman of the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development, the organization which hosts the annual Reservation Economic Summit (RES) and American Indian Business Trade Fair. She is the first woman in its 40-year history to have held this position.

Gray-Proctor was named the 2011 Minority Small Business Champion by the Metropolitan Tulsa Chamber of Commerce. She is also a member of the newly established Native American Advisory Council of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. I’ve known Margo for many years, and admire her energy and refusal to downplay her Indian womanhood. She always brings it to the forefront whether she’s sharing her deeply personal experience with domestic violence, cancer and heart disease, or making sure that Indian women are recognized for their achievements and sacrifices.

Arlene Weous is a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. She is a founder of the Mille Lacs Community Healing Project, a grassroots initiative formed by community members following a series of tragedies, including the untimely death of her son. The support group welcomes community members to weekly gatherings where they discuss how they, their families, and their neighbors can end violence and make the Mille Lacs community safer.

The late Elouise Cobell, Blackfeet, was a dear friend for over two decades. When the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians (OST) was established in 1994, she brought me on as a member of its advisory board and we worked together for several years. She worked tirelessly, administration after administration, to bring justice to thousands of Individual Indian Money (IIM) account holders. She kept true to that mission despite years of litigation, setbacks, and even threats against herself and her family. She strongly believed in achieving trust accountability and hated that even one person died without being fairly compensated.

Many will remember Elouise as the Blackfeet woman who sued the United States government over trust mismanagement and won the largest class action settlement in American history. I fondly remember her as a dear friend and a warrior who never, ever gave up or gave in.

These women embody the passion and drive needed to ensure our cultural survival. They’ve overcome mountains of adversity to give back to their communities and forge paths on behalf of all Native peoples. WEWIN is proud to honor not only their achievements, but their indomitable spirits as well.

Susan Masten is founder and co-president of Women Empowering Women for Indian Nations (WEWIN), an organization dedicated to personal and professional development for Native women. She is a former chairperson of the Yurok Tribe and a former president of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI).