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
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.
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?
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.
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.