Jan 18, 2024 - Podcasts

Fawn Sharp: The world needs Indigenous leaders

Indigenous leaders are helming efforts to tackle the world's problems, from climate change to violence against women. And Fawn Sharp, Vice President of the Quinault Indian Nation and former President of the National Congress of American Indians, says "the world is starting to recognize they need us more than we need them." Niala Boodhoo sat down with Fawn in Davos, Switzerland at the annual World Economic Forum to talk about why Indigenous leadership matters now.

  • Plus: Axios' Neil Irwin with a reality check on the World Economic Forum and the themes from this year's gathering.

Guests: Fawn Sharp, Vice President of the Quinault Indian Nation, former President of the National Congress of American Indians, and Indigenous Co-Chair for the World Economic Forum; Neil Irwin, Axios chief economic correspondent.

Credits: 1 big thing is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Alexandra Botti, and Jay Cowit. Music is composed by Alex Sugiura. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can send questions, comments and story ideas as a text or voice memo to Niala at 202-918-4893.

NIALA BOODHOO: Indigenous leaders are having a moment.

FAWN SHARP: I think the world is starting to recognize they need us more than we need them.

NIALA: One leading voice on the power of Indigenous communities to solve the urgent problems of today.

FAWN: Our ancestors have foretold of a day of reckoning and it would be the indigenous voices that would restore the soul of our country. And we're seeing that right now.

NIALA: Plus: a reality check on the World Economic Forum…and why it matters. I'm Niala Boodhoo. And from Axios, this is one big thing.

Greetings from Davos, Switzerland, a town known primarily for hosting the annual World Economic Forum, a gathering of global leaders, CEOs, economists, and more. It may conjure images of the world's elite frolicking in a snowy alpine village--in other words, a little removed from reality. But as I've learned here already, there's a lot more going on beneath the surface. And there are surprising and powerful voices everywhere you turn.

FAWN: We have within our DNA, multi generations of strength, of knowledge, of wisdom.

NIALA: That's Fawn Sharp, Vice President of the Quinault Indian Nation, and Former President of the National Congress of American Indians. She's also Indigenous Co-Chair for the World Economic Forum.

FAWN: By just showing up and bringing that knowledge and strength to the table, it's not just for us, but it's for the rest of the world that's looking for hope, that is in desperate need for solutions. And I think our stories are very inspirational.

NIALA: Every day it seems like we're seeing more coverage of Indigenous leaders helming efforts to tackle the world's problems, from climate change to violence against women. And Fawn says now is the time to pay attention to these voices. For ALL of our sakes.

Fawn, welcome to One Big Thing.

FAWN: Auk yiihach, anzhek haiwishkachikatsi. Thank you.

NIALA: In your State of the Indians Nation address last year, you said, quote, "We have incredible momentum, and now it's up to us as tribal leaders to just show up and demand more." First, can I just ask you, what's behind that momentum? Are you talking about specific wins here?

FAWN: You know that, came to me after a six week fast last year in preparation for the World Economic Forum 2023. And on the very last week of my last fast, in prayer, I just heard, Fawnn, you've prepared your entire life. All you have to do is just show up at this point. And so I believe we have incredible momentum. And when our ancestors signed treaties with the United States, there was a point in time where, You know, we're going to reserve what's left for future generations. And so I believe we are that generation that our ancestors hoped for and prayed for when all hope was seemingly lost and gone. And so all we have to do is just show up, continue the momentum of multi generational progress.

And I say quite simply, all we want to do is be able to ensure that we have political equity with other sovereigns, that no other sovereign could freely take unilateral, predetermined action. Over our objection affecting our land, territories, resources, and people. And everybody is aware of the Dakota Access Pipeline. That's an example. Where, over our objection, not just our objection, but objections all across Indian country and around the world, the United States unilaterally took a predetermined course of action. And so those are the type of policies we're advocating and demanding. We want what every other sovereign enjoys just by existing, and that is an ability to make decisions for future generations, to be able to ensure that no other sovereign can unilaterally exploit our people, our land, our sacred sites, our territories, and our resources.

