Student Spotlight: Mary Wahpat named Associate Judge for Yakama Nation

February 14, 2020
MPA Student Mary Wahpat

Mary is a member of the Yakama Nation and grew up on the reservation, an Associate Judge for the Yakama Nation, and a mom of four children—three boys and one girl. In fact, Mary was in the middle of a Tribal Governance concentration weekend class last year when she found out that she received the judge position. Imagine walking back into class with that big announcement!

After growing up on the Yakama reservation, Mary attended Yakima Valley Community College for her Associate’s Degree and Native American Studies Certificate and subsequently Heritage University for her Bachelor’s Degree in American Studies. Currently, Mary is a second-year student in the Master of Public Administration (MPA) Tribal Governance concentration. For Mary, MPA is another stepping stone and tool in her journey of working for the tribe. This is evident through Mary’s position as an Associate Judge for the Yakama Nation, where she is also passionately immersing herself in learning, absorbing, and interpreting the Revised Yakama Code. Similar to the critical thinking employed throughout the MPA program, Mary compares what she learns to other tribes and their codes, recognizing the similarities and differences. Once she graduates, Mary hopes to use her MPA to foster relationships with other tribes and agencies and departments that work with tribes. It is her hope to build and encourage the continuation of those relationships to continue to better the lives of the people.

Mary’s commitment to her community is evident in her capstone. Mary is passionate about the importance and role of food as nourishment throughout our lives. At seven-years-old, Mary learned how to be a food gatherer through the knowledge and teachings of elders. Today, there is great concern surrounding threats to local huckleberries. This not only has a profound impact on Yakama life and culture, as it is used in traditional meals and medicines, but its effects also impact other tribes in Washington and across state lines as well as all other people who harvest huckleberries. Because of the importance of huckleberries, Mary is especially interested in developing her capstone to focus on amending House Bill 2092 to implement restrictions to allow tribes time to gather huckleberries for ceremonial gatherings before the commercial permits are issued as well as looking at creating joint task forces to assist in the enforcement of these restrictions.

The MPA Tribal Governance program is intimately tied to Mary’s life experiences. In her family, her grandparents stressed that she needed to get her education so she can help the people. Her grandparents did not get to go to school because they were a part of the generation that was subjected to boarding schools. In Mary’s experience, she can see the ripple effect of this on tribal culture. What happened in the past affects the present, which she sees in their language and numerous other impacts for not only her tribe but also all other tribes as well. Today, Mary’s community is rebuilding to make that connection with tribal people and their livelihoods, and other tribes are having to rebuild their language and their traditional teachings and customs. Mary expressed how good it is to see tribes really taking off with their programs, their language, and their culture. She is grateful that people are being receptive and embracing the culture and learning language.

In the MPA program, Mary has seen these issues brought to light while simultaneously drawing connections to other groups of people who have suffered, such as members of Japanese internment camps, victims of the Holocaust, and slaves. As a result, Mary maintains a perspective that is both global and community-focused, bringing awareness to how groups of people have suffered and are now picking up the pieces to rebuild and move forward.