July 23, 2015

Meet Native America: Chairman Leonard Forsman, Suquamish Tribe

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.

I'm Leonard Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Tribe

Can you share with us your Native name and its English translation?

It's ˇGvύí (GwoWee). It means Raven.

Suquamish Tribal Chairman Leonard Forsman
Suquamish Tribal Chairman Leonard Forsman. 

Where is your tribe located?

The Suquamish Tribe is located on the Port Madison Indian Reservation in Kitsap County, Washington. We are located in the central Puget Sound region and are approximately a half-hour away from the city of Seattle by water.

Where was your tribe originally from?

The Suquamish Tribe’s traditional areas encompass much of the Puget Sound region.

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

Chief Seattle, for whom the city of Seattle is named, is a hereditary leader of the Suquamish People. Seattle signed the Point Elliott Treaty in 1855 on behalf of the Suquamish and Duwamish People. His father’s village of Old Man House was probably the largest winter house in the Northwest Coast, reaching nearly 800 by 40 feet (32,000 square feet).

Today, the Suquamish Tribe continues to be a leader in government-to-government relations. The Suquamish Tribe is one of the first tribes in Washington to collaborate with state government in order to create a new Tribal-Compact schools system. Suquamish was also instrumental in the implementation of a Native American curriculum in schools across Washington State.

How is your tribal government set up? How often are elected leaders chosen?

The Suquamish Tribe is led by a seven-member Tribal Council. Members are elected each March by the tribe’s voting body, known as the General Council. The Tribal Council consists of four officers—chairman, vice-chairman, treasurer, secretary—and three at-large council members. The chairman only votes in case of a tie. Tribal Council officers and members serve three-year staggered terms.

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

No, but we have an Elder Council and a Youth Council that advise us on a variety of cultural and social issues.

How often does your Tribal Council meet?

Suquamish Tribal Council meets twice each month. Suquamish General Council—the community—meets annually.

Suquamish Tribal Council 2015
The Suquamish Tribal Council, 2015. Left to right: Council Member Rich Purser, Council Member Sammy Mabe, Treasurer Robin Sigo, Chairman Leonard Forsman, Secretary Nigel Lawrence, Vice-Chairman Wayne George, and Council Member Luther "Jay" Mills.


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

Members of my family, especially my father and older siblings, were very active in tribal government, setting a great example. I was a student-athlete at public school, as well as a member of our tribal baseball, softball, and basketball teams. My oldest sister and brother were involved in education and national politics, which inspired me to get involved in both. I also was exposed to some of our cultural values and teachings at a young age, which led me into my work as a cultural researcher and anthropologist.

What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?

My first responsibility is to organize and lead our Tribal Council meetings and our annual General Council meeting. My second responsibility, in my opinion, is to represent the Suquamish Tribe and its interests within our tribal community, with other tribal governments, and with outside governments on the local, state, and national level. I also serve on many boards and commissions within and outside the tribe, which work to meet the interests of our people and the greater community, including serving as a member of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation since being appointed by President Barack Obama in 2013.

Who inspired you as a mentor?

My parents, who lived through the Depression, met and married during World War II, and raised their family here on the reservation. Also my oldest brother, Jim, who inspired me to go to school and get active in politics, and my late sister, Marion, who taught me to work hard and to learn my culture.

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

I am a descendant of the family of Chief Seattle, signer of the Treaty of Point Elliott of 1855.

Approximately how many members are in your tribe? What are the criteria to become a member? 

There are approximately 1150 Suquamish tribal members. Automatic adoption requires descendancy from a Suquamish tribal member and one-eighth total Indian blood.

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

The Suquamish people traditionally speak a Salishan language called Lushootseed.

Several years ago, the Suquamish Tribe had very few Lushootseed speakers. The language was in real danger of becoming extinct. However, a group of dedicated tribal members worked to create a language program. At first the program was volunteer. Now it is a fully funded division of our Education Department, where we have Lushootseed classes for students at our schools and family classes for our community members.

What economic enterprises does your tribe own?

