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November 23, 2016

Do American Indians Celebrate Thanksgiving?

ThanksgivingCircleSlashCrop2
Five years ago, Dennis Zotigh wrote a short essay for the museum on the Thanksgiving story and how he observes the holiday. Since then, Dennis has asked Native friends to talk about how their families spend Thanksgiving Day. Here are some of the responses people gave him this year. Dennis's essay, including people's earlier answers to his question, appears below: 

Wellington, Kansas: Thanksgiving was a blending of two different cultures, one culture helping another to survive. The historical knowledge we have now of what was actually taking place may not be the same as what was being experienced in those days. Our assessment now may not be fair because of all that the Native people have endured. 

Exeter, California: Being the only Native American classroom teacher at a public school, raised mostly in an urban setting steeped heavy in traditional American holidays, and around many other native people on weekends while traveling to dance, this has always been a challenging question for me that I cannot claim to know the answer for. I see many other teachers I work with who are not native struggle with knowing how to address the issue comfortably. I have to say, I have fear that if we avoid the issue altogether, Native people will be forgotten about. I have seen some teachers decide to stop teaching about Native Americans for fear of offending. I personally get sad when I see that happen. I know Thanksgiving is a controversial subject, and there are so many viewpoints. I share the modern theme of Thanksgiving, which I think has good intentions—family and community. I have also chosen to teach about Native American culture, even more heavily in November because of Thanksgiving, even though it is no longer a part of the curriculum. I have found ways to integrate it while teaching something that I think is important. I do an assembly for the students in which we dance, and I emphasize how it is not possible to teach everything there is to know about Native Americans in just one assembly. I emphasize the diversity among native people. 

San Antonio, Texas: Except for the last four years, the twenty years before that I spent almost all of my Thanksgivings at the table of my brother-in-law. Our gatherings were about giving thanks for what we had. As for Native American history being left out of teaching, it is an outrage. Educate our fellow educators on how to teach it. It would be a great way to help others teach courses and show how to respect the culture.

Edmonton, Alberta: We have family members with addiction issues. The kids get to eat, which my mom loves. And we are thankful not only to survive colonization, but also grateful to feed family.

Norman, Oklahoma: We celebrate and give thanks for our loved ones' being able to be together again. But when my daughter was young and the realization hit, as it does all young American Indians, she said to me , "Do you think we should have helped them?" There will be extra prayers for Standing Rock at our table. 

Do American Indians Celebrate Thanksgiving?

Wampanoag Nation Singers and Dancers
The Wampanoag Nation Singers and Dancers, 2011. Salt Pond, Cape Cod National Seashore. Courtesy of the Wampanoag Nation Singers and Dancers. 

In thinking about my earliest memories of elementary school, I remember being asked to bring a brown paper sack to class so that it could be decorated and worn as part of the Indian costume used to celebrate Thanksgiving. I was also instructed to make a less-than-authentic headband with Indian designs and feathers to complete this outfit. Looking back, I now know this was wrong.

The Thanksgiving Indian costume that all the other children and I made in my elementary classroom trivialized and degraded the descendants of the proud Wampanoags, whose ancestors attended the first Thanksgiving popularized in American culture. The costumes we wore bore no resemblance to Wampanoag clothing of that time period. Among the Wampanoag, and other American Indians, the wearing of feathers has significance. The feathers we wore were simply mockery, an educator’s interpretation of what an American Indian is supposed to look like.

The Thanksgiving myth has done so much damage and harm to the cultural self-esteem of generations of Indian people, including myself, by perpetuating negative and harmful images to both young Indian and non-Indian minds. There are so many things wrong with the happy celebration that takes place in elementary schools and its association to American Indian culture; compromised integrity, stereotyping, and cultural misappropriation are three examples. 

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Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863–1930), The First Thanksgiving 1621. Color halftone of an oil painting from the series The Pageant of a Nation. Library of Congress. (LC-USZC4-4961

When children are young, they are often exposed to antiquated images of American Indians through cartoons, books, and movies. But Thanksgiving re-enactments may be their most active personal encounter with Indian America, however poorly imagined, and many American children associate Thanksgiving actions and images with Indian culture for the rest of their lives. These cultural misunderstandings and stereotypical images perpetuate historical inaccuracy.

