History-making women’s speaker knows power of words

By Linda Weiford, WSU News

Kauffman-80PULLMAN, Wash. – As a CBS senior news correspondent, Hattie Kauffman was known for her gift of storytelling. At Washington State University Tuesday, she again put that gift into action as keynote speaker of the 2014 Annual Women’s Recognition and Symposium.

“I always do this. I write a speech and never give it,” she said, while waving several ink-filled pages at the podium where she stood. “Instead, I just talk.”

Lucky for us, because Kauffman – who made history as the first Native American to go on-camera before a national news audience – spoke compassionately yet matter-of-factly about her troubled upbringing and the people along the way who helped steer her to the right path.

“Their confidence in me became my confidence in me,” she told a large gathering in the CUB ballroom.

Book relates struggle, triumph

She hails from the Nez Perce tribe headquartered in Lapwai, Idaho, where a single highway cuts through the small town. Raised by hard-drinking, loud-fighting parents who often left her and her six siblings alone with little food, Kauffman was a person shattered – and later remade, as she recounts in her 2013 book, “Falling into Place: A Memoir of Overcoming” (Baker Books Publishing).

“I was a shivering, skinny, Indian kid,” she writes.

Kauffman speaks at WSU Tuesday. (Photo by Robert Hubner, WSU Photo Services)

In 1960, her parents hauled Kauffman and her siblings to Seattle, where the family settled in a public housing development. From then on, she straddled her urban and native cultures and the alcohol-imbued no-man’s land between.

“I learned some lessons – some good, some bad. Some I had to unlearn,” she told the crowd that included WSU President Elson S. Floyd and professor Laura Griner Hill, recognized during the event as 2014’s Woman of the Year.

Kauffman married as a teenager, drank heavily and by age 25 was a single mother of two young children. Her darkest episode, she recounted, was in her 50s – when her husband of 17 years suddenly announced he was leaving.

“He told me, ‘I’m not committed to this marriage. I’ve never been committed. I just settled for you.’ It absolutely stopped me in my tracks,” she said.

Words remembered inspire

She credits a handful of “women of distinction” for keeping her life from derailing both as a child and an adult: a third-grade teacher who, in the girls’ bathroom, washed dirt off Kauffman’s face with a wet paper towel and gently combed her matted hair; an Indian affairs advocate who encouraged her to apply for a Native American college scholarship, with which she studied journalism at the University of Minnesota; and a Christian aunt whose words helped her find God while grieving over the collapse of her marriage.

These women’s words and actions kept her standing, moving forward and aiming for the stars, Kauffman told the group.

“The words you give to a young person can stay with them for decades,” she stressed.

Words of hope entrusted

Kauffman as a news correspondent. (Photo courtesy of CBS News)

After 40 years in broadcast news that included 10-year-stints in New York and Los Angeles, Kauffman retired in 2012 and wrote her memoir. She overcame alcoholism by taking the 12-step path of Alcoholics Anonymous. She is remarried, a mother and a grandmother.

And she is also a terrific aunt – or rather, “auntie” – according to her 17-year-old niece who sat in the audience. A junior at Lapwai High School, Cyra Cunningham plays basketball for the school’s Wildcats.

“She doesn’t let me doubt myself and makes me feel good about who I am,” Cunningham said after her aunt’s presentation.

Proof that the gift of words can reverberate for generations.

The annual Women’s Recognition and Symposium was presented by the Women’s Resource Center and the President’s Commission on the Status of Women. Women of Distinction award recipients were: Carol Guthrie; Vanessa Delgado; Amber Morczek; Susan Rahr; and Roberta Paul.