By Courtney Klaus, Editor-In-Chief
Ponka-We Victors is the first Native American woman to be elected to the Kansas House of Representatives and is the only Native American in the state legislature. Last week, she was re-elected to serve a fifth term.
She also happens to be a Newman graduate.
Victors ran for re-election in district 103 unopposed as the Democratic nominee and garnered 96.2 percent of the vote.
Entering her eighth year as a representative, Victors said she never used to think she would be a politician, especially not at such a young age.
Victors had just graduated from Newman in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in biology when she got an unexpected opportunity.
She was selected as one of 12 Native American graduates to participate in the Udall Foundation’s Native American Congressional Internship, where she would stay in Washington, D.C., become familiar with the legislative process and get a first-hand look at the relationship between Tribes and the U.S. federal government.
Victors said she loved the experience but was saddened by the lack of minority women serving.
“It was an eye-opening experience. I saw both the good and the bad when I was working in D.C.,” she said. “And I mean ‘the bad’ was that I could see for myself there was no diverse representation, and there was a lack of minority woman serving in Congress.”
Although the lack of diversity was disappointing, Victor’s said the people she met through the internship were very encouraging and played a part in inspiring her to pursue politics. In particular, she said, she remembers an exchange she had with Sen. John McCain.
“He really encouraged me to run for office someday and I said, ‘Well, maybe, like when I’m 60 or 70, like the majority of legislators or congresswomen,’ and he was like, ‘No, do it now.’ So, I owe him a lot of credit,” she said.
After her internship in D.C., Victors spent some time interning for Delia Garcia, the first Latina woman elected to the Kansas Legislature. In 2011, Victor followed in Garcia’s footsteps, making state history as another first in minority representation.
“When I got elected in 2011, I was a first, and there wasn’t a lot of elected representatives then that looked like me or that I could identify with, so it was like I went in with my eyes closed,” she said “But, as I started running for re-election, I started to see more minority women join me at the table, and that is like the best feeling ever.”
With the recent election of Sharice Davids to represent Kansas in the U.S. House, the first openly gay Native American in Congress, Victors said she feels the country is moving in the right direction.
“I’m happy to have a Native American woman from Kansas in the Congress. I also think beyond a state level it’s just as important to have diversity at all levels of government. Whether it’s city council, whether it’s school board… I think that everybody should be represented in some way when making important decisions in issues for our communities,” she said.
Though Victors has come a long way since 2005, she said she still hasn’t forgotten her alma mater, and owes a lot of her success to her experience at Newman. She said the small classes and close proximity she had with classmates and professors helped her learn the soft skills she needed for politics.
“In politics, it’s nothing but networking and making those connections,” she said. “Because I can’t do it alone as a Democrat. I have to have Republican support as well, so I have to learn to make those connections and relationships, and that started at Newman.”
Victors still holds her Jet pride close to her heart and said she has always felt supported by the university. In the Captiol, her desk sticks out from the rest with her proudly displayed Newman decal, which she said was specifically made for her.
“I’m always thankful that my relationship with Newman didn’t end after I graduated, that it continues on,” she said.
Victors even said she was entertaining the idea of becoming a professor in the future. She’s currently getting a doctorate in education. She said she would like to teach a class one day about women in leadership, and wants to inspire more young women to pursue their dreams.
For some students on campus, Victors’ story has already made an impact.
Biology major, Secretary of the Black Student Union, and student minister Sydney Triggs talked with Victors in February on behalf of the Kansas Independent College Association. Triggs said Victors’ rise in politics after graduation was impressive and inspiring.
“When I found out she was a biology major from Newman… I was honestly shook… Her story tells you to find what you’re passionate about and go after it like she did,” Triggs said.
PHOTO: PONKA-WE VICTORS made history in 2011 as the first Native American woman elected to a seat in the Kansas Legislature. Courtesy Photo, Wichita Eagle