Tolerance of mockery by teachers is a great concern to Native parents. Much harm has been done to generations of Indian people by perpetuating negative and harmful images in young minds. Presenting Thanksgiving to children as primarily a happy time trivializes our shared history and teaches a half-truth. And while I agree that elementary-school children who celebrate the first Thanksgiving in their classrooms are too young to hear the truth, educators need to share Thanksgiving facts in all American schools sometime before high school graduation.

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Jennie A. Brownscombe (1850–1936), The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth (1914). Oil paint on canvas. Courtesy of Pilgrim Hall Museum.

Let’s begin with Squanto (aka Tisquantum), a Patuxet, one of more than 50 tribes who formed the Wampanoag Confederacy. Around 1614, when he was perhaps 30, Squanto was kidnapped along with others of his people and taken across the Atlantic Ocean to Malaga, Spain, where they were sold into slavery. Monks in Spain bought Squanto, shared their faith with him, and made it possible for him to find his way to England in 1615. In England he worked for shipbuilder John Slany and became proficient in English. In 1619 Squanto returned to his homeland by joining an exploring expedition along the New England coast. When he arrived at the village where he has been raised, all his family and the rest of his tribe had been exterminated by a devastating plague.

What about the Pilgrims? Separatists who fled from England to Holland seeking to escape religious persecution by English authorities, and who later booked passage to North America, are now called "Pilgrims," though Americans did not widely use the term until the 1870s. In November, 1620, the Mayflower dropped anchor in present-day Provincetown Harbor. After exploring the coast for a few weeks, the Pilgrims landed and began building a permanent settlement on the ruins of Squanto’s Patuxet village, now renamed New Plymouth. Within the first year, half of the 102 Pilgrims who set out from Europe on the Mayflower had perished. In desperation the Pilgrims initially survived by eating corn from abandoned fields, raiding villages for stored food and seed, and robbing graves at Corn Hill.

Squanto was introduced to the Pilgrims in the spring of 1621, became friends with them, and taught them how to hunt and fish in order to survive in New England. He taught the Pilgrims how to plant corn by using fish as fertilizer and how to plant gourds around the corn so that the vines could climb the cornstalks. Due to his knowledge of English, the Pilgrims made Squanto an interpreter and emissary between the English and Wampanoag Confederacy.

What really happened at the first Thanksgiving in 1621? The Pilgrims did not introduce the concept of thanksgiving; the New England tribes already had autumn harvest feasts of thanksgiving. To the original people of this continent, each day is a day of thanksgiving to the Creator.  In the fall of 1621, William Bradford, the governor of the Plymouth Colony, decided to have a Plymouth harvest feast of thanksgiving and invited Massasoit, the Grand Sachem of the Wampanoag Federation, to join the Pilgrims. Massasoit came with approximately 90 warriors and brought food to add to the feast, including venison, lobster, fish, wild fowl, clams, oysters, eel, corn, squash and maple syrup. Massasoit and the ninety warriors stayed in Plymouth for three days. These original Thanksgiving foods are far different from the meals prepared in modern Thanksgiving celebrations.

Squanto died in 1622, but Massasoit outlived the era of relative peace in colonial New England. On May 26, 1637, near the present-day Mystic River in Connecticut, while their warriors were away, an estimated 400 to 700 Pequot women, children, and old men were massacred and burned by combined forces of the Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, and Saybrook (Connecticut) colonies and Narragansett and Mohegan allies. Colonial authorities found justification to kill most of the Pequot men and enslave the captured women and their children. Pequot slaves were sent to Bermuda and the West Indies. In 1975 the official number of Pequot people living in Connecticut was 21. Similar declines in Native population took place throughout New England as an estimated three hundred thousand Indians died by violence, and even more were displaced, in New England over the next few decades.

Looking at this history raises a question: Why should Native peoples celebrate Thanksgiving? Many Natives particularly in the New England area remember this attempted genocide as a factual part of their history and are reminded each year during the modern Thanksgiving. The United American Indians of New England meet each year at Plymouth Rock on Cole's Hill for a Day of Mourning. They gather at the feet of a statue of Grand Sachem Massasoit of the Wampanoag to remember and reflect in the hope that America will never forget.

