A Conversation with Carina Miller

“I didn't know the term ‘social construction’ until college, but I knew what it meant my whole life,” says FBO’s new Board member.

Carina Miller (center) with her partner, Lúkwaiya Lira, and their son, Waluxpykee Walter Miller.
Carina Miller (center) with her partner, Lúkwaiya Lira, and their son, Waluxpykee Walter Miller.

Louis Wheatley is Strategic Communications Director at Foundations for a Better Oregon.

Louis Wheatley is Strategic Communications Director at Foundations for a Better Oregon.

Foundations for a Better Oregon (FBO) is thrilled to welcome Carina Miller to the FBO Board of Directors. She is a proud Warm Springs, Wasco, and Yakima mother, and a longstanding Tribal, regional, and statewide leader. 

Carina was raised on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Central Oregon, where she continues to live with her family and works with the Warm Springs Community Action Team. She served as an elected member of the 27th Tribal Council of Warm Springs and was the 2020 Democratic nominee for Oregon State Senate District 30. To learn more about her leadership and work, read our announcement of Carina’s election to FBO’s Board of Directors.

In this interview, Carina shares what Oregon still has to learn about self-determination, why running for public office isn’t really a choice for her, where she goes to find peace, and more.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve said that you aim to use teachings from your upbringing in your work to transform the world toward a more equitable and sustainable future. Can you share what you mean?

It’s so interesting—I look at my own identity and see how it plays into the world. I'm enrolled in the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and I grew up on the reservation, but I'm half white. Now that I'm an adult, I realize there was privilege in being white-passing and coming from a family where going to college was normal. At the same time, there’s privilege in the fact that I was raised in traditions and I understand the world from a different viewpoint. I was raised traditional in the longhouse, gathering our first food, understanding our ceremonies and our beliefs.

When you come from this kind of community, where we have been able to maintain spiritual beliefs and a different worldview, you're able to see the world differently. Even things like money—the word for money in our language is xaxáyk and I was always taught that it was a completely made up idea. I didn't know the term ‘social construction’ until college, but I knew what it meant my whole life because I always understood that there are better, more communal ways of living that aren't just about greed and money and power.

When I was elected to Tribal Council, I saw how we have to operate under a modern-name government that was set up for us, with a kind of self-determination that isn’t intentional about our values, our beliefs, or what our Tribe wanted and maintained. And this plays out in our water: our Tribe didn’t build capital accounts because we don’t tax people for things that we consider needs. Water is the most sacred thing in our longhouse—you begin and end with water. You say chúush and everybody drinks a sip of water and you acknowledge it. It's like the force of life. But to access state funds for new infrastructure, we have to tax the water. And to our elders, it's completely not okay to charge our people for clean water.

This has gone on for years and years. Do we continue to bend and be colonized and go directly against our spiritual beliefs in order to just survive in today's world? So it’s about having different worldviews, different abilities to vision, the ability to imagine the future together. We need to actually encourage different voices and perspectives, and not continue to expect them to jump through the same hoops. Don’t make us prove what we know or come up with all the solutions or always fight from survival mode.

You’ve worked as an early childhood educator, and your mom did too. How has that influenced you?

As a young kid, I grew up really understanding the importance of community in early childhood development. Not just making sure that kids have their basic needs met, but also that their cognitive, social, emotional, intellectual needs are also being met. 

Even beyond my mom, my great-grandmother was a matron for our boarding school. She was a full-blooded Native woman, which was complicated. But elders today will tell me stories about how when they were kids in that boarding school, she would still talk to them in our language, and had a natural understanding that kids learned in different ways. That wasn't necessarily an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or diagnosing learning disabilities, but just tailoring play and the way that you interacted with kids. That was very natural. 

When I became a Head Start educator, I learned about the domains of child development and the nuts and bolts of education. I looked at child-led and Montessori models, where kids have the kind of high-level play that really blasts your development: nature-based play, a lot of music, hands-on learning with food... And I started to recognize that a lot of what we see in these super fancy schools are exactly what happens in traditional child-rearing. It’s how grandparents care for children while parents are providing. I can see these trends because they’re how I was raised.

You were an elected member of the Warm Springs Tribal Council. You ran for the Oregon Senate last year. What has motivated you to serve in public office?

Growing up here, I graduated from Madras High School. I played sports, I did extracurriculars, I could fit into different roles. But there was always racism and my education never taught me how to recognize it, let alone advocate for myself. So as I became an adult, I started to unpack my identity and realize how much is normalized out here just to survive.

After college, I had my own big dreams. But as life goes on, when you see people suffering and systems failing a community over and over again, you can't just keep walking away. So I came home and worked for our Children's Protective Services here in Warm Springs. That gave me a good look at our core systems in the state, like social services and education. And again, I watched cycles repeating over and over. That led me to look at funding, resourcing, and so many pieces I didn’t yet understand.

So when I decided to run for our Tribal Council, I was really trying to start conversations that others weren't starting. Conversations that were almost taboo, like legalizing marijuana. And I won. I spent three years on the Council and worked on a wide range of issues because of my diverse background. And running for State Senate was just an extension of that initial work on the frontline—seeing how our most impacted communities were still not being resourced, listened to, planned for, nothing—because I'm from those communities.

