Wichita Democrat Ponka-We Victors was elected to the Kansas House of Representatives in 2010 in the face of a wave of Republican victories that swept across the state. As a young, first-term legislator, Victors, the first American Indian woman elected to the Kansas legislature, garnered state headlines in 2012 when she urged colleagues to reject proposals for strict immigration-enforcement laws during a hearing of the House Federal and State Affairs committee. “Personally,” said Victors, “my people have been fighting immigration since 1492. It doesn’t get any better.”
Indian Country Today Media Network caught up with Representative Victors, 2006 Miss Indian Nations, who began her second term in the 2013 Kansas Legislature in early January.
What is your tribal affiliation?
I am an enrolled member of the Tohono O’odham Nation of Arizona and a member of the Southern Ponca Nation of Oklahoma. I have also been adopted into several tribes throughout North America and have established strong relationships with many people.
How did your background and upbringing shape and influence your politics?
I come from humble beginnings. I was taught to appreciate my ancestors for the sacrifices they endured so that future generations would have additional opportunities. My parents provided a stable environment in order to provide me with a culture of traditions and education. Even though I was raised in Wichita, I remained close to our ceremonies and developed a desire to learn from my elders. The Tohono O’odham Nation Reservation has also been my home, and it was there that I grew to learn and treasure the value of living in both the modernized and traditional world.
What made you decide to run for political office?
The weak structure of services that has left our Native people relying upon limited resources opened up my eyes at a very young age. As a child I can remember sitting in the [Indian Health Services] emergency room for hours. I questioned then why we had to wait so long to be seen and to receive medical attention. In 2005, as a Morris K. Udall Native American Congressional Intern in Washington, D.C., I saw firsthand how our Indian services and budgets were being cut—education, health-care and economic programs. I’m a descendent of the Great Ponca Chief Standing Bear, who was influential and [became] significant in Native American legal history when he defeated U.S. District courts in a landmark case in 1879. His vision and determination to create change played a substantial role in inspiring me to get involved in politics. I strongly believe he is a guiding force within me to do good for all Native people. I believe he paid an enormous price in order for me to have this opportunity to uphold this political position.
Congress recently failed to reauthorize the 1994 Violence Against Women Act. How important do you think that bill is?
It is terrible that it did not pass due to partisan issues. It is times like this that we need bipartisan efforts to help support our women. I support any kind of legislation that will help protect our Native women in Kansas. However, there is always room for progress and improvement. I believe this is an opportunity for our Native American lawyers and professionals [to] make the Violence Against Women Act even stronger. Meanwhile, it would be sensible for our own tribal governments to examine the prospects of creating additional support and laws that address this issue on our own reservations.
Now that the Indian Health Care Improvement Act under ObamaCare has permanent reauthorization, what changes do you see happening in Indian health care?
I hope the authors of this act had the first people of this nation in mind when they created this bill. We have a long ways to go, but I am optimistic that this will help boost and revitalize our deteriorating health-care system.
After becoming governor of Kansas in 2010, Sam Brownback issued an apology to Indian tribes of Kansas for past wrongs in dealings with the state. Do you feel this accomplished anything meaningful for the four tribes of Kansas?
I believe that any time a government official publicly apologizes to the Native American people and community for the wrongdoings of the past, it can only be perceived as a positive and respectful gesture. It’s an opportunity to strengthen government-to-government relationships and to move forward. I believe the Governor is willing to work with the tribes of Kansas. We all need to work together, since we all have one thing in common, such as loving the state of Kansas. Last year, I established the first-ever Native American Day at the Kansas state capitol. It was an opportunity for tribes to talk to their representatives and senators about concerns and issues. The governor supported Native American Day with an official proclamation.
What do you feel the chances are for an Indian to be appointed to the Supreme Court?
I feel it is about time that we have someone in that position. I am confident about the future since we have so many young Native Americans who are not only entering fields of law but other important fields as well, where we can have a voice. I never thought that I would be in politics, but I am. It’s important to go after your dreams, because it is worth the sacrifices. It is important that we take every opportunity that comes our way because our ancestors paid the ultimate sacrifice, and we can’t forget where we come from, no matter what position or office we hold.