Meet Native America: Lewis J. Johnson, Mekko Apoktv (Assistant Chief), Seminole Nation 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.
Lewis J. Johnson, mekko apoktv (assistant chief), Seminole Nation of Oklahoma.
Can you give us your Native name, its English translation and/or a nickname?
Fvs-Hvce-Cvpko. It means Long Tail Bird. I am of the Tallahassee Band and the Bird Clan of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma.
Where is your nation located?
The nation’s headquarters are in the city of Wewoka, Oklahoma, which is considered the capital of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma.
Where was your nation originally from?
The Seminole people are an amalgamated Southeastern Woodland indigenous people who have their beginnings as many diverse tribal towns and small tribes.
What responsibilities do you have within the nation?
The Executive Office of the Seminole Nation has the task of efficiently administrating all contracts and grants received from the U.S government, assuring tribal members of fiscal accountability while providing tangible services for them. All funds budgeted by general revenues and judgment funds must also be administered according to tribal law. With nearly 300 employees in many diverse programs and departments directly under the Executive Office, the Principal Chief, all the department or program directors, and I assure that services to the people and fiscal accountability are administered properly.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead?
I was raised in a family that for decades has taken an active part in tribal affairs within several diverse elected or appointed offices. My father was a General Council member for several terms and very active in committees and commissioned boards for the nation. My uncles were also involved in tribal affairs as band chiefs. Even my sister was the tribal treasurer for many years. Also my great-grandfather was a council member. My band, as stated earlier is Tallahassee, and it was always expected of the ones representing them to speak openly with honesty and integrity. The Seminole often called these particular people their mouthpiece.
I was elected to several consecutive terms as a General Council member and served as band chief for a period of time. Over the span of the last 25 years I was appointed to committees and boards of the nation and by five different principal chiefs. I have worked in the museum field for 20 years, which has contributed to in-depth research projects and studies pertaining to treaties agreements between the Seminole Nation and the U.S government, court of claims cases, jurisdiction issues, and the expressive arts of the Seminole, which of course reflects the culture of the Seminole people.
All of the experience I gained, especially actively participating within the Seminole community and by my family being directly involved in tribal affairs, contributed to a clearer insight to understanding the desires, needs and dreams of our people.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
In an active Seminole community, we have so many individuals who play important roles in the development of a relative, not necessary as individual mentors but as links in the long chain of cultural impartation. All of these relationships we are privileged to be a part of in our lives actually invest in the productive people we become on behalf of tribe as a whole. I suppose it is taking our place of responsibility within the world the Creator has placed us in.
Are you a descendant of a historical leader? If so, who?
I was recently in Washington, D.C., attending the Code Talkers Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony. The Seminole Nation has the only living code talker who was able to make the trip. His name is Edmond Andrew Harjo. He is a relative of mine, and we are both related to Che Neet Kee, also known as John Chupco, a Seminole chief during and after the conclusion of the Civil War. He was known for his integrity and complete dedication to the welfare of the Seminole people. He was also noted to have been one of the chiefs who established the famed Seminole Light-Horse. They were the lawmen of the nation during territorial times and are still in existence today.
What is a significant point in history from your community that you would like to share?
Although there are several key events in history with a significant impact, I'd like to tell how the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma’s constitutional organization structure, with the autonomy of the tribal towns or bands, was kept intact, retaining the original identity of these distinct people. This is reflected in the nation’s constitution ratified and implemented in 1969. The nation chose not to organize our constitution under the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act or the Indian Reorganization Act, which places the nation in a unique government-to-government relationship with the Unites States.
How does the Seminole government deal with the United States as a sovereign nation?
The Seminole Nation has been blessed to have leaders who have the diplomatic abilities to articulate clearly the nation's voice and concerns to help navigate through the complex issues of the government-to-government relationship with the United States. We have found that taking a strong unified stance backed by formal written agreements and federal law enables the Seminole Nation and the Unites States to keep in perspective the responsibilities both sovereign nations have to one another.
How is the Seminole national government set up?
The government of the Seminole Nation has three branches. The Executive Department includes the mekko (principal chief) and mekko apoktv (assistant chief). The term mekko apoktv carries the connotation of second chief, or more precisely, twin chief. These two positions also fulfill the duties as chairs of the tribal council, with the principal chief serving as chairman and the assistant chief available to chair if the principal chief is unable to.
The legislative branch is the General Council and is comprised of members from twelve distinct Native bands. Two representatives from each band have seats on the General Council. Within this band structure each band has its own band chief who acts as chairperson at meetings conducted by the band. The Seminole Nation also has two unique bands often referred to as freedmen, and they also send two representatives each to the General Council. These two bands are tribal members of African American heritage who are able to trace their ancestry to the maroons of the Southeast—freed slaves or actual slaves during the mid-1800s. The freedmen officially became citizens of the Seminole Nation after the Civil War under the U.S treaty with the Seminoles in 1866.
