Meet Native America: Vincent Armenta, Tribal Chairman of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians

In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native people today. —Dennis Zotigh 

Chairman Vincent Armenta
Chairman Vincent Armenta, Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians. Photo © Smallz + Raskind, courtesy of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians.

Please introduce yourself with your name and title.

Vincent Armenta, tribal chairman of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians

Where is your tribal community located?

The Santa Ynez Reservation is located in Santa Ynez, California, in Santa Barbara County. 

Where were your people originally from?

The Chumash once numbered in the tens of thousands in villages spread over 7,000 square miles from Malibu to Paso Robles. The tribe also inhabited inland to the western edge of the San Joaquin Valley.

Is there a significant point in your tribe's history that you would like to share?

The federal government created Indian reservations even before many western states were established. To remedy the poverty of the Indians in California who were previously part of the Spanish missions, Congress passed the Mission Indian Relief Act of 1891. The act established a federal commission to research the creation of tribal reservations for Mission Indians, one group of whom was the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Mission Indians. The Santa Ynez Reservation was established and officially recognized by the federal government in 1901. Today, the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians remains the only federally recognized Chumash tribe in the nation.

Although the tribe was relegated to 99 acres in a flood plain, our people have made the most of it. Among the most significant moments in our history was securing running water on the reservation in 1969. Not long after, in the 1970s, the Tribal Health Clinic was opened in a small trailer. The opening of our casino in 1994 is another significant moment in our history. It set our tribe on the long-term path to economic self-sufficiency and independence. Today, our Chumash Casino Resort is one of the premier gaming destinations in the region. More importantly, our economic development initiatives have brought vital services to our tribe, from health care and education to cultural and environmental programs. The prosperous Chumash tribal economy has also been a boon to the local economy. Our business enterprises and government departments employ more than 1,700 people. 

Our tribe has faced its share of challenges in our quest to better the lives of our tribal members and future generations, but perhaps among the most challenging goals have been our efforts to reclaim our ancestral land. That’s why it was one of the most significant moments in our history when we placed 6.9 acres into federal trust in July 2014. This victory followed nine years of appeals and remands. We are now able to build our long-awaited Chumash museum and cultural center. 

How is your tribal government set up?

Our government leadership is made up of four elected members and an elected tribal chairman. This Business Committee oversees the legal and business affairs of the tribe and makes recommendations for the overall good of the tribe. No major decisions are made for the tribe without a vote by the tribal membership.

Santa Ynez Chumash Business Committee 2015
Chairman Vincent Armenta and members of the Santa Ynez Chumash Business Committee.
From left to right: Mike Lopez, Maxine Littlejohn, Chairman Armenta, Secretary/Treasurer Gary Pace, and Vice Chair Kenneth Kahn. Photo courtesy of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians. 

Is there any other functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system? 

Chumash elders have long been honored and respected for their knowledge and experience. Traditionally, they have been sought out for advice and guidance. That is still very true today. They have a strong voice in our tribe.

How often are elected leaders chosen? 

Tribal members hold elections every two years.

How often does your government meet?

General Council meetings are held monthly. The Business Committee meets once a week.

What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?

One of my top priorities as tribal chairman is to continue to build a solid and diverse economic foundation for our tribal members and future generations. Gaming is not the single answer to the economic future of the tribe. That’s why we’re trying to do so much more.

Moreover, while building a solid economic foundation for our tribe is a major priority, so is preserving our culture and reclaiming our ancestral land.  

How did your life experience prepare you to lead your tribe?

I believe having had my own businesses at a young age was critical in preparing me for where I am today. I have had my share of successes and failures in life, but I strongly believe that any experience, even bad experiences, will make you a better leader. 

Who inspired you as a mentor? 

There was not one person who served as a mentor for me. I have had a collection of people throughout my life who have made a positive impact on me.

Are you a descendant of a historical leader? 


Approximately how many members are in your tribe?

There are currently 134 enrolled members.

What are the criteria to become a member?

Determining membership is the essence of tribal sovereignty and is reviewed by an enrollment committee subject to the review of the elected Business Committee and a General Council of eligible voters. 

Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?

In 2003, we began the process of researching what it would take to revitalize Samala, our native language. While we certainly live and practice our culture every day and incorporate our ancestors into our lives, what we didn’t have was our language. Today, we have a language program that encompasses language apprentices, as well as classes for adults and children at our Education Center, one of 27 American Indian Education Centers in California. We also have a 600-page Samala–English dictionary.

