Meet Native America: Interviews with Indigenous Leaders

May 08, 2015

Meet Native America: Wayne Mackanear Brown, Principal Chief of the Meherrin 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 
 

Chief Brown on Meherrin land
Principal Chief Wayne Mackanear Brown on Meherrin tribal land. The three figures at the lower edge of the chief's regalia represent the Tuscarora, Meherrin, and Nottoway peoples—nations of the Southern Iroquois Confederacy.

Please introduce yourself with your name and title.

Wayne Mackanear Brown, Principal Chief of the Meherrin Nation—Kauwets’a:ka, or People of the Water.

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

It's Shagoiewatha. It means One Who Causes to Awaken.

Where is the Meherrin Nation located?

Our tribal office is in Ahoskie, North Carolina—near Potecasi Creek in Hertford County.          

Where were the Meherrin people originally from?

According to Mohawk history, approximately 2,000 years ago the Haudenosaunee lived in the Great Plains alongside the great river called the Mississippi. Their closest friends and allies were the Pawnee Nation. For unknown reasons all the Haudenosaunee Nations, including the Meherrin, left and started a migration up the Ohio River Trail towards the Great Lakes. The Tuscarora, Meherrin, and Nottoway split off from their brothers and traveled down the Kanawha River. The Meherrin settled in what is now Emporia, Virginia.

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

The first written account of the customs of the Meherrin people was made in 1650 when Sir Edward Bland visited the Meherrin Nation in their main village called Cowonchahawkon. Another turning point in the history of the Meherrin people came in 1680 when our Principal Chief Ununtequero and Next Chief Harehannah were the last chiefs of all the nations in Virginia to sign the Middle Plantation Treaty of 1677.  Shortly thereafter they abandoned this village and started their migration to present-day North Carolina.  

How is your tribal government set up? How often are elected leaders chosen?

We have a Principal Chief and seven council members. All of them are elected every four years. 

How often does your council meet?

Both Tribal Council and general body meetings are held once a month.

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

Yes, we are transitioning from a provisional government to our traditional government, the Great Law. The first Great Law review in over two hundred years was reintroduced to the Meherrin people in 2010 by Wolf Clan Chief Billy Lazore of Onondaga Territory; Joe Logan (Skyyoh-weho), Wolf Clan of Oneida Territory; and Michael Jock (Kanaratanoron), Bear Clan of Mohawk Territory in Akwesasne, New York.

How did your life experience prepare you to lead your tribe/band/Native community?

My father tacitly taught me to be patient and tolerant of other people, to reason and think things through before speaking, and most important to show the utmost respect for women. My mother, grandmother, and aunts taught me to have humility, responsibility, and love of family, to treat my brothers, sisters and cousins not only as relatives but as my best friends.

They also taught me about natural law—to learn from the animals and to follow the natural flow of things. The college and university where I matriculated and obtained my B.S. degree in Political Science and Social Studies and my Master’s degree in Social American History prepared me to deal with the world from man-made, human law. These two different sorts of laws made me understand the two different worlds that I had to live and function in. Natural law taught me a better way to communicate and deal with fellow human beings, regardless of their race or color.

What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?

As Principal Chief of the Meherrin Nation, I am responsible for the well-being of all the people. I am the spokesperson of our nation and the ambassador to other nations. It is my responsibility to follow the Great Law and carry out the will of the people.

Who inspired you as a mentor?

I must respond to this question from two perspectives, one of the ancient world and the other of today’s world. Deganahwideh, the Great Peacemaker, gave all Ongewe-oweh People the Great Law and the Great Tree of Peace and Friendship. Eventually this Great Tree of Peace was extended to all nations that would follow the white roots back to the tree. This is truly a great and divine document that has existed on Turtle Island for over 1,000 years. 

Chief Joseph, who did not shrink from the performance of his duties as chief in trying to save his people, is my second mentor of the past. He should be revered as one of a great strategist. Leading his people, including women, children, and elders, he eluded the United States military for nearly two thousand miles through Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming in attempt to reach the Canadian border to save his nation. Yes, he is one of my heroes of the past!

