Meet Native America: Interviews with Indigenous Leaders

April 10, 2014

Meet Native America: Kenneth Meshigaud, Tribal Chairperson of the Hannahville Indian Community

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.

My name is Kenneth Meshigaud. I am tribal chairperson of the Hannahville Indian Community.

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

My Native name is Ogeema Muckwa, which translates in English to King Bear—I am of the Bear Clan. 

Recentofficephoto a
Kenneth Meshigaud, tribal chairperson, Hannahville Indian Community.

Where is your community located?

Our tribe—a band of Potawatomi—is located in the south central part of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It's best described as approximately two hours north of Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Where was your nation originally from?

The great nation of Potawatomi once called the areas of southern Michigan, southern Wisconsin, northern Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio our ancestral homelands.

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

It is difficult to define any particular event, but I believe the Trail of Tears was a significant part of that history, as for almost every tribal nation across the country. In 1834 the people of Hannahville refused to leave Michigan in the Indian Removal. As tragic as that was, I believe it defined and strengthened us as nations of people.  And although it split us from our brothers and sisters, it caused us to develop the tenacity, strength, and familial bonds that would carry us through those tough times and instill in us the desire to carry on as the proud and strong nation that we are.

How is the Hannahville Indian Community government set up?

The Hannahville Indian Community Tribal Council governs the community. We also have other elected boards for various areas of the community government. That includes a Health Board, School Board, Adult/Child Welfare, Housing, and a Gaming Commission. These elected boards have responsibilities to oversee their respective departments for administration and oversight of policies adopted by the Tribal Council.

Any disputes or interruptions that the board cannot settle are referred to the Tribal Council for final action.

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

Although there is no functional traditional leader of the community, we rely on the wisdom, general practices, and recommendations of persons who are knowledgeable in these areas to offer their suggestions when the Tribal Council meets to make and enforce the laws for the people of the Hannahville Indian Community.

How often are elected leaders chosen?

The Tribal Council is elected for a three-year term as defined by our constitution and by-laws.

How often does the council meet?

Tribal Council is bound by constitution to meet at least once per month. 

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

I don’t think I was ever prepared enough to have this awesome responsibility. I don’t think anyone ever is.  What I do know is that I grew up with some awareness in myself that I would one day help and contribute to my community in some way. Knowing this, as I grew up and got to the age when I could be employed, I worked in many areas of the community to gain a basic knowledge of how each department functioned on a day-to-day basis. I knew that one day it would help me to oversee and steer the community in what I think is the right direction.

What responsibilities do you have as principal chief?

I have administrative oversight responsibilities for all governmental, educational, health, welfare, and gaming activities in our community. The responsibility of overseeing the general welfare of our community is perhaps the toughest responsibility. To act as a leader, spokesperson, and advocate for the people is the highest honor, knowing that it is their lives and the lives of their children that I am ultimately affecting. 

Who inspired you as a mentor?

I’ve had many mentors over the years from administrators who were my bosses or supervisors when I entered the workforce in my community to teachers and community members. But the person I consider my greatest teacher and mentor was my brother-in-law, Jake McCullough Jr. When I was three years old, my mother passed away, and the state welfare department felt it was in the best interest to place my younger brother and me in foster homes; they felt my father could not handle such young children. 

Well, my family would not have it. So my older sister, Marylou decided to take us in. Her husband, Jake, acted for a time as my father. He, along with my sister, raised my brother and me during those very formative years and taught us life lessons that I still cling to today. The lessons of self-respect, thinking before acting, and caring for your brothers and sisters are the greatest teachings he ever gave me. He later became the tribal chairperson for our community and inspired me to do the same. Not by his saying it in words, but by my watching his actions and role modeling I later came to realize that I wanted to follow in his footsteps.

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

I am told that I am a descendant of Chief Simon Kahquados, who I am told was the last heredity chief of the Potawatomi. Best known as the Great Communicator, he would regularly travel to cities and towns outside the community and speak to non-Indian people to educate them about the community in hopes that it would build trust and foster good relationships.  

Approximately how many citizens are in your community?

There are currently 905 enrolled members of the Hannahville Indian Community.

What are the criteria to become enrolled in Hannahville?

Every person who wishes to be an enrolled member of the community must be half or more Indian blood. Our constitution and by-laws spell out membership criteria and, and as for many communities, the criteria are each unique to our tribe.  

2012gathering a
Chairperson Meshigaud at the 2012 Gathering of Potawatomi Nations, hosted by the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi. Each year one of the nine bands of Potawatomi—seven in the United States and two in Canada—hosts the gathering, which includes a conference on language revitalization as well as a powwow. Courtesy of the Hannahville Indian Community. Used with permission.

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

The Potawatomi language was recently ranked among the ten most endangered languages on the planet. Very few people speak fluently, and of those who do, the average age is at a point where we are loosing many of them.