Over the past 25 years, the Suquamish tribal government has diligently worked to ensure economic opportunities for tribal members. In 1987, the Suquamish Tribe established Port Madison Enterprises (PME) as an agency of the Suquamish Tribe. PME’s operations are aimed at developing community resources while promoting the economic and social welfare of the Suquamish Tribe through commercial activities. What began as a modest retail endeavor has grown exponentially over the last quarter century. PME now encompasses several businesses including Suquamish Clearwater Casino Resort, the historic Kiana Lodge, three retail outletsWhite Horse Golf Course, and a property management division.

PME operations are conducted at the direction of a Board of Directors comprised of seven tribal members who are appointed by the Suquamish Tribal Council. With more than 800 employees in fields ranging from information technology to hospitality, the Suquamish-owned company is fast becoming one of the largest employers in the greater Kitsap area.

In addition to PME, the Suquamish Tribe also operates a growing seafood business. Established in 1996 by tribal charter, Suquamish Seafoods Enterprise (SSE) was formed to develop seafood markets for tribal fishermen, as well as market the bountiful harvests of geoduck clams that populate the tribe’s surrounding waters. SSE benefits tribal members by supporting seafood sustainability, subsistence living—the traditional conservation and perpetuation of resources—and the tribal economy as a whole.

What annual events does your tribe sponsor?

The Suquamish Tribe is one of several tribal governments in the Salish Sea who coordinate the Tribal Canoe Journey. The annual event, where tribes and First Nations travel the waterways of their ancestors in dug-out cedar canoes to share traditional ways with one another, has become a vehicle for cultural resurgence throughout the region.

Chief Seattle Days is a three-day public festival established in 1911 to honor Chief Seattle. The first event was held on the current Celebration Grounds in downtown Suquamish by local tribal members, community residents, and civic leaders from the city of Seattle. At the time, the new town of Suquamish was linked to Seattle by foot-passenger ferries, which allowed city residents to travel across Puget Sound and enjoy the celebration.

Many of the same activities from the 1911 celebration are still featured today, including the traditional salmon bake, canoe races, baseball tournaments, drumming and dancing, and a memorial service for Chief Seattle at his gravesite in Suquamish. 

Throughout the years other events have been added to the celebration. These include a Coastal Jam that brings tribes together from throughout the region, a powwow, and a fun run, craft and food vendors, and the Chief Seattle Days Youth Royalty Pageant. This year's Chief Seattle Days takes place in Suquamish August 14 through 16.

What attractions are available for visitors on your land?

Our location along the shores of Kitsap County in the Puget Sound region provides an abundance of tourism activities. People visit our area for recreational fishing, kayaking, hiking, and camping. Many of our businesses, including the White Horse Golf CourseKiana Lodge, and Clearwater Casino Resort, have been developed to grow tourist activities in the region.

In 2013, the Suquamish Tribe completed a decade-long capital campaign to create a network of structures in culturally significant areas on the Port Madison Indian Reservation. The network includes the Suquamish Museum, Chief Seattle’s gravesite, the House of Awakened Culture, the Suquamish Community Dock, and the Veteran’s Monument.

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

The Suquamish Tribe is a sovereign nation. As such, we have a government-to-government relationship with the United States, as outlined in the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliot. We see the U.S. as our trustee, responsible for defending our treaty rights and resources.

What message would you like to share with Suquamish youth?

Know and respect your culture. Listen to your elders and know your family tree. Work hard and get an education and training so you can support yourself. As you go through your life, honor the seven generations that preceded you and leave something for the seven generations that will follow you.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

The last ten years of my life as chairman of the Suquamish Tribe have been very rewarding, and I am blessed. I was lucky to be here to oversee completion of our capital campaign to support Suquamish Dock, the House of Awakened Culture, and the Suquamish Museum, and to witness the election of President Obama, resulting in the most progressive administration in the history of U.S.–tribal relations.

Thank you.

Thank you.


Photos courtesy of the Suquamish Tribe; used with permission.

Comments (0)

    » Post a Comment

July 04, 2015

Do American Indians celebrate the 4th of July?

The museum updated this short essay, originally posted on July 3, 2013, with a few more people's descriptions of how they spend the 4th of July. How do you, your family, or your community observe the day? Share your comments here, or look for the discussion on the museum's Facebook page

How do Indians observe the 4th of July? Do we celebrate? To answer, let’s turn back the pages of time. A reasonable chapter to begin in is July 1776, when the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence and 13 colonies became the United States of America. With the emergence of a nation interested in expanding its territory came the issue of what to do with American Indians. History tells us that as the American non-Indian population increased, the indigenous population greatly decreased, along with their homelands and cultural freedoms.

