Santee Lewis was in a small group of three, climbing stairs and working her way through an off-limits corridor in the U.S. Capitol. Then she saw the view from the dome itself.
“To me it felt like being at Navajo again just because at Navajo you can look from any high point and you have that 360 view,” Lewis said. “Here in DC you don’t have that right? Like if you’re down there, there are buildings everywhere. So when you’re up there it’s so nice to see the lay of the land and it’s just so beautiful.”
Not a bad first few days on the job. Lewis is the new executive director for the Navajo Nation’s Washington Office.
“I felt really grateful and humbled in that moment,” she said. “Recognizing that I was so far away from home but to be on top of our nation’s capitol as an Indigenous women who is leading this office, I felt really proud and happy and humbled.”
The tours are only open to members of Congress and their guests. Lewis, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Vice-President Myron Lizer climbed the 300 stairs to the very top of the Capitol. They were invited by U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Arizona.
It was here that Lewis realized she had made the right decision to leave her family and move across the country to work in the new administration of Navajo President Jonathan Nez. The Navajo Nation is the only tribe in Indian Country to have an office in Washington, D.C. The office is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year.
The office “serves as the Navajo Nation's advocate with Congress, the White House and federal agencies. The office was created to monitor and analyze congressional legislation that is of interest to the tribe as well as communicate information from the congressional and federal agencies’ back to the Navajo Nation.
Lewis is from Pinedale, New Mexico. She grew up in a home without running water or electricity. As a child, she had a two-hour bus ride from her home to school every day.
“I think we caught the bus at 6 am every morning,” she said.
For these reasons, her parents decided to enroll her and her siblings at Navajo Preparatory School in Farmington, New Mexico, which is over two hours from where Lewis’ family lives. However, Navajo Prep offered basic necessities that made going to school easier like paved roads and running water.
“We didn’t have to worry about the roads, bathing or having access to food and water,” she said. “Those things were put aside so I could actually focus on school.”
Lewis was the ambassador for Navajo Prep and dabbled in a few different sports. But academics were really her main focus.
“Education was always a priority in our family. I was really involved in my studies,” she said. “I really had to study hard.”
Both of Lewis’ parents were college-educated. She followed in their footsteps and went on to attend the University of New Mexico where she got her bachelor’s in accounting.
After Lewis graduated she spent the next seven years working as an auditor for the Navajo Nation, Chickasaw Nation, the Department of Interior and a few other places.
“During that course I realized something was missing,” she said. This missing piece was a higher degree. So, Lewis went back to UNM to get her master’s in business administration. Along the way, she realized that a second degree, a juris doctorate, would also be useful.
“The reason why I went back was to understand what our people were doing and how come we weren’t thriving like other tribes I had worked with and seen,” she said.
After her first year in her master’s program, Lewis had her daughter. When she entered her first year of law school. Lewis’ daughter was an infant. This taught her how to balance her education and being a first time mother.
“It was challenging but she was really the inspiration,” Lewis said. “What I was doing was for her. Now that I’m a mother, I think that what I do in my career is not only for her but it’s for that generation and for all Navajo kids to come.”
Her desire to create a positive change for the next generation of Indigenous youth was sparked by a question she would ponder, “why are we treated this way?”
Lewis saw the racism her grandparents endured in border towns like Gallup and Farmington. She recalled those memories with tears welling in her eyes.
“As I grew older, I realized we are really a special people,” she said. “We are the first inhabitants of this continent. We are a strong people. We are a resilient people and I really wanted to try to figure out how can we promote that.”
Lewis knew that being an auditor wasn’t the way she was going to create the type of change she wanted.
“I figured the best avenue to change the law or to influence decision makers was to get my MBA.” she said
This has helped Lewis on her life’s goal to help foster positive change for her community and to be a voice for the needs of the Navajo Nation.
After graduating with her degrees, she went on to work for the Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations where she worked as a senior advisor. Then, she spent one year as the deputy BIA superintendent for Eastern Navajo Agency.
Lewis decided to apply for the executive director position because of her support for President Jonathan Nez’s administration.
“Some of the things he talked a lot about was change,” Lewis said. “He also really spoke about the youth and the elders.”
While it’s difficult to be away from her family, Lewis knows her advocacy and work here in Wááshindoon is needed.
Pauly Denetclaw, Diné, is a visiting fellow with Indian Country Today. She is a staff reporter for the Navajo Times. Her work is supported by a grant from the Bay and Paul Foundations.