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
President Terri Parton, Wichita and Affiliated Tribes. Anadarko, Oklahoma.
Please introduce yourself with your name and title.
My name is Terri Parton. I am the president of the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes and an enrolled member. I am also of Caddo descent. I have a 23-year-old son, Jacob, and a 10-year-old nephew, Joshua.
Can you share your Native name and its English translation, or your nickname?
My maiden name is Terri Ann Brown. I do not have a Native name.
Where is your tribal community located?
The Wichita and Affiliated Tribes is located in Anadarko, Oklahoma. Our former reservation boundaries include the northern half of Caddo County, Oklahoma. Parts of Grady, Canadian, Blaine, Custer, and Washita counties are also included in the former reservation boundaries.
Where is your tribe originally from?
The Wichita and Affiliated Tribes consists of the Wichita proper, Waco, Keechi, and Tawakoni bands. Our tribe is indigenous to Oklahoma, south central Kansas, and most of Texas. Our tribe is the only tribe aboriginal to Oklahoma.
What is a significant point in history from your tribes that you would like to share?
The Wichita people once lived in the areas from around Wichita, Kansas, all through Oklahoma and down to Waco, Texas. We were once called the Quivira. We now sit on a former reservation area that we were forced to share with two other tribes. Much of that land no longer belongs to us. The most significant point in our history is when the Wichita, Waco, Keechi, and Tawakoni people were forced to give up our land.
How is your tribal government set up?
The supreme governing body is all tribal members 18 years and older—our General Council. Our tribe elected to be governed by a Governing Resolution instead of by a constitution. The Governing Resolution passed by the General Council delegates authority to a seven-member Executive Committee. The Executive Committee is composed of a president, vice president, secretary, treasurer, and three committee members.
Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?
We have traditional leadership that mostly focuses on the Wichita–Pawnee Visitation that has gone on for centuries. While we do our best to promote culture and our traditional ways, this is not integrated into the politics of the government.
How often are elected leaders chosen?
The Wichita and Affiliated Tribes holds elections for all seven members of the Executive Committee every four years. Elections are held the third Saturday in July. The next elections will be held this month. A candidate must receive the majority vote of those voting to be elected.
How often does your council meet?
The Governing Resolution of the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes calls for an annual General Council Meeting to be held on the third Saturday in July of each year. Occasionally, other meetings of the General Council are called by the president.
How did your life experiences prepare you to lead your tribe?
My life experiences help guide me in everything I do. Every time someone comes in and needs help, I can usually relate in some way to what they’re going through. My life has not been perfect at all. I have lived. I have had bad times, bad experiences, and dealt with the things that many of our people go through in some shape or form. I've chosen to never let those experiences keep me down, though. I learned from them and let those lessons be my guide when helping others.
I have had help along the way when I thought no one could help me, and so I know the importance of being able to help someone when they think there is no hope or help. Helping my people in those instances is the most rewarding thing about my job.
What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?
While there are certain things in our Governing Resolution that are duties of the president, such as presiding over meetings and having supervision of the business of the General Council and the Executive Committee, there is a much deeper sense of responsibility that comes with the position for me.
My responsibility lies in caring for my people. This is carried out in variety of ways. I represent my people to the best of my ability. I work to do my best to make things move in a positive direction for our tribe. I try to filter out negativity and stay focused on the positive side to move our tribe forward.
It is my responsibility to do my best to get to know my people and who they are. I try to be there when needed or asked, at least to do the best I can. There are times I have to take a break, too, though.
Most importantly I am responsible for making sure that our tribe has a future and to keep the best interest of the tribe at heart. I focus a lot on our children, but not forgetting to take care of our elders. I want to know that as I grow older and become an elder, I will feel confident in stepping aside and letting our younger generation lead, while still maintaining a connection to be a mentor. It is my responsibility to share my knowledge to ensure our future.
