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Jenny Slagle's narrative work runs through her involvements

Jenny Slagle    Photo by John Lok




By Marijke Fakasiieiki

Jenny Slagle's narrative work, Indigenous activism, restaurant entrepreneurship and community support intersect in her roles as Spokane Public Schools board vice president, Indigenous Eats family business owner, and full-time program officer at Inatai Foundation.

"We need allyship in any community, but especially the Native community, because we are often overlooked," said Jenny.

"A phrase that often arises in Indigenous philanthropy and nonprofit work is seventh-generation thinking. It's a philosophy I believe in. Growing up on the Yakama reservation, I heard my elders tell of my ancestors being forward thinking," she said. "Now that terminology is common, so we can express what has felt natural and common to me."

Elders advise people to "know the impact of what we are doing today and be prepared for future generations," she explained. "That has influenced my life, guiding me to serve in my different capacities."

From that base, Jenny earned an associate degree in business at Bellevue College in 2014, she completed a bachelor's degree in business with a focus on IT management from the online Western Governors University in 2018.

She was administrative manager for the Kalispel Tribe Gaming Agency from 2000 to 2015 and communications manager for the NATIVE Project from 2015 to 2017. Then she started as director of tribal relations for Better Health Together in 2017.

"In all those roles, I have been involved in Native narrative work for a long time. My career is about centering tribes and tribal organizations," she said.

"The purpose of Native narrative work or narrative work in any community is to call out negative stereotypes and enable communication that replaces stereotypes with factual, historically correct information," Jenny explained.

In all she does, she emphasizes that Native Americans are not just people of the past, not just a history subject.

"We are here. We are modern Native people. The restaurants we started are part of that work to build positive narratives about Native people here in Spokane specifically," Jenny said.

Spokane County has about 24,000 self-identified Native people, according to the last census. There are more than 300 different tribes from across the U.S. represented here. Between Minneapolis and Seattle, Spokane has one of the largest urban Indian populations.

"I am proud to say, 'I'm from the Yakama Rez.' I never intended to move away from the Yakama reservation. I loved it there. It was the community that raised me, and where all my family lived but, because I've been here since 2000, I now feel I represent the urban Native experience here," she said.

Jenny's family encompasses different experiences and narratives.

She raised her children in Spokane on the South Hill, so they know only what it's like to be urban Natives.

Her mother was raised Catholic, the youngest of four children. Her three older siblings were baptized.

Jenny grew up in her father's family in the Toppenish and Rock Creek longhouses, where they had feasts and Sunday services in the Washat Seven Drums religion.

"My spirituality comes from that experience," she said.

"I can't speak the language. I wasn't taught it at home, because my mother is Northern Arapaho and my dad is Yakama, but I grew up hearing phrases and words here and there," said Jenny. "I took some Yakama language classes at the tribal school in Toppenish, but I never became fluent enough to have a conversation. I haven't been around it since moving here."

For Jenny, food can bring different cultures together.

Many conversations about who modern Native people are start with food. That led her and her husband, Andrew, to start Indigenous Eats.

Andrew is a leader in his own right with a bachelor's degree in business administration. His career for 16 years was in overseeing Indian Gaming compliance and in surveillance departments for the Kalispel Tribe.

Before moving to Spokane, he worked with the Yakama Nation Gaming Commission and the Toppenish Police Department.

Now Andrew uses his regulatory background to ensure Indigenous Eats follows state and local agency requirements for food safety and organizational processes.

"Food is a great conversation starter. What is Native American comfort food? It's food I grew up eating at family and community gatherings, and powwows. It is special food we don't eat every day," she said.

Indigenous Eats employees encounter that often in interactions with customers, who ask, "What's fry bread?"

Maybe they know what it is but haven't had it in a while, or they experienced it in the South or lived close to other tribes, she said.

"We hear different nostalgic stories about fry bread and bison. People appreciate that we also offer bison," said Jenny, adding the fry bread is her mother's recipe.

Employees are drawn to work at Indigenous Eats because most of the 12 part-time and full-time employees are Native and want to work in a Native-owned business, specifically with Native food they can relate to. Her two children are among the employees.

"We have not had a problem finding employees. We start them full-time and are working to offer medical benefits and a livable wage," Jenny said.

Customers tip well because people are generous after they experience the food, atmosphere, employees and service at the Boone location near Gonzaga University.

With success at the Boone location, they recently opened a second location in the food court at River Park Square.

On the Spokane Public School Board, Jenny sees strides in diversity, equity and inclusion. When she was elected in 2019, the community was seeking diverse members, and is now the most diverse it has been historically.

"That's where it starts. If we talk about diversity and equity, we have to start at the top. We have to be sure the people who are having discussions and making decisions have a lived experience, so they know the issues," Jenny said. "If we are talking about kids in poverty or dealing with housing or food insecurity, many of us on the board have lived those experiences."

Her experience as a student of color in public schools differs from what her children have experienced on the South Hill, attending Adams Elementary, Chase Middle School and Ferris High School. She brings to the school board awareness of those experiences as well as her early struggles as a mother of color navigating South Hill schools.

Since October 2022, Jenny has served as program officer with the Inatai Foundation—formerly Group Health Foundation.

Inatai shifted its mission and is developing a 50-year vision to center on equity and racial justice. It works with organizations and communities to build community power and systems change.

"That aligns with my role on the school board, my narrative work and Indigenous entrepreneurship," she said.

The narrative work carries over into the community with her efforts to connect Native professionals so "we can provide not only a consolidated voice, but also insight and a voice for urban Native people who might not be from a tribe in the immediate region," said Jenny.

A Native business leaders' network meets monthly at Indigenous Eats at 829 E. Boone. This group for Native entrepreneurs and professionals welcomes young Native persons to come for mentoring and community.

"We want to expand beyond established professionals and entrepreneurs, because people are at different phases of their careers," said Jenny.

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, February 2024