The Potawatomi nation as a whole, including bands outside of Hannahville, has come together to create language programs that will sustain and preserve our language for generations. Through our efforts and along with the assistance of professional linguists, the Potawatomi language dictionary is very close to publication, another tool we hope will preserve the language for the future generations. 

What economic enterprises does your community own?

Hannahville Indian Community currently owns and operates the Island Resort and Casino, the Sweetgrass Golf Club, the Island Oasis Convenience Store, the Potawatomi Heritage Center, and a waste water treatment plant that provides service to the neighboring non-Native community for a fee. 

What annual events does your community sponsor?

Each year the community hosts the Annual Great Lakes Area Pow-Wow, now entering its 38th year. We hold various charitable golf tournaments. In June we will host the L.P.G.A. Symetra Tour's Island Resort Championship for the fourth time at our top-ranked Sweetgrass Golf Club at the Island Resort and Casino, a relationship that has been extended through 2017.

What other attractions are available for visitors on your land?

Aside from the casino, the Potawatomi Heritage Center is available to educate and inform the public on who the Potawatomi people are and what our community is all about.

How does the Hannahville Indian Community deal with the United States and Canada as a sovereign nation?

Like many tribal nations across North America and Canada, the relationship with our sovereign-nation neighbors is sometimes a contentious and difficult one. We have put a lot of energy into building good relations with our neighboring county and state governments. Disagreements are bound to happen, and they do, but we have been able to overcome a great majority of them to ultimately benefit both the tribe and the surrounding non-Native communities. We may have philosophical differences, but mutual respect and cooperation can go a long way in closing gaps that prevent our communities from moving forward.

What message would you like to share with the young people of Hannahville?

My advice to the youth of Indian Country is to stay away from alcohol and drugs. The scourge of alcohol and drugs and the ill-fated results have been the most debilitating factor in the erosion of our families, our communities, our culture, and our Tribal ways. Dealing with these problems on a daily basis, especially when they are associated with young people, has been the most difficult and heart-wrenching problem that I've faced.  Seeing our people spiral out of control and watching their light fade to almost nothing should tear at anyone’s heartstrings, as it does at mine. 

It is much better for the youth of our communities to realize that there are countless opportunities to live better lives and that the possibilities of creating that good life exist.

Above all, the self esteem that you build within yourself from positive personal accomplishments is by far a greater thing to manifest and learn from than having to struggle and dig your way out of negative and nonproductive actions that have consequences that will follow you through the majority of your lives. Always look up and make the choice to see the good road ahead that you can walk on. It is there, and your community is there to help you.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I have seen our community arise from a time when we had no running water and electricity in our homes to a community owning our own multimillion-dollar resort and golf club. We’ve gone from unpaved two-lane roads, garbage dumps in our backyards, from a time when the surrounding non-Indian communities thought less of us as fellow human beings, to becoming a thriving community with a modern infrastructure and an economic force not only in the surrounding counties, but regionally. 

In my almost 29 years as our community's chairperson, over half my life has been dedicated to steering this community in what I think is the right direction. Sure, we’ve got a long way to go, and we’ve not always been perfect, but the positive things we accomplish—the successes I witness from our tribal membership and see in the hope and determination on their faces—is the driving force that keeps me enthused and energized, and provides the gratification in an otherwise mundane and boring job.

Thank you. 

Photographs above courtesy of the Hannahville Indian Community. 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 images used with permission. 

Comments (0)

    » Post a Comment

March 28, 2014

Meet Native America: Michell Hicks, Principal Chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee 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.

Both Principal Chief Hicks and Principal Chief Bill John Baker of the Cherokee Nation are profiled in Meet Native America this week. The two nations join us in hosting Cherokee Days—a free festival of storytelling, films, dance, music, family activities, and cultural demonstrations at the museum in Washington, D.C., Thursday, April 3, through Saturday, April 5, 2014Visit the museum's online calendar for the full schedule of festival events. The festival will be webcast live from 11 a.m. to about 3 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. —Dennis Zotigh, NMAI 

 

Chief Hicks portrait a
Michell Hicks, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

Please introduce yourself with your name and title.

Michell Hicks, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

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

I possess no Native name or nickname, but the Cherokee word for chief is u-gu-wi-u-hi. 

Where is the Eastern Band located? Where was your nation originally from?

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians lives in western North Carolina in the Great Smoky Mountains. Our lands today were the heart of the Cherokee Nation at the time of European contact. At that time our tribe controlled parts of what are now eight states: North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia. 

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

The story of the Eastern Band is one of survival. We avoided the Removal of our people in the 1830s and survived the destruction of the old Cherokee Nation.

How is the Eastern Band government set up?