I turn to friends on the Internet to find out what Native people think of Thanksgiving. A few of the responses I have received over the years:

Hydro, Oklahoma: Could we just start over and go forward? We can't change the past, but we can work for peace and unity in the future. History needs to be taught correctly in our schools—that is what needs to happen. My daughter had to write a paper about Big Tree, Satank, and Satanta. She interviewed Satanta's great-grandson, who was in his 90s, and told the story as he told it to her, including their transport from Fort Sill and how the feather was turned into a knife as they passed the giant tree, causing the soldiers to shoot and kill Satank. She got an AAA+ from her teacher.

Ecuador via Bozeman, Montana: It's important to share the whole, true story of the first Thanksgiving. Many of us were told a fairytale lie that led us to believe the same old story: Colonization was good for everyone and colonization was relatively peaceful (the violence was necessary, the ends justify the means). Now, a lot of us are learning more, and that comes from educating ourselves with the help from those who do know. I will say this, the generic idea of thanksgiving, or taking the time to be with family and friends and give thanks for all the blessings in our lives, the big and small, is a great practice and should happen more often. I wonder how we can turn a negative into a positive? Can we have an honest Thanksgiving? Can we move forward and, if so, where do we begin?

Santa Fe, New Mexico: My family and I celebrate Thanksgiving, not so much in the way that the "Pilgrims" may have done with the Indians. We give pause, and acknowledge all of the blessings that we received in the past year. We think of family and friends; of the homeless; of those away from family in hospitals, elders in nursing homes, those incarcerated, the soldier men and women overseas, around the world, standing watch and guarding our freedom. We think of those in mourning, whose family have gone ahead of them. We also think of those in school, no matter what age. And, finally, we pray for traveling mercies said for folks traveling home. We are thankful each day for Creator's gifts but on Thanksgiving, it seems we focus and are concentrated in our thoughts about these blessings.

Fairfax, Oklahoma: Our folks and ancestors left a good road to follow and prayed for gifts or successes for us that they may not have achieved. We have opportunities even more than them in these days and days to come. Long time ago we sat down in thanksgiving and had a great day. That's what Thanksgiving is to me, to enjoy and continue to achieve for yourself and them. They are smiling when we achieve. Aho.

Sevierville, Tennessee: Yes, I celebrate Thanksgiving. I have a thankful heart and feel blessed, so I give thanks.

Lawton, Oklahoma, with gentle humor: Do we have to feed the Pilgrims? Again?

And here are a few people's thoughts in 2013: 

Aylett, Virginia: It is good to celebrate the concept of gratitude and thankfulness. When the holiday story is based on a lie that covers up the national moral atrocity of genocide, the statement about the people who celebrate is not good. Shining light on the truth will always bring about healing. 

Montville, Connecticut: Thanksgiving was celebrated for murder and slavery rather than friendship and harvest. 

Greenbelt, Maryland: I don't necessarily look at the holiday as pilgrims-meet-Indians-and-chow-down. I celebrate it as the time the cycle of alcoholism was broken in our family, and we have a feast to celebrate that. 

Norman, Oklahoma: It's pretty much a family reunion for me, and there is eating, visiting, being thankful, and having a good time. Because of that, there is no reason to worry about the history. Similar to the idea that our dances fall on the 4th of July and instead of celebrating independence, it is more like a homecoming to our Kiowa people. 

California: When I went to school there was two Indians in our class—me and a Hopi girl. Neither one of us had to endure any of this because her mother and my mother both raised hell with the principal. No fake headbands or feathers for us. 

Pala, California: When my kids were in pre-school is when I decided I needed to represent our people at this time of year more than any other. I would be damned if my kids were gonna wear paper bags like the other students. I wasn't having that. I learned to get the story across at their age level and show them the beauty and generosity of our people. I remember growing up and my mom getn upset with me because on Thanksgiving day I would come to the dinner table in my PJs and hair unbrushed, knowing the day was not a celebration. But now that I'm a mother of 3 and a grandmother of 1, I understand as Native people we give thanks to the Creator every day. On Thanksgiving Day I'm just grateful our people are still here and still stand strong. 

