Kin to the Earth: Susan Masten

by Geneva Wiki

Susan Masten is known to many people by many titles: Former Chairperson and Vice-Chairperson of the Yurok Tribe; Past-President of the National Congress of American Indians; Founding Board Member and President of Women Empowering Women for Indian Nations; Board Member of the Federal Indian Law Center; Humboldt Planning Commission member. Of all these, my fondest title — and probably the most powerful — is simply Auntie Sue.

Through the years I have watched, and often had the privilege to walk alongside, Auntie Sue’s fight for the sovereignty and empowerment of her own people, the health of the Klamath River and for one of our most important cultural icons as Yurok people: Nepuy — Salmon.

Susan Masten (far left) founding member and board president of Women Empowering Women for Indian Nations (WEWIN). WEWIN provides native women with the knowledge, support and resources necessary to achieve success in their personal and professional lives. Photo by Geneva Wiki.

Fighting for the rights of her people was not an epiphany out of the blue for Susan Masten. It was the continuation of her family’s legacy that is as old as the dirt at Rekwoi. Her family — my family — come from the Yurok village of Rekwoi (Requa) at the mouth of the Klamath River where we have lived since time immemorial. Generations of the family have fought for Yurok rights. Susan’s grandmother and my namesake, Geneva, descend from our family’s redwood plank house, the House of Ley’uk, born into a dance family — holders of regalia, knowledge, and medicine for Requa. Her grandfather, Emery, was born on a rock near the mouth of the Smith River, after his Tolowa Dee-ni family had been forcibly moved there by citizen militias following massacres of Tolowa people.

When I was a young(er) professional and worked as Auntie Sue’s aide in Washington D.C., I was always amazed at how she knew everyone, and was able to navigate the most difficult of negotiations or politics with poise, ease, and intelligence. She never seemed to notice that she was one of the only women at the table, or that she instantly controlled the discussion despite the presence of mostly older white men with bigger salaries and fancier titles than her.  At the end of the day, I would sit exhausted in our hotel room, feet sore from the endless walking and handshaking with who knows how many congressional leaders and politicos. I would marvel as her whirlwind of energy would continue unabated into the night, planning and preparing for the next day. Her drive to do more, to plan more, to fight harder was inexhaustible. Frustrated at my own need for sleep, I would ask, “Auntie, how do you keep going?” She was always clear: Geneva, our matriarch, taught us “we are a dance family of Rekwoi and we have an obligation as people of the river to maintain harmony and balance in this world. This is the duty Creator gave us.” 

This duty Susan has always prioritized and sacrificed to fulfill. In the summer of 1978, Susan was called home to Requa from a job in the City to protect the family in the “fish wars.” Armed federal marshals occupied the Klamath River, violently enforcing a moratorium that banned all Yurok fishing on the Klamath River. We were under attack. Billy clubs, assault rifles and armed conflict had replaced songs, prayer and a sense of community on the river. Tensions were high with commercial fisherman, and the goal of the State and Federal authorities wasn’t just to prevent Yurok people from fishing: it was to cease the existence of the Yurok people, an indigenous culture that lived around and fished these waters since before the construction of the pyramids of Giza. It was a continuation of the federal government’s genocide and assimilationist policies of the 1800s. The Country was at the end of the civil rights era, and the civil unrest moving through poor minority communities made it all the way to Requa, and into Susan’s heart. We fought back. She fought back.  

Auntie Sue returned to the river and fought alongside her mother and grandmother and relatives to protect a way of life. At 26, she didn’t know exactly how she would accomplish any of this but she knew she had a duty to do so and her college education was now a tool to serve her people. It was a contrast she recognized with her grandmother Geneva, who had been sent away to Indian Boarding School to unlearn her Indian ways. Susan’s education was now being used to protect her Yurok culture and values. This, coupled with her tenacity, work ethic, good humor and commitment to upholding her duty as a dance family member, has made her a critical leader in the Indigenious communities of the north coast and the nation. 

In the crucible of the Fish Wars, Susan refined her political strategy, driven by the sense of purpose passed down by her family, and carried it forward into every endeavour she’s pursued in the last 30 years. Her constant battle for the river led to her appointment to the transition team formally organizing the Yurok Tribal government; and then elected to leadership positions within the Tribe. She negotiated the Yurok tribal fishery allocation, the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement and many more important agreements. She held court with President Clinton, discussing salmon and fishing rights, and became well known in Congress as a savvy leader. Eventually, Auntie Sue was recognized as a leader among tribal leaders when she was elected as the President of the National Congress of the American Indian, the first Californian and only the second woman to hold the office, the highest elected position in Indian Country.

Susan Masten (right) with Melanie Benjamin, Chief of Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and Deb Haaland, Secretary of Interior.

But no matter whether she’s in the oval office of the White House advocating for Indian Country, giving testimony before Congress, or hosting our annual family cookie decorating and caroling party, Susan has remained steadfast in her values: an overwhelming duty to her people and to the restoration of the natural harmony and ecosystem of the Klamath River. And not that it has been easy — she has come across as much conflict within her own Tribe and she has faced externally from fisherman to County supervisors to cousins.

I was recently on a video call with Congresswoman Deb Haaland, now nominated as the first Native American Secretary of the Interior. Deb Haaland shared what an inspiration, mentor, and Auntie, Susan Masten has been to her as a Native woman leader. Auntie Sue blazed a trail for women and Indigenous peoples in politics. She leads by example, showing us all how to be true to ourselves, by embracing our differences and honoring our gender and culture. She was empowered by her unique family background and her own gifts, which in turn taught us to be the same. Everywhere and every time, Susan is a storyteller and an advocate — always on behalf of the people of the Klamath River Basin. She is, in fact, an Auntie to us all.

To view Susan’s presentation at Save California Salmon & HSU’s Native American Studies Department’s Advocacy & Water Protection in Native California Summer Speaker Series, please visit https://www.californiasalmon.org/module-3.