Our government functions under a governing charter. However we formed in the later part of the 19th century under the Lloyd Welch Constitution. We have an executive branch, led by the principal chief and vice chief, which oversees the nation's day-to-day operations; a Tribal Council of elected officials from six voting districts, which develops legislation; and a Tribal Court system with civil and criminal courts as well as a Supreme Court.

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

The Eastern Band has many forms of traditional leadership. We have a thriving Ga-du-gi group of men and women who come together to support families during times of hardship. This includes digging graves and cooking for funerals, scraping snowy driveways, and providing wood to elderly community members. 

How often are elected leaders chosen?

The principal chief and vice chief are elected every four years. The Tribal Council is elected every two years. All office-holders may serve for an unlimited number of popularly elected terms. 

How often does the council meet?

Our Tribal Council meets in official session twice a month, once to resolve budget issues and once to undertake other business. Additionally, there are several Tribal Council committees that meet monthly to work on business and prepare for the regular Tribal Council sessions.

What responsibilities do you have as principal chief?

I have a responsibility to keep our community safe, to provide access to quality health care, to provide educational opportunities, and to promote a lifestyle that celebrates our heritage and preserves our language. 

Chief Hicks with children a
Chief Hicks presenting copies of the children's book True Blue to students at Cherokee Elementary School, Cherokee, North Carolina, December 4, 2006. Written and illustrated by Eastern Band members Annette Suanooke Clapsaddle and Paula Nelson, the story idea began with Sammi Suanooke, a kindergarten teacher at the school, who wanted her students to learn the rewards of patience and listening to elders. The book is part of a series of children's titles published by the chief's office to promote Cherokee values and encourage families to read to their children at home. 

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

My background is finance. I earned my CPA in 1994 and worked in accounting from 1987 until I was elected chief in 2003. Most notably I served as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians' executive director of budget and finance for approximately seven years. I feel my experiences were the best preparation for the challenges facing our tribe today.

Who inspired you as a mentor?

There are several individuals who have inspired me by their service to the Eastern Band community. These include former Eastern Band Principal Chief Joyce Dugan, former Cherokee Nation Chief Wilma Mankiller, and Ray Kinsland

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

My family traces our lineage through my grandfather back to Charles Hicks (1767–1827), a tribal chief who lived in eastern Tennessee. In the first decades of the 19th century, Charles was very influential in easing tensions between the Cherokee Nation and their early non-Indian neighbors. My colleagues Bob Blankenship, councilmember for Yellowhill Township, and Nancy Maney, Eastern Band enrollment officer, recently shared research that traces my grandmother's family back to Chief Yonaguska (or Yonaguskia, 1760?–1839), who promoted both temperance and peace and who remained in the North Carolina mountains during the Removal and helped rebuild the Eastern Band. 

Approximately how many citizens are in the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians?

There are approximately 15,000 tribal members.

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

Enrollment is for those who are direct descendants of Cherokees listed on the 1924 Baker Roll and who are of at least one-sixteenth degree of Eastern Cherokee blood quantum. 

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

The Kituwah dialect is still spoken among our people, although there are fewer than 400 fluent speakers. Our tribe has invested in the New Kituwah Academy, a Cherokee language–based school, in an effort to preserve and further our language. We currently have approximately 60 students enrolled in this school.

What economic enterprises does your nation own?

The Eastern Band of Cherokees owns and operates Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort and will soon open the Harrah’s Valley River Casino & Hotel. We have several other enterprises including the Cherokee Boys Club, which provides administrative services for the Cherokee Central School system; Cherokee Bottled Water; and Cherokee Wildlife and Fisheries, which operates one of the largest commercial fish hatcheries in the eastern United States.

What annual events does your community sponsor?

I asked the Eastern Band tourism staff to help answer this, to do justice to all the special events we host: 

Events, festivals, fairs, and more abound in Cherokee throughout the spring, summer, and fall, all as diverse as they are delightful. They’re a great way to have a great time, and often they provide an easy opportunity to absorb some intriguing Cherokee culture through dance, food, craftmaking, and more. But some Cherokee events are simply a fun way to spend time with your friends and family.

The Cherokee Voices Festival is all things Cherokee—living history, traditional dances, music, singing, crafting demonstrations, and food. Hosted on the grounds of the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, featuring North Carolina Arts Council Heritage Award–winners and elders who typically aren’t able to perform at festivals, yet do so here. 

Traditional, Jingle, or Grass are only three of the categories world-champion Indian dancers will perform during the 39th Annual 4th of July Powwow. For three days it's a stirring spectacle of majestic tribal regalia, drum, and song, in a sea of twirling color. 

The Memorial Day Youth Powwow is a gathering of tribes, all focused on passing on what’s important to their youngest members—their sacred rituals and customs, their regalia and dance, and of course, their music.

The Open Air Indian Market presents Fine Cherokee art, made right before visitors' eyes by master artisans using age-old techniques.

