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Making History: A Native Voice At The Capitol

When a seat opened up in the Oregon House of Representatives, Tawna Sanchez’s cell phone started buzzing with texts and calls. The gist: Go for it.

“My first reaction was, are you out of your mind?” Sanchez says. “Then I started seriously thinking about it and said, ‘What the hell.’ I can keep doing what I’m doing now, or I could step it up and do a little more.”

Sanchez, a Democrat, went on to win the 2016 race for District 43, which represents North Portland, the neighborhood where she grew up. It was a historic victory. She became just the second Native American to serve in the Oregon Legislature, and is one of a growing number of Portland State University alumni playing an active role in state politics.

A relatively recent graduate of PSU’s School of Social Work, Sanchez has spent the last several decades working to support victims of domestic violence for the Portland-based Native American Youth and Family Center. Before that, she attended an alternative high school, dropped out, and moved to the Bay Area to become a political activist. She marched for treaty rights and joined anti-war and civil rights protests before returning to Oregon to get a degree in psychology and communication from Marylhurst University.

In 2010, she learned of efforts by PSU to get more people of color into the MSW program. “It seemed like a good opportunity,” she says. “It doesn’t matter how long you work in the field, a lot of people don’t think you know anything unless you have some letters after your name.” She earned her master’s degree in 2012.

As a freshman lawmaker, Sanchez says she plans to focus on children in foster care, as well as domestic violence issues. “Not just Native kiddos,” she says, noting that federal law calls for special consideration of tribal members, including extra efforts to keep the child with relatives or other tribal family members. Those same efforts “should be implemented for every child,” she says.

She also hopes to provide a level of expertise on government-to-government relations between the state and its nine recognized tribes and other issues Native Americans face in Oregon.

Many legislators don’t have a solid understanding of tribal rights and Indian history and culture, says PSU political science professor Richard Clucas. Even if they want to represent or address tribal concerns, they often lack the background, he says.

“Having her there could make a big difference,” Clucas says. “She is in a position to really help the problems confronting Native Americans in Oregon.”

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