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.
Lynn “Nay” Valbuena. I am chairwoman of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians. My nickname is based on the shortened version of my full name—Lynn Rae.
Where is the San Manuel Band located?
The reservation is located near the cities of San Bernardino and Highland in Southern California, approximately 70 miles east of Los Angeles along Interstate 10.
Where was your community originally from?
The aboriginal lands of the Serrano people occupy a vast region of Southern California extending from what is now Los Angeles to virtually all of present-day San Bernardino County. Our clan of the Serrano, the Yuhaviatam, originates around the mountain lakes of the San Bernardino Mountains.
What is a significant point in history from your people that you would like to share?
In 1866, the Yuhaviatam were victimized by a series militia raids that drove our people from the mountains, effectively ending a traditional, migratory way of life that had endured for generations. Through the courageous actions of our clan leader, Santos Manuel or Paakuma’ Tawinat, our people survived this period, eventually settling on land that became the Santos Manuel Indian Reservation, named in his honor.
How is your tribal government set up?
The San Manuel Indian Reservation, like other tribal lands in the United States, is a sovereign territory with our own system of government. Tribal government consists of two governing bodies: a General Council comprised of adult members 21 years and older, and a seven-member Business Committee elected by the General Council. The Business Committee has a chairman, vice-chairman, secretary, treasurer, and three at-large members. As elected officials, the Business Committee is responsible for enforcing by-laws, establishing policies, protecting business interests, and preserving the sovereignty of the tribe.
Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?
Elders have a special place as community and cultural leaders for the tribe. They are recognized and often lead the beginning of events and observances. The entry to the General Council chambers is lined with pictures of certain elders of the tribe in recognition of their importance to our community.
How often are elected leaders chosen?
The tribe elects members of its Business Committee every two years.
How often do the members meet?
The Business Committee meets on a regular weekly schedule, while the General Council holds a regular monthly meeting. We also accommodate Special General Council meetings as needed.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead?
I have a passion to serve San Manuel and the broader Native community; it’s what I do to help people in any way that I can. This began at a young age with my service as the tribe’s housing commission and broadened to a public service career as secretary and then assistant executive director of what was then the San Bernardino Indian Center.
Understanding the basic needs on the San Manuel reservation enabled me to apply myself through the Indian Center to advocate for a better quality of life for the broader Native community. I have been able to draw upon my public affairs and communications skills, which I developed over a 16-year career with the San Bernardino Police Department, in elected positions as chairwoman, vice chairwoman, and as a member of the Business Committee. The ability to clearly and confidently communicate to others is something that I have carried into tribal service from my professional experience.
What responsibilities do you have as chairwoman?
In addition to leading the daily agenda of the seven-member Business Committee, I seek to design and direct a progressive agenda of social, economic, and governance development for the tribal government and tribal community. Additionally, the chairwoman serves as the spokesperson for the tribe, a position for which I have prepared through my years working for the city of San Bernardino.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
My mother and grandmother inspired me to stand up and let my voice be heard. Both women were not afraid to speak up for what they thought was right, and I have been inspired by their example.
Are you a descendant of a historical leader? If so, who?
I am the great-great-granddaughter of Santos Manuel, the namesake of the tribe—a revered ancestor who bridged both traditional and contemporary leadership of the Yuhaviatam Clan of Serrano Indians.
Approximately how many members are in the San Manuel Band?
There are a little more than 200 members in the tribe, most of whom are under 21 years of age. The population of the reservation numbered less than 30 at the turn of the 20th century and has grown steadily over the last century.
Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?
There are only a handful of Serrano speakers remaining. Our tribe has made it a critical mission to revive and maintain the language through multiple programs and efforts with our Serrano Language Revitalization Program. Our focus is on our youth who will carry on our language and traditions and who will grow as Serrano speakers and carriers of culture.
What economic enterprises does your band own?
The principal economic enterprise is the tribe’s gaming operation, San Manuel Indian Bingo & Casino. However, realizing that a robust economy is a diverse one, we have embarked on several business ventures, including three hotels, one of which involves tribal partners. In addition, the tribe has pursued real estate development opportunities in our region, chief among which has been the development of San Manuel Village—mixed-use retail and commercial space near our reservation.
What annual events does your band sponsor?
San Manuel is committed to public education and has engaged wonderful partners in education at various levels to teach the community about the culture, history,and governance not only of San Manuel but more broadly of Native American nations in the United States. Among these events is a week of elementary-school programming held in conjunction with the State of California’s Native American Day holiday. Hundreds of fourth graders from the local city schools spend a day learning California Native American culture and history from members of local tribes. Additionally, the tribe hosts an annual Pow Wow which is held the second weekend in October at California State University, San Bernardino.
What attractions are available for visitors on your land?
San Manuel Indian Bingo & Casino is the closest gaming destination to the Los Angeles area, located about 70 miles from downtown. We regularly host concerts by world-renowned entertainers and present other major events that bring guests to our land.
How does your nation deal with the United States as a sovereign nation?
Our future depends on our ability to maintain our foundation of sovereignty by interacting with other sovereigns at the highest possible levels. We gauge our effectiveness on achieving solid government-to-government relationships with federal and state governments. Additionally, we include significant outreach and education to local governments as a part of our regional efforts.
Our intergovernmental relationships are based not only on law and legal obligations, but on trust, common purpose, and most importantly mutual respect. To this end we are actively involved at all levels of government from local city councils to the U.S. Congress. A hallmark of this involvement is education, a process that is continual and takes into account the general unfamiliarity of Americans about Native American sovereignty. In summary, we do everything from walking the halls of Congress to conducting classes for elementary-school students to offer communities knowledge about our shared history and the inherent sovereignty of Native nations.
What message would you like to share with the youth of your band?
My grandmother and mother would always tell me, “Never forget who you are and where you from.” This has always grounded me because it connects me to all those tribal members who came before. The fundamental ties of San Manuel tribal members to our aboriginal lands and shared history are the start to the pattern from we weave our lives as Native people. I would ask our youth to embrace this teaching because it is the life and spirit of who we are as a Native community.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
As I am reaching the end of my term on the Board of Trustees of the National Museum of the American Indian, with two years as board secretary, it has been an honor to serve the museum. I have been able to forge relationships with many tribal leaders and communities, connecting San Manuel and myself to indigenous people around the world.
Thank you for your work for the msueum and for taking the time to give us this interview.
Photographs courtesy of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians. Used with permission.
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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.