From the beginning, U.S. government policy contributed to culture and land loss. Keeping our focus on the 4th of July, however, let’s jump to the early 1880s, when Secretary of the Interior Henry Teller developed what has come to be called the Religious Crimes Code—regulations at the heart of the Department of Interior, Office of Indian Affairs, Code of Indian Offenses that prohibited American Indian ceremonial life.

Teller's general guidelines to all Indian agents were to end tribal dances and feasts. Enforced on reservations, the code banned Indian ceremonies, disrupted religious practices, and destroyed or confiscated sacred objects. Indian ceremonial activities were prohibited under threat of imprisonment and/or the withholding of treaty rations.

The Secretary of the Interior issued this Code of Regulations in 1884, 1894, and 1904 through Indian Affairs Commissioner's circulars and Indian agent directives. Indian superintendents and agents implemented the code until the mid-1930s. During this 50-year period, Indian spiritual ceremonies such as the Sun Dance and Ghost Dance were held in secret or ceased to exist. Some have since been revived or reintroduced by Indian tribes.

In response to this policy of cultural and religious suppression, some tribes saw in the 4th of July and the commemoration of American independence a chance to continue their own important ceremonies. Superintendents and agents justified allowing reservations to conduct ceremonies on the 4th of July as a way for Indians to learn patriotism to the United States and to celebrate its ideals. That history is why a disproportionate number of American Indian tribal gatherings take place on or near the 4th of July and are often the social highlights of the year. Over time these cultural ceremonies became tribal homecomings. American Indian veterans in particular were welcomed home as modern-day warriors. The Navajo Tribe of Arizona and Pawnee of Oklahoma are two examples of tribes that use the 4th of July as an occasion to honor their tribal veterans.

Pawnee Homecoming 07-03-2013
The Pawnee Indian Veterans Homecoming Pow Wow recognizes returning veterans. Pawnee, Oklahoma. The 68th annual Pawnee homecoming takes place July 3 through 6, 2014. Photo courtesy of Pius Spottedhorsechief, vice president of the Pawnee Indian Veterans. Used with permission.


During these celebrations, tribal flag songs and veterans’ songs are sung. More than 12,000 American Indians served during World War I, and after the war, the American flag began to be given a prominent position at American Indian gatherings, especially those held on the 4th of July. This symbol of patriotism and national unity is carried into powwow and rodeo arenas today. It is extremely important to note that before the Reservation Era, when most Indians saw the American flag coming toward their villages and camps, it symbolized conflict, death, and destruction.

Today tribes hold ceremonies and celebrations on or near Independence Day for different reasons. The Lumbee of North Carolina and Mattaponi of Virginia use this time as a homecoming for tribal members to renew cultural and family ties. The Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma holds Gourd Clan ceremonies on the 4th of July because the holiday coincides with their Sun Dance, which once took place during the hottest part of the year. The Lakota of South Dakota and Cheyenne of Oklahoma continue to have some of their annual Sun Dances on the weekends closest to the 4th of July to coincide with the celebration of their New Year. Some American Indians do not celebrate the 4th of July because of the negative consequences to Indian people throughout history, while others simply get together with family and have cookouts, like many non-Native American citizens.

Jumping ahead to the present: To find out how American Indians across the country spend their 4th of July, we went to Facebook. This handful of replies represents both the diversity of responses we received and the direction of the discussion: 

Carnegie, Oklahoma: We celebrate every 4th Gourd Dancing, camping, and visiting my Kiowa people while we’re here, listening to the beautiful Kiowa songs. For three days we are just in Kiowa heaven. Been doing this for years. Now my parents have gone on, but we will continue to attend the Kiowa Gourd Dance Celebration.

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma: Do American Indians celebrate the 4th of July? Answer: Yes, it represents freedom in the United States of America. Freedom to continue to worship Creator, freedom to dance my prayers, freedom to sweat, freedom to rise early and pray the day in and be up late to pray the day out. We, the Host People, celebrate the 4th of July every day!

