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Q&A with an inspiring woman: Judi M. gaiashkibos

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Judi gaiashkibos with maquette of Dr. Susan La Flesche

Judi M. gaiashkibos, executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs, with a maquette of Dr. Susan La Flesche, a model of the much larger statue located on Centennial Mall and created by sculptor Benjamin Victor.

Each year the Journal Star joins with partners to present the Inspire Awards, recognizing women who have excelled in their professional lives and emerged as leaders and role models in the Lincoln community. 

• Executive Director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs since 1995;

• 2021 Inspire Award for Excellence in Government Achievement;

• 2021 Nominee for Woman of the Year, Inspire Award.

Higher Education:

• Doane University;

• Bachelor of Arts and Sciences in Human Relations;

• Master of Arts in Management with emphasis in leadership.

Memberships and Community Service

• Enrolled member of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska;

• Member of the Episcopal Church;

• Survivor Descendant of the Genoa Indian School;

• Co-chair of the Genoa Indian School Digital Reconciliation Project;

• Chair of the Nebraska U.S. Civil Rights Advisory;

• Omaha Mayor’s Native American Advisory;

• Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte Hospital Renovation Project.

Awards

• Chancellor’s Fulfilling the Dream Award from the University of Nebraska, 2022;

• Laurie Smith Camp Integrity in Service Award, 2021;

• Sower Award, 2012;

• Nebraska Land Foundation, Distinguished Nebraskan, 2017.

Current Board and Advisory Service

• The Joslyn Art Museum;

• National Rails to Trails Advisory Board;

• MONA Bison Society;

• CEDARS Home for Kids;

• University of Nebraska President’s Advisory Council;

• Northern Cheyenne Healing Trail Advisory.

Past Board Service

• United Way;

• Doane University Board of Trustees, 2012-2021;

• Lewis and Clark Commission Board, 2000-2008;

• Nebraska 150 Commission;

• President of the Governors’ Interstate Indian Council;

• UNMC Chancellor’s Community Advisory Board.

Who has inspired you?

First and foremost, my family is always the overarching inspiration in my life. In particular, I draw inspiration from the strong matriarchs in my family such as my mother, grandmother, sisters and now my two daughters. I also draw inspiration from my grandchildren – the next generation of strong Native leaders. Beyond my family, I look to other strong leaders such as Dr. Susan La Flesche, Chief Standing Bear, Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou, Lela Shanks and Leola Bullock.

What book or podcast is currently inspiring you?

The works by Louise Erdrich, an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians and an author of novels, poetry and children's books, always resonate with me as a Native woman. I’m currently enjoying her most recent novel, “The Sentence,” featuring Native American characters and settings that bring Native issues into a modern and relatable context. I have also been turning to Joy Harjo’s anthology of more than 160 poets, representing nearly 100 indigenous nations, in “When the Light of the World was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through.” The broad range of emotions and experiences is particularly inspiring.

The Inspire Women’s Leadership platform has launched Inspire Girls. What advice would you give them?

There are many lessons that I have learned through my career and personal life. What I try to emphasize to younger generations is that it is OK to ask for help and to look to others for guidance and support. There are so many role models and leaders, both Native and non-Native, who came before me that I learned from. What initially surprised me is that, in general, people want to help you and they want to give back. Take those opportunities to make connections, make new friends, think outside the box and be a good listener. Listening to what motivates others and what they’re passionate about allows you to find commonalities and allies. Then, think about how you can pay it forward to the next generation of young women to continue the cycle of support and encouragement.

How can we better inspire, include and invest in members of the community?

One of the biggest impediments to inclusion is not recognizing that the first step is inviting a wide array of community members to the table. As Native people, we are often an invisible people and as such, we are often left out of the room and not invited to the table. We need a vested stake in issues that affect our community and our tribal members. I challenge our community leaders to actively think about how you can invest in ALL members of the community, through listening and inclusion.

What does leadership mean to you?

As a leader, you inspire confidence in people who believe that you will get them to the finish line. Leadership is both innate and learned. My grandfather instilled in me the belief that I was a leader. I developed that belief by seeking opportunities like joining the debate and forensics teams, leadership education and building relationships with people who I could learn from. Leadership is an ever-evolving skill and calling that changes as you meet new people, make new goals and advocate for those most in need.

What is your favorite inspirational quote or motto?

It is difficult to pick my favorite inspirational quote, as I often turn to a specific quote depending on the situation that I find myself in. But over the years, a few quotes consistently come to mind when I find myself in a difficult situation or in need of encouragement:

Dr. Susan La Flesche: “If I have to do it alone, I will.”

Chief Standing Bear: “I am a man. The same God made us both.”

Maya Angelou: “I have learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

The common thread between these quotes is that you have to believe in yourself, we are all human beings, and your actions and how you treat others will have long-lasting impacts.

How would you describe a great day?

For me, a great day usually includes a walk. Walking has been a part of my life since I was a child. It is a time to be outdoors with nature, to think clearly without distractions, to give thanks, to appreciate what we have and see things in a new light. While I’m on my walks, I remind myself that every day we have an opportunity to start fresh. I also enjoy looking at the trees. They remind me that they’ve been here so long, and through them I feel a connection to my ancestors.

What is the best advice you ever received?

The best professional advice I received was from my dear friend and mentor, Chuck Trimble, who said: “Find something meaningful to do and do it well. Don’t try to do everything. Focus on a specific goal and accomplish that, and things will grow.” I have found that advice to be very true. For example, one of my goals was to share the Chief Standing Bear story. I wanted to “lift up” positive, truthful inspiring role models for our people and for non-Natives to learn about the positive contribution that Chief Standing Bear had on American history. We started out with our annual Standing Bear breakfast. The Standing Bear breakfast grew bigger and bigger, and expanded into other exciting projects and opportunities. Others learned about Chief Standing Bear, connected with the story and joined in, enjoyed it and were inspired by it.

What is the biggest adversity or challenge you’ve faced in your life – professionally or personally? How did you overcome it?

Native people are often thought about in the “past” tense or simply not thought about at all. The lack of representation and information about Native people has perpetuated damaging myths and stereotypes. As a Native woman, I personally know how that feels, and through my professional and personal life I strive to show people that Native people still exist and that we are worthy of respect. It’s also very important to me to say that to be successful, we don’t have to give up who we are. We are not willing to give up our sovereign identity as the First Peoples of America. Fighting for your identity, fighting for your remains, for your true story to be told, for your pride and self-respect and for your children is a sacred responsibility. This takes a lot out of you, but it is so important to carry the pain forward and to open the book up and tell the truth. In the end, that’s what will set you free and that’s what will heal America. Telling the whole truth.

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Each year the Journal Star joins with partners to present the Inspire Awards, recognizing women who have excelled in their professional lives and emerged as leaders and role models in the Lincoln community. 

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