Cherokee Indian Fair is over a century old. It’s a carnival and an agriculture show, an art show and a game show. 

It’s always a good time for a few stories by the bonfire, which is why we have Cherokee Bonfire all season long. Cherokee storytellers in their best 17th-century attire recount myths, legends, and history inherent to Cherokee culture. There’s dancing, too, and of course, marshmallows.

Another event people can enjoy throughout the season, Music by the River presents music in the fresh mountain air, for free.  

7 Clans Rodeo—a Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association–sanctioned event—is time to see cowboys pay for hundreds of years of beef jerky. There’ll be bull ridin’, bronco bustin’, and a corral full of skills competitions. Visitors might even see a cowboy get hurled into the —you know, fun for the whole family.

The Qualla Boundary has long been home to a host of barbecue lovers, purveyors, and enthusiasts. So the Eastern Band created the Cherokee Barbecue Festival to share our passion and skill. If you love all meats grilled, pulled, and smoked, join us. 

People can find dates and further details on these and other special events at VisitCherokeeNC.com.

What other attractions are available for visitors on your land?

The Museum of the Cherokee Indian is the oldest tribal museum in the United States and operates year round. The Cherokee Historical Association operates the Oconaluftee Indian Village, a re-creation of a 17th-century Cherokee Village, and the summer production of Unto These Hills, an outdoor drama. The Qualla Arts and Crafts Cooperative is the oldest Native artist cooperative in the United States and operates a retail store.

We are also the southern terminus of the Blue Ridge Parkway and the eastern entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

How does the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians deal with the United States as a sovereign nation?

We have worked extremely hard to build and maintain good relationships at the state and federal level and further have spent endless hours educating lawmakers about Eastern Band priorities.

What message would you like to share with Eastern Band young people?

Dreams can be achieved through commitment and a good work ethic.  

Thank you.

Photographs courtesy of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. 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 images used with permission. 

Comments (0)

    » Post a Comment

March 27, 2014

Meet Native America: Bill John Baker, Principal Chief of the Cherokee 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.

Both Principal Chief Baker and Principal Chief Michell Hicks of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians are profiled in Meet Native America this week. The two nations join us in hosting Cherokee Days—a free festival of storytelling, films, dance, music, family activities, and cultural demonstrations at the museum in Washington, D.C., Thursday, April 3, through Saturday, April 5, 2014. Visit the museum's online calendar for the full schedule of festival events. The festival will be webcast live from 11 a.m. to about 3 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. Dennis Zotigh, NMAI 

Chief and Mrs Baker a
Cherokee Nation First Lady Sherry Baker and Principal Chief Bill John Baker, Cherokee Nation, Oklahoma. Photo © Jeremy Charles. Used with permission. 
 

Please introduce yourself with your name and title. 

Bill John Baker, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation

Where is your nation located?

The Cherokee Nation’s headquarters is in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and our nation’s jurisdiction spans all or part of 14 counties in the northeastern corner of Oklahoma. 

Where were your people originally from?

Where we came from is an important part of who we are as Cherokee people. Our home now is in Oklahoma, but our original and ancestral homelands are in Tennessee, Georgia, Kentucky, Alabama, Virginia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. These are the lands we hunted and harvested, the places where our tribal systems of government and education were born, where our ancestors are buried, and where our dances and songs were developed and shared. 

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

Last fall marked the 175th anniversary of the start of the Trail of Tears, when we were forced to leave our homelands. Our ancestors endured unfathomable hardship and tragedy, yet they never gave up, and Cherokee people persevered. We estimate a quarter of the 16,000 Cherokees who started out on the Trail of Tears perished.

Knowing where we come from, and the fortitude and strength our ancestors showed in starting over in Oklahoma, is something deeply personal to each and every Cherokee citizen. That history lies within each of us and is a legacy that is ingrained in us as a people—and as a sovereign nation. After removal, the Cherokee people reestablished our government in Oklahoma. Tribal school systems were created and courts were established; our newspaper informed citizens of events and the day’s news. We rebuilt one of history’s most sophisticated societies.

Today, the Cherokee Nation is a nationwide model for economic, political and cultural sustainability and autonomy. As Cherokee people, we are stronger today than ever before. 

How is the Cherokee national government set up?

The Cherokee Nation has executive, legislative, and judicial branches, with executive power vested in the principal chief, legislative power in the Tribal Council, and judicial power in the Supreme Court and District Court. 

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

Ceremonial grounds still exist in several Cherokee communities and follow an ancient leadership and service model. Emphasis is on roles and responsibilities, rather than hierarchy. Each ground has a chief, second chief, community chief, and speaker.

There are seven clans, and each is led by an elder woman. Each clan also has medicine people who work for the wellness and protection of the community. Like in ancient times, the ceremonial grounds are autonomous, each serving and policing its own members and operating independently from the current adopted tripartite government model. However, leaders from the ceremonial grounds are advisors to the chief of the Cherokee Nation. 

