WINCHESTER — Determined. Tough. Gentle. Those were some of the words people called out to describe Sue Shaffer at a memorial service Saturday.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown was among the crowd in the Umpqua Community College auditorium. She called out, “Ferocious.”
Shaffer was a longtime advocate for Native American tribal rights. She was the driving force in getting Congress to formally recognize the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians in 1982. She served as the tribal chair for 27 years. She was the iron fist in negotiating the state’s first tribal compact to allow gambling on reservations, so those tribes could help fund education and medical services. She is credited with the development of the Seven Feathers Casino and Resort into a major business operation in Canyonville.
The list goes on.
Shaffer died April 11 at the age of 94. The service served as a celebration of her life and work. It started with a prayer, and then three tribal members performed a heartfelt honor song around a booming pow wow drum.
People who stood by Shaffer’s side throughout the years as she fought for tribal rights spoke to her steadfast determination.
“Truly, she was unstoppable,” said Evelyn Norres, a longtime friend of Shaffer’s, in her speech. “If she had a vision for a project, it was going to happen one way or another.”
Throughout people’s recollections of Shaffer, one theme stood out: she might have been small in height, but she was powerful in will. She was kind and a good listener, but she had no patience for long-winded speeches. She cared. She wanted to know your story. She wanted to help.
“She was a warrior for justice,” Brown said after the service. “She was very fierce, very determined, and very committed to improving lives of people. Not just her tribal members, but all folks in Douglas County and Oregon.”
Shaffer concentrated her efforts on helping young people and children in tribes, Norres recalled. She wanted them to have food, shelter, quality health care and a good education. Sometimes she hired young professionals who were not yet qualified for some positions, but she had faith in them. She ensured their success by mentoring them along the way.
“It was always important to her that they learn to become leaders so they could help people,” Norres recalled.
The service featured two slideshows, one of Shaffer’s life growing up in Milo, Oregon, then of her and her husband, George. She was pictured smiling on a picnic blanket, her dark hair swooped in a 1950s bouffant. There’s a picture of her standing next to George in his sailor’s uniform, and another of her holding her daughter in her lap.
The second slideshow featured her life in the political world. She was pictured with Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, and various governors and congressmen. Shaffer served as a delegate to the National Congress of American Indians and the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians. She kept her finger on the pulse of state and national legislation involving Native American affairs.
“While Sue was widely known both in Douglas County and throughout Oregon, she was also highly sought at a national level by other tribes for her wisdom, her leadership and guidance,” Norres recalled. “Her moving on has left a big crater in our lives.”