September 12, 2014

Meet Native America: Gari Pikyavit Lafferty, Chairwoman of the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah

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. 

MNA Gari 1a
Paiute Tribal Chairwoman Gari Pikyavit Lafferty.

Gari Pikyavit Lafferty, chairwoman of the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah

Where is your tribe located? 

Our tribe is made up of five bands of Paiutes. From the north to south in Utah, we are the Koosharem Band, in Richfield, Utah; Kanosh Band, in Kanosh; Cedar Band and Indian Peaks Band, in the Cedar City area; and Shivwits Band, in St. George. 

Where were the five bands originally from? 

We have always been in central and southern Utah area. 

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

On Febuary 27, 1953, the federal government outlined a strategy for termination. Our tribe was terminated in 1954. Federal assistance ended for our people. It's written that almost immediately after termination began, it became clear it was a mistake. Struggling for survival, the Southern Paiutes in Utah worked their way through an alien legal and bureaucratic maze to finally win restoration on April 3, 1980. During termination the Paiutes lost well over 15,000 acres of land. 

What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader? 

Responsibilities comes in all forms, from attending monthly meetings, attending state affairs, federal issues that may have some kind of effect on your tribe. It's vital as well that your Native community see you as often as possible. 

I am on the road a lot, out and about for our tribe. It's very critical for me to be active in my Native community. I like being with the people, and I never forget they are the ones who put me here as chairwoman. I should add, though, that my family time is important to me more then ever. 

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

It's interesting how someone comes to tribal leadership or tribal politics. As for myself, it's something that was instilled in me at a young age. I am proud to say that with my dad and grandfathers and many family members, leadership runs deep in my family. My sister Marguerite Pikyavit Teller was the first woman elected chair of the Paiute Tribe. It was only a matter of time for me.

I am a mother of five amazing children—Heston Smith, Mckinley Smith, Sable Lafferty, Charles M. P. Lafferty, and Aries Jackson. I'm married to one great man, Charles Lafferty, who supports me. At times he doesn't understand why I have chosen to put myself in this position. It's not for everyone. You have to be cut from a different kind of cloth. If you're a weeping willow, it's not for you. But if you can withstand the storm that comes with politics, then this is the job for you.

My dad told me at a very young age, "Gari, you will be sitting at the head of the tribe one day." I have always been active in community affairs as well—school, church, band, tribal. 

Who inspired you as a mentor? 

MNA Gari 3a
Chief Mckay Pikyavit.

My father is my greatest mentor of all. I am very proud to say that my father was the last chief of our people—Chief Mckay Richard Pikyavit. My dad was so amazing there just isn't enough paper or time to say all I would like to say about him. My father was very much a family man, he took his responsibilities as a father very seriously. My father was a farmhand at a young age, then worked for our county road department. We had a large family, so when my brothers and sisters got older my mother worked as well.

My father was very active in tribal affairs. Community, church, school—my dad said you have to be out doing all you can in your community to make a difference. My father was one that spearheaded the work for our tribal restatement under the federal government. I remember being a young child and seeing my dad traveling the state of Utah to meet with others working towards the goal of our restoration as a federally recognized tribe. After long years of hard work, it came to pass on April 3, 1980, signed into law by President Carter. The dream of action came to pass.

I saw the long hours, days, months, years it took for this to happen. So I think that if I can do a fourth of what my dad achieved for the Paiute people, I will leave feeling I was a very accomplished leader for our people. Well, I have to say that I am very proud I am the daughter of Mckay Richard Pikyavit, the last chief of the Paiute people.

How is your tribal government set up?

Our government is set up with a tribal chairman and five council members representing the five bands. Six elected office-holders in all sit on our Tribal Council.

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

No, there is no traditional entity of leadership.

How often are elected leaders chosen? 

Elections are held every four years for a term of four years. First, each band area elects its band chairman or chairwoman. Members of the band eighteen years and older are eligible to vote. Once that is done, then all five newly elected band chairs' names go into the election for tribal chair. This election is open to all tribal members living anywhere in the United States.

Each band chair reports monthly to the Tribal Council on that band's affairs. One interesting note: This is the first time our Tribal Council members are all women. 