How often are elected leaders chosen?

The principal chief, deputy chief, and Tribal Council are elected to four-year terms by registered tribal voters over the age of 18. The Cherokee Nation holds elections every two years, electing seven or eight of the councilors, who serve staggered terms. The principal chief and deputy chief are elected every four years in the same election. 

How often does your council meet?

The Cherokee Nation Tribal Council meets in regular session once a month, with various committee meetings held monthly as well.   

Chief baker at Health roll out 2b
Chief Baker announcing a $100-million commitment to improve health care for Cherokee Nation citizens. The investment of dividends from Cherokee Nation Businesses (CNB) was unanimously approved by the CNB board of directors. Tahlequah, March 28, 2013. Photo courtesy of the Cherokee Nation. Used with permission.

What responsibilities do you have as principal chief?  

As chief, I have taken an oath of office to preserve the history, the culture, and the heritage of the Cherokee Nation. I take my oath very seriously, and every decision I make, I make for the betterment of Cherokee people. I was taught that we honor our ancestors by living healthy, productive lives that leave our world better for the next seven generations. That is a principle that guides me day in and day out as the elected leader of my tribal nation. 

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

I am uniquely qualified to be the chief of the Cherokee Nation. I have worn many hats as a father, businessman, and Tribal Council member. As a small business owner, I understand budgeting, fiscal responsibility, and job creation. Because my parents and both my grandmothers were teachers, I grew up seeing the value of quality education and how it can shape the lives of young people. As a contractor, I built houses and saw firsthand how important a home is for successful family development. I’ve also farmed and ranched on my family land, which helped me develop an appreciation for conservation and natural resource protection. As the husband of a nurse, I have seen how quality health care can improve the lives of our families and our communities. 

Who inspired you as a mentor? 

I’m inspired by many Cherokee citizens throughout history—the leadership of Chief John Ross, who led the Cherokees during the removal period; the political insight and humor of Will Rogers; and the scholarly work of Sequoyah. However, my mother, Dr. Isabel Baker, is and has always been my moral compass in life. As a lifetime educator, the first mother is dedicated to community and forward progress, ideals guided by her faith and her family. She has always led by example and lived with the greater good in mind. I strive every day to match her work ethic, her priorities, and her spirit. 

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

I am the seventh great-grandson of Nancy Ward—Nanyehi in the Cherokee language—a Beloved Woman of the Cherokee. As a Beloved Woman, she headed the Women's Council and sat on the Council of Chiefs. She, along with the chiefs and other Beloved Women, made important decisions. In this powerful position, her opinion was highly influential in the tribal government and Cherokee history.

Approximately how many citizens are in your nation?

The Cherokee Nation is the largest sovereign tribal government in the United States, with more than 305,000 citizens. As a government, we provide our citizens essential services like health and human services, education, employment services, housing, economic development opportunities, and environmental protection.

What are the criteria to become a citizen?

In accordance with the Constitution of the Cherokee Nation, eligible citizens must trace their ancestry to at least one person listed on the Dawes Rolls. The Dawes Rolls were a federal census of those Indians living in the Cherokee Nation and were used to allot Cherokee land to individual citizens in preparation for Oklahoma statehood. There is no minimum blood quantum for citizens of the Cherokee Nation.

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

There are between 2,000 and 4,000 fluent Cherokee speakers, and many more who are second-language learners of Cherokee. Increasing these numbers is imperative and the primary reason for the Cherokee Nation language immersion school, a language preservation program designed to revitalize the Cherokee language, beginning with our children.

Through the efforts of our Cherokee translation department, the Cherokee language has been embraced by new technology. Now our tribal syllabary, or alphabet, is available on Apple, Microsoft, and Google products. The new generation of speakers we are educating will be able to text, email, produce documents and spreadsheets, and talk all in Cherokee. 

What economic enterprises does the Cherokee Nation own?

Sovereign tribal governments are among the biggest contributors to Oklahoma’s economy. The Cherokee Nation’s economic impact on Oklahoma is more than $1.3 billion. At Cherokee Nation Businesses, our holdings cover multiple sectors, such as gaming and hospitality, construction, aerospace and defense, manufacturing, technology, environmental services, real estate, and health care. In the coming year, we will continue to be aggressive in our approach to job creation and strategies for business growth. 

What annual events does the nation sponsor?

Cherokee National Holiday, held annually on Labor Day weekend, is a celebration of Cherokee heritage and cultural awareness, and a homecoming for our families. Every year tens of thousands of Cherokees and visitors return to our historic capital in Tahlequah to renew friendships and celebrate the Cherokee spirit. The holiday has been observed annually since 1953 to commemorate the signing of the 1839 Cherokee Constitution. Our entertainment, cultural, and athletic events have propelled Cherokee National Holiday into one of the largest festivals in Oklahoma, attracting more than 100,000 visitors from across the world.

