There was a crowd outside of the room, where the 24th Annual National Indian Women’s “Supporting Each Other” Honoring Lunch was set to take place this week. White index cards inked with red names and table numbers fanned across two tables outside the heavily-secured double doors.
Everyone had to have their name on index card or they wouldn’t be able to get in.
Then the reason for the structure was made clear: National Congress of American Indians President Jefferson Keel, Chickasaw, announced that Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a presidential candidate for 2020, would be at the luncheon.
Julie Johnson, one of the luncheon’s founders and coordinators, said she tried to make it a surprise.
Last year many people who did not reserve seats came anyway and there was not enough food or tables for those who had made their plans ahead, said a woman who attended both.
Tribal leaders, elected officials, organizers and community members working in all facets of Indian Country, and oftentimes wearing more than one hat, started to trickle in.
They visited, gave hugs, laughed and took selfies.
Those who showed up early chatted with Rep. Deb Haaland, Rep. Sharice Davids and Minnesota Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan for longer than 30 seconds.
It didn’t seem like a tribal nations policy conference was going on in the same hotel. (The National Congress of American Indians hosted the Winter Council Executive Session. That organization did not host the honoring lunch.)
Theresa Sheldon, Tulalip, opened the lunch.
“Our 2019 honorees are role models for all -- they are examples of wisdom, generosity, commitment, happiness and have loved and served our families, our peoples and our communities,” she said.
Johnson, Lummi and leader of Washington state’s Native American Caucus, took time, or rather moved the schedule around, to honor Native people who were also on the ground working.
During the luncheon, Johnson said that Warren “introduced five bills that have helped our tribes and she co-signed onto 24 bills for Indian people in the United States. I want everyone to know that.”
She confirmed her statement with a look and nods from one of this year’s honorees Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, chair of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head Aquinnah. The tribe is located on the coast of Massachusetts. (The Mayflower landed in their territory and the Wampanoag had the first Thanksgiving with the pilgrims.)
Juanita Ahtone, last year’s honoree, grabbed a glass plaque, held it carefully with both hands and circled the room between tables.
While the 90-year-old Kiowa woman made sure the words “Appreciation Award” and “Senator Elizabeth Warren” flashed at everyone, Johnson continued to move the speech along.
“It’s our tradition that when we look at Indian people, you know our tribes have different enrollment requirements. So today when we look at an Indian, it’s what’s in our heart and our actions. And Elizabeth Warren has had some strong actions for our people. So with that, Juanita, would you please give that to her?” Johnson said. Ahtone walked to the side of the room behind two huge pillars.
Behind double swinging kitchen doors, one of Warren’s staff members was taking off a blue shawl and she came right out to meet Ahtone.
It’s difficult to hear what they said to each other over the talking and delayed applause, but you can read Warren’s lips saying, “thank you” over and over.
Before Haaland and Warren talked, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, who sits on the Senate Committee of Indian Affairs, spoke to the room about how she will work alongside Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada to carry out Heidi Heitkamp’s efforts on passing Savanna’s Act.
“Now is the time to say that we are going to put real resources behind this and that Indian Country is going to be an equal partner in access to the federal databases and resources to stop these crimes in the United States of America,” she said after the recent study done by the Urban Indian Health Institute of cases going unfollowed.
Missing and murdered Indigenous women was a common thread that was addressed by many speakers at the lunch.
We’re all relatives. That’s probably why this issue is so close to the hearts of Native people.
Hence why before Haaland’s introduction of Warren, Haaland said to the organizer, “Thank you. Thank you, auntie Julie.” The room erupted in laughter. “I love that we can just adopt aunties anywhere in Indian Country. It’s really pretty awesome.”
Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, considers the presidential candidate a good friend and colleague as they got to know each other while Haaland was on the campaign trail.
In fact, she announced that they are “actively working on solutions to the shortfalls in funding for Indian Country” because the government has treaty and trust responsibility to uphold.
Warren is also working on bills tackling opioid and addiction with tribal provisions that keeps tribal sovereignty in mind and her housing bill that sees the need of housing on tribal lands.