MNA Gari 2a
Tribal Council of the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, 2014. From left to right: Toni Pikyavit, chairwoman of the Koosharem Band; Lara Tom, chairwoman of the Cedar Band; Jeanine Borchardt, chairwoman of the Indian Peaks Band; Gari Pikyavit Lafferty, tribal chairwoman; Hope Silvas, vice-chairwoman of the Shivwits Band; Corrina Bow, chairwoman of the Kanosh Band. 

How often does the Tribal Council meet? 

Tribal Council meets twice a month, more often if necessary. Each band has a representative for health, education, and housing. Together they make up all boards for the tribe. Each band regularly holds a meeting as well, monthly or more often. Some bands have more going on than others in their areas.

Additionally, a General Council Meeting consisting of all enrolled tribal members over the age of 18 is held each year on the first Saturday in November. 

Approximately how many members are in the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah? 

We have around 900-plus members. 

What are the criteria to become a member?

For enrollment in our tribe is you have to have at least one fourth Paiute blood from your mother or father. 

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

Sadly, like for many other tribes, our language is spoken by our elders. And not too many of them have many othes to talk to. 

What economic enterprises does your tribe own?

All of our bands have their own economic enterprises. There are lots of tribal members who have their own enterprise for making money from sewing, bead work, painting.

What annual events does your tribe sponsor? 

Annual events vary from each band area. But as far as the tribe, we have our Restoration Gathering, an annual meeting where we hold our powwow, pageant, softball tournament, hand games, feast, parade. This all takes place the second weekend of June. This is celebration of our restoration as a federally recognized tribe, along with the annual meeting that's held in April. 

What attractions are available for visitors on your land? 

A great attraction would be to come and visit us during our Restoration Gathering. Also, we live in the most beautiful place in the world, with many national and state parks around us. 

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

Our concern as a soveriegn nation is just to be a good neighbor and offer support if and where it's needed. 

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

To our youth, I'd like to say that life is short. Enjoy it. Take every opportunity you can to make the very best of it for you and your families. We all make mistakes, but don't let them define who you are, or who you want to become. Use your mistakes as building blocks to your future. Listen to your elders. They may not all have a high school or college diploma, but what they do have is life experiences. And you need both to have success in your life.

You see only one person in me, but I stand on many shoulders of family members, as well as tribal people who have come before me. I will always be grateful for those who have worked very hard to get our tribe to where it is today. We are small compared to other tribes, but we have many great people who are thriving and working very hard for our people today and for those to come.

Is there anything else you would like to add? 

I would like to end with saying, we are living our grandparents' dreams, what they hoped would come to pass for our Paiute people. Let's not disappoint them. Just as they were to us, we are to our grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Let's make sure we are writing their history well. 

Thank you.


All photos are courtesy of the Paiute Tribe of Utah and are 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.         

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September 11, 2014

Haudenosaunee–U.S. Treaty of 1794 Comes to the Museum


Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations
, opening September 21, offers people a rare opportunity to see documents that have shaped our history and still define our mutual obligations. The treaty between the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and the United States is one of the earliest negotiated between Native Americans and the U.S. government under the Constitution. 

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From left:
Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Oren Lyons, PhD; Tadodaho of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Chief Sidney Hill; Suzan Harjo (Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee), guest curator of Nation to NationKevin Gover (Pawnee), director of the National Museum of the American Indian; and Jim Gardner, executive for Legislative Archives, Presidential Programs, and Museum Programs at the National Archives, unveil the Treaty of Canandaigua of 1794, on loan to the museum.


In 1794 representatives of the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and an American delegation led by President Washington's ambassador, Timothy Pickering, met on treaty grounds near Canandaigua, New York, to negotiate an accord. The two parties wished to confirm the peace between them and to secure their respective interests. Working together, the Six Nations—Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk, and Tuscarora—sought to recover lands in New York State they had lost to the United States following the Revolutionary War. The United States wanted Native lands in Ohio and assurances that the Haudenosaunee would not ally themselves with the Ohio tribes against the U.S. Army. 

More than 1,600 Haudenosaunee people gathered for the treaty council. Cornplanter (Ki-On-Twog-Ki), a Seneca war chief, and Red Jacket (Sagoyewatha), a distinguished Seneca and speaker for his fellow chiefs, took the lead, although others joined the talks as well. In the end, after 23 days of negotiations, the United States ceded back more than a million acres of Haudenosaunee lands and agreed to an annual payment of goods. The Haudenosaunee ceded all claims to Pennsylvania and the Ohio Valley. 