What attractions are available for visitors on your land?

Cherokee Nation is located in northeast Oklahoma’s Green Country. With more than 66,000 acres to explore, the area is home to an abundance of lakes, rivers, state parks, and nature trails.

In the Cherokee Nation’s capital city, Tahlequah, and nearby Park Hill, Oklahoma, cultural-tourism efforts have led to the preservation and restoration of four historic sites, three of which are now Cherokee-owned and -operated museums. The Cherokee Heritage Center, one of Oklahoma’s most prestigious tourist attractions, operates in a joint partnership with the Cherokee Nation and recently opened a new outdoor village named Diligwa, reminiscent of the Cherokee Nation in the very early 1700s. Other sites include the Cherokee National Prison Museum, the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court Museum, and the John Ross School.

Cherokee Nation also operates two welcome centers and seven gift shops and partners with other tourism sites, museums and entities throughout the state.

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

The Cherokee Nation has a well-cultivated relationship with the federal government. In fact, many of the United States’ government-to-government trust responsibilities to Native tribes are the direct result of federal treaties and court decisions involving the Cherokee Nation.

We strive to preserve our self-determination and exercise our sovereign right to govern in our jurisdictional boundaries in northeast Oklahoma. We provide the same critical services to our citizens that the federal government does, including health care, housing, and education.

As tribal citizens, we are blessed to live under three distinct governments: the Cherokee Nation, the United States, and the state of Oklahoma. Our tribal leadership diligently and regularly meets with elected leaders in Washington, D.C., and with members of the administration to ensure our inherent rights to govern ourselves and provide for our citizens remain intact.   

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

Cherokee young people are the tribe’s most valuable asset. To them I would say, “Always be proud to be Cherokee. Your government is here to serve you. We will always be here for you to ensure you are healthy, have a home, and have access to a quality education. As your tribe nurtures you, one day you will give back to your people. You are our hope for a brighter future. The strength of our government and preservation of our culture mean that generation after generation of Cherokees have taken on that responsibility to lead. As a people, we have shown time and time again that we will not only survive against all odds, but we will also thrive.” 

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I will borrow a phrase from the great Will Rogers: “I am a Cherokee, and it's the proudest little possession I ever hope to have." 

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 images used with permission. 

Comments (0)

    » Post a Comment

March 21, 2014

Meet Native America: Tildon Smart, Chairman of the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Tribe of Nevada and Oregon

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. 

Tildon Smart, chairman of the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Tribe of Nevada and Oregon.

Where is the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Tribe located?

My tribe is located on the Nevada and Oregon state line in north-central Nevada and southwestern Oregon. 

Where were your people originally from?

We are from the Boise Valley, Oregon, and Nevada areas.

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

Our tribe became federally recognized on June 18, 1934. That's a very significant event for us.

Chairman Smart a 
Tildon Smart, chairman of the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Tribe. 


What responsibilities do you have as chairman?

My responsibilities are to make decisions that are in the best interest of the tribe and to run the day- to-day functions as the administrator for the tribal offices. 

How did your life experience prepare you to lead the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Tribe?

I have had a lot of different experiences in my life, from working as an emergency medical technician, wildland firefighter, farmer and rancher, to being an underground miner where I worked all over Nevada and in one mine in Alaska. During all of these experiences I learned a lot of different leadership skills that I use now as the tribal chairman. In high school I was a part of the Future Farmers of America and learned a lot about farming, ranching, parliamentary procedure, and different types of animals.  

Who inspired you as a mentor? 

My grandfather has inspired me all my life. He is a retired schoolteacher who has taught me that no matter what happens in life, I can overcome it, and that I can do whatever I put my mind to. He has been battling cancer for several years now, and I see all the things he has to go through, and yet he still holds his head high and lives life to the fullest. He is the greatest man I have ever known and most likely the only great man I will ever know. He is the greatest grandfather anyone could have. 

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

No I am not.

Approximately how many members are in your band?

There are about 1,500 members in the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Tribe of Nevada and Oregon.

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

You must have at least one-quarter degree of Paiute Shoshone Indian blood to be an eligible member. 

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

Yes, the Paiute and Shoshone languages are still spoken here on our lands. The percentage of tribal members who speak one or both languages I would say is at about 90 to 95 percent.

How is your tribe's government set up? 

Government is set up just like most others. We have elections at which time the Tribal Council is selected. The Tribal Council makes all decisions on what is in the best interest of the tribe and tribal members.

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

There is to a point. We all are very much into our Native teachings and follow the ways we have been taught. In our law and civil order, it goes to tribal, state, and federal government, and then to tradition when trying to make decisions in some court cases.

How often are elected leaders chosen?

Leaders are elected for two- and three-year terms.

How often does your Tribal Council meet?

