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, NMAI
Please introduce yourself with your name and title.
Reno Keoni Franklin, chairman of the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians. I’m also first past chairman of the National Indian Health Board, the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers, and the California Rural Indian Health Board, and former vice chairman of the Sonoma County Indian Health Project.
Can you give us your Native name and its English translation?
I choose to teach who I am: My name is Reno Keoni Franklin; my family comes from the Kashaya village of Aca sine kawa li. I am the son of Dino Walter Franklin and Pearlann Kuulani Makaiwi, grandson of Adrienne Mae Franklin (Smith), great-grandson of Walter and Sara Smith (Antone), and great-great-grandson of Robert Smith and Minnie Salvador.
Where is your Native nation located?
The Kashia Band of Pomo Indians lives in northwest California, along the coast in Sonoma County.
Where was the Kashia Band originally from?
We are fortunate to remain in our traditional lands.
What is a significant point in history from your nation that you would like to share?
Our first sustained contact with non-indians was with the Russians in 1812. They landed on the shores of our village Metini and were originally known to us as the “undersea people.” In 1817, the Kashia signed a treaty with the Russians—the Treaty of Hagemeister—and allowed the Russians to build Fort Ross, which quickly became a thriving trade port along the California Coast that brought in natives (and traders) from Hawaii to Alaska. Our relationship was not a perfect one, but it was much better than the experience of our neighboring tribes, who suffered greatly at the hands of the Spanish, Mexicans, and later groups of white settlers.
The Kashaya way of life would never be the same, but because of strong traditional leadership and a deeply rooted foundation in culture and religion, we are still here. Our language is still spoken, our ceremonies are still practiced, and we are still a strong people.
While much is said of the good relationship with the Russians, it is important to note that there were groups of Kashia who didn’t like the Russians' prolonged stay and occasionally burned their fields or killed their non-Kashia workers to remind them of whose land they were on. Still, the Russians would not kill a Kashia, and many of our people who committed crimes were instead shipped to a Russian prison on the Farallon Islands. After the Russians left, our tribal members were set free. In one memorable story, two Russian Soldiers were hung for abusing a Kashia woman.
Our history has its dark times, and I encourage our members not to forget that those dark moments existed, but also not to let them define who we are.
What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?
First and foremost, my responsibility is to serve my people. Second, it is to work as best as I can with our Tribal Council to better the lives of those we serve. This is the part of the responsibilities where the hard work is done. I think this piece is often forgotten: That our tribal councils will not always see eye to eye on issues, but that the chair needs to make sure we are working together despite our differing opinions and views. My tribal members expect that of me.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead your tribe?
I spent a lot of time around my elders, even as a little boy. I would sit with my grandmother and her brothers and sisters, listening to their stories and sneaking bites of pie or tup tup bread while they spoke. I am blessed to be from a community that has a roundhouse, and in that place I learned a lot. Our sacred places lay the foundation of the path that is chosen for us. For me, our roundhouse has always been a place of clarity and learning.
As I got older, and made the choice to serve my people, my fire-fighting background and emergency medical technician certification played a big part in my wanting to engage aggressively in bettering the health care of my people. I remembered how frustrated I was that we were losing so many elders to diabetes and other preventable chronic health issues. I would spend hours driving elder relatives down the hill to Santa Rosa for dialysis treatment. It was hard to watch them in pain. Those images of my elders stayed in my head for years and eventually were a major part of my decision to chair the National Indian Health Board.
At the same time, the strong cultural upbringing and influence of our traditional people drove me to do all that I could to protect our Kashaya Ama (tribal lands) and sacred sites from destruction, while always looking for new and creative ways to gain access to sites on private lands. I remembered being a boy and going to a family gathering site for raspberries and a white rancher yelling and cussing at my grandmother and her sisters to leave or he would throw them in jail. Years later, I remember of one of our elders crying when they heard of the destruction of one of our roundhouse pits and the village around it to make room for a vineyard. These events and many like them drove me to do all I could, a path that eventually led me to chair the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers and serve for four years on the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation.
Chairman Franklin with Kathleen Sebelius, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), at the HHS Annual Tribal Consultation. March 2010, Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of the American Indian Health Board.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
My uncle Loren Smith, my cousin Walter Antone; Amos Tripp, and my grandmothers, Shirley Makaiwi and Adrienne Franklin.