Salt Lake City, Utah: Thanksgiving, to me, is to be grateful for all the good blessings that came my way. Good health. Gift of family. Regardless of history, there are still many Natives in the land, and that shows how resilient we are. To honor those who went before us, let us share our culture and stories, teach the youth to learn from the past and to make our lives so our ancestors are proud of us. Example is a great educator. 

Alberta, Canada: It is an opportunity for those who do take note . . . . There will be those who roll their eyes, and others who may gain deeper appreciation, to honor (maybe even emulate) a more giving nature . . . , that of their Creator. 

Crow Agency, Montana: My Dad used to say, "We give thanks everyday, so if they want to give us a holiday to give thanks, I'll take it." 

Unfortunately, I didn't include where people were writing from in the essay when it first appeared in 2011:

I was infuriated when my daughter’s school had a mock feast complete with paper mache headdresses and Pilgrim hats!

When they did that to my kids in elementary, I TORE those items up and signed my kids out of school for that day.

For Thanksgiving I was the Indian. Umm Go figure . . . .

Someone took a picture of me in front of the class, and to this day . . . it bothers me. Don't get the whole making a fest in school.   

Tonight I have to lead a children's Bible class, and they want me to theme it around Thanksgiving. I will, but it's not going to be about the happy pilgrims and all that stuff. Thankfulness to God is one thing, but elevating pilgrims to hero status is out of the question.  

When my daughter Victoria was in grade school she had a teacher give them the assignment to write a report on Thanksgiving dinner, and Victoria wrote hers as to why our family doesn't celebrate Thanksgiving. Victoria got an F on the paper, and I threatened to go to the school board if the principal didn't get it changed. Victoria got an A, and the class got a lesson on Native American heritage. 

Ignorance and not near enough education in the school systems! It is very sad that a majority of what is taught is very superficial and the dark aspects of our history are neatly tucked away.Very sad!

Considered a day of mourning in our house.

For skins [American Indians], Thanksgiving should be the Last Supper. 


The United American Indians of New England meet each year at Plymouth Rock on Cole's Hill for a Day of Mourning. They gather at the feet of a statue of Grand Sachem Massasoit of the Wampanoag to remember and reflect in the hope that America will never forget.

Do I celebrate Thanksgiving? No, I don’t celebrate. But I do take advantage of the holiday and get together with family and friends to share a large meal without once thinking of the Thanksgiving in 1621. I think it is the same in many Native households. It is ironic that Thanksgiving takes place during American Indian and Alaskan Native Heritage Month. An even greater irony is that more Americans today identify the day after Thanksgiving as Black Friday than as National American Indian Heritage Day.  

—Dennis W. Zotigh

Dennis W. Zotigh (Kiowa/San Juan Pueblo/Santee Dakota Indian) is a member of the Kiowa Gourd Clan and San Juan Pueblo Winter Clan and a descendant of Sitting Bear and No Retreat, both principal war chiefs of the Kiowas. Dennis works as a writer and cultural specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

The original version of this essay was published on November 23, 2011.

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November 03, 2016

Artist Anita Paillamil empowers other Mapuche women by reconnecting them with their culture

The Artist Leadership Program (ALP) of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) aims to rebuild cultural self-confidence, challenge personal boundaries, and foster cultural continuity while reflecting artistic diversity. The ALP's goal is to recognize and promote indigenous artistic leadership. At the same time, the program seeks to enhance the artistic growth, development, and leadership of emerging student artists and scholars through community art workshops in the artists' communities. Selection for the program is based on the artists’ proposed research, proposed workshops or public art projects, digital portfolios, resumes, artist statements, and letters of community support. Here, artist Anita Paillamil shares some of the important things she gained from the program.

Anita Paillamil at the Museo Regional de la AraucaníaTextile artist Anita Paillamil (Mapuche) outside the Museo Regional de La Araucanía in Temuco, Chile.


