Meet Native America: Interviews with Indigenous Leaders

July 30, 2015

Meet Native America: Tribal Chief Phyliss J. Anderson, Mississippi Band of Choctaw 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 
 

Chief Phyliss Anderson
Tribal Chief Phyliss J. Anderson, Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.

Please introduce yourself with your name and title.

Phyliss J. Anderson, tribal chief of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.

Where is your tribe located?

The majority of the tribe is located in Mississippi, with a small community in Henning, Tennessee. There are eight official communities—Bogue Chitto, Bogue Homa, Conehatta, Crystal Ridge, Pearl River, Red Water, Standing Pine, and Tucker—located in 10 counties in central Mississippi. Tribal headquarters is located in the Pearl River community.

Where was your tribe originally from?

For centuries the Choctaw have lived in the Southeastern United States, largely in what is now the state of Mississippi.

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

Our tribe has evolved over the centuries to become a progressive and diverse people. The Choctaw people have overcome seemingly impossible obstacles because our ancestors believed that one day we would not only survive, but thrive. From the time of removal from our lands and battles with disease to our fight for sovereignty and self-determination, we have shown that Choctaws are a resilient people.

The Choctaw journey—that of economic progress and knocking down barriers—is still young. We have many more achievements in our future. I share in the spirit of optimism inherited from our ancestors. Our story is just beginning, and I look forward to what the future holds for the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.

How is your tribal government set up?

Our government is democratic, with three official branches—executive, legislative, and judicial. The tribal chief is the head of the executive branch and the chief principal officer. A 17-member Tribal Council makes up the legislative branch. Council members are elected from each of the Choctaw communities. The judicial branch is made up of the Choctaw Supreme Court and Choctaw Tribal Courts.

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

Not in an official capacity. As with most Native cultures, we view our elders with high esteem and respect. From time to time I may seek advice from our elders. They are our true historians and keepers of our cultural heritage, and I believe it is important to learn as much as we can from them.

 Thanksgiving Feast_Chief and Elders

Chief Anderson speaking with elders at the Choctaw community Thanksgiving feast, November 2011. Photo by Vince O. Nickey (Choctaw). 
 

How often are elected leaders chosen?

The tribal chief is elected every four years. This year happened to be an election year for the tribal chief position. Tribal Council representatives are elected to staggered four-year terms—eight positions during tribal chief elections and nine seats two years later during midterm elections.

How often does your Tribal Council meet?

Regularly scheduled Tribal Council meetings occur every quarter in January, April, July, and October per the Tribal Constitution. However, special-call Tribal Council meetings can be scheduled at any time by the tribal chief.

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

I was born on New Year’s Day in 1961 and grew up during a time of racial turmoil in the South. My community and family bonded together during those years to become a strong unit, and that’s what I have tried to share with the Choctaw people. There is so much strength in unity and love.

My path to leadership certainly had some challenges, but I learned to face adversity with positivity and determination. I come from a rural area and a poverty-stricken home. My six sisters and I were raised in a tribal frame home located in the Red Water community in Leake County, Mississippi.

My mother was a strong woman and instilled so many important values into us girls. We knew the importance of education, faith, integrity, right, and wrong. But she also demonstrated the value of hard work, determination, dedication, and perseverance. I can remember my sisters and I would work in the cotton fields with Mom. I even remember saving up all of my money to buy five-cent Coke bottles and refashioning them into Barbie dolls.  

At the time I did not fully realize I was poor, but looking back now, I can see it. To some people, my family experienced a less-than-desirable environment; however, we were surrounded by encouragement, trust, honesty, support, and a belief that we could accomplish any goals that we set for ourselves. These are the traits that were instilled in me by my mother.

Now as a mother and grandmother myself and as the tribal chief of our great tribe, I have used these same traits to raise a family and provide solid leadership for our Choctaw people.  

What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?

As the chief principal officer of the tribe, I am responsible for the well-being of the Choctaw people.

Who inspired you as a mentor?

Many people have inspired me throughout my life and career. There have been many elders that I have had an opportunity to learn from. One of those is my mother, as I mentioned before. Another is our late Choctaw Tribal Chief Phillip Martin.

I started my career as a receptionist and payroll clerk at Choctaw Development Enterprise. Chief Martin recruited me to work for him, but the director of Choctaw Development at the time did not want to lose me, so he offered to pay me more than Chief Martin was offering. In the end, Chief Martin won after he told my boss, “I’m the chief, and she’s coming with me!” I served as an executive assistant to Chief Martin where I worked my way through our tribal government programs and eventually landed a position as the director of Natural Resources. Early on I believe Chief Martin saw my qualities as a hard worker and leader, and for that I am grateful. 

