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'We need to maintain our presence:' Indigenous representation increases in Washington State Capitol

Representation is increasing from one Indigenous lawmaker in 2022 to three in 2023.

OLYMPIA, Wash. — The Indigenous population in Washington state is expected to grow by nearly 12% in the next 10 years.

But last year in the state Legislature there was just one Native lawmaker.

This year, change is coming.

For state Sen. Claudia Kauffman, change has been a fight for her people. She is a rare Indigenous representative in a centuries-old institution.

“See I’m up on the wall,” Kauffman said.

The flags of the 29 federally recognized Washington tribes stand in the capitol rotunda. Symbolic of their existence in a place where representation has been almost nonexistent.

“Tripling the representation in the Washington state legislature is something we need to celebrate,” Kauffman said.

From one representative in 2022 to three Indigenous lawmakers in 2023.

“We need to maintain our presence and our understanding and our knowledge and our lived experiences and bring that forward to the state Senate on a regular basis," Kauffman said.

Last year, Rep. Debra Lekanoff was the only Indigenous lawmaker in either chamber.

This year, Lekanoff held her seat and was joined by Rep. Chris Stearns and Sen. Claudia Kauffman.

Kauffman first served from 2007 to 2011. She is now in her second term, serving parts of southeast King County in District 47 – hoping to inspire other Indigenous people.

“Getting to that parity is one person at a time and it is one person at a time who has the courage to run for office,” Kauffman said.

It's a courage she embodies – which is made obvious when you find out how many Indigenous women served in the Senate before her. When she was elected in 2006, Kauffman became the first.

“I received congratulations from across the United States saying this is a Native woman in the Washington state Senate," Kauffman said.

Kauffman is a part of the Nez Perce Tribe and worked for 21 years in intergovernmental affairs for the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe. She said each tribe has its own culture and laws, which need to be recognized as state laws are created in Washington.

“It is important to know and understand and respect the individual tribal sovereignty that each tribe has in Washington state,” Kauffman said.

Making sure the voices of tribal members are heard is the focus of her role as the leadership liaison to the tribal nations for the Senate Democratic Caucus.

Kauffman serves at the Capitol today, following the hardships and leadership of the people who lived before her -- the people who now guide her.

“Very patient and considerate of not only his work but of his people,” Kauffman said.

Just as she hopes to guide others – actively working to show young Indigenous women their voices matter.

“I brought them down here to Olympia on many occasions to say this is your state government you can sit behind that desk," Kauffman said. "If that person can then so can you.”

With hopes to bring more change – and more Indigenous people – to the state Capitol.

“I don’t think planting the seed is there, I think the seed is already there," Kauffman said. "We just need to cultivate that and provide the leadership and understanding that this is possible."

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