John Sirois, Chairman, Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation
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 peoples today. —Dennis Zotigh, NMAI
Please introduce yourself with your name and title.
Iswkwist say’ ay’. My name is John Sirois. My title is chairman of the Colville Business Council, informally called the tribal council.
Can you give us your Native name, its English translation and/or nickname?
My Indian name is say’ ay’, given to me by my maternal grandmother. say’ ay’ is one of those names that do not translate well into English. However, it describes my eyes and the vision that comes with my eyes.
First and foremost, walk a good road. Listen with a good heart, no matter if you agree or disagree. Participate in traditional customs and speak your language; it grounds you in the history and land of your people. I have to be able to be available to the membership as much as possible.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead your tribes?
My experience is my walk along this road that the Creator provides to every single person. I have been fortunate to have a stable and happy upbringing with great parents and an extended family that has been so supportive and taught me many valuable lessons. I was lucky to have a grandmother who encouraged my interest in our Native culture/ways. I grew up learning how to gather our traditional foods and the relationships we have with those “chiefs”—foods—that sacrifice their lives for us to live healthy lives.
I was fortunate to have a solid education in the Native way and in the higher education of America’s college system. Through my jobs in education, planning, energy, and other fields, I learned other valuable lessons that have helped me incorporate systems and program development into my vision and direction in life.
All of these experiences, recognized by my people, have prepared me to represent my people. I fully believe the trust and relationships that I have had with my community centered my desire to represent them in a respectful and honorable way. I feel lucky and honored by this role and take it very seriously with a good heart.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
Mel Tonasket, former chairman of Colville Business Council, and Bruce Duthu, former Dartmouth professor, are two of my many mentors. I count so many of my elders who shared information with me as my mentors, so I tried to list a few, but I have many more!
Are you a descendant of a historical leader? If so, who?
I am not a direct descendant of a historical leader, but within my family there have been many heredity chiefs.
Where are your tribes located?
We are located in North Central Washington State, bordered by the Columbia River and the Okanogan River.
Where were your tribes originally from?
The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation inhabit portions of our aboriginal homelands. Of the twelve tribes—Wenatchee (Wenatchi), Nespelem, Moses–Columbia, Methow, Colville, Okanogan, Palus, Sanpoil, Entiat, Chelan, Nez Perce, and Lakes (Arrow Lakes)—we inhabit the Okanogan, Nespelem, Lakes, and Sanpoil regions. Essentially, the Colville Reservation is in our indigenous homelands we have occupied from time immemorial. We are unique and very blessed in that way of having our own lands to live upon.
Is there a functional traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?
Yes, our traditional systems play a significant role within our leadership and the families that consult to choose the candidate they want to represent them.
What is a significant point in history from your tribes that you would like to share?
There are many significant points in our history—the formation of the reservation, the 1930s when the federal government built the hydroelectric dams that destroyed our salmon runs and our way of life, the termination era. However, the significant moment I would like to highlight was the first return of salmon to our homelands through the efforts of our Fish and Wildlife Department and the First Salmon Ceremony that our traditional people carried out in the spring of 2008.
Approximately how many members are in your tribes?
We are approximately 9,700 citizens strong on a 1.4 million acre reservation.
What are the criteria to become a member of your tribes?
A person must be a descendant from the 1937 roles of at least one-quarter blood, maintain tribal relations, and participate in tribal affairs.
Are your languages still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?
The languages (three major groups and dialects within) are still spoken on our homelands, but they are severely endangered! We are working hard to restore our languages through immersion and other teaching efforts.
What economic enterprises do your tribes own?
Forest products, gas stations, gaming facilities, and an electrical contracting firm.
What annual events do your tribes sponsor?
The Omak Stampede and Suicide Race, Nespelem Celebration Days, and many other powwows, rodeos, sports tournaments, and cultural gatherings.
What attractions are available for visitors on your land?
Outdoor recreation—fishing, camping, birding—and sporting and cultural events.
How is your tribal government set up?
A fourteen-member elected council representing four artificially determined districts in the Indian Reorganization Act form of government.
How often are elected leaders chosen?
Each year half of the fourteen are up for election, and it can make things difficult for a governing body for consistent membership and decisions.
How often does your tribal council meet?
The council meets four days a week in official committee structure, and then every two weeks we meet as the full Colville Business Council to pass recommendation sheets from each of the committees into a resolution.
How do your tribes deal with the U.S./Canada as a sovereign nation?
Because our homelands are along the US/Canada Border, we deal with both federal entities. We deal with them on a government-to-government basis and constantly remind them of their responsibilities to us as a sovereign nation and how we need to interact with each other.
What message would you like to share with the youth of your tribes?
To the younger generation and the generation yet to come, I would like to share this message: n?ilscutx, which means be courageous, keep going, take heart and have positive feelings. In life you will encounter many negative experiences from outside and inside your community; carry on with a good heart despite those setbacks. You are blessed with this life, an opportunity to walk this wonderful Earth that the Creator has provided; take care of it and it will take care of you. Finally, fill your heart with goodness and share that goodness with all living things you encounter.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Learn and speak your languages, because your homelands yearn to hear you address them in that manner. Your language tells you how to treat one another, how to survive from Mother Earth, and how to help one another. It will give you the purpose in your life of who you are, what you are, where you are, and why you are. Once you have that, you will know where you are going and how to work with people/everything to get there. Way’ ixi put .— That is all I have to say.
Series banner, 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 images used with permission.