Native aunties: ‘We’re going to take back the country’

Native women at the 25th National Indian Women’s “Supporting Each Other” Honoring Lunch in Washington, D.C. singing the Women's Honor Song. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye

Annual lunch honors Native women for ‘supporting each other’

This is what it's like to have fun in Indian Country.

A lunch to honor Native women supporting each other in the political world was running about 25 minutes late. Yet no one seemed to mind.

Especially after Stacy A. Bohlen, Sault Ste. Marie Chippewa, took a mic check to the next level.

She sang: “He was a credit to his gender. Well he really worked me over good. Just like a Waring blender. Woe pitiful me, woe woe pitiful me. Oh these boys won’t let me be. Lord have mercy on me." Then she tried to get Rachel Joseph to join in a duet.

The 15 people in the room laughed and took pictures. It was a warm-up to what was to come for the next hour and a half at the 25th National Indian Women’s “Supporting Each Other” Honoring Lunch in Washington, D.C.

Bohlen, who serves as the executive director for the National Indian Health Board, came off the stage and said, “Ah, you know I like to have fun.”

Waiting for lunch attendees to arrive and pick up their name tags at the door. Julie Johnson, founder and organizer, talks with her granddaughter, Jackie Johnson, in the maroon dress. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)
Waiting for lunch attendees to arrive and pick up their name tags at the door. Julie Johnson, founder and organizer, talks with her granddaughter, Jackie Johnson, in the maroon dress. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)

A room full of Native women in high positions took a moment to acknowledge each other’s hard work, network, and laugh. And you know Native women love to laugh hard and loud.

The room though, even though everyone kept referring to Julie Johnson, the organizer of the event, as the “auntie” and you do what she says. It was a room packed with Native aunties.

The lunch was full with powerful representation: Cecelia Fire Thunder, Theresa Sheldon, Fawn Sharp, Minnesota Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, Ruth Buffalo, Nedra Darling, Rep. Deb Haaland, Holly Cook Macarro, and more sat at the tables and mingled.

Debora Juarez, Blackfeet, couldn’t believe the makeup of women in the room and how neat it was to “look to the audience and see all these beautiful Native American women.” Juarez is a Seattle City Council member.

In honor of the 25 years of the support network and lunch, attendees wrote a thank-you note to Julie Johnson, founder and organizer. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)
In honor of the 25 years of the support network and lunch, attendees wrote a thank-you note to Julie Johnson, founder and organizer. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)
(L to R) Frances Nannuack Kraus, 87 and from Kake, Alaska, attends her first “Supporting Each Other” Honoring Lunch with her daughter Bambi Kraus. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)
(L to R) Frances Nannuack Kraus, 87 and from Kake, Alaska, attends her first “Supporting Each Other” Honoring Lunch with her daughter Bambi Kraus. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)
(L to R) Greg Abrahamson, David Bean from Puyallup, and Anna Bean from Puyallup. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)
(L to R) Greg Abrahamson, David Bean from Puyallup, and Anna Bean from Puyallup. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)

One person missing from this year’s lunch, and who was the highlight of last year’s, was Juanita Ahtone, Kiowa. Ahtone, who was honored two years ago, when she presented an Appreciation Award to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts.

Ahtone’s good friend, Irene Cuch, Ute, from Ft. Duchesne, Utah, missed her this year. “I miss her. I always go to NCAI because I want to see her,” she said. “She was my mentor and friend, and my sister. She was someone I looked up to.”

Irene Cuch, Ute Indian Tribe, was a friend to Juanita Ahtone. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)
Irene Cuch, Ute Indian Tribe, was a friend to Juanita Ahtone. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)

Each year, the luncheon organizers recognize two Native women who have made an impact in Indian Country with their work. Last year, Rep. Sharice Davids, D-Kansas and Ho-Chunk, and Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, chair of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head Aquinnah.

(Related: Women honor each other with hugs, selfies & advice for the future)

Rep. Deb Haaland, D-New Mexico, stopped by the lunch to quickly share some words before going to vote on the Hill. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)
Rep. Deb Haaland, D-New Mexico, stopped by the lunch to quickly share some words before going to vote on the Hill. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)
Minnesota Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, White Earth, takes time for photos at the lunch. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)
Minnesota Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, White Earth, takes time for photos at the lunch. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)

This year’s honorees were Abigail Echo-Hawk, Pawnee, and Stephanie Bryan, Poarch Band of Creek Indians.

Echo-Hawk, chief research officer at the Seattle Indian Health Board and director of the Urban Indian Health Institute, received the Woman of the Year Award for her research and reports on missing and murdered Indigenous women and family members. Her most recent report on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, released in 2018, showed a “snapshot” of the data in 71 urban cities in the United States.

