by Shana Lombard, Communications Assistant
Rebecca Miles, WSU alumna, encouraged WSU Native students to be bold and to not give up at this semester’s Welcome Back Barbecue in September.
“What I love about the generation today is that you’re not making any apologies in living our way of life,” Miles said.
Miles was the first female chairperson of the Nez Perce Tribe, a position she secured in 2005. While on the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee (NPTEC), the tribe’s governing structure, she worked extensively on maintaining and strengthening her tribe’s treaty rights. She resigned from NPTEC in 2009 to accept her current position as executive director of the Nez Perce Tribe.
Miles graduated from Washington State University in 1997 with a bachelor’s of arts degree in criminal justice. She then went on to Gonzaga University to earn a master’s degree in organizational leadership in 2002. She was selected as the 2006 WSU Woman of Distinction.
Miles said she felt out of place on campus as a freshman, especially coming from a small high school located in Lapwai, Idaho on the Nez Perce Indian Reservation. She recalled a geology class with 1,000 students that left her feeling so overwhelmed, she went back to her dorm room in tears.
She found some comfort in the old Native American Student Center that was located in Wilson-Short Hall at the time. She credits lots of time spent with Barbara Aston (current Native Programs director and former retention specialist) that helped ease her transition to WSU, a transition that didn’t come easy.
Miles described her frustration with people on campus who were ignorant of who and what the Nez Perce people are. But that feeling ignited Miles to become active on campus to spread awareness of not only her people but for other Native Americans on campus. She became a member of both the Native American Women’s Association and ASWSU Ku-Ah-Mah student organization.
Miles shared two pieces of advice to the crowd: one; no matter what you get your degree in, it is going to help your tribe, and two; you may feel pressured to fit in but you don’t have to.
“Getting a college education is so promising to Native people because it’s going to help our people thrive,” she continued.
After she finished her master’s program at Gonzaga, Miles applied for a job at WSU. She was offered the position but with her tribe’s election coming up, she had a different direction she wanted to pursue.
“Something just bothered me inside to serve my people,” Miles said.
In May 2004, she was elected to NPTEC. On her first trip as a member of the council, she flew to Boise, Idaho with Anthony Johnson, NPTEC chair, and lawyers who represented the tribe, to meet with the then governor of Idaho, Dirk Kempthorne, and the Department of Interior’s secretary Gale Norton to discuss the tribe’s water rights claims on the Snake River Basin.
Miles left the meeting feeling uneasy about the settlement but she knew that if the settlement wasn’t accepted, it would have been detrimental for her people’s water rights.
“It was the biggest decision since treaty time,” Miles said.
The Snake River Basin Settlement was 17 years in the making with just nine months left to agree to its terms. The executive council decided to hold town hall meetings to explain the settlement to its members.
Miles saw the disconnect and distrust between her fellow tribal members and the tribe’s lawyers so she decided to take matters into her own hands. She told the other council members that the only way the people were going to really understand that accepting the settlement is the best outcome for the tribe, they were going to have to explain it themselves. Miles decided to spearhead these meetings.
She said she felt exhausted by her first big undertaking on council. Members on the council were given death threats, some even had their tires slashed. Because of the harsh outlash, she felt like she had made a mistake.
When confiding to her parents, Miles said she was going to quit the council. Her mother got upset with her, while her dad jokingly told her to, “just be like everyone else on council and travel.” Not wanting to do her people wrong, Miles chose to stick her term out.
July brought newly-elected people onto council and with that came a new year for Miles.
In May 2005, the seat for executive committee chairperson was up for election. Miles had never thought of running for that position. She didn’t think she was worthy of such a high rank in her tribe.
However, she decided to put herself out there for that kind of opportunity, and received the majority vote. She became the Nez Perce Tribe’s first woman Executive Committee chair!
After hearing the results of the election, a tribal elder, Bessy Scott came up to her and said, “I don’t know if anyone’s going to know that you earned that on your own,” adding that she was voted for not only by women in her tribe but by a majority of the men as well.
Miles recounted the feeling of winning the election as being wholly believed in by her tribe to lead them in the right direction.
“They believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself,” Miles said.
Miles wrapped up her speech by adding: “just about the time you’re going to give up is about the time you heed the lesson.”