In 2003 I decided to run for elected office as a council representative from my community of Red Water. I was elected and served eight successful years on the Tribal Council, including four years as Secretary–Treasurer. Those eight years were extremely tough for my family and me. However, Chief Martin mentored and encouraged me to lead with grace, poise, and determination. 

Are you a descendant of a historical leader? 

No.

Approximately how many members are in your tribe?

The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians has an enrollment of just over 10,800 members. 

What are the criteria to become a member? 

Our Tribal Constitution calls for a 50 percent or more blood quantum to become an enrolled member.

Is your language still spoken on your homelands? 

The Choctaw language is still spoken across our communities. Our language is an important part of our identification of who we are as Choctaw people. The Department of Chahta Immi Language Program does a fantastic job of maintaining our traditional language through written documents and traditional songs. This program also offers Choctaw immersion classes for adults and students in our Choctaw Tribal Schools and culturally centered activities throughout the year.

What economic enterprises does your tribe own?

Mississippi Choctaws have pursued various economic development opportunities on our reservation for over 45 years. In 1969 we started a construction company to build houses on the reservation. In the 1970s and '80s, we opened four manufacturing companies that employ more than 2,000 residents in our community. In the 1990s, we expanded into gaming and tourism with the development of casinos, hotels, and golf courses. Our tourism efforts have created more than 3,500 jobs for our community. In the early 2000s we expanded into more high-tech business ventures that require higher skills, but also pay higher wages for our tribal members.

Today, the Mississippi Choctaws operate a diversified portfolio of businesses that provide direct employment for approximately 4,000 workers.

What annual events does your tribe sponsor?

Throughout the year the tribe holds many events for our tribal members. We have Community Field Days in each community. I host a reservation-wide Thanksgiving feast and one in the Henning, Tennessee, community. We also celebrate the holidays with a Christmas tree lighting ceremony. These are all events that are mainly for our tribal members.

We do host a few events open to the public. Our main event, of course, is the annual Choctaw Indian Fair, now in its 66th year. The fair is held every year the second Wednesday through Saturday in July. This is where our Choctaw people showcase the pride we have in our culture. A month after the Choctaw Indian Fair—Friday, August 14, this year, beginning at 10 a.m.—we commemorate and honor the day our Mother Mound was returned to us with the Nanih Waiya Day celebration. The day includes a morning wreath-laying ceremony at the Nanih Waiya Mound near the Kemper–Neshoba county border and All-Star stickball games in the evening. 

What other attractions are available for visitors on your land?

Visitors to our reservation are encouraged to learn about our Choctaw people by visiting the Chahta Immi Cultural Center (CICC) or taking a pre-scheduled tour of our reservation lands, including the Nanih Waiya Mound, Lake Pushmataha, and the Choctaw Veterans Memorial. A popular tourist destination is our Pearl River Resort, with the Silver Star and Golden Moon casino–hotels, Dancing Rabbit InnDancing Rabbit Golf ClubGeyser Falls Water Theme Park, and Bok Homa Casino.  

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

We have a very good relationship with leaders on the federal government level. I have met with the president on a couple of occasions. I have made frequent travels to the U.S. Capitol to discuss a range of issues with our congressional delegation. Members of the delegation, in turn, have visited the reservation several times in the past few years and have been very supportive of our efforts. It’s important that we, as leaders, build and nurture strong government-to-government relationships that are mutually beneficial.

Chief Anderson and President Obama 2011

President Barack Obama and Chief Anderson during the 2011 White House Tribal Nations Conference at the Interior Department in Washington, D.C. Gannett/Stephen J. Boitano photo. 
 

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

Hard work, dedication, determination, and faith are the keys to success. Failures and mistakes can and will happen. But take those experiences as life lessons and move forward. Never let negativity or adversity keep you from reaching for the stars. Remember, we are all travelers on this journey called life. Keep in mind where you’ve come from and keep looking ahead to see where you are going. Always have appreciation for those who have supported you and always give God the glory.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I’m grateful for this opportunity to lead my people as tribal chief. I am able to use this position to put forth many ideas and plans that I believe have and will greatly benefit the tribe and improve the quality of life on the reservation. None of this would have been possible without the support and encouragement from my fellow tribal members. To them, I offer my sincerest appreciation, and I pledge to keep doing my very best to ensure a better future for our people. 