This week, the National Archives lent the Treaty with the Six Nations to the National Museum of the American Indian for the opening of the exhibition Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations. Haudenosaunee Faithkeeper Chief Oren Lyons and the Tadodaho of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, Chief Sidney Hill, came to Washington to welcome the treaty to the museum. 

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AP953247871443_7 AP364887375351_6Top left: Gail Joice, collections manager at the museum, and Terry Boone, exhibits conservator for the National Archives, prepare to move the treaty to the exhibition gallery. Top right: Chief Lyons and Director Gover study the treaty after installation. Center: Chief Hill and Chief Lyons scan the names of the leaders who signed the treaty for the Six Nations. Bottom: The signature and seal of Ki-On-Twog-Ky, also known as Cornplanter, and the signatures of President George Washington and Secretary of State Edmund Randolph; Washington often had a secretary add his signature to documents, but the president signed this treaty in his own hand.

Nation to Nation represents one of the rare times the treaty has been exhibited. James Zeender, senior registrar in the Exhibits Division of the National Archives, describes the document's journey to this point:

After its signing on November 11, 1794, the treaty was brought back to the seat of government in New York City. President Washington obtained the Senate's advice and consent and ratified the treaty on behalf of the United States Government.  Washington's ratification is visible as two smaller pieces of parchment attached to the treaty at the top and bottom of the original, signed on lower piece by Washington and Secretary of State Edmund Randolph. In the years to come, the treaty was kept with other treaties at the State Department until they were moved to the new National Archives Building on the Mall in the mid-1930s. At the beginning of this century, the treaty and other highly valuable records were relocated temporarily during a major renovation of the building downtown and returned a few years later.

Historic documents are fragile and sensitive to light, so original treaties can be displayed for only a short time. The treaty kept by the Haudenosaunee is held in the collection of the Ontario County Historical Society in Canadaigua, where it is shown once a year on Treaty Day, November 11. The treaty on loan from the National Archives will be on view at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., from September 21, 2014—the opening of Nation to Nation and the tenth anniversary of the museum on the National Mall—through February 2015. 


The transcript of the Treaty with the Six Nations originally appears in Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties, compiled and edited by Charles J. Kappler, 1904. 
Digitized transcript made available by the Oklahoma State University. 

The photos above were taken September 8, 2014, at the National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, D.C., by Kevin Wolf/AP Images for the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. 

 

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August 29, 2014

Meet Native America: Jonathan Poahway, Comanche Business Committeeman #1

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 


Jonathan Poahway e
Comanche Business Committeeman Jonathan Poahway speaking at the 2014 Johnson–O'Malley Senior Banquet.  Cache High School, Cache, Oklahoma.

Please introduce yourself with your name and title.

Jonathan Poahway, Comanche Business Committeeman #1.

What is your name in your language, and what does it mean?

Tsaa tuhoi—it means Good Hunter.

Where is your tribe located?

The Comanche Nation Complex is in Lawton, in southwest Oklahoma.

Where were the Comanche originally from?

Wyoming—we were originally a band of the Shoshone, or they were a band of us, perhaps. 

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

No United States war with any tribal nation lasted more than ten years, except the war against the Comanche. That lasted for forty years. Also the Comanche were the “roadblock” against Spanish expansion and conquest on this continent! 

What responsibilities do you have as a member of the Business Committee?

To secure a financially stable future for all tribal members, as well as for future generations. 

How did your life experience prepare you to lead?

I was raised as the youngest child of 15. The majority of us were raised by a single parent after our father died. Our mother was a fluent speaker of Comanche, with English as her second language, and she worked very hard to provide for us all. She worked two and sometimes three jobs. It instilled in us children a fine work ethic. Her parents spoke only Comanche and taught her to take care of others before yourself, and that is also ingrained in us. So it is in my heart to take care of all our nation, especially the children and our children's grandchildren.

Who inspired you as a mentor?

I would have to say one of my older brothers, who was on the council once as well. He taught me that honesty is the best policy, also that doing right will positively affect more people than doing wrong would.

Are you a descendant of a historical leader?

No.

Approximately how many members are in your nation?

Approximately 16,000. 

What are the criteria to become a member of the Comanche Nation?

To be enrolled, you must be one-eighth Comanche Indian blood quantum and a descendant of an original Comanche Nation land allottee. 

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

Only by the elderly. Fluency is probably as low as 3 percent. There is a language committee working to change that.