Prewitt, New Mexico, and the Navajo Nation: No, I do not celebrate. Because I as a Diné will never relinquish my belief or understanding that we as a people and a nation have the right to be loyal to the Holy Ones before all others, including the United States of America, since we as a people existed long before there was ever a United States.

Taos, New Mexico: Taos is a very close knit community, and even more so at Taos Pueblo nearby. Both have had many citizens serve in America's military in the heartfelt belief that they are protecting our nation. One of our honored tribal elders is Tony Reyna, 97, who survived the Bataan Death March in World War II. I have been told many times that, for us, the idea of protection goes deeper than for most Americans, because this land is where our people emerged, and that any threat to it is met from a place of deep, deep meaning. People here celebrate Independence Day pretty much as they do everywhere. It's a day off, and there are parades and fireworks displays. But for many we remember WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, and the sacrifices our people made. I wish all people could remember that, especially those who allow blind bigotry and hate to cloud their judgment.

Parshall, North Dakota, and the Three Affiliated Tribes: The 4th is the celebration of independence, which Native people have practiced as sovereign nations for generations.

Shawnee, Oklahoma: No, I do not celebrate Independence Day, simply because the Declaration of Independence labels my people "our enemies, the merciless savages of our frontiers." You notice they were already calling the frontiers "ours" when the land was not theirs. Because I do not celebrate Independence Day does not mean I am not proud of our Native American veterans and soldiers. I am very proud of them and of the fact almost all Native American families have a family member who is a veteran and/or an active member in the Armed Forces.

Anadarko, Oklahoma: I am Kiowa/Delaware/Absentee Shawnee, my mom is a Kiowa/Comanche, my uncle is a vet, as many of my other relatives are, as well as my stepdad (Comanche/Caddo). My Delaware grandma always said, “This is not our holiday. Out of respect we will honor their day, because our people helped them.” She said, “I will mourn on this day.”  She would wear a black dress that day.

Laguna, New Mexico, and the Pueblos of Acoma and Laguna: I celebrate the 4th of July and I do so proudly. . . . When you have been lucky enough to travel and see life in other places, you come to appreciate the home and land you live on. Maybe I'm not as bitter as some of my other Indigenous brothers and sisters because my tribes were not relocated and have been lucky to remain on ancestral lands. Our Pueblo people . . . fought against the Spanish in the Pueblo Revolt, but also learned to harmonize with the Catholic Church. Many years—even centuries—of healing have taken place to get us to this point. And I think by celebrating the 4th of July, I feel I am honoring that healing my Pueblo ancestors have prayed for. . . .

Sawmill, Arizona, and the Navajo Nation: I recognize Independence Day as a day off, as time with family. I recognize that the United States declared its independence on that day, but Native people weren't a part of their envisioned emancipation. As Native people, we recognized our independence through our prayers and practicing our traditions. We didn't need a special day to mark our freedom, we just were. So on the 4th of July, I will practice my American heritage and celebrate this country's Independence Day. But my heart knows I don't need a day to recognize my autonomy.

Oklahoma City and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma: I think of the 4th of July as American Ideals Day. If only America would live up to its own stated ideals, none of what happened to American Indian people would have happened. Today, if those ideals were finally acted upon, American Indian sovereignty would be fully recognized and the treaties would be kept intact. The fireworks celebrate the great ideals that could be America, if only greed were not allowed to pervert them.

Norman, Oklahoma: My 13-year-old son (Comanche/Cherokee) is currently reading the U.S. Constitution (just because). When I asked him about the 4th the other day, he kind of shook his head and said that most people just don't get it. Reading the comment above on American Ideals Day made me think of how true it is—how little we know about America's ideals of the past and where we hold them now.

Wichita, Kansas: My people, Kiowas, have always held this time of the year as a gathering of all our bands. They would celebrate for a week, indulging in each society’s dances, renewing friendships, visiting relatives, and so on. As we progressed into this modern society we are a part of, we recognized the importance of this celebration even more so. To honor our freedoms and the men and women who sacrificed for us today is truly a reason to celebrate the 4th of July. Does it mean we are to forget our struggles and the plight of our people? NO, but it commemorates the beauty of our land and the resolve of this nation we call America.