Lastly, in modern-day times, Kanaratanoron (Michael Jock) is my mentor in helping me to understand the oral history of the Great Law as recited to him by the elders. He is also instrumental in returning the Strawberry Ceremony to the Meherrin Nation after two centuries.

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

When I speak to groups of people at special events, I speak of the great chiefs who were great orators as if they were my fathers. Thus I consider them as my descendants. My mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and great-great grandmother are historical leaders who fought to keep our heritage alive when most denied or did not know their culture. They are my historical leaders.

Approximately how many members are in the Meherrin Nation?

There are approximately 250 active members.

What are the criteria to become a member of your Native community?

Applicants must be able to demonstrate a continuous family history that ties them to the eight major families who have been in this area since the 1700s.

Is your language still spoken on your homelands? 

No, we do not have any fluent speakers. However, the language is being taught at the conclusion of every general body meeting.

What economic enterprises does your community own?

The Meherrin Nation owns approximately 49.5 acres of land.  Our tribal office and several other buildings are located on the property.

Chief Brown Emporia Heritage Day 2013
Principal Chief Brown speaking on Heritage Day 2013 in Emporia, Virginia.

What annual events does your nation sponsor? 

The most important event held annually is the Strawberry Ceremony. The Harvest Festival and annual powwow are held the first weekend of October. Next year in April we will be holding our Herring Fish Ceremony for the first time in two centuries. 

What attractions are available for visitors on your land?

The museum and the palisade village are the two main attractions available to visitors on the land.

How does your nation deal with the United States?

The Meherrin Nation has a historical treaty with the state of North Carolina through the Treaty of March 4, 1729. When the United States was created after the American Revolutionary War, North Carolina continued to recognize the Meherrin Nation. To this date, there is no documentation to show that this recognition was ever extinguished by North Carolina or the United States government.

In 1802, some of the Meherrins were taken under the protection of the Iroquois Confederacy of the Five Nations. Principal Chief Ununtequero and Next Chief Horehonnah were the last two signers of the Middle Plantation Treaty of 1677 of Virginia, in 1680. Today, when I speak before any representatives of the United States government or any state government concerning First Nations peoples' affairs, I do so in full regalia and by our traditional protocols.

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

This message is not meant just for the youth of my nation, but for the youth of all my brothers and sisters throughout Turtle Island: More than ever before, get an education to keep the culture alive. Become historians, attorneys, and anthropologists, so that we can write our own history from our ancestors' perspectives. Do not let non-Indian people define you. Here is a Seneca proverb that explains it best:

The Great Spirit has made us what we are: it is not his will that we should be changed. If it was his will, he would let us know; if it is not his will, it would be wrong for us to attempt it, nor could we, by any art, change our nature. 

Is there anything else you would like to add?

We must take the lead in preserving Mother Earth. Listen to the words of the Mohawk writer Peter Blue Cloud:

Will you ever begin to understand the meaning of the very soil beneath your feet? From a grain of sand to a great mountain, all is sacred; Yesterday and tomorrow exist eternally upon this continent. We natives are guardians of this sacred place.

Thank you.

Thank you.


For more information on the Meherrin Nation, see http://www.meherrinnation.org/index2.html.

Photos courtesy of the Meherrin Nation. 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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April 30, 2015

Meet Native America: Vincent Armenta, Tribal Chairman of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash 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. —Dennis Zotigh 
 

Chairman Vincent Armenta
Chairman Vincent Armenta, Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians. Photo © Smallz + Raskind, courtesy of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians.

Please introduce yourself with your name and title.

Vincent Armenta, tribal chairman of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians

Where is your tribal community located?

The Santa Ynez Reservation is located in Santa Ynez, California, in Santa Barbara County. 

Where were your people originally from?

The Chumash once numbered in the tens of thousands in villages spread over 7,000 square miles from Malibu to Paso Robles. The tribe also inhabited inland to the western edge of the San Joaquin Valley.

Is there a significant point in your tribe's history that you would like to share?

The federal government created Indian reservations even before many western states were established. To remedy the poverty of the Indians in California who were previously part of the Spanish missions, Congress passed the Mission Indian Relief Act of 1891. The act established a federal commission to research the creation of tribal reservations for Mission Indians, one group of whom was the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Mission Indians. The Santa Ynez Reservation was established and officially recognized by the federal government in 1901. Today, the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians remains the only federally recognized Chumash tribe in the nation.

