In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native people today. —Dennis Zotigh
Please introduce yourself with your name and title.
My name is Brenda Meade. I'm chairperson of the Coquille Indian Tribal Council.
Where is your tribal community located?
The Coquille Indian Tribe is headquartered in North Bend, Oregon, on the southern Oregon Coast.
Where were the Coquille people originally from?
We are originally from Southern Oregon. Our knowledge of the exact boundary and use areas of our ancestors is evolving as we recover from federal termination. Our ancestral range includes lands in Coos, Curry, Douglas, Josephine, and Jackson counties in Oregon.
Is there a significant point in your tribe's history that you would like to share?
It would have to be June 28, 1989, the day that Congress finally acknowledged the efforts of my tribal elders and restored federal recognition of the Coquille Indian Tribe. As a result of that day, a historic injustice—the U.S. government's termination of the tribe as a nation and denial of our status as Indian people—was corrected. We are now the second largest employer in Coos County, Oregon, and an undeniable force for positive change in our communities.
How is your tribal government set up?
We are governed by a seven-member Tribal Council that is elected by our General Council—all enrolled tribal members 18 years old or older. Our constitution reserves several rights to the General Council. We provide many leadership and government-participation opportunities for our members. One thing that I am especially proud of is that we are forming a youth council to promote leadership and cultural competence among our young tribal members.
Is there any other functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?
I would say it is in the way we gain knowledge from our elders. We continue to gather as Indian people on this land and share information with each other. We continue to learn and understand as we hunt, fish, and gather traditional foods and materials together.
How often are elected leaders chosen?
All Tribal Council members serve three-year terms.
How often does your government meet?
Our Tribal Council meets at least twice per month. Our General Council has at least two meetings a year, always coinciding with the winter and summer solstices.
What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?
My job is to be, at the same time, a servant and a leader of the Coquille Indian People. I represent my tribe in many different places. I make sure that our excellent tribal staff responds to our members’ changing needs. The Tribal Council adopts budget and policies that safeguard our people and our nation.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead your tribe?
When I grew up my tribe was not recognized as a tribe by the federal government, and we had very few financial resources. But we had our collective desire to make a change. Coquille people are characteristically kind, generous, humorous, and absolutely unwavering when it comes to tribal sovereignty. These values shaped me and many other tribal members who grew up during that time. I understood how important sovereignty was and how important it was to uphold our cultural and historic values.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
Many people every day! But I would first recognize my uncle Jerry Running Foxe for teaching me as I was growing up to always fight for the rights of all Indian People. He taught me always with a kind heart and for the right reasons. Also my aunt Sharon—as a child I was lucky enough to spend time with her as she fought for us to be recognized as Coquille people. Her lifelong dedication and personal sacrifices in gathering Coquille people together in support of those efforts will never be forgotten. I watched her and many other tribal members work tirelessly for our people—after mass disbursement to the reservation, termination policies, and very successful assimilation programs—to be recognized again. Thankfully our elders never gave up, and for that reason we must continue to strengthen our nation every day.
I later was able to sit on Tribal Council with my auntie and many with other amazing tribal leaders. One that I must mention is our chief of 23 years who recently passed, Chief Ken Tanner. He taught me to be humble, to be grateful for what we have, and to always save some for the others. I must also recognize my amazing husband who supports me every day and allows me to do the things I feel I need to do. All of my family influences me—my children, my mother, my brothers, and those who have passed. I have also been very fortunate in my life to be able to work and spend time with many of our tribal elders and our tribal youth. I know that we must learn from our elders, teach our children, and never forget!
Are you a descendant of a historical leader? If so, who?
My family descends from Old Whiskers from the Nasomah village complex on the Coquille River. He was a headman and a treaty signer. He was marched to the reservation along with his children and many other Coquille people. He later returned to our homelands on the Coquille River. He and the others who returned are the reason we continue to gather on these ancestral homelands today.
Approximately how many members are in the Coquille Indian Tribe?
Today we have 1,031 tribal members.
What are the criteria to become a member?
A person must be a lineal biological descendant of an original Coquille member.
Is your language still spoken on your homelands?
Restoring the use of our languages is one of our tribal priorities. We have dedicated resources to training our youths in our traditional languages. The key to restoring a language is finding a way to use that language in daily life.
What economic enterprises does your tribe own?
We own the Coquille Economic Development Corporation, which operates the Mill Casino Hotel and RV Park and operates ORCA Communications, a fiber-optic technology company. We recently kicked off K2, a log-export joint venture with Knutson Towboat. The tribe also owns a bowling alley and golf course in Medford, Oregon. Finally the tribe owns approximately 9,000 acres of forestland in the southern Oregon Coast Range.
What annual events does the Coquille Tribe sponsor?
We sponsor more events than I could possibly list here. Two big events that we host are our annual fireworks spectacular over Coos Bay on July 3—show up early if you want a space—and the annual Mill Luck Salmon Celebration, normally held in the second week of September.
We are a potlatch tribe: It is very important for us to give back to our communities. My tribe is headquartered in a community that was, and is still, economically devastated by the decline of the timber and fishing industries. Shortly after our restoration we made a long-term decision that our members can thrive only if we help our surrounding communities survive.
What other attractions are available for visitors on your land?
Our number one attraction is the Mill Casino Hotel and RV Park, which is located right on beautiful Coos Bay. We have the nicest hotel on the South Coast of Oregon, and I doubt there’s a better view anywhere in our beautiful state.
How does your tribe deal with the United States as a sovereign nation?
We interact frequently with federal officials. It is a constant education process, but I do think that things have improved.
What message would you like to share with the youth of your community?
Be strong. Study hard. Treat your elders with respect. Treat yourself with respect. And never forget where we come from.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
It is important to know that Coquille people have been here on this land since time began and will be here forever!
Photos courtesy of the Coquille Indian Tribe; used with permission.
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From left to right: Representative Ponka-We Victors (Tohono O’odham/Southern Ponca) taking the oath of office in the Kansas House of Representatives; photo courtesy of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab. Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache) at the Sundance Film Festival; photo courtesy of WireImage. Sergeant Debra Mooney (Choctaw) at the powwow in Al Taqaddum Air Force Base, Iraq, 2004; photo courtesy of Sgt. Debra Mooney. Councilman Jonathan Perry (Wampanoag) in traditional clothing; photo courtesy of Jonathan Perry. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) at Blackhorse et al. v. Pro Football, Inc., press conference, U.S. Patent and Trade Office, February 7, 2013; photo courtesy of Mary Phillips. All photos used with permission.