A huge part of my identity is growing up in these woods, with my grandparents, with my community, with my people. And I want that for my son. But that also means he might have to go to high school with some people who grow up thinking that immigrants don't have a right to happiness or think that Natives just get free handouts, even though they’ve grown up here next to us. So it's not a choice for me to be in politics. It's not a choice for me to organize. When I’m running for office, it’s really for change. And I want to show others who might be like me that we do exist, that it's okay to be progressive and expect something better than just survival.

Carina Miller (right) and her partner, Lúkwaiya Lira, hold their son, Waluxpykee Walter Miller, at a gallery featuring Lúkwaiya's photo exhibition "Ichnaatash wa."
Carina Miller (right) and her partner, Lúkwaiya Lira, hold their son, Waluxpykee Walter Miller, at a gallery featuring Lúkwaiya's photo exhibition "Ichnaatash wa."

Your life’s work has touched on everything from education to entrepreneurship to the environment. With such wide-ranging experience, how do you think about systems change?

It’s hard. I’ve looked at systems change from a programmatic perspective—making charts, gathering inputs, collecting data, making measurable benchmarks, those sorts of things. But I've always held that systems change has to simultaneously come from policy on the top and from communities who are impacted. So to me, systems change has also been just sitting down and talking to people who are in recovery, or who once were my clients and now have their kids back for the first time in years. It's about working with communities on those front lines, in grassroots ways, as much as you possibly can.

For me, it’s always been both of these angles: the policy level and the frontline level. That's why I'm excited about joining the FBO Board. Having a direct connection to impacted community keeps me grounded, and it keeps me saying things that I don't think are always said at these kinds of tables or in these rooms.

What do you think Oregon still has left to learn or understand about the principles of self-determination?

Well, for tribes, the political precedent is hard. We never want to lose what we have, and are always fighting to defend our sovereignty. And so we're not thinking about other ways to move out of survival or start thriving, you know? 

It was Oregon's birthday the other day, and that day does hurt. It’s harmful to see people celebrating what ultimately is our genocide, because that's what it meant for this country and these states to be born. I’m not saying people shouldn’t celebrate, but we need to shift what we're celebrating and tell the whole story. And it's not just Indigenous communities—I'm learning about a lot of other communities that feel this way too, communities that I know I don't know yet.

And so I think what Oregon really needs to understand about self-determination is that it isn’t for the dominant society to decide what it looks like for someone else. If we really want to lift people up, we have to do this work. 

Your current work revolves around economic research analysis. Why does data matter to you? How does Oregon need to ‘do’ data differently? 

Oh my gosh. Where do I start? Data is really important because Native people are left out of the majority of all data. So that's our number one issue: How are we going to tell our stories and advocate for what we need when we can't even get the data to back it up? When we're not even being counted?

So one thing Oregon could do is encourage collecting data specifically for Tribes. In my work, we’re not even able to look at unemployment, poverty levels, housing, any of that. We have to rely on census data because we don't have our own department in Warm Springs or any organization tracking the reservation or the Tribal community. The state tracks data by zip code and by county, but that doesn’t work here. Our reservation doesn’t line up with zip codes and covers multiple counties. 

The federal bill that just passed to collect data on the cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women is great. But I feel like we're celebrating things that should have happened years ago.

Your grandfather was a newspaper editor and co-founded the Native American Journalists Association. Both your parents worked in radio. You've worked in TV news. What does this thread in your family mean to you?

That background is huge for me, and really a continuation of our storytelling tradition. I grew up in journalism—my parents were always doing news work. So in our household, it showed me how to understand facts and information at a quick rate on so many different topics. And then it’s literally your job to take the facts and turn them out for people.

Understanding how to make information accessible to multiple communities is multi-generational in my family. It’s played a huge role in my ability to get a message out, support a policy, and run for office. I think that’s my real asset as a leader—my ability to tell stories to bring people together. And that focus on accessibility is something I strive to do every day—to be a transparent leader and to create systems that work for everybody.

What does finding common ground look like to you?

Where I live, even if you don’t believe that climate change is real, water is scarce. Jobs are few. Education is hard to come by. So even though there are political divides between us, the reality is that we're still a community, living in the same place, we need the same roads. And so my family raised me to sit down with people and get to the point. To say, Hey, I'm here. You're here. We're not going anywhere. Here's the issue. What are we going to do?

Because I'm not going to be quiet and I'm not going to sit back. I try to pull people in instead of pushing them out. That doesn't mean I'll do it with a smile on my face or to make you comfortable—but I'm trying to pull you in.

What’s hanging on your living room walls?

There are photos of my little family—my partner, my son, and me on our vacations. A lot of them are polaroids because we're obsessed with old film. And traditional medicine, like sage and cedar that I use to boil and burn.

What book is sitting on your bedside table?

There There by Tommy Orange.

What's the last good song you listened to? 

My dad always played Slippin’ into Darkness when he was going to bed at night. Sometimes I play it when I'm going to bed. 

Where do you go to find peace? 

I like to drive around, usually up past my grandpa’s ranch, with all the windows down. 

What's the best advice you've ever received?

Nobody is ever going to just give you anything. You have to take it. That is good advice for young Brown women and only them.