Although the tribe was relegated to 99 acres in a flood plain, our people have made the most of it. Among the most significant moments in our history was securing running water on the reservation in 1969. Not long after, in the 1970s, the Tribal Health Clinic was opened in a small trailer. The opening of our casino in 1994 is another significant moment in our history. It set our tribe on the long-term path to economic self-sufficiency and independence. Today, our Chumash Casino Resort is one of the premier gaming destinations in the region. More importantly, our economic development initiatives have brought vital services to our tribe, from health care and education to cultural and environmental programs. The prosperous Chumash tribal economy has also been a boon to the local economy. Our business enterprises and government departments employ more than 1,700 people. 

Our tribe has faced its share of challenges in our quest to better the lives of our tribal members and future generations, but perhaps among the most challenging goals have been our efforts to reclaim our ancestral land. That’s why it was one of the most significant moments in our history when we placed 6.9 acres into federal trust in July 2014. This victory followed nine years of appeals and remands. We are now able to build our long-awaited Chumash museum and cultural center. 

How is your tribal government set up?

Our government leadership is made up of four elected members and an elected tribal chairman. This Business Committee oversees the legal and business affairs of the tribe and makes recommendations for the overall good of the tribe. No major decisions are made for the tribe without a vote by the tribal membership.

Santa Ynez Chumash Business Committee 2015
Chairman Vincent Armenta and members of the Santa Ynez Chumash Business Committee.
From left to right: Mike Lopez, Maxine Littlejohn, Chairman Armenta, Secretary/Treasurer Gary Pace, and Vice Chair Kenneth Kahn. Photo courtesy of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians. 

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

Chumash elders have long been honored and respected for their knowledge and experience. Traditionally, they have been sought out for advice and guidance. That is still very true today. They have a strong voice in our tribe.

How often are elected leaders chosen? 

Tribal members hold elections every two years.

How often does your government meet?

General Council meetings are held monthly. The Business Committee meets once a week.

What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?

One of my top priorities as tribal chairman is to continue to build a solid and diverse economic foundation for our tribal members and future generations. Gaming is not the single answer to the economic future of the tribe. That’s why we’re trying to do so much more.

Moreover, while building a solid economic foundation for our tribe is a major priority, so is preserving our culture and reclaiming our ancestral land.  

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

I believe having had my own businesses at a young age was critical in preparing me for where I am today. I have had my share of successes and failures in life, but I strongly believe that any experience, even bad experiences, will make you a better leader. 

Who inspired you as a mentor? 

There was not one person who served as a mentor for me. I have had a collection of people throughout my life who have made a positive impact on me.

Are you a descendant of a historical leader? 

No.

Approximately how many members are in your tribe?

There are currently 134 enrolled members.

What are the criteria to become a member?

Determining membership is the essence of tribal sovereignty and is reviewed by an enrollment committee subject to the review of the elected Business Committee and a General Council of eligible voters. 

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

In 2003, we began the process of researching what it would take to revitalize Samala, our native language. While we certainly live and practice our culture every day and incorporate our ancestors into our lives, what we didn’t have was our language. Today, we have a language program that encompasses language apprentices, as well as classes for adults and children at our Education Center, one of 27 American Indian Education Centers in California. We also have a 600-page Samala–English dictionary.

Our tribe continued its efforts in reclaiming not only its own native language but the languages of other California Indian tribes. We were one of the leading supporters of Assembly Bill 544, the American Indian languages credentialing bill. The passage of AB 544 in 2009 led to the implementation of guidelines and criteria for language fluency and other qualifications for awarding an American Indian languages teaching credential. Samala is now taught in one of our local schools, and we currently have five credentialed Samala speakers and teachers. 

What economic enterprises does your tribe own?

The tribe owns the Chumash Casino Resort in Santa Ynez; Hotel Corque, the Hadsten House Inn, and the restaurant Root 246 in Solvang; and two services stations in Santa Ynez.

What annual events does the tribe sponsor?