Thank you.

Thank you.


All photos courtesy of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians; used with permission.

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July 23, 2015

Meet Native America: Chairman Leonard Forsman, Suquamish 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 

Please introduce yourself with your name and title.

I'm Leonard Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Tribe

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

It's ˇGvύí (GwoWee). It means Raven.

Suquamish Tribal Chairman Leonard Forsman
Suquamish Tribal Chairman Leonard Forsman. 

Where is your tribe located?

The Suquamish Tribe is located on the Port Madison Indian Reservation in Kitsap County, Washington. We are located in the central Puget Sound region and are approximately a half-hour away from the city of Seattle by water.

Where was your tribe originally from?

The Suquamish Tribe’s traditional areas encompass much of the Puget Sound region.

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

Chief Seattle, for whom the city of Seattle is named, is a hereditary leader of the Suquamish People. Seattle signed the Point Elliott Treaty in 1855 on behalf of the Suquamish and Duwamish People. His father’s village of Old Man House was probably the largest winter house in the Northwest Coast, reaching nearly 800 by 40 feet (32,000 square feet).

Today, the Suquamish Tribe continues to be a leader in government-to-government relations. The Suquamish Tribe is one of the first tribes in Washington to collaborate with state government in order to create a new Tribal-Compact schools system. Suquamish was also instrumental in the implementation of a Native American curriculum in schools across Washington State.

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

The Suquamish Tribe is led by a seven-member Tribal Council. Members are elected each March by the tribe’s voting body, known as the General Council. The Tribal Council consists of four officers—chairman, vice-chairman, treasurer, secretary—and three at-large council members. The chairman only votes in case of a tie. Tribal Council officers and members serve three-year staggered terms.

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

No, but we have an Elder Council and a Youth Council that advise us on a variety of cultural and social issues.

How often does your Tribal Council meet?

Suquamish Tribal Council meets twice each month. Suquamish General Council—the community—meets annually.

Suquamish Tribal Council 2015
The Suquamish Tribal Council, 2015. Left to right: Council Member Rich Purser, Council Member Sammy Mabe, Treasurer Robin Sigo, Chairman Leonard Forsman, Secretary Nigel Lawrence, Vice-Chairman Wayne George, and Council Member Luther "Jay" Mills.


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

Members of my family, especially my father and older siblings, were very active in tribal government, setting a great example. I was a student-athlete at public school, as well as a member of our tribal baseball, softball, and basketball teams. My oldest sister and brother were involved in education and national politics, which inspired me to get involved in both. I also was exposed to some of our cultural values and teachings at a young age, which led me into my work as a cultural researcher and anthropologist.

What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?

My first responsibility is to organize and lead our Tribal Council meetings and our annual General Council meeting. My second responsibility, in my opinion, is to represent the Suquamish Tribe and its interests within our tribal community, with other tribal governments, and with outside governments on the local, state, and national level. I also serve on many boards and commissions within and outside the tribe, which work to meet the interests of our people and the greater community, including serving as a member of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation since being appointed by President Barack Obama in 2013.

Who inspired you as a mentor?

My parents, who lived through the Depression, met and married during World War II, and raised their family here on the reservation. Also my oldest brother, Jim, who inspired me to go to school and get active in politics, and my late sister, Marion, who taught me to work hard and to learn my culture.

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

I am a descendant of the family of Chief Seattle, signer of the Treaty of Point Elliott of 1855.

Approximately how many members are in your tribe? What are the criteria to become a member? 

There are approximately 1150 Suquamish tribal members. Automatic adoption requires descendancy from a Suquamish tribal member and one-eighth total Indian blood.

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

The Suquamish people traditionally speak a Salishan language called Lushootseed.

Several years ago, the Suquamish Tribe had very few Lushootseed speakers. The language was in real danger of becoming extinct. However, a group of dedicated tribal members worked to create a language program. At first the program was volunteer. Now it is a fully funded division of our Education Department, where we have Lushootseed classes for students at our schools and family classes for our community members.

What economic enterprises does your tribe own?

