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Shannon Ward

Northern Arapaho, vice president and chief lending officer of Native American Bank

As a Native American woman in the business world, role models who looked like me and could talk about my kind of life experiences have been rare. But they’ve been powerful.

One of the most famous women of power from Indian Country in the modern era, Eloise Cobell, made her name fighting for a $3.4 billion settlement for Indians against the U.S. Department of the Interior. Genius? The people from the MacArthur Foundation thought so.

Now, one of my other role models, Congresswoman Deb Haaland of New Mexico, has made her name as the choice to actually take over the Department of the Interior.

I met the congresswoman in Albuquerque once, and I was struck by her fierce protectiveness of Indian lands and her frank warmth about her personal life. She’s proud of her law degree but is also quick to note she was a single mom still paying off law school debts while running for Congress. Facts to cheer for, from a mom like me trying to promote Indian opportunity as a community development bank executive while also managing my kids’ remote zoom schooling.

Congresswoman Haaland has a sharp focus on environmental justice, and now she’s going to be the first Native American to lead the Department of the Interior -- for most people in Indian Country, that’s a full circle. She exemplifies the idea of Native Americans as stewards of the land. There’s a sense of justice.

The Interior oversees 507 million acres of land or about one-fifth of the surface area of the United States. Of course, all of that land was once inhabited or controlled by Native Americans, long before any national government was set up to mark the boundaries. And a key section of the $20-billion-a-year department is the Bureau of Indian Affairs, one of the most important — and for a long time — one of the most despised institutions in the life of Indian Country.

There’s so much promise for the Interior, to protect and improve the lands that all Americans hold so dear. And there’s so much bad history with the “old” BIA, from outright theft of Indian lands to notoriously cruel family separations and boarding schools to corrupt agents to promotion of culture-destroying alcohol, to name a few.

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By the time I worked for Indian Affairs in 2009, guaranteeing loans for Indian-owned businesses and nonprofits, the BIA had transformed for the better. I had the honor of working with talented and driven people who shared the goal of protecting tribes’ hard-won, nation-to-nation relationship with the federal government.

That settlement won by a previous heroine, Eloise Cobell was a monumental sign that Native Americans were taking back control of their rights. For decades, the Interior had withheld royalty payments for oil, gas, timber, and other rights legally set aside for Native Americans and tribes. Cobell was treasurer of her Montana Blackfeet Nation tribe when she discovered the foul play. She’d already won a “genius grant” for launching the first U.S. reservation bank owned by a tribe, and she used the grant money to help push suits against Interior’s royalty theft.

The landmark lawsuit is forever known as Cobell vs. Salazar. If that other name sounds familiar, it’s because the Interior Secretary of record at the time of the settlement was the honorable Ken Salazar, of the centuries-old San Luis Valley Salazar family, one of the few Hispanics ever elected to the U.S. Senate and only the second Hispanic Interior Secretary. Sometimes the pursuit of equality creates some unusual partners in history.

Eloise Cobell’s Blackfeet National Bank sought to expand its model of assisting financial progress in Native American communities by inviting national tribal investors. Native American Bank was formed, and moved to Denver, now owned by 32 tribes and tribal corporations, and where I’m senior vice president and chief lending officer.

Between my Denver home and our bank’s Blackfeet roots is my childhood home, just outside the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming where my Northern Arapaho family lives. I wish I could say I grew up knowing all about Eloise Cobell and other leaders like her and every challenge overcome to arrive at this moment. But that kind of pride and learning from elders came later for me.

With the worthy elevation of people like Deb Haaland, young Native American girls won’t have to wait to discover role models that look, sound, and think like them. Sometimes people use the word “symbolic” as if that were an insult. This is not. It’s a validation.

The importance of moments like this is for Native American children to have role models that make any racial stereotypes they’ve grown up with a little less powerful, a little less hurtful. They can be overcome.

A cabinet-level appointment like this for a Native American is a validation of tribal sovereignty and assures representation of Indian Country at the highest levels of US government. It lifts the spirits of all of Indian Country.

Shannon Ward is a member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe and vice president and chief lending officer of Native American Bank, a national, tribal-owned community development bank based in Denver. She graduated from the University of Wyoming.