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
Chief Glenna J. Wallace, Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma.
Please introduce yourself with your name and title.
Hello, my name is Glenna J. Wallace, and I am chief of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma. My Indian name, Ni ni le wi pi mi , comes from the Eagle or Chicken clan and means An Eagle Overhead Watching Everyone.
Where is your tribe located?
The Eastern Shawnee Tribe is one of three federally recognized Shawnee tribes, all located in Oklahoma. We Eastern Shawnees are in the extreme northeast corner of Oklahoma, in an area where three neighboring states can be accessed within minutes—Kansas, Missouri, and Arkansas. The tribe borders Missouri, and we can be in Kansas or Arkansas in 30 minutes, max.
Where are the Eastern Shawnee originally from?
We were known to be a wandering, traveling tribe, living in close to thirty states until we settled in Ohio in the early 1700s. We eventually shared a small reservation there with the Seneca Cayuga Tribe. Together we were known as the Mixed Band.
After the passage of the 1830 Indian Removal Act, the Mixed Band was the first group to be forcibly removed to Indian Territory, a journey we made on foot with more than 15 percent not surviving the ordeal. That occurred in 1832, and we remained the Mixed Band until 1867, when we were separated into two distinct tribes, the Eastern Shawnee Tribe and the Seneca Cayuga Tribe. Both tribes remained in the northeast corner of Indian Territory, which became the state of Oklahoma in 1907.
What is a significant point in history from your tribe that you would like to share?
We are a small tribe, approaching 3,300 in number, but just prior to 1900 we were down to only 73 people. Historical documents state that we had only seven or eight men over the age of 21. It truly is an example of almost total genocide.
At that time our culture had so few people to support the ceremonials and dances, those practices became dormant. Not extinct, but dormant. Some way, somehow, the tribe, both men and women, miraculously held on, and in 1939 our first Constitution and Charter were approved. These documents served as our guidelines until 1994, when a new Constitution was adopted, making the chief a full-time position equivalent to a modern CEO. Today more than two-thirds of our membership lives outside our service area.
How is your tribal government set up? Is there a functional traditional entity of leadership, in addition to your modern government system?
The Eastern Shawnees are a self-governance tribe with a structure most similar to that of the United States—three separate but equal powers invested in executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The legislative branch is comprised of six individuals: three councilmen, a treasurer, and a secretary, plus the second chief who chairs the meetings but has no vote except as a tiebreaker. The chief comprises the executive branch and has no vote but does have veto power. At the present time we defer to the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Court for the judicial branch. Terms are four years in length, with no term limits. To stagger terms, an election is held each year, conducted by absentee voting.
We have no additional leadership entity in our modern government system with the exception of our Annual Council. The Annual Council meets each September at tribal headquarters following the annual election. And of course tribal citizens have the right to submit initiatives or referendums for action by the Business Committee or by the General Council comprised of all registered voters.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead your tribe?
I am now in my tenth year of serving as chief, having been elected in 2006. Before then, I served on the Business Committee for 18 years. Those years and experiences were invaluable in preparing me for my current responsibilities.
Two other life experiences shaped me as an individual. When I was nine and in the fourth grade, our family left Oklahoma and moved to the West Coast. There we became a migrant family, moving from community to community and working in all types of migrant labor. My four siblings and I were expected to reach a certain quota each day to contribute to the support of our family. Any earnings beyond that quota went to us as individuals, to spend as we wanted. At an early age I became an overachiever. I learned to set goals, work toward those goals, develop a work ethic, and think long-range, and I realized the value, self-worth, and confidence that come from those achievements.
The second life experience that shaped my entire essence was education. I was the first young woman in my family to graduate from high school, the first to graduate from college, the first to pursue postgraduate degrees, which resulted in my being a college instructor and administrative leader for almost 40 years. Those years prepared me for my current role, which ironically is as the first woman to be chief of any Shawnee tribe.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
My mother was my personal mentor. She was a woman who had little, materially speaking, in life. Her mother died when she was only seven years old. She did not finish high school. She moved across the state in a covered wagon with her father and two younger brothers, whom she basically raised, leaving her three older sisters where they had grown up. Later she married and had five children. My father became disabled at a young age, leaving my mother with few options.
She never complained. Instead she taught the five of us to be proud, to work hard, to be honest, to manage our resources and be the best we could be. None of us wanted to disappoint her.
Additionally my first academic dean and two college presidents saw abilities in me that I didn’t know existed. Each challenged me, each gave me opportunities that enabled me to grow and to reach heights I hadn't known were even possibilities. These individuals made me who I am today.
What are the criteria to become a member of your tribe?
Membership in the Eastern Shawnee Tribe is through continuous lineal descent. A citizen today had to have a mother or father who was a citizen who had to have had an Eastern Shawnee mother or father who was also a citizen and so on.
Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?