Pawnee, Oklahoma: [It's a day] to celebrate all our Native men and women who served in the Armed Forces of the United States of America, our Native men [the Codetalkers] without whose tribal language, [World War II] might have been lost. To honor our fallen ones, who sacrified their lives for us, and the veterans who are buried in our tribal cemeteries. . . and overseas. To honor my daughter . . . in the U.S. Army, a proud Native American woman who is serving our country. 

Waikoloa, Hawai'i, via the Red Cloud Indian School, Pine Ridge, South Dakota: It is a sad time, . . . thinking of all the treaties never honored. I try to hold my children and grandcubs near and invite others who are alone or ill or elderly to eat lots of food that I cook until I am very tired and thank the Creator for another wonderful day.

As Americans everywhere celebrate the 4th of July, I think about how many American Indians are taking their yearly vacations back to their reservations and home communities. All across Indian Country, tribes hold modern celebrations— including powwows, rodeos, and homecomings—that coincide with the United States’ Independence Day celebrations.

As for me, I’ll be with my two daughters, and we'll watch a huge fireworks display!

—Dennis Zotigh, NMAI

Dennis Zotigh (Kiowa/San Juan Pueblo/Santee Dakota Indian) is a writer and cultural specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.


How do you, your family, or your community observe the 4th of July? Share your comments here, or look for the discussion on the museum's Facebook page.

Comments (0)

    » Post a Comment

May 08, 2015

Meet Native America: Wayne Mackanear Brown, Principal Chief of the Meherrin Nation

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 Brown on Meherrin land
Principal Chief Wayne Mackanear Brown on Meherrin tribal land. The three figures at the lower edge of the chief's regalia represent the Tuscarora, Meherrin, and Nottoway peoples—nations of the Southern Iroquois Confederacy.

Please introduce yourself with your name and title.

Wayne Mackanear Brown, Principal Chief of the Meherrin Nation—Kauwets’a:ka, or People of the Water.

Can you share with us your Native name and its English translation?

It's Shagoiewatha. It means One Who Causes to Awaken.

Where is the Meherrin Nation located?

Our tribal office is in Ahoskie, North Carolina—near Potecasi Creek in Hertford County.          

Where were the Meherrin people originally from?

According to Mohawk history, approximately 2,000 years ago the Haudenosaunee lived in the Great Plains alongside the great river called the Mississippi. Their closest friends and allies were the Pawnee Nation. For unknown reasons all the Haudenosaunee Nations, including the Meherrin, left and started a migration up the Ohio River Trail towards the Great Lakes. The Tuscarora, Meherrin, and Nottoway split off from their brothers and traveled down the Kanawha River. The Meherrin settled in what is now Emporia, Virginia.

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

The first written account of the customs of the Meherrin people was made in 1650 when Sir Edward Bland visited the Meherrin Nation in their main village called Cowonchahawkon. Another turning point in the history of the Meherrin people came in 1680 when our Principal Chief Ununtequero and Next Chief Harehannah were the last chiefs of all the nations in Virginia to sign the Middle Plantation Treaty of 1677.  Shortly thereafter they abandoned this village and started their migration to present-day North Carolina.  

How is your tribal government set up? How often are elected leaders chosen?

We have a Principal Chief and seven council members. All of them are elected every four years. 

How often does your council meet?

Both Tribal Council and general body meetings are held once a month.

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

Yes, we are transitioning from a provisional government to our traditional government, the Great Law. The first Great Law review in over two hundred years was reintroduced to the Meherrin people in 2010 by Wolf Clan Chief Billy Lazore of Onondaga Territory; Joe Logan (Skyyoh-weho), Wolf Clan of Oneida Territory; and Michael Jock (Kanaratanoron), Bear Clan of Mohawk Territory in Akwesasne, New York.

How did your life experience prepare you to lead your tribe/band/Native community?

My father tacitly taught me to be patient and tolerant of other people, to reason and think things through before speaking, and most important to show the utmost respect for women. My mother, grandmother, and aunts taught me to have humility, responsibility, and love of family, to treat my brothers, sisters and cousins not only as relatives but as my best friends.

They also taught me about natural law—to learn from the animals and to follow the natural flow of things. The college and university where I matriculated and obtained my B.S. degree in Political Science and Social Studies and my Master’s degree in Social American History prepared me to deal with the world from man-made, human law. These two different sorts of laws made me understand the two different worlds that I had to live and function in. Natural law taught me a better way to communicate and deal with fellow human beings, regardless of their race or color.