The last branch of the tribal government is the judicial branch, which operates the court system—the Seminole Nation District Court and the Supreme Court.
Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?
I am so grateful for the foresight of our leaders of the past, for it was their wisdom that saw the importance of the Seminoles' always preserving a distinct tribal identity through the original tribal town system and affiliations. In earlier times each town had its own traditional ceremonial grounds. These relationships and this indigenous structure are still prevalent among Seminoles in the 21st century. The Seminole Nation of Oklahoma is the only tribe in Oklahoma that still has such a traditional form of government.
How often are elected leaders chosen?
The Seminole Nation conducts elections for tribal leaders every four years.
How often does the General Council meet?
In compliance with the constitution, the council shall conduct quarterly meetings held on the first Saturday of March, June, September, and December. Special called meetings are also conducted according to constitutional provisions. The council refers to some of these special called meetings as standing call. In total there are at least eight meetings held throughout the calendar year, with the possibility of additional meetings if needed.
Approximately how many members are in your nation?
The Seminole Nation of Oklahoma has nearly 19,000 members.
What are the criteria to become a member?
“The membership of this body shall consist of all Seminole citizens whose names appear on the final rolls of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma approved pursuant to Section 2 of the Act of April 26, 1906 (34 Stat. 137) and their descendants. An enrolled member of another Indian tribe shall not be eligible for membership in the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma.” These criteria are found in the Constitution of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, Section II, Membership.
Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?
Yes, indeed, the language is still spoken, although as with many other Native nations, it is an area of great concern for the language to continue. We have engaged in language-preservation initiatives, establishing an immersion school and developing additional language curricula for tribal members. The number of fluent speakers at this time is ten percent.
What economic enterprises does Seminole Nation own?
The Seminole Nation, as with many other nations in Indian Country, has as part of its economic strategy a gaming component. Although our geographic jurisdiction is smaller than most Southeastern tribes' now located in Oklahoma, we have three casinos—the Seminole Nation Casino, River Mist Casino, and Wewoka Trading Post Casino—located at the intersections of key highway corridors within the Seminole Nation. Each of them has a convenience store, and the Seminole Nation Casino, near I-40, has a travel plaza. A master plan with other business endeavors that have the potential of promoting economic growth is currently being developed.
What activities and events does the Seminole Nation sponsor?
Annual events that are open to the public include Seminole Nation Days, held the third weekend of September. This is like a homecoming for tribal members. The event has associated with it the annual Seminole Princess Pageant, a tribal baby pageant, a golf tournament, a stomp dance and stickball exhibition, the State of the Nation Address, and many other activities.
The other major annual event is “Celebrating the Tradition of Service.” This is held in conjunction with Veterans Day, usually on the Saturday closest to Veterans Day. Included are a pre-parade program with a keynote speaker associated with one of the branches of U.S. military service, a parade, and a luncheon for all veterans and their family.
What other attractions are available for visitors on your land?
One particular point of interest in the Seminole Nation is the Mekusukey Mission southeast of the city of Seminole. This is the site of the early Seminole boys academy, also where the annual Seminole Nation Days take place and where large memorial monuments dedicated to each of the fourteen Seminole bands can be viewed.
In Wewoka, the capital of the Seminole Nation, on the courthouse lawn is the old whipping tree used in territorial times to administer public whippings carried out by the Seminole Light–Horse, the lawmen of the day and backed by written Seminole Law. Also in Wewoka is the Seminole Nation Museum, a must-see attraction.
What message would you like to share with Seminole young people?
We live in a time when most everyone acknowledges the liberties and freedoms we all share as Americans. Part of that is the freedom to choose or make decisions of our own. Young people call this “my business,” and for some reason it takes precedence over everything else.
I remember a time when going to a traditional Indian church or attending the traditional ceremonial grounds was not necessary something you participated in because it was your choice. It was done because it was who you were. You actively involved yourself because it was what you did as member of the Seminole community. Times may be changing, but where culture and spirituality thrive becomes the place where we will survive.
The Seminole Nation leadership will continue to pursue the pathway to prosperity, to secure funding for existing and future programs to help the young people obtain the skills and education needed to compete in today’s career and job market. But even in today’s world of advanced technology, nothing will ever substitute for a stable spiritual life. Our elders have always had it right: What is instilled deep in your heart will be what is projected to action. As the old saying goes, people are more important than things. True riches are a lot closer and more obtainable then most young people realize. They are in the relationships we have with our kindred and the Creator.
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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 images used with permission.