'I Was Aspiring to Be Like My Grandmothers'

How Paulette Jordan’s roots influenced her campaign to become the first Native American governor in the United States

Lee Zahir / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

Under the beating sun on Mount Rainier, surrounded by waterfalls and meadows full of flowers, six-year-old Paulette Jordan used to listen to her uncles tell stories about her great-great-grandfathers and great-great-grandmothers. They were chiefs and leaders—one was the famous Chief Moses of the Sinkiuse-Columbia tribe.

At the University of Washington, Jordan worked as a student activist, ensuring that students from different backgrounds had spaces to come together and develop a sense of community. After college, she was elected to the Tribal Council and worked on the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians and the National Indian Gaming Association. She served in the Idaho House of Representatives for four years.

Now, Jordan, 38, is running for governor of Idaho, and if she wins, she’ll be the first Native American governor in the United States. She says she often hears, “No, it’s not your time,” and, “No, a woman could never get elected to be the first woman governor in the state,” and, “No indigenous person can be elected governor in the history of the United States.” But she carries with her the persistence of her elders. I recently spoke to Jordan about her storied ancestors, what it was like working in her aunt’s coffee shop, and how her childhood hikes on Mount Rainier influenced her. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Lolade Fadulu: You were born into a ranching and farming family. Did you have any jobs farming or ranching?

Paulette Jordan: My grandparents were the hard workers on the field and in our farmland. Same thing with the ranching. My mother’s side farmed wheat. My father’s side managed cattle. I grew up horseback riding and appreciating the heritage that we have. But I was encouraged to go out to get my education and explore other routes. I ended up going off to school at Gonzaga Prep and then went on to the University of Washington. Every summer, I’d come home and do things for my community, like manage my aunt’s coffee shop.

Fadulu: What did your parents want you to become?

Jordan: My dad used to play in the NBA. He actually at one point wanted me to go into the field of professional basketball, but he also knew that we come from a long line of chiefs and leaders. He always knew that I would end up taking on leadership.

Fadulu: What does it mean to come from chiefs and leaders?

Jordan: Since I’m indigenous, my family has been here for thousands of years. There’s a tradition that the son of a chief would marry the daughter of a chief. That keeps that line going, that inheritance of leadership. Their children are subsequently going to be the chiefs or leaders. The women are also chiefs and leaders. We have an egalitarian society, so men and women can equally be the leaders.

Fadulu: Was there one relative with whom you were particularly close?

Jordan: I would oftentimes drive out with my uncles and my grandfather to go hiking at Mount Rainier, and we’d spend the day hiking in the trails and having a picnic. We’d sit out in these fields and it’d be gorgeous. I think about the sun and how beautiful it was, and the flowers being so brilliantly colored, and the meadows full of them, and then getting to hike up the mountain and enjoy the scenes and the waterfalls.

These are all great memories because they correlate to the stories they would tell me about my grandmother and my grandfathers and the roles that they played. They made sure that I knew of all their experiences and impacts they made so that I could utilize those experiences. They’d tell me, “This is our land, this is for everyone.”

Fadulu: You started managing your aunt’s coffee shop in your early teens. Did you have a relationship with her before running the shop?

Jordan: She worked with my mother in tandem raising me since I was a baby. She worked tirelessly to protect her children. She was big on education because she knew that was the greatest equalizer to help our people, especially when we were facing the most dire impoverished conditions. She went off to get her master’s in education and helped expand our educational opportunities all the way through early education. She was just very supportive of me and protective, but always looking for opportunities.

Fadulu: What was a typical day like in the shop?

Jordan: I had to get up early in the morning before sunrise and help set up things so they were ready for the customer base that was coming through. It’s not too far from where I live, right in the center of Plummer, Idaho. It’s a very rural small town. It was a little shop that was accessible to people. I had a drive-thru window, and my aunt, she would often purchase all the resources and materials and then she would leave the day-to-day management to me. People would come through. I would help serve the coffee or make sandwiches.

I would be there seven days a week. It was a summer job for me, so I wanted to earn as much as I could. I utilized that money to help pay for things for my private schooling. I was going to Gonzaga Prep. When you’re from the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, you need to stock up on your resources so you can help offset the cost of a private tuition or books and materials that you need.

Fadulu: From a young age, you were hearing all of these lessons from your uncles about your grandmother and them telling you about what sort of life you should aspire to have. Is that why you wanted to become a student ambassador and a commission director at University of Washington?

Jordan: Absolutely. Those stories end up coming back to life as you get older, and they start becoming more practical and applicable. I was aspiring to be like my grandmothers who were powerful leaders.

When I was at the University of Washington, I was faced with corporations changing the dynamic of the University of Washington. The corporations who were funding the new buildings, had their names on the buildings. They’re brand-new, and they didn’t want other outside interests coming in. And yet, this is the student facility and a student campus. People were being pushed to the back of campus in these awful buildings where there are old naval hangers. Seeing elders and children in these unsafe places brought to life, to me, the need to stand up for them and to ensure that they were in a safe place.

I ended up taking on that lead role to bring the community back onto the center of campus, working with the student athletic director and the president of the university and the corporations, to ensure that the students and their communities would have a place to express their cultures. This coalition-building is what my grandparents were about.