You’ve Got To Be Tough To Make A Difference: An Interview with White Mountain Apache Tribal Chairwoman Gwendena Lee-Gatewood

The youngest of eleven children, Gwendena Lee-Gatewood’s parents made Show Low their home in the 1940’s.

By Amie Rodgers

Although some may disagree, I contend that truly good leaders are not simply born, but rather made. It is their experience that steadies their hand, hones their judgment and deepens their compassion for others. Leaders push forward and refuse to give up not because they have never failed or fear it, but because they have to try. They simply can’t live with questions like, what if they had just tried a little harder or taken that road less traveled?

A little over a year ago, the people of the White Mountain Apache Tribe made history by electing their very first chairwoman. We at the Maverick Magazine recently had the honor of sitting down with this remarkable woman whose humble local beginnings have since blossomed into a promising career devoted to her people and their future.

The youngest of eleven children, Gwendena Lee-Gatewood’s parents made Show Low their home in the 1940’s. Needless to say, they were not rich people and their educational opportunities had been limited to grade school levels. Although they were committed to giving their children the best educational opportunities they could, they knew life would not always be easy for their children and their advice was simple: toughen up. “Being the youngest in a big family, I had to be tough. I remember my mother getting after me saying, ‘Don’t cry every time your brothers tease you. Toughen up! You’ll get stronger.’ With that many brothers and sisters coming at you, you’ve got to hold your own,” laughs Gwendena warmly, “Of course, school also required me to toughen up because there were many times that I was the only Indian girl in class and there were always bullies that would get after me from school year to school year. The other kids would make fun of how my mother dressed because she wore the traditional Apache camp dresses. It really hurt me as a young child, but my mother would whisper in my ear in Apache, ‘They don’t know that this is our culture. Let them laugh. You just focus on getting your education and realizing that you are no different than they are. You are all in the same classroom with the goal to learn something.’ My dad agreed. He often said, ‘Look, I only went to second grade. I can’t communicate as well as you can at your young age. Get your education. Sure, they’re going to make fun of you, but let that motivate you. You can compete with them in this classroom.’ My dad was a champion roper and he was never afraid of competition. He said competition makes you stronger and builds your character.”

After graduating from Show Low, Gwendena went on to earn her Bachelors Degree in Human Resources Management and Business Administration at Northern Arizona University. It was during that time that she added another credential to her name as well: Mom. “I had my first child while I was a senior at NAU. I had expected him to be born during Spring Break because that was my due date. I had it all planned out, but it didn’t work out that way and he was born a month early. I was really fortunate that my instructors were very caring and compassionate. They were kind enough to video the lectures for me. I would take my son to classes, study groups, you name it. When I was studying, my mother would often say, ‘Your baby is going to be a very smart baby because what ever you are learning, he is learning too.’ I would laugh and shake my head, but sure, enough, he is a very smart young man now. He is twenty five, a Princeton graduate and last year, he graduated with his Masters from the university in Beijing. I really wanted to be there for the ceremony, but travel expenses, visas, taking time off, it all adds up so I sent my middle son to represent the family. He planned it all out so he could have a 12 hour layover in Japan so he could go see Tokyo. He’s a smart cookie too. I have four kids, two boys, one girl and one step son. My daughter just graduated from Blue Ridge and I am still struggling with seeing her as the strong, capable woman she is and not just my little girl who needs my help,” says Gwendena in the sweet tones of a proud loving mother.

“I was a single parent for thirteen years. It was very tough and I had to be tough and strong for my kids. I was on foot with my kids for a year as we didn’t have a car. I couldn’t provide the latest expensive gadgets in terms of toys or video games. We lived in a tiny house on E. Owens in Show Low. Every day, we would go to the public library. Every day I would pray Heavenly Father, I can’t really buy them anything, but whatever they read and learn, please bless them so that when they grow up they will be able to go to college. Let them find their way and bless them. It is only because of me that they don’t have the same things that the other kids have.’ I’m comforted when they tell me now that all the years of going to the library have really paid off. I remind them now to always remember the hardships and sacrifices that we had to endure as a little family and be mindful of that. Keep being humble in whatever you do. I have a beat up recliner that sits in my home to this day to remind me. It was the only piece of furniture we owned when we moved into our current home. It was around the time I began working for Chairman Lupe in 2006. My pay was a little bit better so I starting saving for my kids to get beds. I leave that recliner there as a reminder. No matter how worn and torn it is, I know that chair served it’s purpose for what little we had and it motivated me to work harder to provide for my family.”

