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.
Gari Pikyavit Lafferty, chairwoman of the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah.
Where is your tribe located?
Our tribe is made up of five bands of Paiutes. From the north to south in Utah, we are the Koosharem Band, in Richfield, Utah; Kanosh Band, in Kanosh; Cedar Band and Indian Peaks Band, in the Cedar City area; and Shivwits Band, in St. George.
Where were the five bands originally from?
We have always been in central and southern Utah area.
What is a significant point in history from your people that you would like to share?
On Febuary 27, 1953, the federal government outlined a strategy for termination. Our tribe was terminated in 1954. Federal assistance ended for our people. It's written that almost immediately after termination began, it became clear it was a mistake. Struggling for survival, the Southern Paiutes in Utah worked their way through an alien legal and bureaucratic maze to finally win restoration on April 3, 1980. During termination the Paiutes lost well over 15,000 acres of land.
What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?
Responsibilities comes in all forms, from attending monthly meetings, attending state affairs, federal issues that may have some kind of effect on your tribe. It's vital as well that your Native community see you as often as possible.
I am on the road a lot, out and about for our tribe. It's very critical for me to be active in my Native community. I like being with the people, and I never forget they are the ones who put me here as chairwoman. I should add, though, that my family time is important to me more then ever.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead your tribe?
It's interesting how someone comes to tribal leadership or tribal politics. As for myself, it's something that was instilled in me at a young age. I am proud to say that with my dad and grandfathers and many family members, leadership runs deep in my family. My sister Marguerite Pikyavit Teller was the first woman elected chair of the Paiute Tribe. It was only a matter of time for me.
I am a mother of five amazing children—Heston Smith, Mckinley Smith, Sable Lafferty, Charles M. P. Lafferty, and Aries Jackson. I'm married to one great man, Charles Lafferty, who supports me. At times he doesn't understand why I have chosen to put myself in this position. It's not for everyone. You have to be cut from a different kind of cloth. If you're a weeping willow, it's not for you. But if you can withstand the storm that comes with politics, then this is the job for you.
My dad told me at a very young age, "Gari, you will be sitting at the head of the tribe one day." I have always been active in community affairs as well—school, church, band, tribal.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
My father is my greatest mentor of all. I am very proud to say that my father was the last chief of our people—Chief Mckay Richard Pikyavit. My dad was so amazing there just isn't enough paper or time to say all I would like to say about him. My father was very much a family man, he took his responsibilities as a father very seriously. My father was a farmhand at a young age, then worked for our county road department. We had a large family, so when my brothers and sisters got older my mother worked as well.
My father was very active in tribal affairs. Community, church, school—my dad said you have to be out doing all you can in your community to make a difference. My father was one that spearheaded the work for our tribal restatement under the federal government. I remember being a young child and seeing my dad traveling the state of Utah to meet with others working towards the goal of our restoration as a federally recognized tribe. After long years of hard work, it came to pass on April 3, 1980, signed into law by President Carter. The dream of action came to pass.
I saw the long hours, days, months, years it took for this to happen. So I think that if I can do a fourth of what my dad achieved for the Paiute people, I will leave feeling I was a very accomplished leader for our people. Well, I have to say that I am very proud I am the daughter of Mckay Richard Pikyavit, the last chief of the Paiute people.
How is your tribal government set up?
Our government is set up with a tribal chairman and five council members representing the five bands. Six elected office-holders in all sit on our Tribal Council.
Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?
No, there is no traditional entity of leadership.
How often are elected leaders chosen?
Elections are held every four years for a term of four years. First, each band area elects its band chairman or chairwoman. Members of the band eighteen years and older are eligible to vote. Once that is done, then all five newly elected band chairs' names go into the election for tribal chair. This election is open to all tribal members living anywhere in the United States.
Each band chair reports monthly to the Tribal Council on that band's affairs. One interesting note: This is the first time our Tribal Council members are all women.
Tribal Council of the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, 2014. From left to right: Toni Pikyavit, chairwoman of the Koosharem Band; Lara Tom, chairwoman of the Cedar Band; Jeanine Borchardt, chairwoman of the Indian Peaks Band; Gari Pikyavit Lafferty, tribal chairwoman; Hope Silvas, vice-chairwoman of the Shivwits Band; Corrina Bow, chairwoman of the Kanosh Band.
How often does the Tribal Council meet?
Tribal Council meets twice a month, more often if necessary. Each band has a representative for health, education, and housing. Together they make up all boards for the tribe. Each band regularly holds a meeting as well, monthly or more often. Some bands have more going on than others in their areas.
Additionally, a General Council Meeting consisting of all enrolled tribal members over the age of 18 is held each year on the first Saturday in November.
Approximately how many members are in the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah?
We have around 900-plus members.
What are the criteria to become a member?
For enrollment in our tribe is you have to have at least one fourth Paiute blood from your mother or father.
Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?
Sadly, like for many other tribes, our language is spoken by our elders. And not too many of them have many othes to talk to.
What economic enterprises does your tribe own?
All of our bands have their own economic enterprises. There are lots of tribal members who have their own enterprise for making money from sewing, bead work, painting.
What annual events does your tribe sponsor?
Annual events vary from each band area. But as far as the tribe, we have our Restoration Gathering, an annual meeting where we hold our powwow, pageant, softball tournament, hand games, feast, parade. This all takes place the second weekend of June. This is celebration of our restoration as a federally recognized tribe, along with the annual meeting that's held in April.
What attractions are available for visitors on your land?
A great attraction would be to come and visit us during our Restoration Gathering. Also, we live in the most beautiful place in the world, with many national and state parks around us.
How does your tribe deal with the United States as a sovereign nation?
Our concern as a soveriegn nation is just to be a good neighbor and offer support if and where it's needed.
What message would you like to share with the youth of your tribe?
To our youth, I'd like to say that life is short. Enjoy it. Take every opportunity you can to make the very best of it for you and your families. We all make mistakes, but don't let them define who you are, or who you want to become. Use your mistakes as building blocks to your future. Listen to your elders. They may not all have a high school or college diploma, but what they do have is life experiences. And you need both to have success in your life.
You see only one person in me, but I stand on many shoulders of family members, as well as tribal people who have come before me. I will always be grateful for those who have worked very hard to get our tribe to where it is today. We are small compared to other tribes, but we have many great people who are thriving and working very hard for our people today and for those to come.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I would like to end with saying, we are living our grandparents' dreams, what they hoped would come to pass for our Paiute people. Let's not disappoint them. Just as they were to us, we are to our grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Let's make sure we are writing their history well.
All photos are courtesy of the Paiute Tribe of Utah and are 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.