How is your tribal government set up?

We have a chairman who is in charge of day-to day-operations, a Business Committee whose members are policymakers and decide on investments under a certain amount, and the General Council—the people,  all members of the Comanche Nation who are eighteen years old or older—who vote on investments over the amount.

How often are leaders chosen?

The chairman has a two-year term, and seats on the Business Committee are for a three-year term.

How often does the government meet?

The Business Committee meets once a month, and the General Council meets once a year.

Johnny and niece
Jonathan Poahway and his daughter, Melissa Marie Koehler, Miss Comanche Nation College, at the Comanche Nation College Pow Wow. Lawton, Oklahoma; May, 2014.

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

We are supposed to be treated with the respect given to foreign nations. Sometimes we are not, and have to fight for and remind the United States government of our sovereignty. 

What attractions are available for visitors on your tribal lands?

We have casinos, the Comanche Nation Tourism Center, a water park, and the Comanche National Museum and Cultural Center.

What annual events does your nation sponsor?

We have the Comanche Nation Fair, which is coming up September 26 through 28, and a Comanche Nation Homecoming Pow Wow to honor our veterans.

What message would you like to share with Native youth?  

Education will take you a long ways and open many doors. Respect—for others—will keep those doors open!

Is there anything else you would like to add?

It is our responsibility as stewards of the land to pass down to many generations the knowledge and ability to take care of our mother, Earth!

Thank you. 


All photographs courtesy of Committeeman Poahway, 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.         

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Johnny Poahway represents a change in tribal governmental politics, he is a young and educated and a Comanche leader who advocates for language preservation, leadership, and fiscal responsibility for the Comanche people.

culture is the wealth of a nation. I appreciate your cultural diversity and how that culture was still maintained. Pictures photos in this article show a truly unique high culture. This is my hometown in Indonesia—Trawas.

August 22, 2014

Meet Native America: Ted Grant, Vice-Chairman of the Otoe–Missouria 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 

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Ted Grant, vice-chairman of the Otoe–Missouria Tribe. The tribal seal in the background shows the seven clans of the Otoe–Missouria, with a prayer feather at the center.

Please introduce yourself with your name and title.

Ted Grant, vice-chairman of the Otoe–Missouria Tribe.

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

My name is Che’Xanje~Obahomani. It's translated Big Buffalo Walks in the Snow. It comes from the Buffalo Clan of the Otoe–Missouria Tribe.

Where is your community located?

The Otoe–Missouria Tribal Complex is located in north central Oklahoma in Noble County.

Where were your people originally from?

At one time the Otoes and Missourias, along with the Winnebago and Iowa peoples, were part of a single tribe that lived in the Great Lakes region of the United States. In the 16th century the tribes separated from each other and migrated west and south, although they still lived near each other in the lower Missouri River Valley.

What is a significant point in the history of the Otoe–Missouria that you would like to share?

In the summer of 1804, the Otoe and Missouria were the first tribes to hold government-to-government council with Lewis and Clark in their official role as representatives of President Jefferson. The captains presented to the chiefs a document that offered peace while at the same time asserting the United States' claim of sovereignty over the tribe.

How is your tribal government set up?

The Tribal Council is the elected governing body of the Otoe–Missouria Tribe. The Tribal Council consists of seven members elected by secret ballot by qualified voters of the tribe. Each Tribal Council member has responsibilities for certain duties as listed in the Otoe–Missouria Tribe of Indians Constitution

 

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Vice-Chairman Grant (3rd from left) with fellow members of the Red Rock Creek Gourd Society of the Otoe–Missouria Tribe.


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

There are our traditional churches, including the First Born Church of the Otoe–Missouria Tribe, Otoe Native American Church, and Otoe Tribal Sweat Lodge.

How often are elected leaders chosen?

The terms for each Tribal Council member are staggered and last for three years. There are no term limits.

How often does the Tribal Council meet?

The Tribal Council holds regular meetings monthly in a place and date determined by the members. Currently the meetings are held in the Council Building at tribal headquarters. Meetings are open to the public, except when the council is in executive session.

Additionally, a General Council Meeting consisting of all enrolled tribal members over the age of 18 is held each year on the first Saturday in November. 

What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?

To ensure our tribal members are taken care of, to see that our tribal programs continue to help all of our tribal members, and to do my very best to protect the future and security of our tribal sovereignty.      

