Elizabeth Furse, a renowned advocate for Indigenous rights and former member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Oregon, has died. She was 84.
Furse represented Oregon’s first U.S. House district from 1992 to 1999 as a progressive Democrat. She grew up in South Africa, where she joined her mother in advocating for the abolition of apartheid. Before her time in Congress, Furse founded and ran the Oregon Peace Institute, and as a member of Congress, she worked to limit the proliferation and research of nuclear weapons. Furse also became an outspoken advocate for the rights of Indigenous people in the Northwest, starting, as her widower John Platt described it, more than two decades before her first run for Congress.
“Elizabeth was deeply involved in the Puget Sound treaty fishing rights issues beginning in 1970,” Platt said in an email to reporters, also recalling her support for efforts for Tribal recognition from Seattle to the California border.
Platt told OPB that Furse always considered herself more of an activist than a politician.
“She was first and foremost an activist — a person who decides that one person can really make a difference. And she often said that: that one person can make a difference in seeking justice,” he said. “That was her motto. She lived it. And hopefully others will, too.”
Furse ran briefly for the U.S. Senate in 1995, after Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Oregon, resigned amid a sexual harassment scandal. The Democratic primary was eventually won by Ron Wyden, who has held the seat since.
“Former Rep. Elizabeth Furse lived the Jewish concept of tikkun olam with every fiber of her being, repairing the world to help Tribal communities, strengthen women’s health care and support vulnerable Americans everywhere,” Wyden said in a written statement. “I’ll miss her tremendously.”
While Furse’s roots were in activism, she wasn’t particularly partisan. She had the support of Sen. Mark Hatfield, R-Oregon, in her congressional runs. She later endured the wrath of some in her own party when she backed Hatfield’s GOP successor, U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith.
As an elected representative, Furse worked for the reproductive rights of women and helped win money for the TriMet westside light rail line to Hillsboro. She worked to support Native American sovereignty and Indigenous rights throughout her years in Congress and continued that focus after she left.
Furse’s work on behalf of Oregon Tribes made her a lifelong friend and ally of Native American leaders, such as Tribal Chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz Indians, Delores Pigsley.
“Elizabeth was a great friend of Siletz,” Pigsley said in an email to OPB. “She was actually a friend of all Tribes but working closely with Oregon Tribes on the Institute of Tribal Government in Portland.”
Furse founded the Institute for Tribal Government at Portland State University in 2000, as a way to support Indigenous leaders in self-governance and improve their work with local, state and federal entities.
“Her knowledge, understanding, commitment to her beliefs as well as ours was truly remarkable,” Pigsley said. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to her family, we will miss her.”
Leaders at Portland State say the institute’s work will continue, after Furse’s death.
“The legacy of her work on tribal governance, restoration legislation and self-determination has been profound and will continue to be realized by generations of Native Americans and Oregonians to come,” said Direlle Calica, the institute’s director. “Her vision for the Institute for Tribal Government has supported the vital efforts of tribal governments and expanded collaboration with federal, state and industry partners.”
People familiar with the Institute say that Furse’s involvement varied over the years depending on her health, but that her support of its mission never wavered.
“In fact, I talked to her just a few weeks ago about an upcoming board meeting and her desire to help us with the Institute,” Birol Yesilada, head of PSU’s Hatfield School of Government, told OPB.
Furse and Platt have run a vineyard in Washington County since the early 1980s. Furse was also involved in recent land-use issues, including farmland protection, and she briefly returned to politics in 2014, with an unsuccessful run for Washington County commissioner.
Platt said the family is still working on plans for a possible memorial, which they expect to occur this summer.