California Sen. Kamala Harris attended the luncheon briefly to talk about Echo-Hawk’s work.

“For centuries, Native people, particularly women and girls were treated as less than human. And speaking truth about this history while we recognized the incredible work that is being done today, I think we all know is critical to our fight for true equality for all people,” Harris said from the stage. “Abigail’s research examined hundreds of cases in our urban communities, demonstrating the sheer scale of the problem.”

Debora Juarez introduces Sen. Kamala Harris at the 25th Annual National Indian Women’s “Supporting Each Other” Honoring Lunch in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)
Debora Juarez introduces Sen. Kamala Harris at the 25th Annual National Indian Women’s “Supporting Each Other” Honoring Lunch in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)
Sen. Kamala Harris speaks at the luncheon in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)
Sen. Kamala Harris speaks at the luncheon in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)

“I was talking with her and I said the brilliance of her work is that for far too long people tried to dismiss what we know to be history because they think it’s being spoken out of emotion instead of fact. And when you couple that to what they’ve done to erase history, it gives them ability to absolve themselves of the need to confront the reality of the problem. The brilliance of her work is the hard work that she put into documenting fact. That’s irrefutable because of her brilliance and her attention to what we know to be the real history on this issue. And we know there are more.

“But it is extraordinary the work she has done. It is moving to allow people to be equipped with power of data and to confront those who would deny history and fact. And part of the problem we know is everyday we don’t have the problem data without her work. To define this crisis, law enforcement fails to share this information, critical information, with Native communities.”

“So Abigail has been highly analyzing and sharing information to tell a story. And based on her research we are now able to show the world what has been happening in terms of native women and girls going missing. And her work matters. With her report, we can show the problem more clearly and use the information to make lasting change.”

Before closing out, Harris talked directly to Echo-Hawk who was sitting at a front table with her family.

Abigail Echo-Hawk and Sen. Kamala Harris hug at the 25th Annual National Indian Women’s “Supporting Each Other” Honoring Lunch in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)
Abigail Echo-Hawk and Sen. Kamala Harris hug at the 25th Annual National Indian Women’s “Supporting Each Other” Honoring Lunch in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)

“Abigail, the work you have done because of the sheer force of your spirit in who you are. The work you have done, you are so courageous. Because you have that ability to see what can be unburdened to what has been,” Harris said. “That is the work of a true leader and a leader like you, we need right now.”

Before Harris left the stage, Cecelia Fire Thunder, the first woman to be president of the Oglala Sioux, gifted the California senator a star quilt. Fire Thunder’s granddaughter, Katie Fire Thunder, volunteered for Harris’ presidential campaign last fall.

Echo-Hawk, full of emotion and maintaining her composure, took the stage and asked her three sisters to join her.

“I want to tell you today a story and one that is not often shared. In fact, I’ve never talked about it before,” Echo-Hawk opened her statement. “And I wanted my sisters to be here with me because I’ve never in my life been alone. What a privilege and an honor it is to have never been alone.”

Abigail Echo-Hawk, Pawnee, received one of the two Woman of the Year Awards at the 25th National Indian Women’s “Supporting Each Other” Honoring Lunch in Washington, D.C. She is the Chief Research Officer for the Seattle Indian Health Board. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)
ABOVE: Abigail Echo-Hawk, Pawnee, received one of the two Woman of the Year Awards at the 25th National Indian Women’s “Supporting Each Other” Honoring Lunch in Washington, D.C. She is the Chief Research Officer for the Seattle Indian Health Board. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)
Abigail Echo-Hawk, Pawnee, with her three sisters on stage at the 25th National Indian Women’s “Supporting Each Other” Honoring Lunch in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)
Abigail Echo-Hawk, Pawnee, with her three sisters on stage at the 25th National Indian Women’s “Supporting Each Other” Honoring Lunch in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)

Echo-Hawk said that she never knew her grandmother. Her sister carried her name. Her grandmother and grandfather died before all four of the siblings were born, she said.

“And I have always wondered what she would’ve said to me. What would have her arms have felt like if she could wrap them around me. What would’ve it been like to see her hug my father, and touch his hair, braid him up, and take him into ceremony,” she said. “I don’t know those things because she was taken from us way too young. But I know her stories.”

“I felt her memories pushing through my veins and it’s almost like I felt her touch because I was raised in the arms of my father, Howard Echo-Hawk,” she said.

