FAWN SHARP, fresh from a midday workout, seems remarkably calm for someone with so many plates spinning on broomsticks. As president of the Quinault Indian Nation, she oversees an array of enterprises, including timber management, seafood sales and a resort casino that just underwent a $25 million expansion. With 1,100 employees, the tribe is the largest employer in Grays Harbor County. Sharp was the first female president of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians and until recently a vice president of the National Congress of American Indians. She’s a single mom with four lively kids. One just texted her that he has an urgent need for an after-school pizza.
She looks up from her phone with a bemused mom smile. Work-life balance dictates a break from her plans to sue the rods out of ExxonMobil for damaging “the planet our Creator gave us.” If only she could, she’d love to sue President Donald Trump, too, for dismissing global warming as a “very expensive hoax.” Sharp says she believes there is “irrefutable” evidence that climate change is very real and very expensive. “Incalculable” is the word she uses. Her people are fighting for their livelihoods, she says. Maybe their very lives.
Fawn Rena Sharp, who relished every volume of her grandmother’s set of encyclopedias, was identified early on as a future tribal leader. Born in Aberdeen on May 20, 1970, she is one-quarter Quinault, part Northern California Yurok, part Montana Kootenai and part Idaho Nez Perce.
“Apparently, my family has lineage to Chief Tendoy, a Lemhi Shoshone who was a broker of peace between the tribes in Idaho,” she says. “So I might have some leadership blood in my veins.” She’s also almost 20% English and a smattering of German and French, according to her Ancestry.com DNA analysis.
She grew up around legendary tribal leaders. Her mother, Ann Masten, was a recording secretary for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.
“I traveled around with her when I was still in grade school,” Sharp remembers. “It was my job to push the ‘record’ and ‘play’ buttons on the old-fashioned tape recorder.”
She met Billy Frank Jr., the charismatic Nisqually fishing-rights activist, when she was 4. “Other little girls treasured their Barbies. Billy was my hero.” He was cursed at, clubbed, tear-gassed and thrown in jail. “But he never gave up,” Sharp says.
Sharp graduated from the Lighthouse Christian Academy at Taholah and briefly attended a community college in the Seattle area before returning home to help care for her ailing grandfather. She coached girls’ basketball and worked as a waitress to pay for tuition at Grays Harbor College, never imagining that one day she would become one of its trustees.
Sharp graduated from Gonzaga University at 20, received a law degree from the University of Washington, studied international human rights law at Oxford and was elected president of the Quinault Nation at 35 in 2006. She once worked for the CIA, too.
Sometimes when she looks at the photo she framed to commemorate her first meeting with President Barack Obama, she flashes back to being the “somewhat nerdy” bookworm who was elected class president in junior high — or the pint-size point guard “with fogged-up glasses,” racing for a layin after stealing the ball. She also set a long-jump record at her grade school.
Where did all those years go? “I have no idea,” Sharp says with a shrug and a sigh. “Oftentimes, I think about my journey and my responsibility to the 3,000 people of the Quinault Nation. And if the buck has to stop with me on every issue under the sun, so be it. Every single day, I’m inspired by the idea that I’m the voice of the Quinaults — people who have existed since time began. I’m also the voice of Quinaults yet to be born and the voice of our ancestors. Holding public office means you have a sacred responsibility to honor the ones who spent their lifetimes and tremendous energy and resources to advance a nation.”
Sharp’s deep Christian faith gives her a sense of purpose and place. To her, “The Land of the Quinault” is sacred ground.
She is now in her fifth term leading a nation thousands of years older than the United States of America.
After receiving a degree in Criminal Justice from Gonzaga, she was recruited by the CIA. “They specifically and explicitly mentioned they were going to campuses to recruit Native Americans who grew up on reservations, because that was a testament to resilience and the ability to overcome barriers and obstacles,” Sharp says. She remembers being simultaneously excited and apprehensive as she set out for Washington, D.C.
“When I got to there, it was quite a shock,” she says. “I’d never been on my own in an apartment. I went to the grocery store and tried to have a conversation. People were very rude. I remember getting on the bus, and the driver said, ‘Put your dollar in the [fare] box, kid — and sit down!’
“I remember sitting on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial just feeling completely invisible. I saw families. I saw a troop of Boy Scouts. Everybody was having a great time on a warm summer afternoon. I was sad about losing my grandfather, who had just passed away. I was homesick. I was wondering if this was a mistake. Nobody was talking to me.
“Finally, I walked to the Museum of Natural History and discovered there was an elder doing basket weaving. She was surrounded by a group of 20 to 30 people, maybe more. She looked up — right at me — made eye contact and just smiled. It was as if I went from being absolutely invisible to being recognized by this incredible, beautiful woman who reminded me a lot of my grandmother. She just recognized me. Life was suddenly good. ‘I’m going to be OK,’ I said to myself. ‘I can do this.’ ”