Eight years ago, Valerie Harrington didn’t see herself as a leader. She was unclear about her future. She wasn’t planning to go to college.
Then Melanie Benjamin, the chief executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, invited her to a conference of Native American women in leadership.
"I barely stood up to introduce myself up at the first one, I was so nervous,” Harrington recalled.
That was in 2011. And by then, WEWIN — Women Empowering Women for Indigenous Nations — had prepared hundreds of Native American women for leadership roles in communities across the country.
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It was the first step for Harrington, who now has a master’s degree in tribal governance and works for the Mille Lacs Band’s legislative branch. The women she met at the WEWIN conference, she said, gave her the confidence she needed to get involved in volunteer efforts at Mille Lacs and speak out about community issues.
"Now I can go and speak at events and get people involved in the community,” Harrington said. “I've come a long way, and it's inspirational every time."
WEWIN was started in 2004 by Susan Masten, a leader of the Yurok Tribe in northern California who said women leaders in Indian Country needed an informal support system. Melanie Benjamin is a founding board member of the group, which evolved into a support, training and mentoring community of Native women across the country.
The conference was a life-changing experience for Harrington.
"There's just an energy around these women, and it feels like you've known them — like they're your grandma or your auntie, or your sister,” she said. “It's just so welcoming. And they give you the strength that you had all the time and you didn't know that you had it."
Mentoring young women is a responsibility Benjamin takes seriously. She said she herself is a tribal leader, in part, because people challenged her when she was younger.
She had been, as she puts it, an unmotivated high school student who eventually dropped out.
But her mother had an expectation of success for her that stuck with her, and changed the direction of her life.
"I always thought about what my mom said to me: 'You're the one in the family that's going to go to college,’” Benjamin said. “So I decided to go to Bemidji State. First one in my family to get a college degree, out of 12 kids."
After college, she took a job with the Mille Lacs Band. A few years later, tribal elders encouraged her to run for chief executive. She was elected in 2000 and has been re-elected four times, something she says was never part of her wildest dreams as a young woman.
"That wasn't something that you grew up to aspire to be, the tribal chairman. Today it's different,” she said, sitting in her office in Onamia with young women she regularly mentors. “And if Ronni decides she wants to one day be the chief executive, she has that opportunity and she can work toward that."
Ronni Jourdain attended the WEWIN conference for the first time when she was a sophomore in high school. At the time, she was feeling uncertain about her plans to study psychology in college. She wondered if people would look down on her for choosing a career in psychology.
At the conference she listened to women who were proud, strong and confident in their decisions.
"And after going to a few sessions over there I was like, ‘Wow I can really just express myself. I've gotten a big thing of motivation. I can go pursue my dreams. I don't have to hide it from everybody,” she said. “They all believed in me.”
Jourdain and Harrington meet regularly with Benjamin, who has made it a priority to mentor and support young women leaders.
And recent state and federal political wins by Native women open even more doors. In last November’s election, voters in Kansas and New Mexico elected the country’s first two Native American congresswomen — Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids — and Minnesota elected the country’s first Native American lieutenant governor, Peggy Flanagan.
“Anybody can say, 'Oh wow! I can be lieutenant governor, I can be senator, I can even be president,’” said Benjamin. “But it takes hard work. It's like when opportunity knocks at your door, you better answer. And if it's not knocking enough, you make your own opportunity."
That opportunity, she tells the young women she mentors, comes from education, hard work and being the kind of person others can count on. And it also comes from balance: Only by taking care of yourself and your family can you be an effective leader.
WEWIN holds an annual conference which serves as a networking and training opportunity. Local chapters bring the support network home to tribal nations across the country. A WEWIN chapter meets regularly on the Mille Lacs reservation.
Benjamin said women have long taken leadership roles in Indian Country, but often behind the scenes. Now they’re more comfortable on the front lines.
“It does have a very strong ripple effect because the voice of the women has always been strong in our Indian communities, but now we're stepping into mainstream society," she said.
And, she adds, not all effective leaders are elected.
"It doesn't take a title to make you a leader,” said Harrington. “Anything that you're doing for your family, the tribe, your community, it makes you a leader, and you don't even realize because it's just something that you have a passion for."
Harrington said she’s looking forward to being inspired again next week when she joins women from across Indian Country in California at the organization’s next conference, where Flanagan is slated to be a keynote speaker.
Benjamin thinks far beyond the next event. She takes the traditional long view of the work of mentoring young women, considering how what’s done now might affect Indian Country for seven generations.