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Most Influential, Politics: Debra Lekanoff

‘I just knew that it was always going to be in my walk in life to give back to communities.’

By Danny O’Neil February 15, 2023

Photo courtesy of Washington State LSS

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2023 issue of Seattle Magazine.

Debra Lekanoff is one of Seattle’s 25 most influential people reshaping our region. #mostinfluential  

Her tribal name comes first: Xixch’I See.

That’s where Debra Lekanoff’s story starts. With her name, which is passed down through the women’s bloodlines in the matrilineal society of her Tlingit community. To invoke her tribal name before her English name is to acknowledge her fundamental truth.

“It is the very root of who I am,” she says.

Rep. Lekanoff was reelected last November to the state Legislature in District 40, which encompasses San Juan County as well as parts of Skagit and Whatcom. She has held the position since 2019, when she became the first Native American woman elected in the House since 1985. She was born in Southeast Alaska, part Tlingit and part Aleut. She attended Central Washington University and has served her community at the tribal, local, state and even federal level. It’s all part of a path that started back when she was a little girl, holding her grandmother’s hand as they walked to her auntie’s office.

“I just knew that it was always going to be in my walk in life to give back to communities,” she says, “to serve communities.”

As a state representative, she has worked to make salmon restoration a priority. She sought to address the epidemic of violence against indigenous women, who are four times more likely than white women to go missing, according to a 2019 study. Last year, she sponsored the bill that created a statewide alert system to help identify and locate missing indigenous women and other people.

In 2021, she introduced a bill to ban the inappropriate use of Native American names, symbols and images by public schools in the state. In 2020, she introduced a bill to allow Native American students to wear traditional tribal regalia or objects of cultural significance to their graduation ceremonies.

“When I ran for office, I had one foot with a moccasin on it,” she says. “I had one foot — I’d love to say a heel — but after Covid, I’m going to say a tennis shoe.”

It’s not that she’s pulled between two worlds. Rather, it’s her ability to walk in both that provides her with a sense of direction going forward.

“It’s the teachings of my cultural side that help me be successful in trying to find better pathways for all Washingtonians,” she says.

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