Meet Native America: Amber C. Toppah, Chairman of the Kiowa Business Committee, Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma
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.
Amber C. Toppah, Kiowa Business Committee chairman, Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma.
Can you give us your Native name, its English translation and/or nickname?
My Kiowa name is Ay-Keen-Geh-Ah-Lay, meaning Charging after the Enemy. It was given to me by my grandfather Frank Kaubin and grandmother Georgia Duppoint in 1994. I am a great-great-great granddaughter of Chief Satanta (White Bear), and Ay-Keen-Geh-Ah-Lay was the name of his eldest daughter.
What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?
The duties of the chairman of the Kiowa Business Committee are to preside over all business meetings of the committee and the Kiowa Indian Council, our governing body. The chairman has general supervision over the affairs of the business committee, involving federal government programs, tribal enterprises, state entities, and prospective business opportunities. The chairman also serves the tribe as an ambassador for business and public relations.
I have made my goal as chairman to bring businesses and opportunities to the table, possible projects for the Kiowa Tribe, but also for neighboring tribes
—in every way possible helping Indian Country achieve success.
How did your life experience prepare you to help lead your nation?
I never knew as I was growing up, being raised by my grandma and grandpa, that I was being groomed to have a role in leadership in the government sector. My grandma Rita Quoetone Gaddy—a full-blooded, Kiowa woman, fluent in our language—was also my high school government teacher, and she involved me in Voice of Democracy, in the Washington, D.C., Close Up Program, and in paging for the Oklahoma House of Representatives. She also occasionally quizzed me at the dinner table to recite the Preamble to the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, or the Gettysburg Address. I even agreed to eat liver for dinner (my least favorite food) in a deal so that me World History class wouldn’t have homework. She was really tough on me, and I didn’t get special privileges as everyone thought.
She taught me the importance of history and of being a patriotic American. She also taught me my heritage as a proud Kiowa woman to walk in two worlds and be successful in both. When I graduated from high school, I thought I knew where I was going. I said I would never go back to Meers, Oklahoma, never work for a tribe, and never be in politics. Today I live in Meers, I’ve worked for the Kiowa Casino, and I am in tribal politics. I’ve learned never to say never.
I've also learned that I tend to gravitate to the most challenging areas and beyond my comfort zone in my career. Tell me I can’t accomplish something and I will try to prove you wrong—perfect for a young female leader in today’s society.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
Each member of my immediate family has been a mentor, nuturing spiritual roots; teaching me responsibility, respect, honesty, perseverance, and courage; giving me life skills and the independence to succeed whatever my goal may be. My list of mentors includes strong Native women who are mothers, former members of the military, historians, educators, businesswomen. They stand out in that each of them has paved the way for other women, including myself, to break the mold of what is the norm and also to be humble enough to know that it’s an honor.
Where is the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma located?
Kiowa tribal headquarters are located in Carnegie, Oklahoma. The majority of our tribal enrollment is in Oklahoma, but we are also spread throughout the United States and even internationally. Our land base is in the southwest region of Oklahoma—the Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache Lands and family-allotted land.
Where was your nation originally from?
The Kiowas were originally from the Yellowstone National Park area. Our history says that the tribe broke in two, with some members remaining there and others traveling south to Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. Our sister tribe is the Crow Tribe of Montana.
Is there a functional, traditional entity of Kiowa leadership in addition to your modern government system?
No, we have kept government separated from our traditional ways, societies, organizations, and religious practices. We remember where we come from with each group; some practice and participate in both government and traditional life, but we keep it separate.
What is a significant point in history from your nation that you would like to share?
March 13, 1970—the approval of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma Constitution and the Bylaws of the Kiowa Indian Tribe. The authors of our constitution had a magnificent insight into the business to be conducted by the governing body—the Kiowa Indian Council—and the business committee, and the prospective powers of each. Now in 2013 we can use this guidebook to look back and see where those intelligent leaders have brought us to today and where we can grow for the future of Kiowa children and in the best interest of the tribe. We have to come together as a tribe, as Native people, and as a sovereign nation to work for the progress and favor of our people.
