TOPPENISH, Wash. – Lavina Washines says preserving the sovereignty of the Yakama Nation has been her greatest challenge since becoming the first woman ever to lead the tribe.
It’s a balancing act between tribal traditions and modern business practices, she says.
Last year, she launched a probe of tax agreements previous leaders of the tribe had made with the state dealing with sales of fuel and cigarettes on the reservation. She’s also worried about the placement of tribal children in state foster care homes and police jurisdiction over tribal members on the reservation.
“They’re trying to make the tribe use their laws,” she says of state lawmakers.
About a year has passed since fellow Tribal Council members selected her as the tribe’s first chairwoman. At that time, some tribal members questioned whether a woman should hold a post traditionally held by men, but now many believe she is everything the nearly 10,000-member tribe needs in a leader.
“I have the deepest respect and admiration for her and her leadership qualities,” said General Council Chairman Philip Olney. “It’s a hard job, and I think she’s doing an admirable job.”
Still, there are others who think she’s too aggressive when it comes to making changes, and even accuse her of ignoring people on certain issues.
Washines, however, said she’s only undoing measures that should never have been passed in the first place and are now abrogating the tribe’s sovereignty.
As chairwoman of the 14-member Tribal Council, she oversees the daily operations of the tribe, which includes a casino, lumber mill, an off-reservation juice plant and a Continental Basketball Association team, the Sun Kings.
Washines, who describes herself as a penny-pincher, is keeping a close eye on the budget, blocking any new loans, eliminating unnecessary spending and cutting travel expenses.
Citing the tribe’s sovereign status, Washines wouldn’t reveal the tribe’s annual operating budget, but in the past, it has been reported at about $7.4 million for governmental operations alone.
Her efforts are helping the tribe pay off $6.8 million in loans after previous tribal leaders sought to improve its lumber mill and juice plant.
“This council is working very hard to make sure that we are out of debt, and that one day this tribe will prosper,” she said.
Washines also was instrumental in getting the tribe’s appellate court in operation after it was closed for a few years due to a lack of funding.
“She understands the limited availability of funds,” said Ray Slockish, chief judge of the tribe’s appellate court.
But there is much more to Washines than tribal government. Sitting in her office on a recent afternoon, she recalled the teachings of her elders and the importance of upholding the Treaty of 1855, which defines the boundaries of the 1.2-million-acre reservation and protects the tribe’s traditional hunting, fishing and food gathering rights in the more than 10 million acres it ceded to the federal government.
“Every day someone out there is trying to find a way to diminish the treaty language,” she said, with her hair pulled back with a beaded barrette and a horse pictured on a beaded medallion hanging from her neck.
“It’s an everyday fight to protect our rights, even this day in 2007.”
Pictures of past tribal elders and spiritual leaders dot her office walls.
She’s a respected elder of the Kah-milt-pah – known as the Rock Creek band – from an area south of Goldendale along the Columbia River. She grew up there speaking her native language and digging roots and picking berries. She was taught to hunt, fish and drum.
“These are the teachings we grew up with in our area,” she said, noting that not all of the 14 tribes and bands confederated into the Yakama Nation share the same teachings.
“Women fished, men helped gather (foods),” she added. “That’s what we were taught by our elders: equality.”
As a youngster, Washines worked in apple and cherry orchards and hop fields before earning a GED in the mid-1950s.
Not long afterward, she began working for the tribe keeping census data on Columbia River Indians and became a community health representative for tribal members.
“I was taught by my elders to always work for what I want,” she said. “And I live by that.”
She also worked as a lay council in Tribal Court and eventually a judge. She even served eight years on the tribe’s Code of Ethics Board, an eight-member panel that oversees the conduct of tribal officers and employees.
She taught her traditional language in public schools and served as an interpreter in federal court in the famous Sohappy salmon case, when the late David Sohappy and other tribal fishermen were accused of poaching Columbia River fish in the early 1980s.
Her first term on the Tribal Council came in 1985, when she served two years. She was elected to a four-year term in 1989, and again in 2004.
“I’m a woman of many jobs, completed jobs, and waiting for more,” she said, chuckling.
But it’s the love the mother of four and great-grandmother of two shows for others that’s most admired about her, said Julian Pinkham a longtime friend and appellate court judge.
“People come in her office with heartache stories – need gas money or something – she’s not afraid to pull out her purse,” he said.
Washines’ regard for others was displayed last month by the way she responded to the Toppenish mayor’s comments blaming the city’s budget shortfall on a sales tax exemption for tribal members.
Toppenish is on the reservation, and the 1855 treaty exempts tribal members from sales taxes there.
But Washines, a Toppenish resident who separated from her husband years ago, offered a low-key response, saying the tribe didn’t want to make a big deal about it. However, the tribe doesn’t want it to happen again.
Mayor Bill Rogers, who repeatedly apologized for his comments, described Washines as “very cordial and receptive.”
“I find her to be a very warm and a personable-type person,” he said. “She’s a very nice person.”
Washines stresses the need for tribal members and non-Indians to work together and respect each another on the reservation.
She said she hopes non-Indians appreciate what they have here “because at one time, everything belonged to the native people.”
“We cherish and we take care of everything, all the resources,” she said. “We need everyone here – our neighbors – to respect that.”
While Washines strictly follows her traditional Washat beliefs, she said she respects all faiths. “Because there is only one God,” she said.
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