Are you a descendant of a historical leader? If so, who?
This is a tricky question, I don’t want to be disrespectful to the many leaders who have come from my family, lots of whom have been mentioned in history books and traditional stories. So with all due respect to them, one person would be my great-great-grandfather, Robert Smith, who was the first chairman of our tribe.
He is an inspiration to me because he stepped into a role that deeply contrasted his traditional upbringing and the Kashia view of leadership, but he knew it had to be done and wouldn’t say no to his people.
How is your government set up?
We have a constitution and by-laws that govern the day-to-day activities of the tribe. Our Tribal Council consists of seven members who are elected by the community. The Tribal Council is governed by the tribal citizens (the Community Council), who have the ultimate authority over the tribe.
Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?
There is not one that is in writing. However, our elders have a big say in how we conduct the tribe.
How often are elected leaders chosen?
Every two years. Councilmembers are elected to two-year terms.
How often does your Tribal Council meet?
At least twice a month. We also see each other during committee meetings.
Approximately how many members are in the Kashia Band?
What are the criteria to become a member of your tribe?
Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?
Yes, our language is still spoken. There are around 20 to 30 speakers remaining. We are fortunate to have elders who teach our language in our reservation school and who teach semi-weekly classes for adults. Our elders are amazing. They do so much for our people, it is humbling just to think of it.
What economic enterprises does the Kashia band own?
We have a tribal lending enterprise.
What annual events does your band sponsor?
We do community gatherings and are active participants and organizers in the tribal environmental area.
What attractions are available for visitors on your land?
Visitors to Kashia are usually there for ceremony. It has always been a place for other tribes to come for our ceremonies and to seek refuge. In the 1960s, Wilma Mankiller and Richard Oakes lived on Kashia. Many of the leaders of the political movements of the ’60s and ’70s came to us for protection and to gain perspective.
How does your band deal with the United States as a sovereign nation?
Our tribe stands firm on the foundation of tribal sovereignty. As a tribal council, we are not allowed to sign any document that waives our tribal sovereignty; that can only be done by a vote of our tribal community. We revised our tribal constitution to remove any authority of the BIA or Department of Interior. We are adamant that in issues pertaining to our tribes sovereign rights, only a Kashia can speak for us, we do not use attorneys or lobbyists on those types of issues.
This statement from Otis Parrish, one of our elders and cultural authorities, sums this question up: "No one, no other culture, no federal or state agency, will interpret for the Kashaya, how we should define our sacred."
What message would you like to share with the youth of your community?
The traditional teachings and rich history of our tribe reside with our elders, but our youth are the heart of it. They are always watching, learning what we teach them and how we teach them; the good and the bad. It is the responsibility of every Kashia man or woman to support our youth, to build them up and prepare them for their life path. I take that very seriously.
For our Kashia youth, I have always heard our elders say this: “I wish I had listened when the old ones spoke.” I used to think this meant the person saying it didn't remember or didn't listen to their elders. But they did, and they knew what to say and how to teach. It was a reminder to always listen and to always respect our Kashia elders.
Respect the rules of being Kashaya, seek out knowledge and remember to give for each thing taken because that is Kashaya way. Ask our elders what you can do for them, bless them with a small gift your time and attention, and you will reap the rewards of their teaching for your entire life.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I am often asked what I think the legacy of our generation will be. There are many tribal leaders my age—40—who have been in leadership for a number of years, and while we are getting much done, the question remains, what is this generation going to leave behind for the ones that follow? How are we preparing our children to thrive after the effects of an era that has brought massive disenrollments, Supreme Court–sanctioned attacks on tribal sovereignty, the weakening of the very laws that were meant to protect us, and a deepening of the disparities in financial prosperity amongst tribal nations? Are we once again teaching our youth just to survive?
The 1970s gave us the foundation to build stronger tribes, and Indian Country has responded by building stronger and healthier communities. But the work is never over, and we cannot rest or become complacent with what we have built up.
Because if the Baby Veronica story taught us anything, it was this: They will continue to attack who we are and what defines us as an Indian people. We must remain prepared and always at the ready to protect our sovereignty. And only we can determine who we are.
To read other interviews in this series, click on the banner below.
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 images used with permission.