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

My mother and father taught me to always keep God in my life, respect my elders, and take care of my family. My father shared a lot of cultural teachings with me. I try to utilize this to assist people and organizations when called upon. My previous work in tribal law enforcement has uniquely prepared me for the challenges presented to a position on the Tribal Council.

Who inspired you as a mentor?

My father, William Leroy Grant—Bill Grant, as everyone knew him.

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

Tar-A-Ku (sometimes Tae-K-Kee), which is translated Deer Thigh or Deer Ham, a great leader of his people.

Approximately how many members are in the Otoe–Missouria community?

There are currently about 3,100 enrolled Otoe–Missouria tribal members.

What are the criteria to become a member?

All enrolled Otoe–Missouria tribal members must be one-eighth blood descendants of someone on the tribe’s 1966 base roll.

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

Unfortunately, there are no fluent speakers of the Otoe–Missouria language remaining. Some language is used in cultural events and ceremonies, but most of the language is lost. A tribal language program was created five years ago to retain what little is left and to revitalize the language through archived recordings.

What economic enterprises does your tribe own?

The Otoe–Missouria Tribe owns four gaming properties, two convenience stores, a hotel, an event center, a propane company, a cattle company, and several online financial services companies.

What annual events does your tribe sponsor?

The largest gathering of Otoe–Missouria people is the Annual Summer Encampment. It is held each year during the third week of July. This summer marked the 133rd time the tribe has celebrated the encampment.  

What attractions are available for visitors on your land?

Other than our casinos, the largest draw for visitors is to attend our first-class concerts. Top performers are scheduled each month at our Council Bluffs Events Center and 7 Clans Paradise Casino.   

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

With great respect and honor, and we would hope to receive the same treatment from them.

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

I would like to encourage you to utilize your education and seek out your personal goal in life, whatever it may be. You are the future of our people; always remember where you come from and be proud of your Otoe–Missouria heritage.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I would like to say thank you for asking me to be a part of this. It’s been great honor for me. May God continue to bless you and your families in the days to come. Aho!

Thank you. It's an honor for the museum. 


All photos are courtesy of the Otoe–Missouria Tribe and are 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.         

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August 14, 2014

Meet Native America: Stephen R. Ortiz, Chairman, Prairie Band Potawatomi 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 

Steve Ortiz a
Chairman Stephen R. Ortiz, Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation. Photo by Nathan Ham Photography, courtesy of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation.

Please introduce yourself with your name and title.

Stephen R. Ortiz. I've served on the Prairie Band Potawatomi Tribal Council for the past 15 years—as secretary from1998 to 2006, then as chairman from 2007 to 2014. The new chairman will be chosen in a run-off election later this month. 

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

Mon-wah M’jessepe, Wolf Clan. It means Dark Wolf that Travels along Big Bad River at Night that Travelers Hear Rustle along the Riverbank Scouting.

Where is your nation located?

Our Government Center is in Mayetta, Kansas, located in northeast Kansas.

Where were the Prairie Potawatomi originally from?

The Great Lakes region.

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

As I was told by my family elders, all Potawatomis who did not flee elsewhere in the 1800s were gathered up and relocated to Kansas. Upon getting to Kansas, a split occurred when the U.S. government offered the Potawatomis citizenship and land in Oklahoma. The Potawatomis who chose to stay and not accept the offer became known as the Prairie Band Potawatomi Indians. The U.S. government surrounded the Prairie Band Potawatomis, who were willing to fight and not to go to Oklahoma.

At this point for some reason the U.S. government left the Prairie Band Potawatomi in Kansas and granted them a reservation. The reservation was 30 square miles—later reduced to 11 square miles, where we are today. In 1998 the tribal government consisted of 85 employees and had a $2.1-million annual budget. Today we stand at 1,021-plus employees working for the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation in our government operations, healthcare facility, casino, and Economic Development Corporation.

How is your tribal government set up?

A tribal constitution was established creating a General Council membership who vote for seven Tribal Council members—chair, vice-chair, secretary, treasurer, and three members—to perform the duties described in our constitution.

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

No.

How often are elected leaders chosen?

A Tribal Council term is four years, and council seat elections are staggered so that there is an election every 2 years. The order is that the chairman, secretary, and one council member are voted on in one election, then vice-chair, treasurer, and the remaining two council members in the next election.

How often does your Tribal Council meet?