One of the biggest events the tribe hosts is the annual Inter-Tribal Pow-Wow. The pow-wow brings Native American dancers and drummers from across the United States and Canada. The 50th Inter-Tribal Pow-Wow will be held October 3 and 4 of this year. In addition to the pow-wow, we sponsor the annual Chumash Cultural Days to celebrate traditional singing and dancing along with storytelling and crafts.

What other attractions are available for visitors on your land?

The Chumash Casino Resort is one of the premier gaming destinations on California’s Central Coast. In October we kicked off our casino and hotel expansion projects—the largest renovation since we opened our resort in 2004. The hotel and casino will remain open during construction, and we will continue to offer our guests world-class gaming and A-list entertainment.

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

The Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians maintains a government-to-government relationship with the United States based on the tribe’s historic sovereignty, which has been embodied in multiple Executive Orders.

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

I would like to encourage our youth to keep their Chumash culture and traditions alive. Get involved and learn all you can about your heritage. I also urge our youth to take advantage of the tribe's education programs and resources. Education opens many doors. 

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

The tribe owns one of the most successful casinos in California; it has rich cultural, educational, and environmental programs and a thriving health clinic; and we’re now realizing our dream of building a Chumash museum and cultural center.  

None of this could have been possible without the guidance and support of a unified tribal membership. I am very grateful to have the opportunity to serve our tribe and be a part of one of the most important periods in our tribe’s history.

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 photos used with permission. 

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April 10, 2015

Meet Native America: Robert J. Welch, Jr., Chairman of the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay 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. —Dennis Zotigh 
 

Chairman Robert Welch Jr
Chairman Robert J. Welch, Jr., Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians. Photo by G. Ballard. © 2015 Viejas Tribal Government. 

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.

Chairman Welch Congressman Peters and others 
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.

Thank you.

Eyay ahun—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 photos used with permission. 

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March 27, 2015

Meet Native America: Robert James Super, Vice-Chairman of the Karuk 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 

Kaurk Tribal Council
Members of the Karuk Tribal Council, 2014–2015. From left to right: Vice-Chairman Robert Super, Secretary/Treasurer Joseph Waddell, Elsa Goodwin (Happy Camp), Arch Super (Yreka), Chairman Russell Attebery, Sonny Davis (Yreka), Joshua Saxon (Orleans), Alvis Johnson (Happy Camp), and Renee Stauffer (Orleans). Photo courtesy of the Karuk Tribe.

Please introduce yourself with your name and title. 

Robert James Super, Karuk tribal vice-chairman.

Can you share your Native name with us?

Super comes from Supahan, which means "bringer of the morning star." My ancestor was a medicine man for our tribe, so he prayed to bring good days for our people. The non-Natives shortened it to Super.

Where is the Karuk Tribe located? 

Our main office is in Happy Camp, California.

Where are the Karuk people originally from?

Our aboriginal land is in Siskiyou and Humboldt counties, California, and a little piece of Oregon. We have stayed in our aboriginal territory. 

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

We signed a treaty in the mid-1800s. It was not ratified, but the U.S. government and the State of California still took our land. 

How is your tribal government set up?

Our Tribal Council is comprised of nine members elected by our tribal membership. We have a chairman, vice-chairman, secretary/treasurer, and six members-at-large who represent our three districts. 

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

We have boards and committees that interested tribal members are selected to sit on. Those bodies represent the membership and tribe throughout the organization.

How often are elected leaders chosen?

We have staggered four-year terms for each position on the Tribal Council.

How often does your council meet?

Our Tribal Council meets twice a month in meetings that are open to tribal members and twice a month for closed planning sessions.

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

I learned our culture when I was a teen. I also served on boards and committees throughout my life to help our people. I am 53 years old now, so I am more prepared to represent several different topics related to our people.

What responsibility do you have as a tribal leader?

To make the best decisions for our membership.  

Who inspired you as a mentor?

My cousin and his wife, Fred and Elizabeth Case. She was our medicine woman for our ceremonies.

Are you a descendant of a historical leader? 

We originally had different villages on the Klamath River. We all met up when things needed to be prayed for and to observe ceremonies. Each family had head family members, so we are all descended from those leaders. 

Approximately how many people are in your tribe?