My name is Anita Paillamil, and I am Mapuche. I live in the town of Nueva Imperial, in the rural area of Lliuco in the Araucanía Region in southern Chile. My main job is to create and reproduce Mapuche traditional textiles, made with sheep's wool and dyed with natural elements such as leaves, mud, flowers, and fruits. Also I dedicate myself to teach this art to Indigenous women who for many reasons have been left with no knowledge of textiles and who today feel a need to reconnect with their ancestors through textile art.

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Mapuche woman's ligchamall (dress) and trariwe (belt). Dress: ca. 1910; central Chile; wool. Belt: 2000; purchased from Fundación Chol-Chol, a non-profit organization focused on economic development for Mapuche people, Temuco, Araucanía Region, Chile; wool yarn, dyes. 17/6668 & 26/1561. NMAI Photo Services.

I applied to the National Museum of the American Indian to take part in the Artist Leadership Program because tangible and intangible Mapuche culture is losing its impact due to young people's lack of motivation to learn it. Our parents belong to the generation that encouraged their children to stop practicing their culture because of shame. As a result so much knowledge and so many stories were lost. I was fortunate—everything I know I learned from my mother. So for me as a Mapuche woman and instructor of this art, it is very important to reconnect with our culture. Only then will I be able to transmit it to the different generations of Mapuche and non-Mapuche people, ensuring that the traditions will not be lost.

When I started my research at the museum's Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Maryland, my main goal was to examine the collection of trariwes, or women's traditional belts, identifying iconographic patterns that were lost in the textiles that are produced today. My goal was to be able to reproduce the patterns, working together with the women of the group Wallontu Witral to which I belong and of which I am president. The trariwe is one of the most sacred pieces for us as a people, and I thought that during the trip to Washington, I would only get to see trariwes. When I got to the Cultural Resources Center, however, and started my project, I was impressed by the number of objects in the collections and the care with which they are treated. That was something I did not expect, because here in rural communities we see very old textiles thrown on the floor or hung on a fence. Also I do not speak English, and I was a little worried that I might not be able to communicate and work independently. I thought it would be difficult, but it was not, because the museum's whole team was very willing to help me at all times.

ALP artists 2014–15 at the CRC
Individuals artists who took part in the Artist Leadership Program for 2014–15 (left to right): Keevin Lewis (Navajo), the museum's outreach program coordinator; Lisa Rutherford (Cherokee Nation), Anita Paillamil Antiqueo (Mapuche), Jacob Butler (Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community), and Irma Alvarez Ccoscco (Quechua). National Museum of the American Indian Cultural Resources Center, Suitland, Maryland.


To all the artists who are applying, especially those who do not speak English, do not to be afraid of the language. The feeling of being there with some of your own living culture is invaluable, and the team is always looking for ways in which you're right! Do not be frustrated if you cannot be selected immediately. Do try again, because you can always count on the support and guidance of Keevin Lewis, the Artist Leadership Program's outreach coordinator and now a very good friend. It is also a unique opportunity to re-meet your own people.

Many moments I experienced during my stay in Washington were very significant, but what I think I remember most was my visit to the pre-Columbian collection at Dumbarton Oaks. I was not able to finish that visit because I felt very bad—not physically, but of the spirit. Looking at the objects and feeling the energy that was in that place it was as if there was part of me there and perhaps something that belonged to my family, my direct ancestors.

White wool black dye
Anita's community workshops explored traditional Mapuche dyeing, among other techniques. To create black, white wool is first boiled with maqui tree leaves, which turn the wool yellow. Oily mud from a local swamp is then added to turn the yellow wool black.

This made me think that this time I am living is something unique, something very important, and that reconnecting with our culture is a task that must continue. One of the ways to assure that is through my community art project. My goal is to share that experience with all who feel this attachment to nature and the land that gives us life, because it is important to preserve and disseminate the knowledge of our grandmothers.

Thanks to my trip to the museum, from February 16 to 20, 2015, I conducted many activities in different communities in my area, retransmitting my experience in Washington, much of what I could see in the museum's collections, as well as my own feelings as a Mapuche woman. About 200 people were involved in this project, mostly Mapuche women who have been my students. Now they’re continuing to develop traditional textiles in their own communities. Among the most important activities was the rescue of natural dyeing to give white wool a black color—important knowledge for Mapuche culture because black represents security. Also during the week of my community art project we had very important discussions about the protection of our textile iconography, as it is part of us as a people and belongs to and is characteristic of our culture.

