In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native people today. —Dennis Zotigh
Please introduce yourself with your name and title.
My name is Paulette Jordan. I am a newly-elected Idaho House Representative.
What tribes are you affiliated with?
I am an enrolled citizen of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. I am also of Sinkiuse (known as the Moses–Columbia Band of the Colville Confederacy), Nez Perce, and Yakama–Palus descent.
What is a significant point in history from one of your tribes that you would like to share?
There are many significant points of our Plateau history where our people have faced multiple battles and wars, forced assimilation, attacks to destroy and terminate our people, and dissolution of both our land base and sovereign authority.
One particular point in history I am very proud of, and it is important to mention, is the way our leaders of both the Coast Salish and Interior Salish of the Northwest have banded together in solidarity to preserve tribal sovereignty by holding the U.S. government accountable to honor its obligation through both treaty and executive order agreements and prevent termination of such agreements.
Due to the Dawes Act of 1887, tribal lands were allotted to individuals and the power struggle continued as millions of acres of land with valuable resources were opened up for settlement. This policy was also intended to terminate reservation lands and any compensation to those seeking settlement. After the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 reversed the policy of dissolution of reservation lands, tribes still struggled with the loss of the vast majority of their treaty lands and later faced termination. It was during this struggle that our people of the Northwest gathered together and combined forces to build one unified voice to provide national and regional leadership and advocate for common interests by organizing the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians in 1953. These developments spawned relief and support by sharing resources and common interests to counter termination efforts by federal agents, as well as secure rights and benefits of tribal peoples regionally and nationally.
Combining voices led to many more protections and gains that continue to improve Indian Country by protecting and enhancing sovereign rights and strategically building upon economic opportunities.
How is your state government set up?
The constitution of Idaho provides for three branches of government: the executive, legislative and judicial branches. Idaho has a bicameral State Legislature, having both a House and Senate body of elected officials. Idaho has 35 state legislative districts—hence 35 State Senate seats and 70 House of Representatives seats. Terms for both the Senate and House of Representatives are two years. Since the late 1950s, the Idaho Legislature has been controlled by the Republican Party, and there are no term limits.
How are leaders chosen?
Leaders are chosen amongst each party caucus after being sworn in to office.
Are Democrats or Republicans more dominant in your state?
The Republican Party controls both the Idaho House and Senate with a supermajority. Currently the House is composed of 14 Democrats and 56 Republicans; the Democrats gained one seat in the 2014 election. There was no change to the composition of the Senate chamber as the Republican Party maintained their 28 seats to the Democrats 7 seats.
Do legislators vote along party lines?
Most often officials vote along party lines, though not always. It is best, however, if both parties can come together in a bipartisan manner to pass legislation that will positively impact all of Idaho’s people.
Paulette Jordan (in white at center) and her fellow representatives being sworn in on the Idaho House floor. Idaho State Capitol, Boise; December 4, 2014. Photo courtesy of the Idaho House of Representatives.
Are there any other Natives who are elected leaders in your state?
Unfortunately, there are no other tribal people elected to a state seat—yet!
How many tribes are in your state? Who are they?
Do you ever meet with the Native people of your state?
As a newly elected official of the state, I plan on meeting with tribes as often as possible about state legislative matters. We have to stay in communication as effectively as we can to ensure our voice is not absent on legislative policy affecting tribes.
Do the Native people of Idaho vote in state elections?
Yes, our tribal people vote in state elections. Although we have a very small percentage of the tribal population represented in my district, every vote matters and can make a tremendous difference!
How often does the Idaho Legislature meet?
Our legislative session begins January 12 of each year and closes roughly toward the end of March or beginning of April.
What responsibilities do you have as a state representative?
As an Idaho House Representative, it is my responsibility to uphold the Idaho Constitution, keep our budget balanced, establish policy that would positively impact and seek to improve every Idahoan's circumstances, and vote. It is the most critical function of any legislator to be present, debate our positions, and make the critical votes as a voice for the people we represent.
More specifically, I sit on three standing committees of the House: the State Affairs Committee, the Business Committee, and the Environment, Energy, and Technology Committee.
I also hold a seat on the Idaho Legislative Council, which oversees the management responsibilities of the Idaho Capitol and permanent staff of the legislature. It is comprised of the president pro tempore of the Senate, the speaker of the House of Representatives, the majority and minority leaders of each house, and four senators and four representatives—two from each party.
What is a significant point in the history of Idaho that you would like to share?
Water is our greatest natural resource. To this day, we battle to maintain and improve regulations on environmental impacts to protect what we have for our future generations and the preservation of nature itself.
In 1863, silver—“discovered” in the north panhandle in the Coeur d’Alene area—became a major draw to the that part of the state. It would later prove to be the nation’s richest deposit. This discovery of heavy minerals by early Europeans led to a surge of miners and a century of water discharges and air emissions from mining and smelting activities. The mining industry later left several thousand acres of land and tributaries, connected to the Coeur d’Alene Basin, contaminated with heavy metals.
The basin is one of the largest areas of historic mining operations in the world, contributing an estimated 100 million tons of mine waste to the river system. In 1991, this led the Coeur d’Alene Tribe to begin the Coeur d’Alene Basin Restoration Project and the largest natural resource damage lawsuit in American History.
