Recognizing Heather Dawn Thompson on International Women’s Day

Today is International Women’s Day and this year’s theme is ‘Choose to Challenge’. I am fortunate enough to know, as well as to have raised and to work alongside, women who celebrate this anthem in all that they do. Whether it’s being a good relative to others, a fierce mother and advocate of education equity, or a quiet leader in their community, there are so many courageous tribal voices choosing paths that can positively impact others.

When I think about women who intentionally choose to challenge, Heather Dawn Thompson instantly comes to mind. Also known as Thašúŋke Híŋ Zi Wiŋ (Yellow Buckskin Horse Woman), Heather is a Mnicoujou (Plants by the Water) Lakota woman from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. She calls Rapid City and Pine Ridge home but travels extensively.

Her education journey produced a Bachelor’s in International Studies, a Master’s in Public Policy and a Juris Doctorate from Harvard Law School. During her law career, Heather has held many titles, such as Tribal Prosecutor, Law Clerk, Policy Advisor/Counsel, Partner, Assistant US Attorney, Professor and Bush Fellow. Her most recent title is Director of the Office of Tribal Relations, USDA.

In her new role with the USDA, Heather reports directly to the Secretary of Agriculture. She is looking forward to using the department’s reach to better help rural and tribal communities. In a recent interview with Indian Country Today, Heather shared, “This administration has been very clear about its top four priorities, which are economic recovery, addressing COVID, racial equity and climate change… And frankly, you’re not going to find anywhere else in the nation where those four converge any more than they do in Indian Country.”

In 2014, PWNA partnered with Heather who served as a mentor and coach during our inaugural 4 Directions (4D) leadership development cohort held in Rapid City, South Dakota. Through her expertise and experience, she offered guidance and support to participants so they could work toward their personal and professional goals and become a better version of themselves.

Jodi Henry, a PWNA program partner, was assigned to Heather and found the value of her support immeasurable. While all the 4D participants still carry Heather’s lessons, the experience was life changing for Jodi. “It all started with my 4D coach. Heather made us set goals and taught us that if we do not take care of ourselves first we cannot fully take care of others,” Jodi recalls. “The 4D experience taught me that I was a leader. I learned how to be a good listener – it boosted my self-esteem – and I learned to take care of myself, which sometimes we forget to do. Since then, I’ve lost over 120 pounds!”

While supporting 4D, Heather was also teaming up with researchers and community members to locate the graves of children from the Rapid City Indian Boarding School. Those efforts not only reunited families with their lost loved ones but also shed light on how Native land was being misused. The research and subsequent land negotiations with the city garnered national attention and received an honorable mention by the 2020 Outstanding Public History Project.

Heather is an example of women who identify issues, seek answers and help carry ideas and projects forward – all while networking and partnering with others to create collaborative solutions. Currently, she is teaming up with other Indigenous parents, educators and concerned community members to bring equitable education to Native youth in Rapid City. Heather’s stage may be a large one now, but I know she will continue to create positive impact and always inspire others to #choosetochallenge.

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