I think the most important aspect of my experience in the program is that I have gained more confidence in my work, and more appreciation for it at different levels. I feel my role within my culture is to continue working so that knowledge is not lost—teaching women, children, young people, and all those who are interested in learning. When I was in Washington, I realized that this is part of my purpose in life—to preserve traditions, spread awareness, and support Mapuche women who are somehow reconnecting with all this ancestral knowledge.

—Anita Paillamil (Mapuche)

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November 01, 2016

Meet Native America: Vinton Hawley, Chairman of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, President of the Executive Board of the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada, and Vice-Chairman of the National Indian Health Board

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 

Chmn Hawley US Capitol
Vinton Hawley, chairman of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, president of the Executive Board of the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada, and vice chairman of the National Indian Health Board (NIHB). NIHB Board of Directors meeting, January 2016, U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C. Courtesy of Chairman Hawley.

Please introduce yourself with your name and title. 

My name is Vinton Hawley. I'm chairman of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, or Kooyooe Tukaddu (Kooyooe Eaters); president of the Executive Board of the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada; and vice-chairman of the National Indian Health Board (NIHB). I am an enrolled member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe and also Hopi–Tewa (Tobacco Clan). 

Can you share your Native name and its English translation, or your nickname? 

Two Native names I've been given are Sahkoo Penge (Black Pipe) and Saah Ehnoo (Tobacco Boy). There are many other names that were given, as well. 

Where is your tribal community located? 

Pyramid Lake is located 27 miles northeast of Reno, Nevada. We have three towns that comprise our reservation—Wadsworth, Nixon, and Sutcliffe—and a huge water base in rural Nevada. On the Hopi–Tewa side of my family, I come from the Tewa Village First Mesa, Polacca, Arizona. 

Where is your tribe originally from? 

Pyramid Lake is the traditional homeland of the Kooyooe Tukaddu (Kooyooe Eaters). The arid desert and mesas in Arizona are the traditional homeland for the Hopi–Tewa people. 

What is a significant point in history from your tribe that you would like to share? 

Pyramid Lake has been at the forefront with water rights. The tribe recently finalized the Truckee River Operating Agreement (TROA), a 20-plus-year water negotiation between the tribe, local governments, the City of Reno, and the City of Sparks that will provide economic development opportunities and funding to the tribe. We are working with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the Department of the Interior Office of the Special Trustee to gain access to the economic development funds that are attached to the finalization and implementation of TROA. 

The tribe’s Section 17 Corporate Charter was also recently approved by the BIA. 

In somewhat older history, the tribe recognizes battles that took place on the reservation against settlers and the U.S. Army. 

O'Sullivan, 1867, Pyramid LakeThe Pyramid and Domes, 1867. Pyramid Lake, Nevada. Photo by Timothy O'Sullivan. Collections of the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/98503891/.


How is your tribal government set up? 

The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe is governed by ten Tribal Council members who are elected biannually in December to staggered two-year terms. The officers, including the chairman and vice-chairman, are part of the ten-member council. The tribe operates under the Indian Reorganization Act Constitution and By-Laws approved in January 1936 by the Department of Interior. 

How often does your Tribal Council meet? 

The Pyramid Lake Tribal Council meets three times a month. Council meetings are held every first and third Friday of every month, and we have a Water Team meeting on the third Wednesday of every month. The Water Team meeting is held with the tribe’s water attorney and addresses only water issues. 

Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system? 

Unfortunately, we have lost a large portion of our people who have this kind of traditional knowledge. The majority of our members are now involved in Native religions outside of our own Paiute culture. They are mostly involved in the Native American Church and Sundance religions. There are a few families who continue to practice our old way, but Paiute life is simple and I think that is why it can’t compete with the more popular and glamorous Native cultures. 

How did your life experience prepare you to lead your tribe? 