What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?

As Principal Chief of the Meherrin Nation, I am responsible for the well-being of all the people. I am the spokesperson of our nation and the ambassador to other nations. It is my responsibility to follow the Great Law and carry out the will of the people.

Who inspired you as a mentor?

I must respond to this question from two perspectives, one of the ancient world and the other of today’s world. Deganahwideh, the Great Peacemaker, gave all Ongewe-oweh People the Great Law and the Great Tree of Peace and Friendship. Eventually this Great Tree of Peace was extended to all nations that would follow the white roots back to the tree. This is truly a great and divine document that has existed on Turtle Island for over 1,000 years. 

Chief Joseph, who did not shrink from the performance of his duties as chief in trying to save his people, is my second mentor of the past. He should be revered as one of a great strategist. Leading his people, including women, children, and elders, he eluded the United States military for nearly two thousand miles through Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming in attempt to reach the Canadian border to save his nation. Yes, he is one of my heroes of the past!

Lastly, in modern-day times, Kanaratanoron (Michael Jock) is my mentor in helping me to understand the oral history of the Great Law as recited to him by the elders. He is also instrumental in returning the Strawberry Ceremony to the Meherrin Nation after two centuries.

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

When I speak to groups of people at special events, I speak of the great chiefs who were great orators as if they were my fathers. Thus I consider them as my descendants. My mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and great-great grandmother are historical leaders who fought to keep our heritage alive when most denied or did not know their culture. They are my historical leaders.

Approximately how many members are in the Meherrin Nation?

There are approximately 250 active members.

What are the criteria to become a member of your Native community?

Applicants must be able to demonstrate a continuous family history that ties them to the eight major families who have been in this area since the 1700s.

Is your language still spoken on your homelands? 

No, we do not have any fluent speakers. However, the language is being taught at the conclusion of every general body meeting.

What economic enterprises does your community own?

The Meherrin Nation owns approximately 49.5 acres of land.  Our tribal office and several other buildings are located on the property.

Chief Brown Emporia Heritage Day 2013
Principal Chief Brown speaking on Heritage Day 2013 in Emporia, Virginia.

What annual events does your nation sponsor? 

The most important event held annually is the Strawberry Ceremony. The Harvest Festival and annual powwow are held the first weekend of October. Next year in April we will be holding our Herring Fish Ceremony for the first time in two centuries. 

What attractions are available for visitors on your land?

The museum and the palisade village are the two main attractions available to visitors on the land.

How does your nation deal with the United States?

The Meherrin Nation has a historical treaty with the state of North Carolina through the Treaty of March 4, 1729. When the United States was created after the American Revolutionary War, North Carolina continued to recognize the Meherrin Nation. To this date, there is no documentation to show that this recognition was ever extinguished by North Carolina or the United States government.

In 1802, some of the Meherrins were taken under the protection of the Iroquois Confederacy of the Five Nations. Principal Chief Ununtequero and Next Chief Horehonnah were the last two signers of the Middle Plantation Treaty of 1677 of Virginia, in 1680. Today, when I speak before any representatives of the United States government or any state government concerning First Nations peoples' affairs, I do so in full regalia and by our traditional protocols.

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

This message is not meant just for the youth of my nation, but for the youth of all my brothers and sisters throughout Turtle Island: More than ever before, get an education to keep the culture alive. Become historians, attorneys, and anthropologists, so that we can write our own history from our ancestors' perspectives. Do not let non-Indian people define you. Here is a Seneca proverb that explains it best:

The Great Spirit has made us what we are: it is not his will that we should be changed. If it was his will, he would let us know; if it is not his will, it would be wrong for us to attempt it, nor could we, by any art, change our nature. 

Is there anything else you would like to add?

We must take the lead in preserving Mother Earth. Listen to the words of the Mohawk writer Peter Blue Cloud:

Will you ever begin to understand the meaning of the very soil beneath your feet? From a grain of sand to a great mountain, all is sacred; Yesterday and tomorrow exist eternally upon this continent. We natives are guardians of this sacred place.

Thank you.

Thank you.


For more information on the Meherrin Nation, see http://www.meherrinnation.org/index2.html.