Through recent history and environmental neglect, tribal leadership came to believe that the tribe is the best steward for the future health of Coeur d'Alene Lake and the connected economy of the region. The tribe’s ownership was resolved by U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2001 recognizing that the tribe has always been the owner of the lower one-third of Coeur d’Alene Lake and other related waters. The decision led to a broad settlement, as the tribe teamed up with the U.S. Justice Department to file suit against the mines and the Union Pacific Railroad, echoing verbatim the tribe’s 1991 lawsuit. This case, has set a precedent for related natural resource cases and led to the establishment of the nation’s second largest Superfund cleanup site.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead your community?
My upbringing was through a broad community of relatives and elders and a strong set of parents. Each of these people taught me the value of respect, humility, and character, and to walk this life with compassion towards others. My relatives ensured I had access to the most valuable traditional and western education they could provide. They instilled in me the history of our people and the language and values that make us wholly unique as individual sovereign nations.
To prepare me for the greater challenges in life, I was able to attain higher levels of learning and travel around the world. Experiencing other cultures gives us a broader connection to living and being. That connection becomes the utmost value in our life’s education—to empathize with others and grow wiser about how we can contribute to making our surroundings, if not the world, a better place to live.
Aside from my professional career and education, both culturally and academically, my two sons have taught me the greatest wisdom of all—self-sacrifice for the greater good.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
My grandparents and great-grandparents, all great leaders and chiefs along my lineage, have been a strong source of guidance and wisdom for me. Most especially my grandmothers, Lucy Covington, Emily Friedlander-Peone, and Justine Vincent. Each one serves as a guiding reminder of the value of strength in women to be strong leaders, protectors, and caregivers. My great-grandfathers Chief Moses of the Columbia and Chief Kamiakin of the Palus through their indomitable leadership have taught me strength in negotiation and diplomacy for matters affecting both business and government.
I am extremely fortunate to have direct mentors in various areas of my life who continue to contribute in many areas of thought. My grandfather Felix Aripa has guided me from young adulthood to listen, maintain humility, and give back. He has been my greatest resource for tribal language and for understanding our land and our relationship to our environment—seeking to find balance in all of our natural resources. My mentor and uncle David Matheson has been my guiding source for business, leadership, humanity, and balance. Walking this life means more than personal gain, and through him I have learned the utmost strength in ourselves as leaders, in both business and government, is how we treat others. And I am fortunate to call Jeanne Givens, a former Idaho State Representative and Coeur d’Alene tribal citizen, a friend and mentor in the practice of public service. Through her own personal experience on the front line of state government, I have learned and continue to learn the road of internal politics.
Last and most importantly, my mother has been a daily example for me of maintaining compassion towards others. She brings the greatest lesson and inspiration of all through her love, support, and prayer. She walks this life with beautiful humility, having overcome many challenges. She has proven to me the sky has no limits and that anything can be achieved if we truly believe with love and passion in our heart to overcome any fear.
Are you a descendant of a historical leader?
Historical leaders I descend from include Chief Weowicht ( Yakama), father of Chief Kamiakin (Yakama–Palus); Chief Moses of the Columbia (Sinkiuse); Chief Circling Raven (Coeur d’Alene), Chief Andrew Seltice (Coeur d’Alene); Old Chief Joseph (Nez Perce), Warrior Chief Allokut (Nez Perce).
Approximately how many constituents are in your district? Approximately how many are Native?
Approximately 50,000 residents live within my district; roughly less than 1 percent are Native.
How will you use your elected position to help Natives and other minorities?
My legislative focus, amongst other matters, will be on working to improve Idaho’s economy, build on criminal justice redesign, and strategize ways to strengthen Idaho’s struggling education system, all of which will help both tribes and minority populations throughout the state. To improve the pathway for tribes specifically, we must develop direct links of communication with tribal leadership to work on common ground for solutions to their concerns.
What message would you like to share with the youth of your Native community?
For many generations, our tribal leadership has maintained the visions of our ancestors for our future generations to have access to the greatest resources and opportunities to achieve what is necessary to build their skills, accomplish their dreams, and build a better community for those to follow. Along with this vision, by maintaining our voice as tribal people in Idaho State House discussions, we include our perspective and practices on a statewide and national level when it comes to developments in policy and appropriations.
I also believe this is an opportunity for our younger generations to be a part of learning the many ways they can branch into other levels of government leadership. Seeing familiar faces with similar backgrounds is encouraging at any age, and being elected to leadership can inspire our youth to understand that our voice should not and does not end on the reservation or within our tribal communities, both rural and urban, throughout the U.S.
Our tribal voice is a critical voice sorely missing in Idaho’s House and needed in all political spheres across the nation from local to national government.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
As my own mentors have guided me, I maintain my availability to support our youth to build upon their goals in career, personal life, and civic leadership. If I can be a resource, it would be my privilege and responsibility to pass on what was given to me.
Hnqwi’yqwi’yilgwes khwe sk’u’lshesh—in humble service to all.
Lim’lemtsh! Thank you!
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From left to right: Representative Ponka-We Victors (Tohono O’odham/Southern Ponca) taking the oath of office in the Kansas House of Representatives; photo courtesy of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab. Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache) at the Sundance Film Festival; photo courtesy of WireImage. Sergeant Debra Mooney (Choctaw) at the powwow in Al Taqaddum Air Force Base, Iraq, 2004; photo courtesy of Sgt. Debra Mooney. Councilman Jonathan Perry (Wampanoag) in traditional clothing; photo courtesy of Jonathan Perry. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) at Blackhorse et al. v. Pro Football, Inc., press conference, U.S. Patent and Trade Office, February 7, 2013; photo courtesy of Mary Phillips. All photos used with permission.