Her first memory of her father is sitting on his lap and “he would bounce us and say, ‘This song my mom sang to me.’ And he would sing us her song. It was a song of beauty and strength and one I have always remembered. But what would’ve it looked like if it had been her voice.”

Echo-Hawk was “blessed” to be part of the family she was in, and her parents raised her siblings and her in “absolute strength and beauty.”

Then Echo-Hawk talked about how colonization and erasure that continues to wipe Native people off the Earth — including her.

“I experienced my first rape when I was six years old. I attempted suicide for the very first time when I was nine,” she said holding back her tears. “I was surrounded by love but there were times when I felt like my heart was broken and I did not know even how to talk, how to walk, how to be, how to sleep. I did not know if I could wake up the next morning and stand the next day.”

People wiped tears from their cheeks in the crowd.

“The trauma in our communities is real and through my teenage years, I was every statistic we have allowed to been attached to our children,” she said. “Suicide, substance abuse, isolation, depression, anxiety. But What it was, was the silencing of the trauma in our communities and the inability for us to speak and address the trauma, domestic violence. All of the things that happen in our community that have been silenced for much too long.”

Because of the trauma, she wondered if she could sing her grandmother’s song when she was pregnant with her son.

Echo-Hawk said she healed with the help of community, her siblings, her uncle, and the Native women around her when she moved to Seattle.

“Because I never heard my grandma sing that song but I heard her song in your voices as the women in this community support each other and we have sang for the women who are no longer with us,” she said. “Because our matriarchs are dying as they are being erased, we as a community have to step up and break the silence of the trauma, of the violence.”

She gave a shout out to the co-author of the 2018 report, Annita Lucchesi, Southern Cheyenne.

Abigail Echo-Hawk, Pawnee, received one of the two Woman of the Year Awards at the 25th National Indian Women’s “Supporting Each Other” Honoring Lunch in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)
Abigail Echo-Hawk, Pawnee, received one of the two Woman of the Year Awards at the 25th National Indian Women’s “Supporting Each Other” Honoring Lunch in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)
Abigail Echo-Hawk, Pawnee, with her three sisters at the 25th National Indian Women’s “Supporting Each Other” Honoring Lunch in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)
Abigail Echo-Hawk, Pawnee, with her three sisters at the 25th National Indian Women’s “Supporting Each Other” Honoring Lunch in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)

The second person to receive the Woman of the Year Award was Stephanie Bryan, who was ill and didn’t attend the luncheon.

Nedra Darling described the tribal chair and CEO for the Poarch Creek Indians, as “powerful” woman who “doesn’t hold back.” In fact, she is the first female political leader to the tribal chair position. Darling, who retired after more than 20 years at the Department of Interior, got to see Bryan in action.

Sandy, a friend of Stephanie Bryan, accepted the Woman of the Year Award on behalf of Bryan. Bryan was ill. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)
Sandy, a friend of Stephanie Bryan, accepted the Woman of the Year Award on behalf of Bryan. Bryan was ill. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)

Bryan used to serve as the vice chair of the Poarch Creek Indians tribal council. She was involved in national committees such as the National Indian Gaming Commission, the National Indian Gaming Association, and the United South and Eastern Tribes.

Her friend Sandy accepted the award on her behalf and said she is an “amazing lady” to work alongside.

Sandy and Abigail Echo-Hawk at the 25th National Indian Women’s “Supporting Each Other” Honoring Lunch in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)
Sandy and Abigail Echo-Hawk at the 25th National Indian Women’s “Supporting Each Other” Honoring Lunch in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)

Past honorees of the Woman of the Year Award included Ada Deer, Patricia Zell, Rachel A. Joseph, Pearl Capoeman-Baller, Stacy A. Bohlen, Dawn Coley, Maggie Gover, Sara Garland, Cecelia Fire Thunder, Marie Zackuse, Jacqueline Johnson-Pata, Dr. A. Gay Kingman-Wapato, Mary Ann Andreas, Myra Pearson, Theresa Two Bulls, Kathryn Harrison, Veronica L. Homer, Lillian Sparks, Patricia Whitefoot, Monique La Chappa, Juana Majel-Dixon, Nedra Darling, Holly Cook Macarro, Jodi Gillette, Deborah Parker, Paulette Jordan, Stacey L. Ecoffey, Peggy Flanagan, Debora Juarez, Denise Juneau, Melanie Benjamin, Cheryl Crazy Bull, Juanita Ahtone, and Debra Haaland.

The luncheon concluded with the Women’s Honor Song. 

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Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Diné, is the Washington editor for Indian Country Today based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @jourdanbb. Email: jbennett-begaye@indiancountrytoday.com

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