By: Tia Beavert, Tribal Forest Manager, Yakama Nation Tribal Forestry
When I was eleven years old, I went on my second gillnet fishing trip on the Columbia River with my dad, Charlie. The year before, my parents divorced. My dad raised me, the second youngest of my parents’ five children, and my brother, who is six years my junior. Another sister was raised by our mom, Darlene, and I have two other siblings that were old enough at the time of the divorce to live independently.
Living with my dad, I had to learn everything he did. One evening while checking nets, I complained to him about the hard work and how tired I was. Dad did not respond immediately, and we continued to work in silence for the rest of the trip. On the ride home, he finally addressed my comments, and I still remember the tone of his voice as he said, “This is hard work. I love doing it. If you don’t want to work hard like this for the rest of your life, get an education.”
Despite that conversation with my dad and the fact that I was a good student who loved learning, education beyond high school was not my plan. My older siblings started working right out of high school, and I wanted to do the same. However, after graduation, I was invited to play collegiate sports at a local junior college, kick-starting my academic career.
Many of my childhood memories involved being outdoors. I remember camping from early spring to late fall with my mom and grandmother to gather traditional foods and berries throughout the seasons. I remember hunting and fishing with my dad, uncles, and grandfathers. I remember running around the woods with my cousins while our parents cut firewood. We were in the forest as much as possible. Even with these experiences, I did not choose to study forestry, failing to realize at the time that my future career was right in front of me.
I studied biology and environmental science at Heritage University (located on the Yakama Indian Reservation) as an undergraduate, focusing on plant genetics. In my third year of college, I was awarded a Department of Natural Resource Scholarship through the Yakama Nation. This scholarship requires Tribal individuals to study natural resources and, in turn, work for the Tribe to manage our resources. A year after graduation in 2005, I undertook my first attempt at graduate school in the Resource Management program at Central Washington University. I failed at that attempt; I completed all of the coursework but didn’t follow through with a thesis. Life as a full-time student, foster mother, and employee overwhelmed me.
When I was placed in the Tribal Forestry Department, I still felt like an outsider when it came to forestry. My intention was to stay for my required time, then pursue other opportunities. Yet, over time, I gained field experience by working with my first mentor, cruising timber, and planning timber sales. I soon discovered that the more exposure I had to forestry, the more I wanted to stay within the field. During the past 15 years, I have transitioned from an outsider to a timber cruiser, a presale planner, and, in April 2019, to Tribal Forest Manager for the Yakama Nation.
In late 2019, the Yakama Nation received the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) President’s Award at SFI’s conference in Virginia. After the awards presentation, Ara Erickson approached me as a fellow woman in forestry, and soon after, she suggested that I consider participating in the development and launch of the Women’s Forest Congress (WFC).
My immediate inclination was to say “no,” not because of the mission of the WFC but because I was unsure how I could meaningfully contribute. I find it awkward and terrifying to speak publicly. I’m not an extrovert, and it isn’t easy for me to talk about myself or my history to others. In the end, of course, I did join the WFC Advisory Council. A primary reason why is that I found these women to be so open to creating a support system, sharing experiences, and connecting with other female forestry professionals.
During the first meeting, I attended virtually, a discussion about mentorship strongly resonated with me. I did not have the greatest support early on in my career. I was often overlooked and lacked encouragement, even from some of my female colleagues in a male-dominated field. However, I eventually met terrific people, mentors who helped expand my love of the land and the forest. In a short time, I changed my perspective from focusing on the adverse events in my career to concentrating on the things that helped me advance. Now I want to influence the next generation of Yakama leaders.
In our Tribal Forestry Program, I have the privilege of working beside female professionals and support staff. Each of these women brings her own perspective and experience. In addition, our forestry program has seven employees enrolled in Salish Kootenai College, earning degrees in forestry through the Yakama branch campus on the Reservation. Two of these employees are dedicated and determined women. I cannot wait to see what the future holds for these students as they become our future foresters.
I know that overcoming obstacles is not limited to tribal women. Being a woman in forestry is challenging. Being a woman of firsts—first to attend college, graduate college, and hold a Tribal leadership position—is equally challenging. We all need tools to push forward while building up and sustaining our female colleagues. I want other women to feel like I do. We can create an amazing team rather than compete against each other. I want female Tribal members to know that they, too, can excel regardless of the path they were dealt or the obstacles they faced.
We are in this together.