Native American Congressional Internship

Meet our Interns - Alumni Spotlights - Ponka-We Victors

Elected to the Kansas House of Representatives in 2010, Ponka-We Victors is the first American Indian woman to sit in the Kansas legislature. Now in her second term, Ponka-We has brought about a small but significant revolution.

It’s been a learning experience. The Kansas legislature is a bit like high school; everyone has a clique. As an American Indian, I don’t fit in to any one group. My culture taught me to try to get along with everyone: Republican, Democrat . . . black, white, or brown. I’m always striving for that bipartisan effort, because you have to get along with both sides of the aisle to get anything accomplished. I don’t care what party you’re from, you can learn from anyone.

I’ve opened some eyes: I’ve said, you can’t do so-and-so; it would be offensive to the Kansas tribes. “Oh, I didn’t know – no one ever told me.” Well, I’m here to tell you. I’m now the go-to person about tribes at the legislature. I created a Native American legislative day, the first of its kind. It’s an opportunity for the four Kansas tribes to come to the Capitol, meet with the governor, and attend a reception. I invited Haskell University dignitaries and students as well. Governor Brownback wants to do what’s best for tribes in Kansas. We don’t agree on everything, but we do agree on that!

I also recruited Haskell University students for my internships. No one had ever asked Haskell students to intern at the legislature. I opened up opportunities for pages to Kickapoo high school students. I try to make tribes and their issues more visible. Whenever I think I don’t want to do this anymore, I think, who else will do this and fight for Indian rights?

This kind of outreach is really important to me. Back in college, I was headed to medical school when one of my friends, who was an Udall Internship alum, told me I should apply. I thought: why should I go to Washington, D.C.? I want to be a doctor! He said it was a good experience, so I went ahead and applied. It literally changed my life!

It was my first time away from home, and I was scared. I’d never had roommates; never flown before. And I loved it. The experience was eye-opening. I worked in the U.S. Department of Education, in the Office of Civil Rights. We were invited to congressional hearings, we went to meetings with representatives and senators; it was all there for us to take advantage of.

I would sit in those hearings, I would hear about Indian budgets being cut, and it made me mad. Some of those representatives had never been to a reservation; they had no idea what it’s like to wait for seven hours at Indian Health Service. It made me want to do something about it. When the Udall Interns met with Senator John McCain, I talked to him about what I could do. He was chair of the Senate Committee at the time, and I would run into him a lot at hearings. He said that I should run for office. What, me? He encouraged me and gave me this advice: go back home and get to know your state leaders; volunteer on political campaigns, learn the behind the scenes, get your foot in the door, and see if that’s what you want to do. And that’s exactly what I did. That’s how I learned that no matter what the issue, it is always going to end up back at the state legislature. So instead of taking the MCAT that fall, I enrolled at Wichita State University and earned my master’s degree in public administration.

The Udall Internship changed everything for me. If someone is thinking they don’t need to know what’s happening in Washington, D.C., I would tell anyone to rethink that. I would never have questioned important issues if I hadn’t done the Udall Internship. If you want to work with or for tribes, you really have to know the federal process—why your budgets are being cut and who’s cutting them!

Everybody asks me if I’d like to run for national office someday. I honestly don’t know. That’s where my faith and culture come into play; if it’s in the stars, I just have to wait and see. I never expected to be a state representative right now. I feel there’s a plan for everybody, and I just try to do my best to follow mine.