Over the past 25 years, the Suquamish tribal government has diligently worked to ensure economic opportunities for tribal members. In 1987, the Suquamish Tribe established Port Madison Enterprises (PME) as an agency of the Suquamish Tribe. PME’s operations are aimed at developing community resources while promoting the economic and social welfare of the Suquamish Tribe through commercial activities. What began as a modest retail endeavor has grown exponentially over the last quarter century. PME now encompasses several businesses including Suquamish Clearwater Casino Resort, the historic Kiana Lodge, three retail outletsWhite Horse Golf Course, and a property management division.

PME operations are conducted at the direction of a Board of Directors comprised of seven tribal members who are appointed by the Suquamish Tribal Council. With more than 800 employees in fields ranging from information technology to hospitality, the Suquamish-owned company is fast becoming one of the largest employers in the greater Kitsap area.

In addition to PME, the Suquamish Tribe also operates a growing seafood business. Established in 1996 by tribal charter, Suquamish Seafoods Enterprise (SSE) was formed to develop seafood markets for tribal fishermen, as well as market the bountiful harvests of geoduck clams that populate the tribe’s surrounding waters. SSE benefits tribal members by supporting seafood sustainability, subsistence living—the traditional conservation and perpetuation of resources—and the tribal economy as a whole.

What annual events does your tribe sponsor?

The Suquamish Tribe is one of several tribal governments in the Salish Sea who coordinate the Tribal Canoe Journey. The annual event, where tribes and First Nations travel the waterways of their ancestors in dug-out cedar canoes to share traditional ways with one another, has become a vehicle for cultural resurgence throughout the region.

Chief Seattle Days is a three-day public festival established in 1911 to honor Chief Seattle. The first event was held on the current Celebration Grounds in downtown Suquamish by local tribal members, community residents, and civic leaders from the city of Seattle. At the time, the new town of Suquamish was linked to Seattle by foot-passenger ferries, which allowed city residents to travel across Puget Sound and enjoy the celebration.

Many of the same activities from the 1911 celebration are still featured today, including the traditional salmon bake, canoe races, baseball tournaments, drumming and dancing, and a memorial service for Chief Seattle at his gravesite in Suquamish. 

Throughout the years other events have been added to the celebration. These include a Coastal Jam that brings tribes together from throughout the region, a powwow, and a fun run, craft and food vendors, and the Chief Seattle Days Youth Royalty Pageant. This year's Chief Seattle Days takes place in Suquamish August 14 through 16.

What attractions are available for visitors on your land?

Our location along the shores of Kitsap County in the Puget Sound region provides an abundance of tourism activities. People visit our area for recreational fishing, kayaking, hiking, and camping. Many of our businesses, including the White Horse Golf CourseKiana Lodge, and Clearwater Casino Resort, have been developed to grow tourist activities in the region.

In 2013, the Suquamish Tribe completed a decade-long capital campaign to create a network of structures in culturally significant areas on the Port Madison Indian Reservation. The network includes the Suquamish Museum, Chief Seattle’s gravesite, the House of Awakened Culture, the Suquamish Community Dock, and the Veteran’s Monument.

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

The Suquamish Tribe is a sovereign nation. As such, we have a government-to-government relationship with the United States, as outlined in the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliot. We see the U.S. as our trustee, responsible for defending our treaty rights and resources.

What message would you like to share with Suquamish youth?

Know and respect your culture. Listen to your elders and know your family tree. Work hard and get an education and training so you can support yourself. As you go through your life, honor the seven generations that preceded you and leave something for the seven generations that will follow you.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

The last ten years of my life as chairman of the Suquamish Tribe have been very rewarding, and I am blessed. I was lucky to be here to oversee completion of our capital campaign to support Suquamish Dock, the House of Awakened Culture, and the Suquamish Museum, and to witness the election of President Obama, resulting in the most progressive administration in the history of U.S.–tribal relations.

Thank you.

Thank you.


Photos courtesy of the Suquamish Tribe; used with permission.

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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.
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From left to right: 
Representative Ponka-We Victors (Tohono O’odham/Southern Ponca) taking the oath of office in the Kansas House of Representatives; photo courtesy of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab. Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache) at the Sundance Film Festival; photo courtesy of WireImage. Sergeant Debra Mooney (Choctaw) at the powwow in Al Taqaddum Air Force Base, Iraq, 2004; photo courtesy of Sgt. Debra Mooney. Councilman Jonathan Perry (Wampanoag) in traditional clothing; photo courtesy of Jonathan Perry. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) at Blackhorse et al. v. Pro Football, Inc., press conference, U.S. Patent and Trade Office, February 7, 2013; photo courtesy of Mary Phillips. All photos used with permission. 

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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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