Approximately how many members are in your nation?
The Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma has close to 12,500 members.
What are the criteria to become a member?
A person must complete the application of enrollment regardless of their residence and must possess at least one-fourth degree—one quarter—Kiowa Indian blood.
Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?
Yes, the Kiowa language is spoken in several families and homes. Like any tribe, we know the importance of our language. We have some independent language programs in the state, and some schools have even incorporated Kiowa into their language programs. These programs share the challenge that the Kiowa language is a difficult dialect, and you see several different teaching methods—and sometimes different spellings—in working with Kiowa language students. Language is of high importance to preserving and retaining any culture, so we must teach our children at a younger age through programs within our communities.
What economic enterprises does your nation own?
We have a few tribal enterprises. Our main source of revenue is our oil and gas. We also have the Kiowa Casino in Devol and the Kiowa Casino Verden, and we recently purchased a Kiowa Tribe funeral home, which is being renovated to be in full function in the near future. We are always looking to generate new business revenues for the tribe, to help supplement some of our programs and also give service to our tribal members.
What annual events does your nation sponsor?
Our annual events consist of our tribal programs and activities, sometimes in conjunction with sponsors. These include health fairs, holiday events, hand games, and our Fourth of July celebrations with the Kiowa Gourd Clan, Kiowa Tia-Piah Society, and Oklahoma Tia-Piah. The yearly event we are proudest of is our annual Kiowa Black Leggings Warrior (Ton-Kon-Gah) Ceremony, held at the Indian City USA Cultural Center in Anadarko, Oklahoma. Generations ago and still today we honor our veterans and the warriors coming home from war.
What attractions are available for visitors on your land?
The Kiowa Tribe has several attractions for visitors near our headquarters and we share attractions locally with tribes neighboring the Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache Lands. The seven tribes of the southern plains of Oklahoma share a very rich culture that attracts everyone. We also have Fort Sill nearby and the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, where wildlife originally found throughout this area and Mountain Scott are attractions.
How is your government set up?
The top governing body of the Kiowa Tribe is the Kiowa Indian Council, composed of all members of the tribe eighteen years of age or older. The elected Kiowa Business Committee is an eight-member board serving two year terms. There are subordinate boards that work in conjunction with the council and the business committee according to the tribe's constitution, ordinances, and charters.
How often are elected leaders chosen?
The term of office for the Kiowa Business Committee is two years. We conduct our issue and budget elections in November and our candidate elections in June.
How often does the tribal business committee meet?
The Kiowa Business Committee meets on a monthly basis; sometimes there are also special meetings. The Kiowa Indian Council meets in April for a general session and in October to submit issues to go on the ballot in November.
The Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma is one of 39 federally recognized tribes in Oklahoma, making us extremely unique as a state. Recently leaders have come together to establish the United Indian Nations of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas to promote unity, better community relations, and stronger communications with each other, and to pursue the advocacy of laws and policies to benefit Indian nations and Indigenous peoples.
The Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma is also a member of the National Congress of American Indians, National Indian Gaming Association, and several other strong organizations to support Kiowa tribal members' voices being heard on policy and other initiatives on a local, state, and national level. Through hard work and dedication, these government-to-government relations have put Natives on the public sector's agenda to contribute to the discussion of issues and the creation and carrying out of executive orders.
What message would you like to share with the youth of your nation?
To the youth, you are the future. Please remember that success comes from hard work, independence, courage, and a positive attitude. So have goals, think big, believe in yourself, and have a great work ethic.
Be mindful of your spirit, your body, your mental health, your sense of humor, and most importantly your education. No one can take those away from you.
Kiowa youth, we are a proud tribe. Our people before us cleared the path. But they also wanted us to make our own paths along the way, because we are a strong people with new ideas, a sense of purpose, and a progressive style. So pursue your dreams, and do great things.
Photographs courtesy of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma. Used with permission.
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 images used with permission.