The final day of the 27th Annual National Reservation Economic Summit was many things. Chief among them, it was a day for Native women.
Easily a thousand attendees had already arrived for lunch and applauded loudly when a speaker from the Native American Financial Services Association, a major RES sponsor, lauded the recent passage of the Violence Against Women Act, meant to protect Native women from abuse by non-Native offenders. Cherokee singer Tabitha Fair wowed the crowd with a soulful, empowering performance. Roxie Schescke, Rosebud Sioux, won the NCAIED’s National Native Women Business Owner of the Year award, and was moved to tears when she looked off the stage to find a heartfelt standing ovation. And the entire Southern Ballroom at Mandalay Bay was awestruck by the creative designs of Transformed and Touch of Culture at the RES 2013 Women’s Fashion Show.
The feminine focus continued into the afternoon with a special panel called Women in Business, where half a dozen female, Native, entrepreneurial trailblazers described their experiences for a mostly – but not completely – female audience.
Moderator Margo Gray, the outgoing Chairwoman of the NCAIED Board of Directors and President of Horizon Engineering Services Co. posed a series of questions to panelists that included a media leader, two corporate CEOs, a career singer and a tribal chairwoman.
Annette Hamilton is Chief Executive Officer and Vice President of HoChunk Inc., the economic development corporation for the Winnebago Tribe in Nebraska. Asked about a man who helped instill her confidence, she named a colleague at her organization. But almost apologetically, she revealed that it was really the women in her life who built her to what she is today.
“My mother truly supported me when I was an unusual child who didn’t fit in,” she said. “My father died when I was in the fifth grade. I grew up in a very strong family of women.”
For Cherokee singer Tabitha Fair, that one man was her grandfather, an evangelist preacher.
“I think that anyone who is successful in anything, you have to have that person who is an advocate for you,” she said. “You have to get the education and you have to put the work in, then that person comes into your life and they can take you to the next level.”
Gray next asked about singular moments in the women’s lives.
Randi Rourke Barreiro, Akwesasne Mohawk, is the owner and president of Sky Woman Media. She said she decided to start her own business shortly after a moment of clarity that came when she was an editor for Indian Country Today.
“I felt important and I was proud of what we did,” she said. “But it’s kind of like a machine. You stop doing it and it still runs and you’re like, ‘Oh, I wasn’t running that. It was running me.’”
Other panelists described moments when they first understood their power. Gray’s came when she spoke on a stage and realized people were actually listening to her words. For Fawn Sharp, Chairwoman of the Quinault Tribe and Chair of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, it came when she was 18 years old and advocated for her tribe’s fishing rights in a roomful of unsympathetic, non-tribal officials. For Hamilton, it was the moment when she signed a housing contract so that a split family could re-unite under one roof, and a five-year-old child thanked her.
“That is when my life, it made sense,” she said.
Gray also led the women in some simple empowerment exercises, which culminated when the women held hands and exchanged warm words of praise.
“I can feel her heartbeat in my hand,” Gray noted at one point, while holding Fair’s hand. “You feel that? That’s our one heartbeat – that’s our one heartbeat in Indian Country.”