Our tribe continued its efforts in reclaiming not only its own native language but the languages of other California Indian tribes. We were one of the leading supporters of Assembly Bill 544, the American Indian languages credentialing bill. The passage of AB 544 in 2009 led to the implementation of guidelines and criteria for language fluency and other qualifications for awarding an American Indian languages teaching credential. Samala is now taught in one of our local schools, and we currently have five credentialed Samala speakers and teachers. 

What economic enterprises does your tribe own?

The tribe owns the Chumash Casino Resort in Santa Ynez; Hotel Corque, the Hadsten House Inn, and the restaurant Root 246 in Solvang; and two services stations in Santa Ynez.

What annual events does the tribe sponsor?

One of the biggest events the tribe hosts is the annual Inter-Tribal Pow-Wow. The pow-wow brings Native American dancers and drummers from across the United States and Canada. The 50th Inter-Tribal Pow-Wow will be held October 3 and 4 of this year. In addition to the pow-wow, we sponsor the annual Chumash Cultural Days to celebrate traditional singing and dancing along with storytelling and crafts.

What other attractions are available for visitors on your land?

The Chumash Casino Resort is one of the premier gaming destinations on California’s Central Coast. In October we kicked off our casino and hotel expansion projects—the largest renovation since we opened our resort in 2004. The hotel and casino will remain open during construction, and we will continue to offer our guests world-class gaming and A-list entertainment.

How does your tribe deal with the United States as a sovereign nation?

The Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians maintains a government-to-government relationship with the United States based on the tribe’s historic sovereignty, which has been embodied in multiple Executive Orders.

What message would you like to share with the youth of your community?

I would like to encourage our youth to keep their Chumash culture and traditions alive. Get involved and learn all you can about your heritage. I also urge our youth to take advantage of the tribe's education programs and resources. Education opens many doors. 

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

The tribe owns one of the most successful casinos in California; it has rich cultural, educational, and environmental programs and a thriving health clinic; and we’re now realizing our dream of building a Chumash museum and cultural center.  

None of this could have been possible without the guidance and support of a unified tribal membership. I am very grateful to have the opportunity to serve our tribe and be a part of one of the most important periods in our tribe’s history.

Thank you.

Thank you.

To read other interviews in this series, click on the banner below.
From left to right: 
Representative Ponka-We Victors (Tohono O’odham/Southern Ponca) taking the oath of office in the Kansas House of Representatives; photo courtesy of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab. Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache) at the Sundance Film Festival; photo courtesy of WireImage. Sergeant Debra Mooney (Choctaw) at the powwow in Al Taqaddum Air Force Base, Iraq, 2004; photo courtesy of Sgt. Debra Mooney. Councilman Jonathan Perry (Wampanoag) in traditional clothing; photo courtesy of Jonathan Perry. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) at Blackhorse et al. v. Pro Football, Inc., press conference, U.S. Patent and Trade Office, February 7, 2013; photo courtesy of Mary Phillips. All photos used with permission. 

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April 30, 2015

This Day in the Maya Calendar: May 2015

Cholq'ij, the Maya sacred ceremonial calendar of 260 days—a cycle of 20 Day deities and 13 numbers—is the basis of the Maya spirituality that survives to this time, practiced daily among millions of Maya people, in thousands of communities. The interpretation of the days can vary from one Maya people to another. The interpretations given here are based on sustained conversations and participation over three decades with Maya Q'eqchi calendar priest Roderico Teni and daykeeping families in the area of Cobán, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala, by Jose Barreiro (Taíno), head of NMAI’s Office of Latin America, and his wife, Katsi Cook (Mohawk). Glyphs representing the Day lords appear throughout Maya Country; these were painted by Esteban Pop Caal (Q'eqchi Maya) of Cobán.

For more background to this series, please see Jose's introduction, "Living in the Practice." For further insight into the role of the Day lords in everyday life, please see the Maya Journal. For the complete year so far, please see the Maya calendar archive.

Illustrations: Esteban Pop Caal (Q'eqchi Maya), calendar glyphs. Cobán, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala; 2003. Paint on wood. Purchased from the artist. 26/2685. Photos by Ernest Amoroso, NMAI 

10 Kat  |  Monday, May 4, 2015


Corresponding with this day in the Gregorian calendar is 10 Kat. Kat is Spider, also Web and Fire; 10 is a high balance. On Kat the unity of the people is paramount, and knowledge is deepened. Kat is the network of the sacred heart, the family hearth. Today is a good day to pray for your family fireplace, the spirit of the fire that belongs in the home, the one that calls other spirits to ceremony and speaks for them. Kat is the net that hauls  in the fish and the net that holds the ears of corn, a day that can bring the fruition of things and the untangling of complications. This is a good day to help free prisoners from captivity, to request vigor and power for the weak. —Jose Barreiro 