The Tribal Council has general meetings once a month and may meet at other times if it is deemed necessary on important issues. 

What economic enterprises does your tribe own?

We have built a travel plaza that we are in the process of opening. 

Reservation float a 
Tildon Smart helping build a float for the McDermitt Combined School homecoming parade shortly before he was elected tribal chairman.
 

What annual events does your band sponsor?

We sponsor all kinds of events. For example, at Christmas we hold a dinner for the community to give out gifts to the kids and let everyone take their picture with Santa Claus. 

What attractions are available for visitors on your land?

At this point in time there are no attractions, but we are currently planning several different areas where people can come and learn about the old military fort, and about the Native people who live here and our ways of life.

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

It is very hard to deal with the United States. We are not seen as the leaders of nations. We are seen much lower than that and do not receive any attention at all. We have to fight and make demands of the United States and we shouldn’t have to! For example if I need to meet with the president of the United States on issues concerning Native Americans and Indian tribes, our requests often go unanswered.

Smaller government agencies work well with tribes, but the main government officials tend to ignore our requests. Foreign presidents and dignitaries can come and visit Washington any time they wish to meet on issues, and they are treated very well. They are escorted and given the respect they deserve as the leaders of nations at the same time we are put on the back burner and pushed away. 

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

We are a proud people and have the power to make a difference for future generations to come. Let’s all work together to reach our goals as Native people. Do not forget where you come from, do not forget your teachings, for these things will help you get through the toughest of times. 

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Always remember that drugs and alcohol are not the ways of Native American people. Stop Native-on-Native violence and remember that we have all been taught to respect ourselves and each other. 

Thank you.

Thank you.

Photos above courtesy of the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Tribe. 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 images used with permission. 

Comments (0)

    » Post a Comment

March 14, 2014

Meet Native America: Delbert Peter Wapass, Chief, Thunderchild First 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, NMAI 

Please introduce yourself with your name and title. 

Delbert Peter Wapass. I'm chief of the Thunderchild First Nation (Piyesiw Awasis).

Can you give us your Native name and its English translation?

Kihiw Ka-pim-oo-teht. It means Walking Eagle.

Chief-Delbert-Wapass2
Chief Delbert Wapass, Thunderchld First Nation, Saskatchewan, Canada. Photo courtesy of the Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority

Where is your nation located?

Thunderchild First Nation is located approximately 120 kilometers northwest of North Battleford, Saskatchewan, and is in Treaty 6 territory. The closest town is Turtleford, which is 13 kilometers from Thunderchild.  

Where was your nation originally from?

Thunderchild First Nation came to be when Chief Piyesiw Awasis’s headmen were forced to sign an adhesion to Treaty 6 in August, 1879, in Sounding Lake, Alberta. Piyesiw Awasis did not put his mark to the treaty document. 

The reserve community was originally located in Delmas, Saskatchewan, and the community was forcibly moved to Moosomin First Nation, north of North Battleford, Saskatchewan. The members of Thunderchild did not like where they were forcibly moved to and settled in their present location in 1909. 

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

In the 1970s in Canada, the document “Indian Control of Indian Education” was developed after 1969 White Paper, "Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian Policy." Thunderchild First Nation was one of the first communities to implement the policies proposed in “Indian Control of Indian Education.” The people of Thunderchild took all of their children from the neighboring provincially controlled schools, such as Turtleford, and moved them back to Thunderchild. The Piyesiw Awasis School was developed and built, and the children of Thunderchild have been at this school since 1971. 

What responsibilities do you have as chief?

My overall responsibilities are to ensure that all affairs of the Thunderchild First Nation are met in accordance to strategic direction that we, as a chief and Council, have developed. Ensuring that there is a balance between economic responsibilities and the wellness of the community. Ensuring that financial accountability is met. As a chief, my overall responsibility is making sure that the band is running to its best, while upholding our treaty and inherent rights. 

How did your life experience prepare you to lead the Thunderchild First Nation?

I was raised by my grandfather and grandmother and lived a life where hard work was essential to ensuring that our family was able to survive. I grew up with the expectation that if I didn’t get things done, this affected my family. For example, my responsibility at home was to get the fire going in the woodstove and prepare our meal before I went to school. The hardships, which I considered the norm, ensured that this ongoing hard-work ethic was a normal part of my life.

As I grew older, I wanted to make a difference in everything that I set out to do. The natural progression into leadership roles came from being seen as the problem-solver within my family and with many of my friends. I was formerly a classroom teacher, where you think about the big picture in planning. So it was a natural progression into my present leadership role. I’m a big-picture person, and I like the opportunity to break down this big picture so that I can achieve the goal that I have set.

