Meet Native America: Ken St. Marks, Chairman of the Chippewa Cree Tribe of the Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation
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.
My name is Ken St. Marks. I'm chairman of the Chippewa Cree Tribe of the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation.
Can you share your Native name and its English translation, or your nickname?
My great-grandmother gave me the name Skinnyman.
Where is your tribal community located?
Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation is in north central Montana.
Where is your tribe originally from?
Rocky Boy’s Band of Chippewa came from the Great Lakes area, and Little Bear’s Band of Cree came from the Canadian territories.
What is a significant point in history from your tribe that you would like to share?
Our reservation was created by an Act of Congress in 1916, helped by many prominent political activists in Montana. Both bands of Chippewa and Cree were landless at the time of reservation's establishment.
How is your tribal government set up?
We have an elected chairman and eight elected members of the Chippewa Cree Business Committee (CCBC). The CCBC is the governing body for the Chippewa Cree Tribe.
Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?
We do have a group of Peacemakers, elected by the tribal government. The Peacemakers serve as a guiding entity to our traditional belief systems as Chippewa Cree.
How often are elected leaders chosen?
Members of the CCBC are elected to staggered terms lasting four years. The chairman is elected every four years. We are a sovereign nation, and we are one of the first tribes in the nation to go into an agreement with the federal government to establish ourselves as a self-governance nation. This was done in 1994.
How often does your tribal council meet?
The CCBC has monthly meetings, along with monthly subcommittee meetings. Most, if not all, members of the Business Committee sit on at least one subcommittee.
What responsibilities do you have as tribal chairman?
I wanted to be chairman for the sake of the people and the tribe. I've fought hard to be in this leadership position for the past four years. I would like to have a Native community healing gathering for all tribal members and to have the spiritual aspect of our culture be a central focus. I would like the tribe to be connected and united as one, once again, and to do so through prayer and spirituality.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead your tribe?
Before being elected chairman, I served as a Business Committee member. I've run various businesses for the tribe, as well as being self-employed and creating the excavation contracting company Arrow Enterprises, Inc. I am also a Vietnam-era veteran. I served with the 82nd Airborne Division.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
Former Chairman John "Roddy" Sun Child. I learned a lot from him and how he handled himself in Washington. Because of who he was and how he treated others, doors were easily opened for him, and with that, it became a better connection for his people. My three grandmothers—Mary St. Marks, Rosanne Saddler, and Gramma Taha Saddler—were also an inspiration for the way I think today. They were prominent figures in my life.
Are you a descendant of a historical leader?
I'm a descendant of Rocky Boy's Band of Chippewas. Also, one set of my grandparents came from the Cree Nation in Canada.
Approximately how many members are in your tribe?
The tribe has around 6,400 members. Two-thirds of our members live on the reservation, and half are under the age of 18.
What are the criteria to become a member of your tribe?
To be a member, a person's parents have to be enrolled and living on the reservation at the time of birth. For those living off the reservation, the criteria are 50 percent Indian blood and one enrolled parent.
Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?
Yes, Chippewa and Cree are still spoken, with an estimated 20 percent of the people speaking fluently. Chippewa Cree language is a primary reason why our culture is still flourishing and intact.
What economic enterprises does your tribe own?
The tribe owns Dry Fork Farms, Chippewa Cree Construction Corporation, PlainGreen LLC, and the Chippewa Cree Community Development Corporation.
What annual events does your tribe sponsor?
The largest event we host is Rocky Boy's Annual Celebration and Rodeo. Our annual celebration for 2016 will commemorate that it has been 100 years since our reservation was established.
What other attractions are available for visitors on your land?
There is the Chippewa Cree Recreation Area, in the Bears Paw Mountains, and the Bear Paw Ski Bowl. Also on our land is the sacred mountain Baldy Butte, along with many other landmarks that are sacred to the Chippewa Cree people. Tours that follow the proper protocols can be arranged for visitors.
A beautiful spring day on Chippewa Cree land. April 2014, the Rocky Boy's Reservation, Montana.
How does your tribe deal with the United States as a sovereign nation?
We have established a government-to-government relationship with the U.S. federal government. Because of historical ties, we also have unspoken trust and respect agreements with Canadian tribes.
What message would you like to share with the youth of your tribe?
Our ancestors prayed hard for a place for our people to live and practice our traditional ways and system of beliefs. Take care of this land. It’s our home. And take care to practice self-sufficiency. Our older generation worked hard for what we have today. Follow those ways.
Our original Chief Stone Child’s last words were, “Be kind to one another and help one another.”
Is there anything else you would like to add?
The Chippewa Cree Tribe has been through some difficult times while we tried to clean up our government and to see that the business of the tribe was conducted by the legally elected Business Committee, whose members represent the people's interests. It got very personal.
I’m grateful to my family and many others on the reservation and in neighboring communities who stood by me and helped me fight this. I’d also like to thank the law firm of Fredericks Peeples & Morgan for all their work. With their help, I became the first American Indian tribal leader to receive federal whistleblower protection while we fought to make things right here.
The chairman’s office and the Business Committee are working well together now, for the welfare of our people. That’s the most important thing I’d like people to know.
Photos courtesy of the Chippewa Cree Tribe of the Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation.
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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.