Claudia Kauffman is no senator’s daughter, and her historic victory last November to become Washington state’s first Native American woman senator did not come easily. She describes herself as having grown up “po” (as opposed to just poor) in a crowded Beacon Hill home with seven brothers and sisters. Poor or not, Kauffman’s family was politically active; their membership in the Nez Perce tribe taught her early on the value of community involvement. From her work with the Native Action Network (the grassroots organization focused on community development for Puget Sound and Alaskan Natives) to her time spent championing Native education rights, she has fought for Native and low-income families for decades.
Kauffman sponsored a bill this year to establish teachers’ certification programs for First People’s language and cultural education; the bill passed the Senate last month and the House on April 6. We sat down recently with Senator Claudia Kauffman to discuss issues in Native education, among them the ongoing struggle to correct the injustice forced integration has had on Native children.
You currently sit on the Senate Education Committee, and you are focusing on education at this stage in your political career. Why is education so important to you, and how do you feel it is specifically important for the Native community?
I can give you the standard answer, that the more education you get the better person you become, and then you contribute to society and it promotes economic development, which creates… well you know, that’s the big, big picture. But what I really look at, what you get back down to, is the lower performing schools, the low-income people who are struggling and recognizing the importance of education as an individual and as a family. This can become an issue for American Indians, who have a long history of not trusting educational institutions for a number of reasons.
Maybe you can tell us a little about that; what is the history there?
American Indians, historically, have gone through what I call forced integration. There have been exclusions in [U.S. history] of African peoples, there’s been anti-Chinese and anti-Japanese attitudes. There’s been a “You stay over here, you go over there” mentality. But American Indians have always been forced into this culture, forced into religion and forced into certain education: a forced assimilation. This came out of both religious and educational institutions taking on the “responsibility” of educating the American Indians, and they both had their own manner in how they thought it should be done. So there was a tremendous amount of children taken off the reservations, taken from their homes and sent to boarding schools.
My grandmother was taken from Idaho and sent to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, to one of these schools. They would cut your hair, you would speak nothing but English or else you would be punished, sometimes severely. The Catholic Church, the Protestant church, all of these churches came in and said commandingly, “We know what is best for you, we are going to take care of you, and this is what you are going to do. You are going to forget your religion, you are forbidden to practice any of your traditions,” and this was law, this was actually federal law. It created a sense that this “education” takes everything away and is forced on me. Education became just another institution where American Indian children were forced into another culture. Historically, that is the way it has been.
Why do you think it is important for all Americans to be aware of this history?
Well, it would be great if all Americans were aware of it. A lot of people don’t like to listen to that, and a lot of people think because someone may want them to learn about this history means that the speaker has a chip on their shoulder. I mean, I have been told, “You just have a chip on your shoulder, get over it.” And that is not what it is about. And I am not asking anyone to apologize, to feel bad, to do anything. People have asked me to come in and talk about history, and I can do that. These histories, these laws impact people every day. Laws are important, and they may have affected people way back when, and folks don’t know about it. It is a constant education, even understanding what is happening today, it is a constant education process. I think it would be great if Americans knew and understood the perspective of the American Indian, where they come from, and the importance they place on who you are and where you come from.
Can you tell us about the bill you sponsored for the certification programs for teachers of First Peoples Language and Culture?
First, some background information: First Peoples Language Project has been a project that has been in the works for a number of years. But it was only three years ago that it actually became a pilot project in which American Indian tribes within Washington state had speakers of their tribal language going out to the schools to teach their languages. So they did that for three years, and the last year they worked to provide certification, because you can’t really be a teacher in a classroom unless you are certified. And there isn’t anyone outside of the tribes who can say, “I certify this,” who can say for example, “Yes, you’re speaking the Colville language correctly.” Who else can do that but the Colville tribe?
You are the first Native woman to be elected to the Washington State Senate. That’s wonderful in some ways, but an obvious question is also, why did it take so long? Why did it take until 2007?
[Laughs] Well, I am not sure. I can tell you a few things. During my campaign, [running for office] was all I was focused on. But once I got here I realized not only the impact it had on my family and the tribes in the Northwest and me, but all across the nation. I mean, people were contacting me and talking about it all around the country. I said, “Wow, this is really larger than I thought.” When I am here at the Capitol, I still can’t believe it. I sit on the Senate floor and look up and am overwhelmed, and I still feel like it’s not true, but it is true. So many people and so many women, especially, have paved the way. What my grandparents went through, what my grandmother went through. The work that my mother did, the leaders in my tribe, the women who took leadership roles, the leaders in the Pacific Northwest — they paved the way so I could be in this position. It is humbling because this has opened doors for Native women to come in behind me and keep it going. Having that constant overwhelming feeling, and knowing I am standing on the shoulders of my ancestors, who did all the work, is very humbling to me.
Considering that legacy, and as a mother of two daughters and a son, do you think that any of your children will get involved in politics?
Oh, I hope so… I hope so.
This piece was produced by Sarah Stuteville and Peder Nelson of www.commonlanguageproject.net, an online multimedia magazine dedicated to covering underreported social justice issues.