Those experiences are the foundation. But I also learned things about leadership and working with other people as a school administrator and an evaluator of curriculum and staff within First Nations school systems, a researcher and analyst for different First Nations, and a governance negotiator within the Assembly of First Nations. In addition to serving as chief, I've been elected for two terms as an executive member within the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations with the portfolio responsibilities of education, health, lands and resources and sports, culture, and youth. 

9599945
Chief Delbert Wapass, Thunderchild First Nation, Saskatchewan, Canada. StarPhoenix file photo, courtesy of the Thunderchild First Nation 
 

Who inspired you as a mentor?

I grew up without a father and latched onto people who were older brother or father figures. There are many role models who inspired me to be my best in everything that I do: My grandfather, Peter Wapass, who passed away when I was young, instilled the understanding of working hard in all areas and to be humble in everything that I do. He always showed me never to hesitate in helping others. My late grandmother, Bella Wapass, encouraged me to complete my education. She wanted to see me graduate from high school and watched me receive my high school diploma. She passed away one week after that.

Other mentors include Joe Quewezance, who encouraged me to keep studying; George Lafond, who taught me always to work to the best of my ability; and Arsene Tootoosis, who wanted me to complete the highest level in education. I went on to receive a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Regina and a Bachelor of Education from the Indian Teacher Education Program, University of Saskatchewan, both in 1994. I earned a Master’s degree in Educational Administration from the University of Saskatchewan in 2010.

As I got older, two elders—the late Norman Sunchild from my community and the late Gordon Oakes from Nekaneet First Nation—stressed the importance of knowing who I am as a Cree person and of understanding Cree ways, traditions, ceremonies, and practices. The elders showed me to concentrate on being a role model and encouraging the young people to be the best they can be while retaining and knowing their identity.

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

My late grandfather, Peter Wapass, always spoke of being a descendant of Sitting Bull—how his family came from the United States, came towards the Yorkton area and then up towards Thunderchild. The Wapass family has relatives within these communities that my forebears came from. 

Approximately how many members are in your band?

We have 2,765 members, both on- and off-reserve.

What are the criteria to become a member of the Thunderchild First Nation?

You must have a blood relation from Thunderchild or be married to a member of that community. If you are transferring to Thunderchild from another First Nations community, you must apply to the Band Membership Board, and the application will be forwarded to the band for a vote.

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

The Cree language is still spoken within the community. Fifty percent of the community members still speak the language.

How is your nation's government set up? 

Thunderchild Cree Nation was originally part of the Indian Act election system, where the elected chief and Council members were answerable to the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development first, then to their community members. The nation moved away from this act, and since 1993 we have followed the band-custom election system. The chief and Council are elected by the members of Thunderchild Nation. The nation has its own Band Constitution, Election Act, Appeals Tribunal Act, and Financial Management Act, which have been developed by the Legislative Committee. 

The chief and seven headmen and headwomen are elected for four-year terms and are responsible for specific portfolio areas. For example, as the chief I am responsible for economic development, oil and gas, human resources, housing, and public works. Each portfolio has staff within the departments to support the elected leader who is responsible for that specific portfolio. The director of finance/human resources is responsible for the human resources within the staffing component. 

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

There are no hereditary leaders within the community. The modern government system is in place. 

How often does your Council meet?

The chief and Council meet twice monthly, on the first and third Thursdays. Band meetings—with all community members—are held on a quarterly basis. 

What economic enterprises does the Thunderchild First Nation own?

We own the following: In oil and gas, Tonare Energy/Thunder Oil. In other resources, Thunderchild Agriculture, Thunderchild Elk Ranch, and Thunderchild Farm. Thunderchild Gas Station. In tourism, Thunderchild Outfitters and Moonlight Bay Resort. And a partnership with Onion Lake Cree Nation and the Maoris of New Zealand. 

What annual events does your band sponsor?

We host the Annual Thunderchild Pow-wow. The 48th annual pow-wow will take place July 25 through 27 this year. We also hold an annual hockey tournament in March, and annual father/son and mother/daughter banquets.

Chief-thunderchild 2
Chief Piyesiw Awasis (Thunderchild,1849–1927), ca. 1920. Courtesy of the Saskatchewan Archives Board, R-A17725

What attractions are available for visitors on your land?

Moonlight Bay Resort and the Thunderchild Monument where the first Chief Thunderchild is buried.

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

Thunderchild is a sovereign nation, and the direction has been to be economically self-sufficient. Any partnerships or dealings with U.S. tribes are developed independently.

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

Know and understand who you are and where you come from. Learn your language, culture, and history. The elders’ teachings and their vision are the foundation and principals that we, as First Nations people, must follow. 

Get your education. Stand up for your rights as a Cree person, for the young, and for those are not born yet. Live in balance between your Cree world and the “white world.”

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Yes. I'd like to thank my wife, Doreen, and our four children—Dakota, Delbert, Jr. (Napew), Delaine, and Doryen. 

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 images used with permission. 

Comments (0)

    » Post a Comment