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.
Howka—hello, my name is Robert J. Welch, Jr. I am the chairman of the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians.
Where is your tribal community located?
My tribe is the Capitan Grande Band of Diegueno Mission Indians of California: Viejas (Baron Long) Group of Capitan Grande Band of Mission Indians of the Viejas Reservation, California. The Viejas Reservation is located approximately 35 miles east of San Diego and contains 1,600 acres of land.
Is there a significant point in your people's history that you would like to share?
The Viejas Band originates from the Capitan Grande Reservation and the village of Los Conejos, in the area known today as El Capitan Reservoir. The Capitan Grande Reservation was comprised of 22,000 acres and actually included the original land of two bands: Capitan Grande and Los Conejos. Due to the growing needs of San Diego, in 1935 the city dammed the river and diverted the water. Capitan Grande and Los Conejos tribal members were convinced to sell the heart of their reservation, since the land was inevitably going to be taken by imminent domain by the City of San Diego and flooded by the new reservoir.
A significant point in our history is during this time in the 1930s, when the original members of the Capitan Grande Band and Los Conejos Band were forced to sell their lands. The proceeds from the sale of the land could have been divided equally amongst the current members, allowing them to purchase individual land holdings throughout San Diego, which was, at the time, a small city. Instead, the tribe agreed to stay together and pool their money to buy new lands. After careful consideration by members of the tribe, they bought the Baron Long Ranch. After members of the band relocated, however, the water rights and infrastructure promised never came to fruition. The Viejas Valley became solely dependent on the meager supplies of rainfall and groundwater. Without river water, farming—which the people depended on as their sole source of income—was no longer possible.
Today, Viejas tribal members are proud owners of a tribal-government-owned and operated casino. There is a job for every tribal member who desires one. There are no Viejas tribal members on welfare or dependent on taxpayers for social services or improvements to their lands. The economic foundation we fought hard to create is providing a better future for our people, from housing and healthcare to college scholarships. In addition, the casino has created nearly 1,700 jobs and contributes millions to the local economy through the purchase of goods and services.
How is your tribal government set up?
The Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians is a sovereign government recognized by the United States as having governmental jurisdiction over its land and tribal members. The tribe’s government consists of two levels: General Council and Tribal Council. The General Council includes all of the band’s voting members. A rigorous form of participatory democracy, the General Council has approval over land use and tribal budgets. The General Council elects the Tribal Council, which includes the chairman, vice chairman, secretary, treasurer, and three council members at-large. Tribal government officials are elected to four-year terms of office. Like local governmental entities, the Tribal Council serves as the executive and legislative branches, and has quasi-judicial powers as well. Like special district boards (water district, port authority, economic enterprise or redevelopment agencies), the Tribal Council also serves as the “board of directors” for Viejas Band economic enterprises, with all tribal members as “shareholders.”
Is there any other functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?
The foundation for policies and procedures is our custom and tradition.
Viejas tribal leaders meet with Rep. Scott Peters. From left to right: Councilman Gabriel T. TeSam, Councilman Adrian M. Brown, Congressman Peters, Chairman Welch, and Vice Chairman Victor E. Woods. Photo courtesy of the Viejas Tribal Government.
How often are elected leaders chosen?
Tribal government officials are elected to four-year terms of office.
How often does your government meet?
The General Council meets on a monthly basis, and the Tribal Council meets daily.
What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?
As chairman, my goal is to continue to grow programs and infrastructure for the health and welfare of my people, and to diversify our business holdings so that we may continue to be economically independent as a tribe for generations to come.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead your tribe? Who inspired you as a mentor?
I have been loved, guided, and supported by two very strong family figures and tribal leaders—my mother and grandfather. I follow in their footsteps as a leader of my tribe.
My mentor was my mother, Carmen Daisy Welch. She was the first and remains the only tribal chairwoman elected by the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians.
My grandfather, Thomas Hyde, was a member of the Viejas Tribal Council for 40 years, holding virtually every position on the council. He was also a guiding force and mentor in my life.
Approximately how many members are in your tribe?
There are 264 adult members of the Viejas Band and approximately 80 children.
What are the criteria to become a member?
The criterion to become a member of the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians is to have one-eighth Capitan Grande blood.
Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?
