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Women honored during annual 'Supporting Each Other' event

WASHINGTON - Numerous non-NCAI events were on offer during the National Congress of American Indians Tribal Nations Legislative Summit, Feb. 26 - 28. Despite stiff competition, the 12th Annual Indian Women's ''Supporting Each Other'' Lunch turned out to be the best of these tickets, drawing more than 100 people for almost two hours of testimonials and vivid storytelling.

The honorees were Patricia Zell, currently of Zell and Cox Law in Washington and former staff director of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs; Rachel Joseph, co-chair of the Steering Committee for Reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, former chairman of the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Tribal Council and former executive director of NCAI; and Veronica Homer, the first-ever Indian woman elected president of NCAI.

But between the others present and the memories summoned of so many who went before, the honor roll expanded to include a host of names. Among them were Lucy Covington, Helen Peterson, Georgeann Robinson, Pearl Baller, Cecelia Fire Thunder, Julie Johnson, Marie Zackuse, Alvina Grey Bear, Juanita Antoine, Peggy Akoya, Faith Russell, Sue Shaffer, Pam Iron, Julie Kitka and Lucille Echohawk.

The nostalgia behind the names from the past helped to balance a program that otherwise steered between extremes of laughter and seriousness. Homer got the balance about right in noting, on the one hand, ''there were so many passionate issues back then'' in the formative years of the modern Indian sovereignty movement; and on the other hand, sharing an uproarious story about dancing with Russell Means the day after facing him down at an NCAI meeting, Means and the American Indian Movement being the insurgency in those days and NCAI, the established authority. Not all of the men who were admitted got the reference; but this was a women's luncheon and they found it side-splitting.

Joseph wasn't going to top her speech at the opening press conference of the NCAI session, where she sounded the theme of the conference - passage ''this year'' of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act reauthorization. But she broke up her audience with a ''California Indian joke'' that not everyone got; many of those who did, however, actually doubled over in their chairs with laughter.

Joseph then struck the note of nostalgia as she turned to the founding of the support luncheon series, and paid a serious tribute to women who overcome the hurdles sometimes set up against them in reservation communities, once they decide to enter public life.

''We recognize the politics that we deal with at home can be grueling and sometimes mean, even. Often we find ourselves being the first women in those positions, either elected or appointed. And the pressures that we feel to perform at our very best, to have integrity, and to be ethical, even when our family and our allies want special consideration.''

She recognized the importance of mentors in women's lives, with little else being done to prepare their paths outside the home.

''I had one - Lucy Covington. Elected official from Colville, fought termination of her tribe in the '50s, and she used to make an appointment with me and Veronica [Homer] every single NCAI meeting. ... She said, 'Girls, when's a good time to have lunch and when's a good time to have breakfast?' And then she would sit with us, and I realize now she was mentoring us, and say, 'This is what's going on. And this is what's being said. And this is what needs to happen.' And then she'd look at us and say, 'Now you girls go do it.' I remember one time Veronica looked at me and I looked at her and [said], 'We can't do that.' And we looked at each other and said, 'If Lucy thinks we can do it, we can do it.' And off we went. So these mentors are so important, and we had them.''

Zell joined in the spirit of the occasion with a story from the past about one of her mentors, Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, who had just introduced her to a standing ovation. Remembering his early years as chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian affairs, she said that he had gone to the Makah Nation to be given the Makah-language name ''Little Bird who sees the future.''

Inouye turned to Zell, his general counsel and unofficial guide to Indian country on the committee, and said, ''I'm the chairman of the committee. I thought they would name me 'Raging Bull.''' Zell explained that the name he'd been given was an important one in Makah culture.

Unconsoled, Inouye replied, ''Maybe my next name will be Raging Bull.''

It took a while for the laughter to fade on that one, but when it had, Zell spoke of ''being in it for life.''

''I think that - and I mean no offense to any of the men in this room - that maybe women have a special feel for taking something on and staying with it through thick or through thin. Maybe it's because many of us have the blessing to be mothers. And you don't ever leave your children behind. You wouldn't think of leaving your children and going off and doing something else. So I think there is just inborn in women a sense of commitment and duty and sustaining what you start. And I think that we're very fortunate that we have that that distinguishes us from that other gender ... that we rely on.''

Just as the women at the luncheon spoke often of relying on one another, Zell said Native peoples increasingly rely on each other. She encouraged more of the same as threats to self-determination and sovereignty look for traction in the larger society.

''You see the way people are supporting each other, every day, in every way. You can see tribes supporting one another, and Alaska Natives supporting tribes, and now in these days with the challenges to the 8a [Small Business Administration minority-preference contracting] program, tribes supporting the Alaska Natives. And it's going to make me cry, I'm sorry I always do, but it's just a real milestone for me, and continues to be such, to see the way Indian country and Alaska Native country have come together to support Native Hawaiians in their quest for self-determination.

''I've never seen ... in these last few years, the three communities of the Native people of this land, coming together and working so hard for something that's so right. It just makes me cry, in a good way. I'm really glad that people care enough about those that got left behind, that the United States closed the door on them, and hopefully we can open that door and make sure that all Native people have the same status under federal law.''