Viola Eastman and Jennifer Bone have several common threads running through their lives.
Both are chiefs of their Dakota nations — Eastman at Canupawakpa and Bone at Sioux Valley. Both had fathers who were chiefs. Both are mothers. Both say their motivation is the wellness and success of their people.
There is a key difference, however. Eastman has served as chief for eight years in total, including four years in the mid-2000s, and she is currently serving her third two-year term. Bone’s people elected her as chief in October 2018, after serving on council for eight years.
The Brandon Sun asked both women a few questions about why they do what they do and what it’s like to be a woman in a male-dominated Indigenous political field.
The Brandon Sun: What led you to run for chief?
Viola Eastman: My family is a political family. My dad was chief for many years. I remember sitting at our kitchen table when we eat and he talks about politics, about helping our people, what we can do. We talk about how we can make our community better. I grew up with it. I don’t take it as a job. I take it more as a responsibility.
Jennifer Bone: I never thought or planned that I was going to run for chief but I had a few community members approach me. Then there were rumours. "I heard you’re running for chief." About a month and a half before, I was undecided. I know it’s such a big job. A big challenge. My eight years on council helped me to be more confident. And knowing I had a support system in place.
SUN: What challenges did you encounter? What were your priorities?
VE: In the first two years we really worked on our finances. Finances were not really good here. I believe any business, any organization needs to have strong financial foundation that you build on. We were in heavy co-management (with Indigenous Services Canada). Besides finance, we wanted all our programs to be up and running. We got out of heavy co-management. We’ve been thriving, doing really well with our programs.
JB: The whole self-government piece. To continue with that. The biggest challenge for us, not only for me but council, we wanted to improve our overall finance department. We didn’t want to operate blindly. We wanted to see financial statements. We wanted to support the decisions we were making, or even planning. So we engaged (MNP). They completed a financial assessment, and came back with recommendations. Today, we’re continuing to implement those recommendations. They’re still supporting us, to help our staff, to build capacity.
SUN: What is it like for you being in a predominately male political field? Is it challenging?
VE: In my own community, no, it’s not challenging at all. When you get out there, yes. I do find it to be challenging in the political field. But once they get to know you and what you’re there for, I get respect. I like that. I go somewhere to do business, and that’s what it is. It’s changing since I was a chief in 2004. It has changed in these last 16 years. There have been more women leaders in Manitoba. We share. We give each other advice. It’s good to have that support from the other women leaders. And the men have come on board. I hate to say it, but some of the men who aren’t there anymore were older boys’ club leaders.
JB: I haven’t engaged with a whole lot of them. I have a great relationship with Chief Pasche from Dakota Tipi. We communicate with each other. We’ve met a few times, and he’s come out to our community, just in regard to Dakota nations overall and trying to unite the Dakota nations of Manitoba to support one another. It’s harder for a female to be heard, to be able to speak strongly and passionately about the issues within our own community. But I have built some good working relationships, like with the mayor of Brandon.
SUN: Who has been your inspiration?
VE: Growing up I had a lot of good, strong women influences, starting with my mother. Then I had aunts, and then I had my grandmothers. They were really strong women. My aunts always worked. They always supported themselves. Some of them are not here now but they’ve been a big, strong influence for me to be where I am today. That’s why I try and project that to all the women here.
JB: I would have to say my mom and my grandmother, her mother. My mom was a residential school survivor and she was a strong woman. She was very strict with me. My parents always encouraged me to go to school. They wanted what was best for me, for their whole family. And my sisters. I have four sisters. My mother has compassion. She’s always taking care of everybody, helping her own family. She came from a large family. I think that’s a big part of being a woman in leadership, having compassion. Being able to understand people and thinking, well, what if I was in that same situation? That’s always kind of at the back of my mind.
Michèle LeTourneau, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun