Life of
Purpose

Gena Timberman Vitali always relied on her sense of culture for strength. But when that culture was most vulnerable, she was left to pick up the pieces.

Gena Timberman Vitali felt like she was falling.

She couldn’t sleep. Her blood sugar was low. And the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum, a sprawling $80 million campus in Oklahoma City she’d spent 14 years coddling from infancy to completion, had hit a brick wall for funding at the Oklahoma Legislature.

She didn’t know what to say to the state’s 39 tribes who expected her to keep the center afloat, the same tribes with whom she’d worked for years to make a state senator’s vision a reality.

“I felt as though I had lost my effectiveness,” Gena said. “I had gotten my identity caught up in being ‘Gena, the Cultural Center Director.’ I got really lost when it got really bad – I took it very personally.”

For the Oklahoma Choctaw, culture has always been the stitching that held together the different parts of her identity. And even when she felt like she was falling, that culture and her faith in it helped her land on her feet.

“I was told as a kid that, as Native people, we are all part of one body,” she said. “The people are the blood that runs through it, and we all draw from it – values, identity, resources. If we forget to breathe into it, that body dies.”

But that wasn’t what a non-Native woman told 6-year-old Gina back when she was a first-grader at Heronville Elementary School in Oklahoma City, pulled out of class to hear stories about Southwestern Kachinas, or spirits that represent things in the natural world.

The woman meant well, but the stories gave Gena nightmares. Still, the stories were her first taste of the unknown – and she was intrigued.

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She would take her first step into the unknown a decade later, when the two-sport athlete was invited to join the Southern Plains Office of Native American Programs.

She boarded an airplane for the first time to train for the program alongside other Native student athletes in Boston, where she would meet athletic luminaries like Lakota track star Billy Mills. Until that weekend, Gena had never met so many people who spoke so positively about being Native.

“I was shy before,” she said. “But having positive role models that liked talking about being Native helped shape my sense of public advocacy and my ability to talk about being Native.”

She liked the duality of team sports – the sense of individual competition combined with the pride and security of belonging to something greater than herself. In college at Oklahoma State University, she kept that sense of duality close as a sorority sister at Kappa Kappa Gamma, founder of a Native American student university and English major. In 1996, she graduated and went on to attend the University of Oklahoma College of Law.

“She was able to pack so much into her life, and yet she never missed a social event with us,” said Jennifer Bell, one of Gena’s sorority sisters.

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By law school, Gena knew how to embrace new opportunities.

Sometimes, they were fun ones – like when she studied abroad at Oxford while Bell studied in Paris. Without knowing Bell’s phone number, address or a single word of French, Gena hopped on the channel tunnel one day to surprise her friend.

But there were also scary and lonely ones, like the time Gena interned with the Department of Justice’s Office of Tribal Justice in Washington, D.C. There, she was at ground zero of the 1999 Cobell case, a class action lawsuit Native Americans brought against the United States government for mismanaging Indian trust assets – land and natural resources. She spent much of her time poring over maps and data to help Attorney General Janet Reno prepare detailed speeches on the settlement.

“Living in D.C., on my own, waiting tables – I was out of my comfort zone, but it was a time of personal growth,” she said. “To see how leaders operate and see that human side as well was a very reflective time for me.”

When Gena returned to Oklahoma, she worked on product liability cases at Holloway Dobson and spent her free time hanging out at board meetings for various Native organizations. There, she met the state senator who invited her to realize a dream – both his and her own. He wanted to build a cultural center dedicated to Oklahoma’s tribes, and he asked Gena to serve as deputy director of the state agency that would oversee its construction. The position was initially unfunded, and it meant leaving the security of her law firm.

“I was kind of freefalling toward a dream,” she said. “But I was interested in bringing together a cultural center. It was a risk that was worth taking.”

I was kind of freefalling toward a dream. But I was interested in bringing together a cultural center. It was a risk that was worth taking.” Gina Timberman Vitali

For the next 14 years, Gena lobbied, lawyered and conducted research on behalf of the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum. The finished campus boasted a circular layout modeled after Native creation stories she’d heard as a child.

But in 2010, all she had worked for seemed at risk. She spent most of her time deep in the political trenches of the state legislature, fighting for funding for the Cultural Center. The lobbying was a lonely, uphill battle against a new and difficult legislature.

“I needed interaction with the tribal communities,” she said. “Not having it made me more vulnerable culturally.”

It was time for another free fall. Soon after marrying pro golfer Pete Vitali in 2013, Gena gave up the position that had become her identity. She had no idea what awaited her, but she knew she had to restore her health.

So she prayed for direction – and her prayers were answered.

“Sometimes when you free fall – if you have faith – special things will come,” she said. “Out of the blue, two things happened. My tribe invited to help with a very special consulting project, and my friend invited me to join his firm.”

Today, Gena is out of the trenches and back on the road, helping tribes coordinate their economic development projects. Even though her role at the Cultural Center continues to define her, she said it’s just one aspect of her journey.

“Part of tribal identity is asking, ‘What is my role here?’ and understanding that every Native person is an ambassador of their tribe,” she said. “If I can teach people about my tribe, then I feel that I’ve fulfilled my purpose in life.”

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Heather Shotton