President Parton and princesses representing the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes at the 31st annual Red Earth Festival. June 2016, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
The definition of a mentor is “someone who teaches or gives help and advice to a less experienced and often younger person.” There are a lot of people who were mentors through various stages of my life. Of course my dad, mom, and grandparents were the greatest mentors in raising me.
Mary Bailey, my fifth grade teacher; former President Gary McAdams's wife, Ardina McAdams, who is of Wichita descent; and Anita Ross (Wichita) were mentors from my younger years. They were mentors before I actually started working for our tribe.
I was very fortunate as young Wichita tribal member when I began working for our tribe 18-and-a half years ago to have many Wichita mentors. While I can think of a lot of elders who shared their life experiences and wisdom with me, there are handful of mentors who were at the forefront of why I have been able serve as president for our tribe for the last four years.
Kristoffer Ira Hight hired me and taught me a lot of the things he knew about the tribe and its programs when I first started. He wasn’t afraid to teach me or for me to follow in his footsteps. He wasn’t afraid to tell me when I was wrong, either. That is a mark of good leader. I carry that with me now and do my best to teach our youth what I know. Ira and I remain good friends to this day.
Frances Wise was the first tribal administrator I worked under. She made me believe that as a young Wichita Indian woman I could accomplish anything I set my mind to. She made me believe that I could be president of our tribe one day. I was cleaning the president’s office one day when I was about 26 years old, trying to file the piles of mail. I was young and didn’t realize the significance of sitting at the desk of the president. She stepped in the doorway and said, “You look good behind that desk. You could be president one day.” It had never crossed my mind until that point. That started about a 10-year journey before I became president. It was rough at first, but she was always there and knew when to call me when I needed that push to go on. She once told me that I had integrity. She helped me believe I could do anything I wanted in life as a strong Wichita woman.
Gerald Collins is a former Wichita Executive Committee member who served with me when I was secretary of the tribe. He now works for the tribe and continues to help me along. He has always had good words of wisdom for me when things got tough.
Doris McLemore, the last fluent speaker of the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes. Doris is also a tribal elder whom I love dearly. I was able to work with her as I taught our language class to our children several years ago. She taught me a lot about our language. She has become a symbol for me of why I love working for my people. When things get rough, as they often do in tribal politics, I often go to her for hugs to help me remember why I am on this journey.
Gary McAdams in my eyes was a great leader for our people. He cares about our people and preserving our culture. He has been my friend and mentor and was a major influence in my journey to becoming president of our tribe. I believe he enjoyed giving me more work to do when he realized the journey I would take someday as president. There wasn’t anything within our tribe that he held back teaching me. I’d like to think that he saw a leader in me. He believed enough in me to teach me many things about our history. I believe he trusted me and knew that I would carry on those things he taught me for our people. He knew even when it got tough as a tribal leader that I would always find my way keeping the best interest of our people at heart.
Stratford Williams was the mentor of all mentors for me. He was first person I saw when I first started to work for the tribe in 1998. He asked me about my family. We were both Wichita and Caddo. He called me his granddaughter on the Caddo side. He taught me everything he could about being a leader over a span of many years. He taught me how to be the leader that I wanted to be. To always help people even if they weren’t always the nicest to you. He cared about our people and our future. You could see it on his face and hear it in his prayers. He taught me about our history, politics, family, and prayer. He believed in my leadership possibilities and helped me believe in myself as a leader. I continue to honor him as I carry on the things he taught me.
The people I named are people I worked with daily at the tribe. They helped shape the leader that I am today. I can’t forget to mention James Ross, William Norman, Gladys Walker, Joni Williams, Kay Ahtone, and Marvin Delaware for their mentorship as elders and friends, for their advice, and for helping me keep my faith at times when things got rough these last four years. While I mention all of these mentors, there are still many more people who have helped me along the way. I have been blessed with a lot of mentors in my life.
Are you a descendant of a historical leader?