There are 3,723 enrolled members in the Karuk Tribe.

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

A person must be one-eighth degree of Karuk blood to be considered for enrollment.

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

We have approximately ten recorded fluent speakers of our language. We also have a language program to preserve and teach Karuk.

What economic enterprises does your tribe own?

We have two smoke shops, storage facilities, and soon will be embarking into gaming.

What annual events does your tribe sponsor?

We sponsor a Karuk Tribal Reunion every summer, several youth sports throughout the year, and several community projects, including fundraising, hardship funding, and youth events.

What attractions are available for visitors on your land?

The Karuk Tribe is located along the scenic Klamath River, which is known for its hunting and fishing. We also have the annual Karuk Tribal Reunion and the Karuk People’s Center—a museum, library, and cultural center—as well as our lands. 

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

Learn all the cultural activities to teach our future. 

Thank you.

Yootva—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 photos used with permission. 

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March 20, 2015

Meet Native America: Lora Ann Chaisson, Vice Principal Chief of the United Houma 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

Please introduce yourself with your name and title.

Lora Ann Chaisson, vice principal chief of the United Houma Nation.

Where are your tribal communities located?

The United Houma Nation (UHN) tribal communities reside within a six-parish (county) service area encompassing 4,570 square miles. The six parishes—Terrebonne, Lafourche, Jefferson, St. Mary, St. Bernard, and Plaquemines—are located along the southeastern coast of Louisiana. Within this area, distinct tribal communities are situated among the interwoven bayous and canals where the Houma traditionally earned a living. Although by land and road these communities are distant, historically they were very close by water.

Where were your communities originally from?

The Houma history is a tale of survival and adaptation. When the explorer LaSalle traveled the Mississippi River, a bear-headed pole adorned with fish heads marked the territory boundary between the Houma people and the now-extinct Bayougoulas—that pole is how modern-day Baton Rouge got its name. Accustomed to living off the land, the Houma were traditionally hunters and gatherers with strong roots in agriculture and were part of the mound-building civilization of the Southeast. 

With the encroachment of the European settlers, the Houma began migrating south until they reached the lower regions of coastal Louisiana. The Houma lived in harmony with a changing landscape, but held close to their traditional roots. Much of coastal southeast Louisiana is filled with tribal settlements, as well as remains of functional and ceremonial mounds.

Peace was short lived. The original tribal village in Houma, Louisiana—the village site is the current-day courthouse square—was burned, and our citizens were forced to move into the southernmost communities of southeast Louisiana. With close proximity to the water and with the area's abundance of natural resources, the Houma survived quietly in this paradise that settlers believed to be uninhabitable. New challenges began to affect our communities in the 1930s as oil and gas was discovered in the marshes where our people settled. Unable to read and write, tribal citizens were unfortunately targets for unscrupulous land grabs by outsiders.

What is a significant point in history the United Houma Nation would like to share?

A key moment in our tribe's history was the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The tribe was deeply impacted by the segregation in the Reconstruction Era of the Deep South. Houma people experienced segregation and discrimination in restaurants, stores, buses, and even churches. Moreover, only schools for African Americans and whites were available, and neither admitted Native Americans. The Houma people were excluded from receiving a formal education, which was an injustice with far-reaching consequences.

The Houma continued to demonstrate incredible industriousness, resourcefulness, and perseverance. Despite not having a formal education, many of our tribal members forged forward in caring for their families through commercial fishing, owning their own businesses and private land. It was not until the 1940s that Houma children could attend school, and this was solely credited to missionaries establishing “settlement schools.” These schools sometimes offered up to a seventh grade education and were staffed by uncertified instructors. It was not until after the Civil Rights Act was passed that the local school district was forced by the federal government to provide a desegregated public education to our Houma children. The first students from the United Houma Nation were allowed to graduate from high school in 1966. Today we are proud of the many tribal members who are pursuing higher education, receiving professional degrees, and making contributions in many professions. 

How is your tribal government set up?

Our government is comprised of a principal chief and 11 Tribal Council members who represent districts where community members reside. Currently our service areas and tribal communities are comprised of over six parishes (counties) bordering the Gulf of Mexico. 

