Meet Native America: Tildon Smart, Chairman of the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Tribe of Nevada and Oregon
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, NMAI
Please introduce yourself with your name and title.
Tildon Smart, chairman of the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Tribe of Nevada and Oregon.
Where is the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Tribe located?
My tribe is located on the Nevada and Oregon state line in north-central Nevada and southwestern Oregon.
Where were your people originally from?
We are from the Boise Valley, Oregon, and Nevada areas.
What is a significant point in history from your nation that you would like to share?
Our tribe became federally recognized on June 18, 1934. That's a very significant event for us.
What responsibilities do you have as chairman?
My responsibilities are to make decisions that are in the best interest of the tribe and to run the day- to-day functions as the administrator for the tribal offices.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Tribe?
I have had a lot of different experiences in my life, from working as an emergency medical technician, wildland firefighter, farmer and rancher, to being an underground miner where I worked all over Nevada and in one mine in Alaska. During all of these experiences I learned a lot of different leadership skills that I use now as the tribal chairman. In high school I was a part of the Future Farmers of America and learned a lot about farming, ranching, parliamentary procedure, and different types of animals.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
My grandfather has inspired me all my life. He is a retired schoolteacher who has taught me that no matter what happens in life, I can overcome it, and that I can do whatever I put my mind to. He has been battling cancer for several years now, and I see all the things he has to go through, and yet he still holds his head high and lives life to the fullest. He is the greatest man I have ever known and most likely the only great man I will ever know. He is the greatest grandfather anyone could have.
Are you a descendant of a historical leader? If so, who?
No I am not.
Approximately how many members are in your band?
There are about 1,500 members in the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Tribe of Nevada and Oregon.
What are the criteria to become a member of your tribe?
You must have at least one-quarter degree of Paiute Shoshone Indian blood to be an eligible member.
Are your languages still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?
Yes, the Paiute and Shoshone languages are still spoken here on our lands. The percentage of tribal members who speak one or both languages I would say is at about 90 to 95 percent.
How is your tribe's government set up?
Government is set up just like most others. We have elections at which time the Tribal Council is selected. The Tribal Council makes all decisions on what is in the best interest of the tribe and tribal members.
Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?
There is to a point. We all are very much into our Native teachings and follow the ways we have been taught. In our law and civil order, it goes to tribal, state, and federal government, and then to tradition when trying to make decisions in some court cases.
How often are elected leaders chosen?
Leaders are elected for two- and three-year terms.
How often does your Tribal Council meet?
The Tribal Council has general meetings once a month and may meet at other times if it is deemed necessary on important issues.
What economic enterprises does your tribe own?
We have built a travel plaza that we are in the process of opening.
What annual events does your band sponsor?
We sponsor all kinds of events. For example, at Christmas we hold a dinner for the community to give out gifts to the kids and let everyone take their picture with Santa Claus.
What attractions are available for visitors on your land?
At this point in time there are no attractions, but we are currently planning several different areas where people can come and learn about the old military fort, and about the Native people who live here and our ways of life.
How does your band deal with the United States as a sovereign nation?
It is very hard to deal with the United States. We are not seen as the leaders of nations. We are seen much lower than that and do not receive any attention at all. We have to fight and make demands of the United States and we shouldn’t have to! For example if I need to meet with the president of the United States on issues concerning Native Americans and Indian tribes, our requests often go unanswered.
Smaller government agencies work well with tribes, but the main government officials tend to ignore our requests. Foreign presidents and dignitaries can come and visit Washington any time they wish to meet on issues, and they are treated very well. They are escorted and given the respect they deserve as the leaders of nations at the same time we are put on the back burner and pushed away.
What message would you like to share with the youth of your community?
We are a proud people and have the power to make a difference for future generations to come. Let’s all work together to reach our goals as Native people. Do not forget where you come from, do not forget your teachings, for these things will help you get through the toughest of times.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Always remember that drugs and alcohol are not the ways of Native American people. Stop Native-on-Native violence and remember that we have all been taught to respect ourselves and each other.
Photos above courtesy of the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Tribe. 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 images used with permission.