“She has always made it a priority to ensure the legislation she writes and speaks on is good for Native communities,” Haaland said. “Indian Country needs strong allies like Elizabeth Warren whose unwavering commitment to Native American communities and Native American women and children are needed in this political era.”
Most of the room gave a standing ovation as seen in the video, except some elders and people in the back of the room, as Warren came on.
Andrews-Maltais and Warren’s friendship developed before Warren ran for Senate. She’s been in her position since 2013.
Warren said when she first ran for Senate she “learned very quickly nobody does this on their own. To make real change in this country, you need allies.”
The chairwoman gave Warren honest advice and good counsel. Her wisdom may have been from her dedicating 40 years of her life to working for her small community and Indian Country.
Andrews-Maltais is one of the “principled leaders who don’t scare easily and who don’t back down from a fight.”
“Cheryl is the kind of fire that should inspire all of us,” said the Massachusetts senator.
In her 6-minute speech Warren focused on the Native leader (and threw some Indian Country issues in there with a focus on tribal sovereignty).
The lunch organizers gifted Andrews-Maltais a blanket, flowers and a glass plaque inscribed with “Woman of the Year.”
Again, the leader’s tribe is located off the coast of Massachusetts and has been federally-recognized for more than 30 years. They and the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe are the only two federally-recognized tribes in the state.
Besides serving as chair for her tribe for eight years, she serves on the board of directors for the United South and Eastern Tribes, and is a delegate on committees part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Indian Health Service, Health and Human Services and more.
She completed a presidential appointment during the Obama Administration as the first tribal leader to become senior advisor to the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs.
Andrews-Maltais first words at the podium and said with a smile were, “Thank you, senator. My presidential candidate.”
“It’s hard being a woman these days and it’s harder to be a woman warrior for our people, our community and the nation,” she said.
But getting to where she was now happened with the support of her husband, she said.
Earlier in the event, Cecelia Fire Thunder mentioned the need for Native men and Native women’s need to also continue to support then when they are in their own leadership positions.
Davids and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan sat next to each other during the lunch. Flanagan said the tribal nations policy summit brought them together for the first time.
The second “Woman of the Year,” Davids, left her seat beside Flanagan.
As she said, a lot was said in the speeches before, especially about issues happening in Indian Country.
The difference for her as a Native woman in Congress she talks to others in Congress as her peer.
“To be able to talk to somebody as their peer on Congress is something that I feel is so powerful for us as tribal communities, particularly as women who are dealing with so many issues,” she said.
The talking and educating makes a difference, but listening has been the key for her.
“I’m going to keep fighting. I’m going to keep making my voice heard. I’m going to keep listening. That to me has been the piece we have been missing for so long. We have not had people in Congress who have been listening to us. They’re making decision that are impacting our lives and everybody else’s lives” she said. “They haven’t been listening to us but that’s changing.”
Especially when you have two Native women in the House. That’s another difference that makes the journey and work more manageable.
“Having [Haaland] to talk to, to lean on, to confide in, to depend on each other during this has been amazing,” Davids said.
And that’s what the luncheon name focuses on “Supporting Each Other.”
Ron Johnson, the organizer’s son, later said in the lobby that the event was created to honor “sacrifices and successes” of women and to “keep the path open.”
Cecelia Fire Thunder expressed similar thoughts, especially with criticism about Warren.
“Being a leader means you’re going to get attacked from all sides. But if you know who you are it’s not going to affect you. I know that personally,” said Fire Thunder who was first female president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and impeached in 2006 for trying to build a women’s clinic on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota under the state abortion laws. “I support [Warren]. I respect her and most of all being able to be graceful under all those things being said about her. That to me is a leader.”
Being a woman in Senate, Congress or any leadership position 24 hours a day, seven days a week is “a hard place to be,” she said.
Past honorees have included Ada Deer, Patricia Zell, Rachel A. Joseph, Pearl Capoeman-Baller, Stacy 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, Dr. Juana Majel-Dixon, Nedra Darling, Holly Cook Macarro, Jodi Gillette, Deborah Parker, Paulette Johnson, Stacey L. Ecoffey, Peggy Flanagan, Debora Juarez, Denise Juneau, Melanie Benjamin, Cheryl Crazy Bull, Juanita Ahtone and Debra Haaland.