Rooted in Respect: Words of Wisdom from Amber Ebarb ’03
Ebarb—Staff Director for the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs—returned to Whitman to address the Class of 2023
By Casey Brown
Photography by Kim Fetrow ’96 of Kim Fetrow Photography
On May 21, 2023, Whitman College alum Amber Ebarb ’03 stood in front of the Class of 2023 and delivered the 137th Commencement address. It was 20 years, nearly to the day, after receiving her own Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology on the Memorial Building stage.
It was Ebarb’s first time returning to campus—and in her years away she has been standing up for and supporting the interests of American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and communities.
Following Whitman, Ebarb began her career with an advocacy group founded in 1944—the National Congress of American Indians in Washington D.C.—taking on more significant roles over the years. Ebarb, herself, is an Alaska Native and enrolled citizen of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes.
While working, she also earned her Master’s in Public Policy with honors and a focus in public budgeting and finance from The George Washington University.
In 2019, Ebarb made the move to the U.S. Congress. She began as a legislative assistant on the Alaska Native and Rural Affairs portfolio for Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). In January 2023, she was named the Minority Staff Director for the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs by Murkowsi who is the vice chair of the committee.
“I never would have thought I’d have the honor of working in the Senate, helping staff the very committee that has jurisdiction over Indian Affairs,” Ebarb says.
Ebarb has worked on bills that responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, reduce violence in Indigenous communities and support Native language revitalization. The committee has introduced five bills on the topic of Native languages since 2011. Most recently, the Native American Language Resource Center Act of 2022 became law in early 2023.
In the past 20 years, Ebarb recognizes how Whitman has moved forward and changed as well. That includes in ways that are truly meaningful to her, such as an evolving curriculum that presents a more accurate Tribal history and invites collaboration with Native American students, leaders and teachers.
At Whitman, Ebarb was part of a small student club, the American Indian Association—which today is a prominent and active campus group known as the Indigenous Peoples Education and Culture Club (IPECC). The President of IPECC and an award-winning student leader, Cheysen Cabuyadao-Sipe ’23, himself a Native Hawaiian, introduced Ebarb to his fellow graduates and commencement audience.
When Ebarb took the podium, she introduced herself in her Native language and then in English. Her Tlingit name is Gin Du Tlaa. She is from the L’eeneidí Raven Dog Salmon Clan and the raven moiety. Ebarb is a child of the Wooshkeetaan (Eagle Shark clan).
In her work advocating for change, Ebarb says she leans on her Native culture, which includes values of reciprocation, balance and respect.
When things are out of balance, sickness ensues. The Tlingit peoples have a term for that imbalance and loss of reciprocity and respect, according to Ebarb.
“‘Wooch yax’ urges you to fix what hurts you. And if something is wrong, you don’t let it go, you don’t ignore it.”
Twenty years later, Ebarb sees what was out of balance at Whitman shifting in positive ways.
“I’m so glad to see that the work and learning here on campus has been more than symbolic or the discussion of symbols. The work that I’ve seen here involves committing to new ways of interacting that are rooted in respect.”