NIALA: We're talking about this on a global scale. How does the U. S. rank when it comes to what you're talking about respecting the sovereignty of Indian nations?

FAWN: At the very bottom. And the reason I say that, when the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted by the UN General Assembly, four countries opposed. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. In 2010, Three of those four had reversed their position and supported the U. N. Declaration. The only country on the planet that still had an opposition was the United States. They were the last to reverse their position under the Obama administration. So when you look on a global scale of other countries that respect the basic inherent rights of tribal nations, the United States was last.

NIALA: As we hear more and more about Indigenous leaders making an impact, particularly when we're talking about climate change all over the world, especially women are doing that. You just came off of the stage here at Axios House talking about the power of the matriarch. Can you share a little bit more about why you think that matriarchal power may be leading to more change?

FAWN: It's such a profound impact within our communities because our matriarchs have confronted the the largest scale of opposition, the largest scale of exploitation, I mean, when you consider missing and murdered indigenous women, when you consider just over generations, the place where our ancestors held our women in high regard in, in just a matter of, you know, a few generations to find that, our women were just absolutely exploited and now they're sexually abused and trafficked. And, that is something that I think we've had to overcome, and as we've worked hard to restore our standing, our place, the respect and upholding the sacred part of our relationship with, our women, our matriarchs, there's a lot that we've endured, but to come back from that has only made us that much stronger.

And so for every exploitation, there's a restoration. For every time our, our women are trafficked and they're brought home or our women are protected with new systems of our justice – there's a number of statutes that we've worked hard as tribal leaders to restore in the last decade.

The Violence Against Women Act…in, in those pieces of legislation, we've actively restored criminal jurisdiction that tribal governments had previously lost.

NIALA: Can I step back and ask you about your path and your journey? Because am I right that I've read that you initially did not see yourself in politics? So I want to ask how you ended up on this path.

FAWN: That's absolutely right. 10 percent accurate. I grew up in a fishing family, so I grew up on the Quinault River fishing with my grandparents, and at the time, the fishing wars were happening in the Pacific Northwest during the 1970s, so I learned what treaty abrogation meant as an eight year old.

I set out to become an attorney so that I could work to restore, a very, uh, sacred part of our, our life ways at Quinault. An ability to not only earn income, but, what the salmon represents to our people and just to know others set out to destroy that, to take that away from us. It just inspired me to want to become an attorney.

And I did serve as the Attorney General for my tribe. I served on the Washington State Board of Governors, overseeing 33,000 attorneys in the state of Washington. And I loved the law. Our president had announced her retirement. She was only the ninth president since the turn of the previous century. And an elder pulled me aside and said, "Fawn, it's time for you to run for office." And I said, "Are you crazy? I've been trained to seek truth, justice, fairness. Politics? Tribal politics, on the other hand? No." But I was obedient and I honored that by setting out to debate with a field of six other candidates.

And in my first debate, the same elder pulled me aside and said, you looked, just like you didn't want to be there. And I said, "I don't want to be there." And I explained to him, "I, I've been trained to seek truth, justice." And he said, "Fawn, you're not running to be a politician. You're running to be a leader. And a leader brings those virtues to office." And so I was okay with it at that point. So then I ran. I won that year, that was in 2006, in the 9, 12, 15, 18, and uh, 5 terms as president. So I was the 10th president, the 2nd woman president, and that's how I, that's how I got pulled into this.

NIALA: As we're talking about leadership, I wanted to ask you what advice you would offer to those who were considering leadership positions, especially if they're Indigenous people.

FAWN: The number one thing I always encourage people to do when they're seeking public service is to prepare yourself mentally, physically, but ultimately, spiritually, because this role is a very sacred role. It's a very spiritual role. It's not rocket science. Public policy is pretty straightforward and basic. The challenges come when you have to exercise moral and political courage, when you have to have the strength to be the voice when others are, are trying to destroy and silence that voice. And so we have to rely on the wisdom of our ancestors. As I mentioned, having the six week fast, that wasn't something of my doing, but that was, something that I was just obedient to, and I've just learned over the course of decades of, of leadership, that's how our, you know, prior leaders emerge, and it meant a lot to me when I raised my right hand and took an oath of office to serve to the absolute very best of my ability. And that means being that voice of thousands, and not just the 4,000 Quinaults existing today, but thousands that preceded us and thousands yet to be born. And it's a position where you have to be prepared to rise above the political conflict, to rise above a sense of apathy, a sense of individualism, and really look at those things that transcend borders, that transcend generations, and that transcend you as an individual.