9 Aqbal  |  Sunday, May 3, 2015

262685_AqbalCorresponding with this day in the Gregorian calendar is 9 Aqbal. Aqbal is the Dawn, also Bat; 9 is a triple rotor. Aqbal is clarity, the separation of darkness and light as the Sun disperses the fog and obscurity of night. This is a good day to ask for a peaceful and happy daybreak, a day to find hidden and lost things, a day to wash away tears of sadness. On Aqbal, the sacred fire is recognized and appreciated. Aqbal is a good day to clean the ashes (renew the heart) of a fireplace and to present a new baby to el Mundo. A potential bride or groom can be revealed on this day. Harvesting of corn can begin on this day. People born on Aqbal relate in the present and are a special link between past and future. They are early risers, good workers, tranquil and kind, strong before an enemy, good researchers and finders of hidden things, often called "the candle of the home." —J. B. 

8 Iq  |  Saturday, May 2, 2015

262685_IqCorresponding with this day in the Gregorian calendar is 8 Iq. Iq is Wind, also Moon; 8 is a double balance. Wind is powerful, violent, driven of itself, identity. A day of strong emotion, Iq is also a healing day. Good wind is nutritional for human minds; it is the mystic breath and vital inspiration of nature. On Iq, a breeze or wind that splits against your face is a blessing and a cleansing to purge your head and body of illness. Respiratory ills are prayed over on this day. This is a good day to appreciate all of Creation. The Day lord Iq is one of the four Yearbearers, or mams, a creator who helped finish the world and put breath (essence) in human beings. People born on Iq are inclined toward spiritual ways and can impulsively tap into cosmic sources. —J. B. 

7 Imox  |  Friday, May 1, 2015

262685_ImoxCorresponding with this day in the Gregorian calendar is 7 Imox. Imox is Lizard; 7 is a pivotal number. Imox is the very force of gravity and a good day to pray for creativity and for rain. Imox can open el Mundo to receive cosmic messages. Known as a "crazy" day, Imox requires much concentration and control. A day of high male intelligence, also impatience and agitation, Imox can be difficult. Grounded on its left side, left arm, this day is easily unbalanced and in need of clasping by left and right hands. Imox can be good if held in the balance of the Heart of Sky and Heart of Earth; unattended, Imox can manifest imbalance, mental nervousness, and even death. People born on Imox are open and sincere, but indecisive—in need of ceremony to set the positive to override the negative. —J. B. 

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April 24, 2015

The Artist Leadership Program and the Institute for American Indian Arts, 2015

2015 IAIA ALP grantees Tania Larsson and Lee Palma at the Cultural Resources Center
Tania Larsson (left) and Lee Palma at the museum's Cultural Resources Center.

The Artist Leadership Program (ALP) of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) seeks to inspire new generations of artists; to mentor young people through pride in learning about their cultural and artistic heritage; and to reflect the fact that indigenous arts hold value and knowledge, and offer communities a means for healing and new ways to exchange cultural information. On research visits to Washington, D.C., ALP artists have access to more than 800,000 objects, photographs, and archival documents in the museum’s collections at the Cultural Resource Center, as well as to exhibitions at the museum on the National Mall. 

The museum and the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe together have developed a program within the ALP for IAIA students. Selection for the program is coordinated with the IAIA and is based on students’ proposed research, public art projects, academic presentations, digital portfolios, resumes, artist statements, and letters of support from IAIA faculty. Participating students receive credit for independent study. 

Here, 2015 ALP–IAIA grantees Lee Palma (Comanche) and Tania Larsson (Gwich’in) describe their experience in Washington. In the next phase of the program, Lee and Tania will create new works of art for public display at IAIA, based on their research projects at the NMAI. 


My name is Lee Palma. I am Comanche and am currently a junior at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, studying Studio Arts with a focus in Jewelry and Metals. I also work within the Digital Arts department as a work-study student.

Lee Palma
Lee Palma doing research in the NMAI Photo Archives.

My primary purpose in coming to the NMAI was to explore my heritage. I particularly wanted to see if the museum's physical collections and archives contained any clues to some mysteries within my family about where we come from and who we were before we were Comanche. My secondary purpose was to view jewelry and other metalwork objects from both my tribe and the surrounding tribes in the Southwest, having previously noticed a correlation between those objects’ designs. 

