'give what we have'
Brenda Itta is politically savvy, personally powerful and committed to her people. As city manager of Barrow, she wields plenty of influence over the growth and development of the oil-rich arctic.
Itta came to her post with a variety of experience. She was born in Barrow and educated at a Bureau of Indian Affairs school Outside. She served as an aide to Sen. Ernest Gruening, and worked as a lobbyist for her region in Washington, D.C. She was the first Alaska Native woman elected to the Alaska Legislature, in 1974-76, and is the immediate past president of the Alaska Native Women's Statewide Organization.
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Tell me about your work in Washington D.C. and how it shaped your attitude about your region's development.
I traveled for Sen. Gruening throughout our region to more than 70 villages in an effort to establish a working relationship between his office and our people.
During that time I got a real fine look at our people. That is when my love for our people became strong. My commitment grew. Because I was representing our senator, there was a certain attitude of respect as a leader that I was not aware was developing at the time. It caused the people to share some of the injustices of their lives. That is when I started carrying their wishes to government.
I became heavily involved with Native affairs in the state. I was involved in the land claims settlement. I experienced a lot of pressure and a lot of opposition to the Native people.
When did you serve in the legislature?
I served in the state House of Representatives in 1974-76. I served on the House Finance Committee, chaired the subcommittee on Health and Social Services. I chose not to file again because I needed more inner confidence to better serve my people. I needed to know who I was to cope with the pressures. If I don't take care of myself, I can't take care of anyone else. That was my limit.
Was there a conflict in values with you as a woman and a leader?
I gave that question to the Native leaders, especially the men. I told them that I have this inner conflict because of my upbringing. It has always been understood that the woman has a special role and so does the man and there is no conflict. Traditionally, the men have taken the lead and you are asking me to assume responsibility. I said, 'I don't want to jeopardize our way of life by competing with men. That is a very degrading position to be put in.' l made an agreement with them that if they wanted to have me in the House, they would talk any potential candidates against filing. They did and I was elected unanimously.
They answered my question this way: 'You know, Brenda, that is true; we have always had special roles, but on the other hand, we are in a war and a struggle to survive and our very heritage is being challenged. It does not matter whether you are a man, woman or child, we need your help.' With that kind of endorsement to ensure I wasn't disrupting our way of life, I went ahead and ran.
While in Juneau, I realized I was different. With the other women, there was a sense of arrogance and militancy with the women's liberation movement. I agreed with their reasons for liberation, but I didn't like their style; it was divisive. It does not mean that I am passive. I can get my work done without adding on more divisiveness.
We have various forms of government in our land. Everything from church to village, to regional corporations. It is very important to respect our government and use it in a way that is beneficial to our people.
Leadership is not taken by a person, it is given to a person by the people based on their qualifications, their experiences and their love for the people. If it involves two worlds, the person has to be secure in their identity. There must be a working knowledge of both worlds. In leadership it is important to lead with a reflection of our rich heritage in our conduct and our character, the heritage our ancestors put in us.
Another important area is not to be too proud, because you have been given the position, an air of humbleness must mark the position. Too much pride alienates the people who put you there.
The Inupiat people have always taken pride in being honest; they can see right through a lie. Therefore it is very important to be honest. I encourage the young people to appreciate what we have, have a grateful heart.