NIALA: I mean, as you're saying this, I'm just thinking of the American political landscape. And frankly, I think a lot of people listening are thinking, I'm not seeing that among our political leaders. I know you've worked to get more tribal leaders into politics that go beyond Native issues. Do you think that this message of what you're saying, these values, I imagine you would think everyone in the U.S. needs to kind of be paying better attention to that.

FAWN: Yes, and I've noticed when I've worked on issues that cross communities, especially in my home state of Washington, we took on the fossil fuel industry and pricing carbon, and there were individuals in our local community that were fighting to stop the export of crude oil off of Grace Harbor. So we found non-tribal citizens who were formerly opposed to us…when I talked to, about the fishing wars of the 1970s, those families, non tribal families, fishers, were now supporting us because they saw we were on the front line and quite frankly, the only voice to stop the exporting of crude oil. And so they look to us. And so I found that where others believe, uh, elected leaders should step up and they're not, and they're beholden to all these other special interests, that's to our advantage. And we demonstrate leadership by example. Because the United States was built on our values, the Iroquois system of, you know, service and, and checks and balances and representation of voices and justice for all and equity.

Those are indigenous principles that the United States was founded upon. And now the United States is so far removed. But our ancestors have foretold of a day of reckoning when this day would come, and it would be the indigenous voices that would restore the soul of our country. And we're seeing that right now. We're witnessing it. This generation is witnessing it, shaping it and influencing it.

NIALA: In a moment, we'll have more with Fawn Sharp on Indigenous leadership today. I'm Niala Boodhoo.

Welcome back to Axios' One Big Thing. I'm Niala Boodhoo, and I'm in Davos, Switzerland talking about the increasing importance of Indigenous leadership in solving global crises…with Fawn Sharp, Vice President of the Quinault [[kwin-ALT]] Indian Nation, and Former President of the National Congress of American Indians. She's also Indigenous Co-Chair at the World Economic Forum.

NIALA: I am speaking to you here at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, you've been a presence here in the past. Can you give us a sense of whether this gathering really matters in a meaningful way for you and the issues you care about? Do you think Indigenous leaders are actually heard here?

FAWN: I believe one, it matters. I believe we are gaining visibility. And it remains to be seen whether it's going to be effective. We are building networks globally. We're going to convene eight Indigenous leaders from all parts of the world. And I really believe that, they're looking to us to drive the agenda. It's not prescriptive. And I'm always inspired when I'm with a group of other Indigenous leaders because no matter the continent, the country, we face the similar issues of colonization. We face the same challenges, but we also stand on the same basic principles. And it doesn't matter if we're talking in Spanish, if we're talking in Russian, it's indigenous knowledge and wisdom, and it does transcend national borders and languages and generations. And so I think the world is starting to recognize they need us more than we need them. And that's what's exciting. I'm ready and prepared with my colleagues to create a very bright vision for all of humanity and the survival of our planet.

NIALA: One of your goals here is to invite CEOs directly to come to tribal lands. What's your pitch to them?

FAWN: Our pitch to them is, one can engage in business relationships and you can walk into a boardroom that could be quite sterile. I've been in plenty of boardrooms. You have lawyers and accountants. But when you walk into a business relationship with a sovereign tribal nation, you're walking into a relationship where we typically accompany hosting guests with some of our songs, our traditional foods, maybe some ceremony.

It's very sacred. It's unique. And when guests come to our, our tribal lands and they experience it, from my perspective and what I've witnessed, it opens up one's heart and one's spirit. And then you can talk about substantive business and policy and it seems to really lend to a positive relationship where everyone is oriented in a right way and no matter where you go in Indian country, you're gonna hear the drumbeat and that drumbeat represents our heartbeat. And when others feel and experience that, they experience and witness those things that we hold so sacred that have been with us since time began, and we're determined to ensure that generations until time ends are going to experience these.

And so those are the things that we envision. If you come to Quinault, you can see from glacier to ocean, a river system with absolutely no development. I had a conversation with someone from Dow Industries. I said, if you want to see a balanced ecosystem, come out to Quinault. You don't have to construct it in a lab. So those are the things that we're looking forward to.

NIALA: You were talking about, Native prophecies about this time in America and a reckoning. Yes. I wonder what your thoughts are about what that reckoning looks like, like how you're analyzing what's happening here and what you want the outcome to be.

FAWN: We have a burning environmental landscape, and we have a burning political landscape. And so, I think to be able to be true to our values as a country, we absolutely have to honor and uphold the oath of office that every elected official takes. That's what's so disheartening when you know elected officials know better, but the vote that they cast in issues like climate change, it's a political calculus. The loss of life, the loss of uh, homes, of natural resources is just another cost of doing business. There's no sacred value to any of that, because it ultimately comes down to corporations. It is a calculus and for politicians, it's a political calculus, but there's going to come a point of time and it's not too far into the future where that price simply is too high to pay. And I remember a climate meeting I attended, somebody asked, you know, "When are they gonna, when are they gonna learn and understand?" And an elder said when they realize they can't eat their money.

NIALA: Fawn Sharp is the Indigenous Co Chair for the World Economic Forum and also Vice President of the Quinault Nation. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me here.

FAWN: Yes, thank you, Siokwe'o.

NIALA: Finally today, Axios' chief economic correspondent Neil Irwin is here with me in Davos and I asked him for his take on the themes coming out of the World Economic Forum, and why that matters to all of us.

NEIL IRWIN: This time a year ago, there were a lot of warning signs about the global economy. Inflation was high, interest rates were rising worldwide… In January 2024 things look a little better. Right. We see inflation coming down around most of the world. We see steady global growth. Except there's all these risks looming out there. We have war in Israel and Gaza. We have continued war in Ukraine. We have energy threats. We have all kinds of things just looming out there that could disrupt this basically solid picture for global growth in 2024. And I think what we're hearing a lot of this, uh, this week in Davos is people trying to assess those risks and figure out where things go from here.

And, you know, this time a year ago Chat GPT had kind of just really been rolled out and people were understanding how powerful these tools could be. I think now these AI tools are being integrated more in actual business. But I think everybody's still trying to figure out what that means for individual industries, individual companies, and for workers, you know, around the world. What jobs will become better and more lucrative and more productive? What jobs might be eliminated and no longer exist. How does that play out? Geopolitically? How's that play out in corporate strategy? Those are the big open questions that I think a lot of people are discussing in Davos.

Is there a lot of hot air going on in all these meeting rooms? Uh, there is, it's cold outside though. So some hot air can, can escape without much issue. It's a little bit like, if you remember that movie, the Devil wears Prada where the, the secretary, the assistant has her sweater and, and the color was, was based on some fashion magazine from, from two years earlier. It's a little bit like that. Ideas get seeded here that, that global leaders are talking about the independent media. They end up in conversations at the G20 and the G7 among global leaders and among CEOs and boards of directors. And before you know it they become reality, not always not predictably so. But you know, climate activism is one big example where, this group and the kind of people who gather here were early on and now it's kind of part of our world. Uh, so you do see some of those where conversation gets seeded here, that you do see becoming part of the news cycle and part of the world later.

NIALA: That's Axios' chief economic correspondent Neil Irwin.

And that's it for this week's edition of 1 Big Thing. Our team includes Supervising Producer Alexandra Botti and Sound Engineer Jay Cowit. Alex Suigura composed our theme music. Aja Whitaker-Moore is Axios' Executive Editor, and Sara Keuhalani Goo is Axios' Editor in Chief.

Remember you can always text me feedback or story ideas at 202 918 4893, or email podcasts @ axios.com.

I'm Niala Boodhoo. Thanks for listening, stay safe, and we'll see you back here next Thursday.

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