My experience was a lot different than I had anticipated. I didn’t expect the collections to feel so alive, and I was really happy to find out how much respect and love the NMAI staff has for all of the objects. It was an unexpectedly emotional process—both looking at the objects and playing history detective by researching their history and possible relation to each other with NMAI Collections Specialist Cali Martin. I also discussed my family history and addressed the lack of visibility and acceptance of mixed-race Natives with Gabrielle Tayac, a historian on the museum's staff. I came through this experience feeling settled in some ways and unsettled in others, but completely prepared to deal with processing those emotions. I have so many mysteries to solve about my family history now as a result, but my entire experience with the NMAI solidified my security in my identity, which I feel will make this next journey easier to embark on.

Participating in the NMAI Artist Leadership Program gives you a better sense of yourself as an artist and your relationship to your culture, but also where you stand within your community and culture. By looking through the collections and objects from your culture, you gain a more complete understanding of where you come from and can take elements from the past to bring with you to share with the present. This experience opens up a lot of unexpected doors and many unanticipated reactions, but it is absolutely worthwhile.
                                                                                                                        —Lee Palma


My name is Tania Larsson. I am Gwich’in and Swedish and I live in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada. I am a junior at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I am pursuing a Bachelors of Fine Arts with a focus in Jewelry and Digital Arts.

My purpose in coming to the NMAI was to laser scan Gwich’in traditional tools used to tan hides. These scans are converted to models in software that allows me make 3D prints I can use as a reference when I make hide-tanning tools. My goal is to go back home to the Gwich’in region and share with my community the experience and knowledge I earned.

Tania Larsson
Tania Larsson studying materials and techniques used to make objects in the museum's collections.

Seeing the collection made me realize the big cultural loss we have experienced in the Gwich’in tribe, which brought me to tears on several occasions. However, seeing how well our clothing and artifacts are being preserved at NMAI gave me hope that we can regain some of the culture we have lost due to colonization and the westernization. The helping staff made this experience so much more; they made me feel welcomed and accommodated all my needs.

I believe my life has been altered from this experience. I have enough reference material for a lifetime of work in various mediums, such as traditional arts, drawing, painting, printmaking, digital arts, and metalwork. I received many tools, tips, and contacts from the staff to help me with my research. I am looking forward to working with some of the contacts I received to learn traditional quillwork and reintroduce this aesthetic in my work.

The greatest impact of this research will be on the authenticity of my work. I no longer have to question if my work is Gwich’in or not, because I now have the cultural confidence to back up my work. This was only possible by seeing firsthand what my Gwich’in tribe was all about before our westernization.

Participating in the NMAI artist leadership program has really enriched my knowledge of my own culture. For many years I wondered what our traditional clothing was, but had never seen it in real life. I am looking forward to bringing that knowledge back to my community. With the help of my experience at NMAI and the previous research work others have done on this clothing, I believe we can bring some lost traditions back to life. That is why working with traditional tools is so important. When Gwich’in people have their own tools replicated from the tools of our ancestors, we will be able to work on our hides and then use those hides to make our clothing again. By filling in the gaps in a weakened cultural circle we will be able to strengthen our cultural knowledge and work.
                                                                                                            —Tania Larsson


To learn about Artist Leadership Program opportunities for mid-career artists and arts organizations, including detailed information on how to apply, see the Artist Leadership Program page on the museum’s website. Please note that this year's deadline for applications is Monday, May 4, 2015. 

The program Lee and Tania have described is a prototype currently limited to applicants from the Institute of American Indian Arts.
—Keevin Lewis 

Keevin Lewis (Navajo) is coordinator of the National Museum of the American Indian's Artist Leadership Program. 

All photos are by Keevin Lewis, NMAI.

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April 22, 2015

Every day is Earth Day

NMAI from woodland landscape
The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. Foreground, lower left: George Rivera (Pojoaque Pueblo), Buffalo Dancer II (detail). Cast bronze, 2nd of an edition of 4. Gift of the Pueblo of Pojoaque, George Rivera, and Glenn Green Galleries. NMAI 26/7920. For the Pueblo Indians of the Southwest, the Buffalo Dance is an enduring celebration, a prayer for the well-being of all.

The National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., stands out for its evocation of monumental sandstone cliffs and tumbling streams. The grounds that surround the building are a living collection of indigenous plants, and details throughout the museum connect indoor spaces to the natural world. The museum's commitment to the environment, however, goes beyond the building's striking and thoughtful design to engage staff members at all levels—from senior management to cultural interpreters to facilities specialists and kitchen crew.