Unfortunately, the percentage of fluent Kumeyaay language speakers on the Viejas Reservation is very low. However, in recent years the tribe has made the revitalization of the language a priority. The Viejas Tribal Education Center offers a Kumeyaay/English dual language preschool program for tribal children ages 3 to 5 years old. We also have a Kumeyaay Success program at three of the local school district campuses where teachers conduct leadership courses in Kumeyaay to tribal elementary and middle school students. Viejas tribal members also hold weekly Kumeyaay cultural classes for the community where they perform Birdsinging and dance, and teach the children other Kumeyaay cultural traditions.
What economic enterprises does your tribe own?
Our enterprises include the Viejas Casino & Resort, 2014 recipient of the prestigious AAA Four Diamond Award. The casino and luxurious new hotel feature incredible gaming, multiple entertainment venues, a wide variety of dining experiences, and high-end shopping and recreation. Visitors will love Viejas Hotel’s modern amenities, streamlined design, and handcrafted, boutique feel. The hotel features a lush, spacious pool and lounge area, a modern fitness center, a convenient, user-friendly business center, 99 luxury rooms, and 29 VIP suites. With the new hotel, the Viejas Band has taken the next step in our ongoing property refinement, providing a premier guest experience.
Across from the casino is the 255,000-square-foot Viejas Outlets shopping center, with more than 50 of America’s favorite brand-name stores. At the heart of the center is the Show Court, featuring an interactive water fountain by day and dynamic seasonal shows choreographed with lasers and pyrotechnics by night.
Ma-Tar-Awa RV/Camper Park, which opened in 1976, was the first business venture of the Viejas Band. Sitting on 133 sheltered acres of the Viejas Reservation, Ma-Tar-Awa features a clubhouse, convenience store, laundry facility, propane service, and swimming pool, as well as 88 RV hookups and campsites.
What other attractions are available for visitors on your land?
Aside from the casino, hotel, outlet center, and Ma-Tar-Awa campground, there are several fun attractions at Viejas, including the Viejas Bowl. Viejas Bowl provides the perfect atmosphere for beginners and serious bowlers alike with 12 lanes, unbeatable specials, and Galactic Bowl on Friday and Saturday nights. Plus, a great all-American menu, a wide selection of suds and sodas, and flat screen, hi-def TVs make Viejas Bowl the go-to venue for watching sports—or just hanging out. Also, within the casino is the V Lounge, which offers the perfect atmosphere for mingling, lounging or enjoying the best in local live entertainment and dancing on Friday and Saturday nights.
What annual events does the tribe sponsor?
The Kumeyaay Indians, whose ancestors welcomed explorer Juan Cabrillo to San Diego with open arms in 1542, continue ancient traditions of hospitality and sharing. We honor these traditions today through generous contributions to a wide variety of charitable and community organizations. Each year, the Viejas Band makes philanthropic donations to local community groups, schools, and service and civic organizations, as well as to charity events sponsored by other commercial businesses. Such support comes directly from the Viejas Tribal Council and its wholly owned business enterprises—Viejas Casino & Resort, Viejas Hotel, Viejas Outlets, Viejas Entertainment and Production, and Ma-Tar-Awa RV/Camper Park.
How does your tribe deal with the United States as a sovereign nation?
The Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians is a sovereign government recognized by the United States government as having jurisdiction over its land and tribal members. Tribal governments have autonomy and are not subject to state jurisdiction, based on their inherent sovereignty—tribal governments were governing our lands prior to the founding of the United States, and prior to the signing of treaties with the federal government or the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Along with the other tribal governments throughout the United States, the Viejas Band has a “trust” relationship with the federal government, enforces federal laws, and participates in issues relating to its land and people on a government-to-government basis.
The Viejas Band has become one of the nation’s most respected gaming tribes for its entrepreneurial success and political advocacy of economic sovereignty, and for the example it has set for tribal government businesses throughout the nation.
What message would you like to share with the youth of your community?
The message I consistently share with our youth is, education is the key to success. I highly recommend and encourage our youth to move off the reservation to attend college, pursue employment opportunities, or enlist in the military. I encourage them to broaden their horizons and interact socially with other cultures and communities. Then when they return to the reservation—and they will, because our people are tied to the land—they will be better prepared to run our business through the real-world experiences they have gained.
In closing, I would like to share the following with the youth: Poor leaders will tell you how many people work for them. Great leaders tell you how many people they work for.
Eyay ahun—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.