Photos courtesy of the Meherrin Nation. Used with permission.

To read other interviews in this series, click on the banner below. Meet-native-america

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.

Comments (0)

    » Post a Comment

April 30, 2015

Meet Native America: Vincent Armenta, Tribal Chairman of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians

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 
 

Chairman Vincent Armenta
Chairman Vincent Armenta, Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians. Photo © Smallz + Raskind, courtesy of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians.

Please introduce yourself with your name and title.

Vincent Armenta, tribal chairman of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians

Where is your tribal community located?

The Santa Ynez Reservation is located in Santa Ynez, California, in Santa Barbara County. 

Where were your people originally from?

The Chumash once numbered in the tens of thousands in villages spread over 7,000 square miles from Malibu to Paso Robles. The tribe also inhabited inland to the western edge of the San Joaquin Valley.

Is there a significant point in your tribe's history that you would like to share?

The federal government created Indian reservations even before many western states were established. To remedy the poverty of the Indians in California who were previously part of the Spanish missions, Congress passed the Mission Indian Relief Act of 1891. The act established a federal commission to research the creation of tribal reservations for Mission Indians, one group of whom was the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Mission Indians. The Santa Ynez Reservation was established and officially recognized by the federal government in 1901. Today, the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians remains the only federally recognized Chumash tribe in the nation.

Although the tribe was relegated to 99 acres in a flood plain, our people have made the most of it. Among the most significant moments in our history was securing running water on the reservation in 1969. Not long after, in the 1970s, the Tribal Health Clinic was opened in a small trailer. The opening of our casino in 1994 is another significant moment in our history. It set our tribe on the long-term path to economic self-sufficiency and independence. Today, our Chumash Casino Resort is one of the premier gaming destinations in the region. More importantly, our economic development initiatives have brought vital services to our tribe, from health care and education to cultural and environmental programs. The prosperous Chumash tribal economy has also been a boon to the local economy. Our business enterprises and government departments employ more than 1,700 people. 

Our tribe has faced its share of challenges in our quest to better the lives of our tribal members and future generations, but perhaps among the most challenging goals have been our efforts to reclaim our ancestral land. That’s why it was one of the most significant moments in our history when we placed 6.9 acres into federal trust in July 2014. This victory followed nine years of appeals and remands. We are now able to build our long-awaited Chumash museum and cultural center. 

How is your tribal government set up?

Our government leadership is made up of four elected members and an elected tribal chairman. This Business Committee oversees the legal and business affairs of the tribe and makes recommendations for the overall good of the tribe. No major decisions are made for the tribe without a vote by the tribal membership.

Santa Ynez Chumash Business Committee 2015
Chairman Vincent Armenta and members of the Santa Ynez Chumash Business Committee.
From left to right: Mike Lopez, Maxine Littlejohn, Chairman Armenta, Secretary/Treasurer Gary Pace, and Vice Chair Kenneth Kahn. Photo courtesy of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians. 

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

Chumash elders have long been honored and respected for their knowledge and experience. Traditionally, they have been sought out for advice and guidance. That is still very true today. They have a strong voice in our tribe.

How often are elected leaders chosen? 

Tribal members hold elections every two years.

How often does your government meet?

General Council meetings are held monthly. The Business Committee meets once a week.

What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?

One of my top priorities as tribal chairman is to continue to build a solid and diverse economic foundation for our tribal members and future generations. Gaming is not the single answer to the economic future of the tribe. That’s why we’re trying to do so much more.

Moreover, while building a solid economic foundation for our tribe is a major priority, so is preserving our culture and reclaiming our ancestral land.  

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

I believe having had my own businesses at a young age was critical in preparing me for where I am today. I have had my share of successes and failures in life, but I strongly believe that any experience, even bad experiences, will make you a better leader. 

Who inspired you as a mentor? 

There was not one person who served as a mentor for me. I have had a collection of people throughout my life who have made a positive impact on me.

Are you a descendant of a historical leader? 

No.

Approximately how many members are in your tribe?

There are currently 134 enrolled members.

What are the criteria to become a member?

Determining membership is the essence of tribal sovereignty and is reviewed by an enrollment committee subject to the review of the elected Business Committee and a General Council of eligible voters. 