In 2011, the National Museum of the American Indian became the first Smithsonian museum to achieve LEED status. LEED—Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design—is the building rating and certification system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) to promote sustainability in building design, construction, operation, and maintenance. LEED measures nine key areas:

  • Sustainable sites
  • Water efficiency
  • Energy and atmosphere
  • Materials and resources
  • Indoor environmental quality
  • Location and linkages
  • Awareness and education
  • Innovation in design
  • Regional priority

The museum has an active sustainability program and a sustainability committee of staff from various units and departments to monitor museum activities, brainstorm ideas to address challenges, and take follow-up actions. To give just one example, the staff works to improve recycling throughout the museum. New signage in English and Spanish helps visitors and staff be more aware of separating recyclables and compostables into the correct bins. The museum recycles more than 60 percent of total waste and this year redirected 35 tons of material from disposal in landfills to reuse via recycling and composting.

In addition to LEED certification, the museum received a 3-star rating from the Green Restaurant Association (GRA) for the award-winning Mitsitam Cafe. The GRA certifies restaurants' environmental friendliness, including waste reduction and recycling, water efficiency, sustainable furnishings and building materials, sustainable foods, energy consumption, disposables, and chemical and pollution reduction efforts. 

The museum seeks to reflect Native values in all its work. One teaching that comes to mind today is to think in terms of seven generations: Our ancestors gave us the world to keep in trust for our children and grandchildren. Happy Earth Day, everyone!

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April 17, 2015

Behind the Scenes of "Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America's Past Revealed"—Guayabo and Las Mercedes

Tomorrow, April 18, Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed opens at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. The exhibition is making its New York debut after first appearing at the museum in Washington, D.C. In anticipation, the museum is releasing four behind-the-scenes videos about research sites that are the sources of many of the objects in the exhibition. This third video, led by Ricardo Vázquez Leiva, an archaeologist who works at the National Museum of Costa Rica, takes a look at two archaeological sites in what is now Costa Rica—Guayabo and Las Mercedes.

Guayabo and Las Mercedes are important for excavation because the scale of the architecture found there suggests that they represent societies where power was highly centralized. In southern Central America, they stand as uniquely monumental examples.

Many of the objects unearthed in this area were excavated in the early 20th century by teams who worked for the American businessman Minor Cooper Keith and his wife, Cristina Castro Fernández, whose family was prominent in Costa Rica. The Keiths amassed a collection of nearly 16,000 objects during their time in Central America. In 1916, Minor Keith became a trustee of the Museum of the American Indian—Heye Foundation, later to become the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. 

Research excavations resumed in the region in 2005. Objects recovered from Guayabo and Las Mercedes continue to provide new insights into the lives and societies of the peoples who lived there.


For more details about the first peoples of Costa Rica, download the free exhibition catalogue. A short article on Minor Keith can be found on pages 72 and 73.

All four exhibition videos can be seen as a playlist here.

—Joshua Stevens

Joshua Stevens is the Public Affairs specialist at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York.


Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed is a collaboration of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Smithsonian Latino Center.


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April 13, 2015

Behind the Scenes of "Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America's Past Revealed"—Stone Spheres of Costa Rica

This Friday, April 18, Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed opens at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. The exhibition is making its New York debut after first appearing at the museum in Washington, D.C. In anticipation of the opening, the museum is releasing four behind-the-scenes videos about research sites that are the sources of many of the objects in the exhibition. This third video takes a look at three archaeological sites—El Silenció, Finca Seis, and Batambal—all of which contain stone spheres made by peoples of what is now Costa Rica before AD 1500.

The video features Francisco Corrales, a member of the Anthropology Department at the National Museum of Costa Rica. The three sites he invites us to experience are within the Greater Chiriquí region of Central America, an area that is further explored within Cerámica de los Ancestros.

The sites are unique from one another in terrain. El Silenció houses the largest stone sphere recorded thus far, but years of pasture burns in the grasslands area have taken a toll on the stone's outer layers. In the low-lying river plain of Finca Seis, flooding buried the spheres under many layers of sediment, preserving the only original alignment found to date. Batambal rests high in the mountains, a strategic position for views of surrounding hills and the valleys below.

The reasons for the stones’ creation remain a mystery. Corrales explains that while spheres apparently marked locations with special significance where important events would have taken place, some may have had astronomical purposes as well. Anthropologists and archaeologists continue to survey the areas, and junior members of their fields do much of the cataloguing work, providing a unique learning environment in which to build the expertise of a new generation of scholars.


For more details about the first peoples of Costa Rica, download the free exhibition catalogue

All four exhibition videos can be seen as a playlist here.

—Joshua Stevens

Joshua Stevens is the Public Affairs specialist at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York.

Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed is a collaboration of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Smithsonian Latino Center.

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