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.
Ponka-We Victors, Kansas State representative, District 103.
What tribes are you affiliated with?
What is a significant point in history from one of your tribes that you would like to share?
In 1879, Chief Standing Bear of the Ponca Tribe successfully argued in a U.S. District Court that Native Americans are “persons within the meaning of the law.” Not only did he see justice in a U.S. court, but he paved the way for others to fight for Native American rights.
How is your state government set up?
How are leaders chosen?
Representatives are elected for a two-year term, and senators are elected for a four-year term. There are no term limits.
Are Democrats or Republicans more dominant in your state?
Republicans have the majority in Kansas.
Do legislators vote along party lines?
There are times where we can all come together on certain issues, and then there are times where we have to agree to disagree.
Are there any other Natives who are elected leaders in your state?
I’m sure there are by descent, but not very many. I hope to see this change someday and that Native Americans have representation on every level of government.
How many tribes are in your state? Who are they?
There are four tribes in Kansas. They are the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, Kickapoo Tribe of Kansas, Sac and Fox Nation of Missouri in Kansas and Nebraska, and the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska.
Do you ever meet with the Native people of your state?
Yes, it’s important to keep an open line of communication with the four tribes of Kansas and to keep them updated on what’s going on in our state. I also encourage them to visit the Capitol frequently and to sit in on various hearings or testify on an issue.
Do the Native people in Kansas vote in state elections?
Yes. It’s been a slow process, but I know participation will increase as the Native American population becomes more aware of state issues and how the debate might include them and their loved ones.
How often does your state congress meet?
The Kansas State Legislature meets on the second Monday of every January and adjourns in May or when our business at the Capitol is completed.
What responsibilities do you have as a state representative?
I create and vote on legislation that could become law in Kansas. Also, I am assigned to committees that deal with various state issues, including the state budget and oversight of state agencies.
What is a significant point in the history of Kansas that you would like to share?
Charles Curtis was the first Native American to hold national office in the United States when he became vice president in 1929. Curtis was born in Topeka, Kansas, and came from the Kansa, Osage, and Potawatomi tribes. He also served in the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate. I believe he influenced Native Americans and set an example for us to step up and not be afraid to take the lead.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead your community?
Growing up I was always aware of the conditions that our Native people had to live with dealing with health care, education, land issues, etc. I always questioned why we had the worst health care available, and I wanted to see a change at a young age. For example, sometimes I had to wait in the emergency room for three hours or so at the Indian Health Service hospital to be seen by a doctor. When I graduated from college, I decided to intern in Washington, D.C., through a Morris K. Udall Native American Congressional Internship. I witnessed firsthand how our budgets and issues were discussed and sometimes Native American funding was cut. I didn’t see a lot of Native American representation on the federal level, and Congress and the administration were making decisions for us. I decided that I would run for office when the time was right so we could have a voice.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
Former Kansas State Representative Geraldine Flaharty of Wichita. She was my mentor the first year that I was elected to the Kansas House of Representatives in 2010. Rep. Flaharty is always available to listen to my concerns and give me advice on certain issues.
Are you a descendant of a historical leader?
I am a direct descendant of two chiefs from my Ponca heritage—Chief Big Snake and Chief Standing Bear of the Ponca Tribe. They inspire me to be a strong leader and to stand up for others. I am proud to be a descendant of these great leaders.
Approximately how many constituents are in your district? Approximately how many are Native?
There are approximately 7,117 constituents in District 103. Less than 1 percent are Native.
How have you used your elected position to help Natives and other minorities?
For so long we didn’t have a voice at the capitol. Now I am proud that not only do we have a voice in the Kansas Statehouse, but I can be at the table and be a part of the process to make sure the four tribes and other minorities are included and not forgotten when key issues are being discussed and voted on.
What message would you like to share with the youth of your Native community?
Dare to dream and don’t be afraid of change. I wouldn’t be where I am if I was scared of change or if I didn’t take every opportunity that crossed my path. Find something that you are passionate about and find a mentor in that specific area to lead you in the right direction.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I would like to encourage more Native Americans to run for office whether it is at a municipal, state, or federal level. We need more representation and a voice on all levels of government.
Photographs © Paula D. Moore, used with permission.
To read other interviews in this series, click on the banner below.
From left to right: Representative Ponka-We Victors (Tohono O’odham/Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma) 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.