I mentioned earlier that when our membership was so low that even our survival was in question, our culture became dormant. Today I am not aware of a single Eastern Shawnee who is a fluent Shawnee speaker. We do have some, however, who are semi-fluent, working to become fluent. Fortunately we have two other Shawnee tribes in Oklahoma who do have a few fluent speakers, and they are of immense help in our efforts to reawaken our dormant culture and language. At the present time we employ two fluent Shawnee speakers who conduct classes or serve in a myriad of other ways advancing our language and cultural opportunities.
What events does your tribe sponsor?
Today we have weekly language classes and a cultural gathering each month with activities ranging from stomp dancing in the spring and summer, to beading, to making moccasins and regalia pieces, to cooking demonstrations, to language workshops. We host a large annual powwow the third weekend in September, with this year being our 25th celebration.
We also have a most popular children’s powwow, known as the Shawna Stovall Back to School Powwow, the first Saturday in August where we provide backpacks and school supplies for all attending children 12 and under. That night we have contest dancing for those youngsters, as well as cultural demonstrations and vendors of all types, including Native arts and crafts and food.
This year we will have our third annual History Summit, where knowledgeable tribal citizens and professional researchers present and discuss Eastern Shawnee topics. We also host a Children’s Culture Camp each June, participate in state language contests for youth, host an annual Winter Gathering as well as an annual Elders Dinner, and offer many other activities and opportunities. We work hard at sponsoring cultural activities, events that will bring our tribe together.
What economic enterprises does your tribe own?
The year 1984 was a pivotal one for the Eastern Shawnee Tribe: That was the year we started our first economic venture in the world of gaming. At first we were limited to bingo and pull tabs in a joint venture with a private individual. Three years later we assumed total responsibility for our gaming enterprise. We added on to our first building three times, then opened Bordertown Casino and Bingo in a new building in 2003.
In 2012 we relocated to new facilities on Highway 60. Indigo Sky offers diverse forms of gaming including off-track betting, bingo, table games, and poker machines. The hotel has 117 rooms, conference facilities, and two restaurants. This year a Convention Center and approximately 125 additional rooms will be added. After opening Indigo Sky in 2012, we reopened Bordertown Casino/Arena in 2015. Gaming revenue has enabled us to purchase additional economic enterprises, including majority ownership of People’s Bank of Seneca, which has now expanded to three locations; Native2Native Solutions (N2N), a tribally owned holding company providing services in human resources, education, tire and automotive, freight and transportation, and hospitality; and the Eastern Shawnee Travel Center. From the original casino there now stand three, each one unique. Our land base has grown from 58.19 acres acquired in 1939 to approximately 2,500 acres today.
Equally important as economic ventures are tribal programs and services. We are located near a small town of approximately 2,300 residents. Our Senior Nutrition program serves about 100 people a day. We have an Early Childhood Learning Center for children 3 months to 5 years old, a Housing Authority enabling home ownership, and twelve rental Independent Elders Living units. We partner with the Wyandotte Nation to provide a health clinic to citizens of both tribes, Bearskin Health Clinic. We have our own Police Department, a tribal tag program, our own print shop, a state-of-the art Wellness Center open to the entire community, and six miles of walking trails. We own and operate a successful Recycling Center. We provide numerous programs to serve those in need, to prevent family violence and violence against women, drug abuse, and suicide; promote Indian Child Welfare provide assistance via the Child Care Development Fund; and offer professional counseling, including equine therapy for youth.
Most importantly, we support a strong benefits program for our tribal citizens which includes a most progressive educational scholarship program for all, but particularly for our young people. We constantly work with our youth, as they are the leaders of tomorrow. Currently we are writing our first children’s book as well as the history of our tribe. Those are both major undertakings as little has been known about the Eastern Shawnee. Both books should be available within the next year.
What attractions are available for visitors on your land?
Our casinos all located within five miles of each other, four beautiful seasons, and immediate access to four states have made us a destination resort area. Indigo Sky is an upscale gaming facility beautifully landscaped with luxurious rooms and fine dining, plus a modern convenient RV resort. OutPost boasts a small, cozy atmosphere. Bordertown Casino/Arena is action-packed, with a large dance floor, cowboys, a mechanical bull plus live indoor bull-riding or live bucking bulls, depending upon the weekend.
Ottawa County, where we are located, is home to nine federally recognized tribes, more tribes in one county than any other place in the United States. In this one county you will find a minimum of 14 gaming establishments within 25 miles. You will also find powwows, cultural events, fine dining, elegant rooms/suites, conference amenities, lake activities, fishing, golf, indoor bull-bucking, and bull-riding within these 25 miles.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
We, the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, are a small, progressive tribe. We pride ourselves on setting goals, working hard, managing our resources, looking to the future—actually influencing our future—regaining our culture, and taking care of our people.
Photo courtesy of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma; 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.