When it came to considering entering the political arena, Gwendena’s parents advice to be tough served her well once again. “Working in politics, you’ve got to be tough. When I took the job with Chairman Lupe, it was an honor and my parents reminded me that it was my job to work hard for him so he could help the people. I never forgot that. He has been a great mentor and has taught me and his staff so much about what it means to be a servant, to work hard and make just decisions. Yes there will be some decisions that are harder than others and you will frequently upset people, but just like in a household, the parent has to make the decision that is right whether everyone likes it or not. I am very humbled and honored at this opportunity to serve a great people who come from a matrilineal society where you identify with your mother. These aspects resonate with me in the sense that I have a job to do and I have to do it right.”

Tribal Chairwoman Gwendena Lee-Gatewood at the Salt River Canyon

“I didn’t do this to become the first woman leader. I did it to help my people. I had thought about it for a while, but I wasn’t sure the people were ready. Two other women had tried before and lost. I didn’t want that to happen to me. I kind of shelved the idea until one day Chairman Lupe talked to me about the possibility of running. He told me that I knew the office like the back of my hand, but I pointed out that it had been a man’s game. He said, ‘That may be so, but in our traditional ways, it is the woman who carries the family. This whole tribe is a family. Think about it. Come back in two weeks and tell me you’re going to do it,’” remembers Gwendena with a chuckle.

“I talked to my family and my kids. I have often told my kids not to live with ‘what ifs’ or regrets. I had an opportunity to go to BYU in Hawaii on a scholarship, but didn’t take it because my mother didn’t want me to. I’ve always wondered ‘what if’ I had gone. So, when my kids get opportunities they are interested in, I always encourage them to go for it. When this opportunity came up, my kids were the first to remind me that this was a ‘what if’ moment. I prayed on Mount Baldy with my family about it. I made the decision and prayed for the decision. When I went to go get my papers to run for office, the gentlemen I ran against all sat together while I sat by myself at the end of the table. I could hear them snickering. I tried not to let it get to me. So, I made the petition cut and my name got on the primary ballot. When the polls closed and the top two names moved forward, my name was number 2. I knew then I had even more work to do if I wanted to be number 1. From December to April, I campaigned every day. All I could do was promise to work hard. I couldn’t promise people the typical political promises of jobs or houses. I had no money to dish out and even if I did, I consider people more valuable than money.”

“I will never forget election day. It was a busy day. Nothing was going right for me. Some of my precinct workers got sick so they couldn’t open my hospitality areas. I was home and I was feeling challenged. I went to my room and prayed. I prayed not in my normally humble way because I was a little fired up. I said, ‘You know, Heavenly Father, you always say that evil won’t win, but this whole campaign I have been up against just that. The people are buying into empty promises. If that is what is meant to be for our people, fine. I have worked my tail off every day and I am trying to do good. Can I please just have a good day?’ I closed my prayer and told my family that we were just going to have to make the best of what hours were left in the day. I went down to the headquarters and was getting into my pick up to check on another precinct when out of no where, an old white man began walking towards me. I was in a hurry, but I rolled my window down and asked him if I could help. He wouldn’t look at me. I asked again. He said, ‘Yes, I came to deliver a message.’ He still wasn’t looking at me. I asked him what the message was and he said, ‘I am here to tell you that the Lord is pleased with all that you have done to help your people and it will all be okay.’ Even though he wouldn’t look at me, I noticed that he had the bluest eyes I had ever seen. I thanked him and told him I had to go, but really appreciated it. He replied, ‘That is all’ and walked away. I wanted to see where he went, but had to be careful getting down out of the truck in my camp dress. I followed him and he turned at a hedge and was just gone. There was a group of people walking towards me and I asked if they had seen him and they said they hadn’t. They probably thought I was crazy and you might too because after he left, oh my goodness, everything came together. The precincts started filling up with people and I felt like a giant weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I was calm because all I had asked Heavenly Father for was a good day and I was thankful. By the end of the day, I greeted my constituents as their Chairwoman.”

Today, Gwendena starts her day at 5 am answering correspondence of every kind, meeting with constituents and representing her people at home as well as in D.C. In addition to her Chairwoman duties, she is also the President of the Apache Alliance, President of Theodore Roosevelt School Board, National Institute of Health Advisory Member, and a Native American Advisory Board Member to Northern Arizona University’s President. “Of course, I am still Mom at home and have my home duties. Just because the day is at it’s end, the dishes and the laundry are still there. My commitment to my family doesn’t change just because I’m chairwoman,” laughs Gwendena, “Home is where you make your memories. Home is a sanctuary for your kids. You are always going to remember home. I want my family to feel good at home because that is your anchor, your foundation, the sacredness of the home. A branch of that tree now extends to my Tribal family and I have a big job to fulfill… One Tribal member at a time.”