July 19, 2006
By Angie Chuang
Most of Tawna Sanchez's days begin like this:
She drives from her North Portland home to the Native American Youth and Family Center on Columbia Boulevard. She passes the marked parking spaces reserved for elders. She walks down the entry hallway, where her picture hangs on a wall of honored community members.
Then she walks into her office and checks the light on the voicemail box. Once or twice a week, it's on, which means there was a domestic violence incident the night before and Sanchez must meet a woman in a shelter, or trying to get her to one.
For the past seven years, Sanchez, 44, has headed the family services division of the center, known as Naya. She created the Healing Circle, its domestic violence prevention and counseling program. Before that, she helped resurrect Naya after it had become dormant, about a decade ago.
Today, Sanchez, who is Shoshone-Bannock and Ute, will be the only Oregonian among five Native Americans from western North America honored at the Ecotrust's Sixth Annual Buffett Awards for Indigenous Leadership. Sanchez is the first Portlander to be a finalist in five years.
Earlier this week, Sanchez reflected on her lifelong involvement in her community and how it has evolved from political protest to family healing.
Tell me about how you first encountered Naya.
I was born in Salem and grew up all over the West. We came back to Portland when I was a teenager. Wounded Knee (a 1973 standoff between Native American activists and U.S. Marshals that ended with the death of two protesters) had happened, and there was a political mind-set around a lot of Native people, "This is just not working for us." I wasn't going to school that much, because I felt like it was a big fashion show. I wanted to be a political activist.
Naya was just trying to get us to go play basketball, play baseball, have us read radical political Native stuff — just to get us to do something so they could make sure we were around and out of trouble. It was at that time that I became very clear about this stuff. When I was 16, I went on The Longest Walk, a walk across the country to protest Congress trying to abrogate our treaty rights. I went from California to Kansas, then I rejoined them in Pennsylvania and went to D.C.
How did your political activism shape what you do now?
I've represented the International Indian Treaty Council in Australia and New Zealand. I've gone to the United Nations. I went to the Philippines for the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific. These issues are not just in the United States. Indigenous people have been devastated and treated unfairly everywhere.
As I moved out of the really serious political world, my focus was that we have all these kids who are growing up, and we have got to help their families come out of the generational traumas — those really horrible things that have come down to us through generations — and come out of oppression, both from other people and the oppression we bring upon ourselves.
And it made sense to help Native young people, and to shape the way they think.
How did you decide to focus on domestic violence?
I returned to Portland from California in 1996. I had earned my certificate in drug and alcohol studies and worked at a drug treatment program for Native women and children there. A friend of mine, Susan Balbas and I, wrote a grant and restarted Naya in the subbasement of Portland State University, just the two of us.
Healing Circle came in 1999. We realized we couldn't keep kids in school if their families and home lives weren't stable. And now, Naya is here and thriving 10 years later, and we're starting a charter school next year.
What are the challenges?
It's tough. If a woman's telling me a story about being strangled or hit in the head with a hammer, which has happened, I have to be able to walk through it with her and move forward from it. We can't stay there. You have to cycle through it and do it over and over again.
Somebody asked me once, 'What do you want the Healing Circle to look like in seven generations?' I don't want there to be a Healing Circle in seven generations. If we look back at our culture seven generations ago, no one thought it was normal to disrespect and hurt each other. We had laws and oral traditions that dictated how to treat each other. And in seven generations we can have that back again.
Angie Chuang: 503-221-8219; firstname.lastname@example.org.