Tribal Council meetings are held twice a month and as needed depending on the situation. General Council meetings are held four times a year, and special General Council meetings can be called as needed. 

What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?

To protect the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation's rights inherent in the United States Constitution, our treaty rights, and other rights that arise from statutory law, executive order, tribal or other law, and judicial administration. To ensure that those rights will be fully protected, exercised, and preserved; to ensure justice and our security; to maintain Potawatomi traditions and customs; to promote harmony, the common good, and social and general welfare; and to secure the blessings of spiritual, educational, cultural, and economic development for ourselves and our posterity. 

I have also tried to serve Indian Country through work on the Secretary's Tribal Advisory Committee of the Department of Health and Human Services (where I am co-chairman), the Oklahoma City Inter-Tribal Health Board (vice-chairman), the advisory team on Tribal Consultation Policy for the Department of the Interior (member/alternate), the National Indian Gaming Commission Health and Safety Committee, and Kansas Governor Sam Brownback's Council of Economic Advisors. 

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Members of the U.S. Army 1st Infantry Division host Chairman Ortiz and other members of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation to honor Native American Heritage Month and the contributions of Native servicemen and -women. Fort RIley, Kansas; November 27, 2012. Chairman Ortiz was guest speaker for the event. Photo courtesy of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation.

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

I served in the U.S. Marines Corps from 1969 to 1971 and left with an honorable discharge and the rank E-3, then from 1973 to 1975 in the U.S. Army Reserves, 410th Evacuation Hospital unit (SMBL), honorable discharge, specialist E-5. I graduated from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, with a Bachelor of Business Administration, then went on to work 24 years in the corporate world with IBM as an administrative assistant, with Kansas Power & Light as an area manager, then with Hallmark Cards, Inc., as a plastics manufacturing section manager.

These experiences gave me insight into working with others to manage an ongoing operation for a profit, leadership skills to develop personnel to run an ongoing operation, customer satisfaction skills, and what brand loyalty can do to overcome competition. 

Who inspired you as a mentor?

My uncles, who were leaders in the Native American Church, and who gave me my ceremony and my Indian name when I was six months old.

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

Yes, I'm a descendant of Chief Shab-eh-nay through my grandmother Minnie Wahwassuck Jessepe.

Approximately how many members are in your nation?

There are 4,729 enrolled members.

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

Members must have 1/4 degree Prairie Band Potawatomi blood from the 1940 rolls.

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

The Potawatomi language is spoken fluently by 1 to 2 percent of the Prairie Potawatomi.

What economic enterprises does your nation own?

The nation's economic enterprises include the Prairie Band Potawatomi Casino and Resort, a propane company, two convenience stores and gas stations, health contracting services, and two smoke shops.

What annual events do the Prairie Band Potawatomi sponsor?

We host the Prairie Band Potawatomi Pow Wow every year in early June.

What attractions are available for visitors on your land?

In addition to the casino and annual pow wow, we manage a buffalo program with a herd of some 200 bison. 

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Representatives of the Iowa Tribe, Kickapoo Tribe, Prairie Potawatomi Band Nation, and Sac and Fox Nation join Governor Sam Brownback for the signing of the proclamation creating the first Native American Day at the Capitol. Topeka, Kansas, February 8, 2012. Photo courtesy of the Office of the Governor.


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

Over the years, Tribal Councils have developed working relationships with key regional directors of U.S. agencies and departments in the U.S. government and Kansas state government, including the governor. The Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation has also taken the state of Kansas to the U.S. Supreme Court over issues. 

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

Developing communication skills is key to leadership and resolving conflict. Understanding that all enrolled members, living on the reservation or off, are entitled to be treated fairly and are entitled to services set forth by guidelines. If you are elected to Tribal Council, leave your conflicts with others at the front door and work for the benefit of all, both on and off the reservation.

Is there anything else you would like to add? 

Our tribe has a number of community programs, including a financial assistance program to support members in their education, free rent to tribal elders who are disabled, a tribal meals program, and quarterly per capita payments to all members. We offer health care services to non-tribal members with insurance. The Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation's social service programs providing Tribal Victim Services and SAFESTAR (Sexual Assault Forensic Examinations, Support, Training, Access, and Resources) have been cited for excellence by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence

Due to the cooperation of Tribal Council members over the past 15 years, the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation is debt-free at this time.

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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