I was raised in most part by my great-grandmother Gussie Dunn Williams, who lived the old ways. We would get up in the morning and eat breakfast and then go visiting our relatives on our reservation. We didn’t own a car and we walked all over. Each visit involved conversations in Paiute about everyday happenings, dropping off food for those who needed help, checking on others who might not be able to leave their homes, and just plain old visiting. 

I learned traditional activities such as weaving, gathering, doctoring, etc. It wasn’t the show that it seems to have become today; it was just day-to-day living. I learned the priorities of our old people and I was taught what is really important to our tribe to ensure our survival. My life was simple, and our life is simple, but what is most important is that our people survive, that our environment is protected, and that water is life. I learned to understand the language at an early age and began speaking. I learned the survival arts of the Pyramid Lake Paiutes. I also learned a lot from my Hopi–Tewa grandparents, who were very hard workers and have instilled in me what exactly a simple life is. 

Lower Truckee River at Nixon—Paiute ReservationThe Truckee River shortly before it drains into Pyramid Lake. Pyramid Lake Paiute Indian Reservation near Nixon, Nevada. Photo courtesy of truckeeriver.org. 


What responsibilities do you have as tribal chairman? 

It is my responsibility to make decisions that ensure our way of life continues. So many people associate money with success, but that isn’t our way. The level of our lake is our success. To ensure that our tribal language and traditions are sustained is my priority. My people are my responsibility. It is my commitment to this that I carry each day. 

Decisions made must ensure that the future membership is cared for and protected, our lake is sustained, and our land and its boundaries remain as close to their original state as possible. 

I continue to advocate for the sustainability of the Paiute culture. However, despite my position, culture is not funded by the tribe, nor do we have a grant to assist cultural sustainability. Tribal members in our community volunteer to maintain the culture and have classes on a weekly basis. I have to give high praise to those individuals who are as passionate about cultural preservation as I am. 

Who inspired you as a mentor? 

I am inspired by my elders, by our old people who have lived a simple life filled with our beautiful language and traditions. 

Are you a descendant of a historical leader? If so, who? 

All Natives are historical leaders. Without their leadership and courage, none of us would be where we are today as Native peoples. We are still here! 

Approximately how many members are in your tribe? 

Currently our tribe has increased to 2,803 enrolled members. 

What are the criteria to become a member of your tribe? 

All persons of Indian blood whose names appear on the official, certified Constructed Base Roll of the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation as of January 1, 1935; or all children born to any enrolled regular member of the tribe who is a resident of the reservation at the time of the birth of said children, provided it is proven that said children are direct lineal descendants of a Base Enrollee as identified above.

Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers? 

A handful of tribal members still speak Paiute. The number of tribal members who understand Paiute is a lot higher, but they do not speak. Our language is going to become extinct if we do not take measures to sustain and teach our people! 

What economic enterprises does your tribe own? 

Currently our Tribal Enterprises comprise three stores on our reservation. We are in the process of increasing our economic development and are looking at a multitude of business opportunities that will generate revenue for the tribe. 

What annual events does your tribe sponsor? 

We have an annual powwow and handgame tournament in the summer and a rodeo in the fall. 

What other attractions are available for visitors on your land? 

Pyramid Lake is widely acclaimed as North America’s most beautiful desert lake, but it’s actually the world-class fishery that has brought Pyramid Lake worldwide fame. Pyramid Lake is the only habitat in the world for the kooyooe (cui-ui) fish that has been around for over two million years. 

The Pyramid Lake fishery also includes the famous Lahontan cutthroat trout that have grown to record sizes and have lured fishermen from all over the world for several decades. Celebrities, foreign royalty, and even a U.S. president have come here in hopes of catching trophy fish at Pyramid Lake. 

How does your tribe deal with the United States as a sovereign nation? 

The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe has a government-to-government relationship with the federal government. The tribe contracts with or receives grants directly from federal agencies or the State of Nevada, to provide services to tribal members and residents of the reservation addressing issues that will impact the tribe. 

What message would you like to share with the youth of your tribe? 

To learn your language and your traditions; to commit yourself to higher education and to bringing back your knowledge to sustain our tribe; and to see what you have been blessed with, which is to be Numu, and to always be proud of who you are and where you come from! 

Thank you. 

Thank you. 


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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. 

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