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

In addition to the United Houma Nation Tribal Council, we have established an Elder Advisory Council, as we highly regard elders' wisdom and strength.  

How often are elected leaders chosen? 

The principal chief and Tribal Council representatives serve four-year, staggered terms with elections held every two years. 

How often does your government meet?

Our Tribal Council holds public council meetings on a monthly basis, and meetings are rotated throughout each of the tribal communities.  

What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?

As a leader of the Houmas people, I am deeply committed to all matters related to the tribe and its members.

Much of my service is dedicated to tribal youth and tribal elders. I have worked for the Inter-Tribal Council of Louisiana (ITC) for 21 years. This organization provides employment and training opportunities for tribal youth and elders who are members of the five tribes in Louisiana—the Chitimacha, Coushatta, Jena Band of Choctaw, Tunica–Biloxi, and United Houma Nation. This position has given me the opportunity to show my deep appreciation for our tribal elders and to mentor our tribal youth. In addition, I facilitate elderly festivals for both ITC and UHN.

As the vice principal chief, I have many duties, including chairing the Tribal Council Government Committee, which addresses federal recognition; serving on the Diabetes Coalition; representing UHN within the National Congress of American Indians; serving as a board member for the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association; and serving on two state workforce boards.

Houma half-hitch palmetto basket
Houma half-hitch plametto basket woven by Lora Chaisson.


I also feel a great sense of responsibility to learn and pass on our traditional Houma ways. I am a traditional basket-weaver and have created my own traditional jewelry line made of parts of the alligator which normally were discarded and considered useless. One of my proudest accomplishments is co-founding the Bayou Eagles dance group in order to pass along our traditions to the next generation.

I have been featured on the nationally televised Travel Channel and PBS to demonstrate our native cooking. I have represented the Houma people in France, as well as at numerous events throughout the United States. 

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

My family has been deeply influential in preparing me to become a leader. I remember my first public speaking engagement at the age of 15. It was held at an elite Catholic school in New Orleans. I remember my mom and members of the Indian education program staff helping me to prepare and practice speaking in public.

VPC Lora Ann Chaisson basketry
Vice Principal Chief Chaisson gathering materials to build a hut for a Native American festival in Bogalusa, Louisiana. Bayou Lacombe, November 2014.

When I was older, my mom encouraged me to apply to the selective American Indian Opportunity (AIO) Ambassador Program. I thought, “No, that’s for others. I couldn’t do that.” My mother encouraged me that I could. That was in August and September of 1997, and in November of that year she passed away unexpectedly. Friends of mine—Louise Billiot and Ken Taylor—encouraged me to apply as it was my mother’s wish. The deadline was December 31, and after completing the application, I was floored when I received a letter informing me that I was chosen to be part of this prestigious program.

Through the Ambassadors Program, under the leadership and direction of LaDonna Harris, I had the opportunity to travel across the United States and to South America. We developed our leadership skills, shared our tribal histories, and examined where we acquired our medicine from. I had the opportunity to meet with national and international leaders. We traveled abroad and learned about the interconnections across tribes and the commonalities and diversity of strengths and challenges across Indigenous peoples.  

Who inspired you as a mentor? 

My parents have been my most influential mentors. Their Houma pride and perseverance was instilled at an early age. My mother was one of the first members of the Terrebonne Parish Indian Education Parent Committee. Not only was she our family matriarch, but the family business accountant as well, despite her limited education. My father, with only a third grade education, was able to build his own successful welding business. He employed over 100 employees. Mom and Dad didn’t allow the lack of a formal education keep them from accomplishing their life goals.

LaDonna Harris has been a sincere and encouraging mentor to me since I attended the AIO program, and we remain close to this day. Her life history serves as an example to me never to allow adversity or challenges to derail me from accomplishing my own goals. 

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

My grandfather Pierre Chaisson was a medicine healer or traiteur, as it is called in our language. My maternal grandmother also healed with herbal medicines, which we still practice today.  

Approximately how many members are in your tribe?

Our tribal members are spread throughout the six parishes bordering the Gulf of Mexico. Within those parishes our tribal rolls are listed at 17,000.  

What are the criteria to become a member?

A person must demonstrate direct lineal descent from an ancestor who is listed as a progenitor on our tribal registry. Currently our tribal rolls are closed to all applicants except children under the age of five.  