My father was Oscar Bruce Brown, Jr., who was Caddo/Wichita. My grandmother was Myra Ross Brown, who was full-blooded Wichita. My great grandfather was Charlie Moore Ross, who was full-blooded Wichita. My great-great grandfather was Walter Zumah Ross. Walter Zumah Ross was a sub-chief. He was photographed by Edward Curtis. There are also many books that talk about him. Our tribe had various bands with various chiefs.
Approximately how many members are in your tribe?
The Wichita and Affiliated Tribes has 2,953 enrolled tribal members as of June 22, 2016.
What are the criteria to become a member?
As of June 22, 2016, you must be one-eighth Wichita to be enrolled. There is a provision for a blood consolidation of other Indian blood. On July 16, 2016, there will be a vote of the tribal membership on whether to lower the blood quantum.
Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?
As I mentioned earlier, we have only one fluent speaker left. Her name is Doris McLemore, and she is an amazing woman. At 89 years old, she still worked for the tribe cooking breakfast for staff and teaching language. Recently she has had to remain at home, but she still loves to speak and teach our Wichita language.
What economic enterprises does your tribe own?
Our tribe owns and operates Sugar Creek Casino, Hinton Travel Inn, Wichita Tribal Smoke Shop, Wichita Travel Plaza, and the Wichita Child Development Center. We also have two Small Business Administration 8(a) companies—Anadarko Industries and Wichita Tribal Enterprises.
What annual events does your tribe sponsor?
The Wichita Annual Dance is held the second week of August of each year. It begins on Thursday and ends on Sunday. A Spirit Walk is also held in conjunction with the dance. It is our biggest event and the event that draws many of our Wichita people to come home. We also have a lot of programmatic functions on annual basis. We recently started a Community Easter Event to give back to our community.
What attractions are available for visitors on your land?
We are in the process of constructing the Wichita Historical Center north of Anadarko on highway 281. It features a thatched grass house and summer arbor. We also have the Sugar Creek Casino located in Hinton, Oklahoma. There are other attractions in the area that are not tribally related.
How does your tribe deal with the United States as a sovereign nation?
We have consultations with the government. Those consultations aren’t always what tribes expect, though. We have 638 contracts through the BIA and Indian Health Services. We interact in various other ways, such as attending meetings of the National Congress of American Indians; working on initiatives with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Native American Enterprise Initiative; and participating as a member of the United Indian Nations of Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas. Tribal leaders of Oklahoma also meet with the governor at least once a year.
What message would you like to share with the youth of your tribe?
Always be proud to be Wichita. For all Indian youth, be proud to be Indian. Be proud of who you are. Don’t forget who you are and where you come from. Get to know your people and your tribe. Learn as much as you can. Get an education so you can be game-changers for our Indian communities. You will be the leaders of our tribes one day. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Listen to your elders even when you don’t always agree. As you get older you’ll realize why they took the time to tell you the things they knew. They see something in you and they want to share that knowledge with you.
Be good to each other. Don’t be afraid to teach those younger than you. Always do things with a good heart when you’re working for your people. Love each other and forgive. You never get anywhere by yourself. Have faith in our Creator and don’t forget to pray. Learn from your mistakes, but don’t be afraid to make them. You will fall at times, but always pick yourself back up. Do the best you can do in all you do. Rise up and be great leaders for your tribe.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I have been blessed to be able to work for my tribe for 18-and-a-half years. There have been a lot of ups and downs and highs and lows, but it has been a great journey. I completed my Bachelors of Science degree in Business Administration and my Master of Jurisprudence in Indian Law degree while I was president. I was 36 years old when I went back to school. I was 38 when I became president in 2012. Don’t give up on your dreams and don’t think you're too young to live those dreams.
Our Creator has blessed my life by allowing me to serve my Wichita people. I know he will direct my steps and those of our tribe in the future. I’m thankful for my family, friends, and mentors, and my Wichita people. I appreciate this opportunity to share a little about me and about my journey as president of the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes over the last four years.
So:ti:c?a. [Thank you.]
Photos courtesy of President Terri Parton; 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.