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

In 2003, we began the process of researching what it would take to revitalize Samala, our native language. While we certainly live and practice our culture every day and incorporate our ancestors into our lives, what we didn’t have was our language. Today, we have a language program that encompasses language apprentices, as well as classes for adults and children at our Education Center, one of 27 American Indian Education Centers in California. We also have a 600-page Samala–English dictionary.

Our tribe continued its efforts in reclaiming not only its own native language but the languages of other California Indian tribes. We were one of the leading supporters of Assembly Bill 544, the American Indian languages credentialing bill. The passage of AB 544 in 2009 led to the implementation of guidelines and criteria for language fluency and other qualifications for awarding an American Indian languages teaching credential. Samala is now taught in one of our local schools, and we currently have five credentialed Samala speakers and teachers. 

What economic enterprises does your tribe own?

The tribe owns the Chumash Casino Resort in Santa Ynez; Hotel Corque, the Hadsten House Inn, and the restaurant Root 246 in Solvang; and two services stations in Santa Ynez.

What annual events does the tribe sponsor?

One of the biggest events the tribe hosts is the annual Inter-Tribal Pow-Wow. The pow-wow brings Native American dancers and drummers from across the United States and Canada. The 50th Inter-Tribal Pow-Wow will be held October 3 and 4 of this year. In addition to the pow-wow, we sponsor the annual Chumash Cultural Days to celebrate traditional singing and dancing along with storytelling and crafts.

What other attractions are available for visitors on your land?

The Chumash Casino Resort is one of the premier gaming destinations on California’s Central Coast. In October we kicked off our casino and hotel expansion projects—the largest renovation since we opened our resort in 2004. The hotel and casino will remain open during construction, and we will continue to offer our guests world-class gaming and A-list entertainment.

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

The Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians maintains a government-to-government relationship with the United States based on the tribe’s historic sovereignty, which has been embodied in multiple Executive Orders.

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

I would like to encourage our youth to keep their Chumash culture and traditions alive. Get involved and learn all you can about your heritage. I also urge our youth to take advantage of the tribe's education programs and resources. Education opens many doors. 

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

The tribe owns one of the most successful casinos in California; it has rich cultural, educational, and environmental programs and a thriving health clinic; and we’re now realizing our dream of building a Chumash museum and cultural center.  

None of this could have been possible without the guidance and support of a unified tribal membership. I am very grateful to have the opportunity to serve our tribe and be a part of one of the most important periods in our tribe’s history.

Thank you.

Thank you.


To read other interviews in this series, click on the banner below.
 Meet-native-america
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. 

Comments (0)

    » Post a Comment

April 17, 2015

Behind the Scenes of "Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America's Past Revealed"—Guayabo and Las Mercedes

Tomorrow, April 18, Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed opens at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. The exhibition is making its New York debut after first appearing at the museum in Washington, D.C. In anticipation, the museum is releasing four behind-the-scenes videos about research sites that are the sources of many of the objects in the exhibition. This third video, led by Ricardo Vázquez Leiva, an archaeologist who works at the National Museum of Costa Rica, takes a look at two archaeological sites in what is now Costa Rica—Guayabo and Las Mercedes.

Guayabo and Las Mercedes are important for excavation because the scale of the architecture found there suggests that they represent societies where power was highly centralized. In southern Central America, they stand as uniquely monumental examples.

Many of the objects unearthed in this area were excavated in the early 20th century by teams who worked for the American businessman Minor Cooper Keith and his wife, Cristina Castro Fernández, whose family was prominent in Costa Rica. The Keiths amassed a collection of nearly 16,000 objects during their time in Central America. In 1916, Minor Keith became a trustee of the Museum of the American Indian—Heye Foundation, later to become the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. 

Research excavations resumed in the region in 2005. Objects recovered from Guayabo and Las Mercedes continue to provide new insights into the lives and societies of the peoples who lived there.
 

  

For more details about the first peoples of Costa Rica, download the free exhibition catalogue. A short article on Minor Keith can be found on pages 72 and 73.

All four exhibition videos can be seen as a playlist here.

—Joshua Stevens


Joshua Stevens is the Public Affairs specialist at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York.

 

Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed is a collaboration of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Smithsonian Latino Center.

 

Comments (0)

    » Post a Comment