Is your language still spoken on your homelands? 

The Houma–French language that the Houma people speak today is a mix between the French spoken by early explorers and the traditional Houma language. Houma–French can be understood by French speakers from francophone countries. While there are several different French-speaking communities in Louisiana, the Houma represent the state's largest concentration of French-speaking people. Nearly all of the elders speak Houma–French; some elders are monolingual in Houma–French. Among the younger generation, the speakers are fewer, though many understand the language.  

What economic enterprises does your tribe own?

Although there are many private businesses owned by tribal members, the lack of federal recognition currently means the tribe does not have economic enterprises that are solely owned by the tribe. The Tribal Council has specific goals to develop economic enterprises that will benefit the entire tribe in the future.  

What annual events does the tribe sponsor?

The tribe sponsors an annual Elder’s Festival, the Annual Tribal Awards Banquet, and an annual pow wow sponsored by United Houma Nation Vocational Rehabilitation Services. The tribe has been one of the only Native food vendors at the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Our booth is run by volunteers and visited by over 1,000 people per day.  

What other attractions are available for visitors on your land?

Located in the New Orleans vicinity, we host visitors from all over the world who want an authentic bayou experience. Several of our tribal communities are located along the lower bayous of southern Louisiana and offer the state's greatest fishing, freshest seafood, and friendliest people. Our tribal members offer boat tours, charter fishing, wonderful foods, and a rich, distinct culture.  

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

Despite maintaining a close relationship and being recognized as a tribe by the French government since the 1600s, along with receiving support from the Louisiana congressional delegation, we are still awaiting recognition from the U.S. government. Federal recognition is instrumental to enable our tribe to grow and develop as a sovereign nation—despite volunteerism and generosity being flourishing and prominent values within the tribe that enable the tribal government to meet and undertake extensive community efforts.

We have always known who we are. We have always been close-knit and self-sufficient, and we continue to live off the land and water through fishing, gardening, and transmitting cultural traditions. We experienced segregation and discrimination as Houma people throughout history as we were excluded from schooling. However, despite having a strong and thriving tribal identity recognized by multiple nations throughout history, we await the promise of Article 6 of the Louisiana Purchase Treaty, which states, "The United States promise to execute such treaties and articles as may have been agreed between Spain and the tribes and nations of Indians, until, by mutual consent of the United States and the said tribes of nations, other suitable articles shall have been agreed upon."  

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

Enjoy the freedom to obtain your education and jobs and to have the ability to walk into any public facility. Your parents and grandparents sacrificed much and laid the heavy groundwork for you! Keep your tradition and culture alive as Houma people. Learn your traditional crafts, such as weaving baskets, building traditional homes, and your Houma tribal medicine. Value our elders’ wisdom. They are the keepers of our Houma history.  

Is there anything else you would like to add?

One of the greatest challenges our tribe is facing today is coastal erosion. As I mentioned earlier, our tribal communities lie along the coast of Louisiana. We no longer have the protection of barrier islands or completed levees. When hurricanes and floodwaters come from the Gulf of Mexico, our communities are the first to feel the impact. 

Without federal recognition, we cannot apply for the funding that is available to help federally recognized Native communities when they face disasters. We have to rely on the donations and generosity of other tribes and organizations.

Many of our burial grounds, homes, and whole islands made up of our Indian people are suffering the losses. Coastal erosion leaves our Houma communities in grave danger of losing our herbal medicines, materials for our baskets, and our homelands to the Gulf of Mexico. 

Thank you. 

Thank you. 


Photographs courtesy of the Chaisson family and the United Houma Nation.

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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What a great series. It is very nice to hear from our relatives along the Gulf Coast, I had no idea their numbers were so numerous. This fine lady seems so young to have accomplished so much. It is really great to hear directly from tribal leadership like this, speaking in the first person. Vice Principal Chief Chaisson speaks very well for her nation, and I hope she understands how proud the American Indian community is of her leadership, attitude and her respect for tribal elders. Compliments to everyone involved. I am an Ojibwe man living far from home over in Europe now, and it is great to have news like this, informative of what out many relations are doing these days.