Life as a Native Queer Policy Nerd: Embracing Tough Conversations That Need to Be Had, written by Christine Smith
Blog Series: Confronting Inequities in Our Field - October 30, 2020
I’m Christine Smith. I’m an enrolled member of the Rincon Band of Luiseno Indians, and descended from the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians. I’m the daughter of Kim and Weldon, stepdaughter of Jeff. I graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a degree in Political Science and a minor in Native American Studies, and I have a Master’s in Public Administration from the University of San Francisco. For the last four years, I’ve worked as the Public Policy Coordinator at the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence. I’m a survivor of domestic violence. I’m a proud puppy and kitten mama. A queer woman. A soccer player. A quilter and crafter. Professional coach-in-training. Portland Thorns fan.
I have a piece of paper from the Bureau of Indian Affairs that says how much Indian Blood I have. When I say I’m Native, people routinely look at me, with my medium brown hair, and ask me how much Indian I am. My last name is Smith, apparently it’s supposed to be more Indian for some reason according to the people who decide these things? I’ve never understood who the people who decide those things truly are. I don’t know what Native people are supposed to look like. Did you know there are over 100 tribes in California? And over 500 nationally? 500 different cultures, different sovereign nations. What does Native look like to non Native people and why don’t you understand we’re all different? I forget that I’m maybe supposed to wear a feather in my hair and moccasins on my feet. I never ask people how White they are. 50%? 25%? What’s enough for me to believe that you’re White? Why would I even ask?
Even after telling people that I’m Native, people will tell me directly what all Women of Color think, how they dress, how they approach things, and that I don’t fit into the narrative. I say, I’m wearing my Native jewelry today, I’m wearing flats because I was taught that White people wear heels at meetings, not Native people. I don’t try to overpower people with handshakes, it’s not what we do; it is a sign of dominance and disrespect. Before I was enrolled, the same people who are ostensibly women of color who would say they are welcoming people into spaces would say well you’re not enrolled. Enrollment is complex. Each tribe has their own unique enrollment process to determine membership as is their right as a sovereign nation. Mine involved a rapid DNA test with my Dad and several generations of genealogy documentation. For many of us the question of are you Native comes down to are you a member of the community? Are you Native? Native people decide that, not another woman of color outside my community. We are distinct from other groups in so many ways but sovereignty is among the most critical and the most complex. Too often in school we learn that Native people lived here. No. Native people LIVE here.
I grew up wanting to become an elementary school teacher until I took a Women in American History class at my local community college during the summer when I was fifteen and discovered feminism and policy. My mom declared during the spring that I was too old to sit around the house all day during the summer. I asked her how I would even be able to take a community college class and she told me to figure it out. That’s my mom. So I did. I grew up with a lot of strong women – my Mom, my Aunt Nancy, my Aunt Jan, my Aunt Mary – who taught me I could do and be anything. I found campaign work first and dived headfirst into political research, and transitioned to policy work in 2011.
My first non-political job was as the Community Affairs Coordinator for the California Consortium for Urban Indian Health (CCUIH) in 2011. I was based out of the Sacramento Native American Health Center and worked on legislative policy for urban Indian health organizations. It was the first time I worked directly with so many incredible Native people trying to positively impact the lives of people throughout the state. Too many Native people face health disparities. According to the Indian Health Service, American Indians and Alaska Natives born today have a life expectancy that is 5.5 years less than the U.S. all races population, and continue to die at higher rates than other Americans in many categories, including diabetes mellitus, assault/homicide, intentional self-harm/suicide, and chronic lower respiratory diseases. After CCUIH, I worked at Sierra Health Foundation and after finishing graduate school in 2014, transitioned to the California Rural Indian Health Board, where I worked on health policy issues for tribal communities. I loved working in Indian Country. I rarely had to explain sovereignty, everyone just understood. Most of the time when I said Rincon, people knew exactly what it was, and where it was. I felt like I was making a difference for my family and Native people throughout the state. I loved digging into the complexities of the Affordable Care Act and finding ways to support Native people’s access to health care.
I am a Native woman and I’ve spent the last four years working as a Public Policy Coordinator for the statewide domestic violence coalition. I work daily to advocate for and support the needs of domestic violence programs and survivors. I’m committed to advocating for all members and survivors. I refer to myself as a professional nerd. I love what I do. I get geeky about policy and I love sharing it with people, on regional calls, on our monthly policy round up. I work with legislators, their staff and our allies to advocate for domestic violence programs and survivors, whether it’s prevention funding, a domestic violence and pets bill, or explaining the intersectional issues of immigration, housing, and economic justice for survivors. My goal is to help people in the ways I can, and through policy I believe we can make a difference.
I’m also committed to being a Native woman in this unique space. I’m one of two people in the Policy Department, and the only woman of color. While this has always been important, since our Shifting the Lens conference in 2019, it’s become increasingly clear to me how important it is to embrace being a Native woman in this space and to lift up the voices of Native people where I can. We need to make sure Native voices are included in statewide conversations. We need to acknowledge the reality of the stolen land we tread on, and the impact of it. The thoughtful and intentional history of genocide of Native people. Historical trauma. Health disparities. Intimate partner violence. Missing and murdered Native people. I am that woman who explains sovereignty when I’m again the only Native person at the conference table, and asks if we can find a different word when yet another person says we should name our small group a “tribe”.
84% of Native women face violence in their lifetime. These rates are too high. There are too few Native people doing this work outside of urban Indian and tribal organizations. There are too few Native people in leadership at mainstream organizations and too few Native people in this field. We know there are barriers for Native people seeking services at domestic violence programs; too few advocates know about Native people or know how to connect them to tribal or traditional services. Without this connection, many Native people cannot heal. The concept of home as tribal land, the concept of traditional practices, connection to culture – they all need to be addressed for healing. Too often, Native people are told by advocates that safety involves going to another part of the state, without the advocate acknowledging that it would mean leaving home and tribal and community connections. My Dad is a long-time Sacramento resident. He moved here from Riverside in November 1975 to work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. But when he says home, he doesn’t mean Sacramento. Home is the Rincon Indian Reservation, the mountains, the sage, the wind, and our family. It is for me too. It’s true for a lot of Native people.
We need to address fundamental issues that create barriers for Native survivors. We also need to address the barriers for Native women in policy and in leadership. I am one voice. I am committed to listening to all members and survivors of every color. I will look to my Native sisters for leadership and mentorship and find ways to work together. We need to continue to engage in this dialogue. My email is open anytime. My cell phone number is at the bottom of my emails. Feel free to reach out.
I have several asks. My ask is that we work together, and have tough conversations in white and non-White spaces. My ask is that the next time someone says “we should call ourselves a tribe” in a meeting, someone other than me or another Native person speaks up and talks about why we need other word choices; that if there’s resentment about it, it’s addressed in a constructive way. My ask is that we don’t assume that all women of color think the same about every issue, that we acknowledge that we can have different opinions and similar ones without being divided. My ask is that the next time you see someone smart who you think might be a good future policy nerd, you talk to them about policy as a field. Always feel free to refer them to me. Let’s grow and heal this world together. We need to find ways to work together toward a future without violence, for all people, for all generations.