State Sen. Affie Burnside Ellis, from Cheyenne, was born and raised in Jackson. She graduated from Jackson Hole High School in 1996. She is the first Native American and member of the Navajo Nation to serve in the Wyoming Senate.
Affie’s parents, Jim and Lenora Burnside, grew up on the Navajo Reservation, the largest land-based tribe located in the Four Corners area. They went to the Intermountain Indian School in Brigham City, Utah, during the early 1950s. It was a boarding school that operated from 1950 to 1984. Its purpose was to assimilate Navajo kids into the dominant non-Indian society by teaching them trades. Affie’s dad, whose father was a renowned Navajo silversmith, learned to weld, and her mom studied general home economics.
The Burnsides married in Brigham City and moved to Jackson, where Jim found work as a welder in 1956. He eventually started his own shop, Jim’s Welding, where he still works today alongside his son, Jimmy, who also does small engine repair work. Jimmy’s wife, Theresa, owns Copy Works. Affie also has two sisters, Jovern, who works at St. John’s Health in food services and Phyllis Getz, who lives in Cheyenne with her husband, Dave. Affie’s mom died in 2019. She lived a life surrounded by mountains, sagebrush and her family.
Affie loved growing up in Jackson Hole. There was a 20-year age gap between Affie and her siblings, so her niece, Jennifer, and nephew, Jason, were more like a sister and a brother. The family had a wood-burning stove that her dad built, and her mom would cook beans and roasts on it. Affie misses being surrounded by big snow and the warmth that could come from that stove in their little house and her mom’s beautiful rustic meals.
As she got older, Affie thought of all the time the family spent working. Her mom worked at Quality Cleaners, where she took tremendous pride in ironing shirts, and cleaned motel rooms on the weekends. Affie and sisters would help her, cleaning rooms all over town. Looking back, Affie says it is remarkable how her mom kept them all together and made family such a priority. She says Jackson is a terrific place but has changed. She misses a place and time that no long exist.
During her junior year in high school Affie completed an internship with the Wyoming Legislature through a program established by the League of Women Voters. She worked for state Sen. Grant Larson when he was first elected, and she returned the following year to work as a page in the Wyoming House of Representatives while Clarene Law served. Affie says Clarene was tremendously helpful in getting her into that program, and she has been lucky enough to have her as a friend and mentor throughout her career.
Affie worked as a legislative aid to U.S. Sen. Craig Thomas, a Wyoming Republican, which she says was one of the best experiences of her life. After graduating from the University of Wyoming, she was eager to leave the state and experience life in a bigger city. When she worked for Sen. Thomas all they talked about was Wyoming, so there was never a chance to forget her home state. The more she learned, the more she knew she wanted it to be her forever home. She married her college sweetheart, Dennis, who is from Casper, and they both knew they wanted to raise their family in Wyoming.
Affie said Craig Thomas was a cowboy and a gentleman. You didn’t need an Ivy League education or have a prestigious family name to get to work for him.
It wasn’t until Affie was a student at the University of Wyoming that she knew that she wanted to pursue a career in law. Specifically, she was minoring in American Indian studies and took an undergraduate course on federal Indian Law. She learned that being indigenous wasn’t just about having a different culture or language. It also carries unique rights as a citizen of a sovereign nation.
Craig Thomas served on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, so she had the opportunity to do policy work on American Indian issues. She has worked in this space, either professionally or as a volunteer, throughout her career, which included earning her law degree from the University of Colorado, which has a strong federal Indian law program.
This work continued in Affie’s current role as a state senator, particularly in crafting legislation to begin combating the missing and murdered Indigenous person epidemic that for far too long has been ignored. The Wyoming Legislature has a Select Committee on Tribal Relations that she co-chairs. When Affie reflects on her initial assumptions of what it meant to be a lawyer compared with what it has been like for her, she is so thankful to have found a career that she’s passionate about and that she humbly believes is helping to make a positive change.
I asked Affie to describe herself using just one word. She chose “hozho,” which is a Navajo word for trying to live a beautiful life that’s in balance and harmony.