Each year, International Women’s Day is celebrated around the world on March 8. Thousands of events take place worldwide to mark the economic, political and social achievements of women. I’m inspired by this year’s theme, “Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures” because it’s what we as Native peoples strive to do each day.
Our survival has always depended on the health and well being of future generations. Our collective investment in the girls and women of our Indian nations ensures that we not only survive, but thrive.
We honor women and girls as the sacred ones who bring life, who raise our next generations and who create visions for better nations. These are traits that must be encouraged, supported and uplifted, in honor of the vision that our ancestors had for us. They wanted us to advocate on our own behalf, to represent ourselves with dignity and pride, and to be free to carry on our traditions and ways.
They wanted us to raise warriors.
I owe much to my mother and grandparents, who instilled confidence and gratitude in me when I was very young. I learned to carry myself a certain way, to be proud of who I am and to remain steady in my beliefs. My mother especially encouraged me to speak my mind even if what came out was unpopular. I could take those risks because I knew I had her unconditional support. She and my grandparents, in their great wisdom, didn’t just guide me toward a life of service. They gave me tools I would need to really stand up and make a difference.
After working as a young woman in my 20s on the Yurok’s fishing allocation, I then struggled to organize the Yurok Tribe. I learned many important lessons during this time. One was that establishing positive relationships was essential to communication efforts. Another was that a candidate’s passion and hard work doesn’t necessarily translate into votes. Yet another? Folks still weren’t comfortable with women’s leadership. I learned the hard way that a solid network of supporters can help overcome the most stubborn opposition. I recognized that these lessons were more tools that every woman could use in her personal and professional life.
In 2004 I founded the organization Women Empowering Women for Indian Nations to help pass those tools forward. WEWIN is dedicated to building a strong network of Indian women who share ideas, knowledge and support for the benefit of Indian Country. Not only do we celebrate the contributions of women who came before us, we honor their memory by providing positive role models and leadership development for all Indian women. It makes a difference to see other women as leaders in government or business or education. You begin to dream differently, bigger. That perpetuates a cycle of more women’s leadership.
Leadership also bears the responsibility of standing up on behalf of certain issues. Over the years, WEWIN has been a forum for raising money and awareness for issues of paramount importance in Indian Country: cancer, domestic violence, and the rights of indigenous peoples. We’ve designed entire sessions around addressing these issues at the local and national level.
This year, I challenge you to re-commit to the safety of women and children, to breaking the cycle of violence, to ridding our communities of alcohol and drug abuse and to continue to enhance your personal and professional skills. In this way we can impact, and have impacted, public policy.
I’m always rejuvenated after a meeting of WEWINers because of the energy that is generated and the opportunities that arise. We encourage each other to support a woman’s efforts, to consider buying goods and services from her, to recognize her fight for justice, to become a role model or a mentor for her. Basically, we ask our members to reach out and pay the gifts we received forward.
It doesn’t matter what mix of women (and men) come together at our gatherings, whether it’s a luncheon, reception or annual conference; each and every one of us shares the same desire. We want our children to be strong, healthy and prosperous.
Each of us has something to offer. Our Creator made it this way. By bringing our gifts to the table, together we can offer professional development and support, foster tribal economic growth, strengthen cultural traditions and prepare future leaders. Or, as we Indian women like to say, “All in a day’s work.”
Susan Masten is past chairperson of the Yurok Tribe and a former president of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). Masten is the founder and co-president of Women Empowering Women for Indian Nations (WEWIN), an organization dedicated to personal and professional development for Native women.