Last May, Rebecca Miles became the first woman and, at age 32, the youngest person to be elected chairman of the Nez Perce tribe. In her one-year post representing the 3,000 members of the tribe, Miles has traveled the country speaking on issues like salmon recovery and the 150th anniversary of the Nez Perce treaty. She has also worked hard at home to address local issues, raise her two sons, and serve her community. A 1997 criminal justice graduate of Washington State University, Miles went on to earn a graduate degree in organizational leadership from Gonzaga University. She spoke with Hannelore Sudermann November 15, 2005, at the Nez Perce tribal headquarters in Lapwai, Idaho.
Pick your mentors and accept their help.
I was raised here on the reservation, and then I picked a school that was way too big. The social adjustment at Washington State was very hard. But Barbara Aston [WSU’s tribal liaison] sat down with me for about two hours and worked out a schedule with me. We became friends. She’s one of these real brilliant people, but not someone who is just for herself. Her passion is building a foundation for other people. I have other mentors, but she’s a standout. I could talk to her about anything. I could talk to her about when my marriage ended.
Some things are not as hard as they look.
When I graduated, I was married and carrying my oldest one, Tommy. I had him in 1997. I got married while I was in school, and then had him, and then came to work for the tribe after that. Not too long after I had my first son, I got pregnant with the next one. At six and eight now, they’re real close in age. Then I started my master’s in 1999. People always asked, “How did you do it with two kids?” It really wasn’t that hard.
Find your motivation.
It was actually my kids that gave me the drive. I wonder, What would my life be like if I didn’t have them? I had a really good job at the University Inn Pantry. I would have just stayed in that job. I really enjoyed it. I was a waitress, I moved up to supervisor. I got very good tips. I was comfortable. But then marriage and kids changed all that. I always give that credit to my children. They make you do things you think you cannot do. They took me out of limbo and kicked me in the rear.
Don’t wait to follow your dreams.
I’d always wanted to further my education, but I could never really pinpoint what I was good at except for leadership. It was something I understood. I enjoyed reading about it. I liked to study how leaders are effective. How does a top manager or top company accomplish something great? That’s what led me to Gonzaga and a master’s degree. That was so enjoyable: the course work, the professors, the university philosophy. It helped me build confidence in some of the ideas I already had.
Listen to that little urge.
It had always been my dream to go back to WSU and work on a Ph.D. in either education or history. I had been offered a job on campus. I knew that being employed there would be a foot in the door while I decided what to study. But there was a small urge in me that wanted to know if I could run for office here [in Lapwai]. I realized that if I left, I might never come back. If I did, I’d probably be a lot older, maybe an old grandma, by then. I hadn’t decided until the night before the elections that I was actually going to run for an open seat on the Nez Perce council’s executive committee. Serving on the committee is a very tough job, and people can get very negative. For the most part, it was a small urge that said, Why don’t you just try it out? I did.
Stick it out.
We had a very hard first year. We had a huge water-rights settlement with the United States and the State of Idaho that would settle the Nez Perce water claims forever. That is very big for tribes, for any tribe, to quantify your water and settle on that. This had been going on since I was a sophomore in high school. Little did I know I would be coming in on the very last leg of that, and that was the decision-making leg, that was the crucial time. Our people were really in an uproar about the settlement. I led the public meetings with our people and got chewed out quite a bit, got some nasty phone calls. I didn’t sleep well. I had even tears over it. It was such a hard time. I just thought, I’m going to finish out my other two years and just serve as a member and follow a couple of initiatives for my people that I think are very important: suicide prevention and education.
Time brings change.
After May of this year everything changed. The former chairman of the executive committee did not get reelected. Then the buzz started that one of the members wanted to nominate me. What usually happens is, after our general council meeting, with the whole tribe present, we adjourn, and then the newly elected or reelected executive board members, the nine of us, get together right there and call a special meeting to order. Then we reorganize right there in front of all of our people.
This time I was nominated for chairman. Two other people were also nominated. I honestly didn’t think that I would get elected. And just like that, it changed.
Savor the moment.
When the last vote came down, you couldn’t even hear the chairman of the general council say anything, because the yelling and screaming was so loud. It was because it never has happened in our tribe. You never had a woman chairman, ever. I got really emotional. I didn’t even think about being the first woman. I didn’t even think about being the youngest. I was emotional, because I felt that difficult year I just had, where I felt like almost quitting, culminated in a vote of confidence that I didn’t expect. It said they believed something about me that I had even doubted in myself. My sons were there, and they witnessed it. It made them proud.
Set priorities and find balance.
One of the things I’ve grappled with as I’ve taken on this big role is this: we get tribal members who call in, or e-mail us, or call us and say, “Why isn’t this a priority for you? This is something that is a necessity for all the people.” One subject is land purchase. The other might be saving our language. Another is education. Another might be senior citizens and why we’re not doing a better job taking care of our elders. Or salmon recovery, which has been a hot topic for the last 10 or 15 years and has heated up even more as we haven’t yet recovered them. I sit in this office, and I think about it, and I get really frustrated. What is guiding what is a priority? We all have what is important to us personally, and we all think all those issues and 50 more are important to the tribe. It’s the other members here who are going to get these things to happen. My goal as chairman is to be working on all of these issues systematically and for us to proceed in a way that in 10 years we can look back and say we accomplished our goals.
Draw your strength from those who came before.
When I have time to slow down and think about the enormous responsibility and work that it takes to do this job, I do get afraid. Fortunately I stay busy enough, and I work with a great staff. And I think about my grandfather. He went through a hard time as an elected leader. He went through a hard time as a man. I’m just astounded by his life. Probably the other driving force besides my sons is him. When I think of him, I know I don’t have anything to complain about. I don’t have any excuse to fail.
Protect your privacy.
You know the saying that it’s lonely at the top? It really is. I’m not married now. So I do walk a very fine line in my personal private life. I basically don’t have a visible private life to anybody. My own life with my two kids, I try very hard to keep that to myself.
Share your time and your values with your children.
This last weekend I took my kids to our tribe’s veterans’ dinner, which is always really good to go to. Our people honor veterans even more than this country does in general. Then there was a powwow this last weekend. We stayed for the memorials and name givings. Then we slept all weekend and baked cookies. It was really some good time. When I have to travel, it’s hard. Sometimes if my sons are off of school, I try to take them with me. I don’t want to turn around and have them be 17 and 18 and realize I’ve missed their lives. When it gets hard for me, they really encourage me.
We grew up really poor. But we had my mom at home, and my dad was working every day. I read about people who do come out of poverty, and a lot of it is because they didn’t want to go back. . . . But I look at the foundation that my parents and grandparents were building. They were always giving, always sharing with people, even when they didn’t have anything. I realize the value of that. Now I think my job is harder. My kids have everything. I work really hard to build into them giving and sharing.