Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Quinault leader is elected president of Indian Country

Fawn Sharp, president of the Quinault Indian Nation, is the new president of the National Congress of American Indians.

She won by a landslide with 61 percent of the vote. She is the third woman to lead the organization, which was founded in 1944.

Mark Trahant, editor of Indian Country Today and a member of Idaho's Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, says Sharp described the position best in a debate held Wednesday night before the vote.

"She called it 'the president of Indigenous America,’” he said, laughing. "It really is someone who will lead a coalition of tribes and individuals as they approach complex matters, whether on Capitol Hill or in the court of public opinion — about all issues involving Indian Country."

Sharp succeeds Jefferson Keel of the Chickasaw Nation, who held the executive position for three non-consecutive terms — 2010-13, then again 2018-19. He did not seek re-election.

In between Keel’s terms, Brian Cladoosby, chairman of the Swinomish Indian tribal community, served as president for four years.

Among the topics highlighted by the candidates were the importance of tribal sovereignty and the impacts of climate change. They also discussed the need to get more tribal lawyers appointed to the judiciary on the federal level.

The three other candidates who participated in Wednesday’s debate and ran for the position were: Shaun Chapoose from Ute Indian Tribe, Chairman Harold Frazier from Cheyenne River Sioux, Chairman Marshall Pierite from the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana.

At the debate, Sharp was the only candidate to introduce herself in her native language. She also was the only candidate who spoke passionately about the impacts of climate change, an issue she says is very real for her coastal nation.

"We're having to relocate two villages to higher ground,” she said. “The glaciers that feed the mighty Quinault (River) are disappearing. We had millions of sockeye salmon run through our rivers in the 1950s and 60s. Last year we only had 3,000."

Sharp called climate change “an existential threat,” and said young people need to be at the table as climate policies are made.

Sharp is trained as a lawyer and has led the Quinault Nation since 2015. As president of NCAI, she can expect to be consulted regularly by federal officials.

Note: Audio of Fawn Sharp at the candidates' debate provided courtesy of Indian Country Today.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to