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.
Jonathan Poahway, Comanche Business Committeeman #1.
What is your name in your language, and what does it mean?
Tsaa tuhoi—it means Good Hunter.
Where is your tribe located?
The Comanche Nation Complex is in Lawton, in southwest Oklahoma.
Where were the Comanche originally from?
Wyoming—we were originally a band of the Shoshone, or they were a band of us, perhaps.
What is a significant point in history from your people that you would like to share?
No United States war with any tribal nation lasted more than ten years, except the war against the Comanche. That lasted for forty years. Also the Comanche were the “roadblock” against Spanish expansion and conquest on this continent!
What responsibilities do you have as a member of the Business Committee?
To secure a financially stable future for all tribal members, as well as for future generations.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead?
I was raised as the youngest child of 15. The majority of us were raised by a single parent after our father died. Our mother was a fluent speaker of Comanche, with English as her second language, and she worked very hard to provide for us all. She worked two and sometimes three jobs. It instilled in us children a fine work ethic. Her parents spoke only Comanche and taught her to take care of others before yourself, and that is also ingrained in us. So it is in my heart to take care of all our nation, especially the children and our children's grandchildren.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
I would have to say one of my older brothers, who was on the council once as well. He taught me that honesty is the best policy, also that doing right will positively affect more people than doing wrong would.
Are you a descendant of a historical leader?
Approximately how many members are in your nation?
What are the criteria to become a member of the Comanche Nation?
To be enrolled, you must be one-eighth Comanche Indian blood quantum and a descendant of an original Comanche Nation land allottee.
Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?
Only by the elderly. Fluency is probably as low as 3 percent. There is a language committee working to change that.
How is your tribal government set up?
We have a chairman who is in charge of day-to day-operations, a Business Committee whose members are policymakers and decide on investments under a certain amount, and the General Council—the people, all members of the Comanche Nation who are eighteen years old or older—who vote on investments over the amount.
How often are leaders chosen?
The chairman has a two-year term, and seats on the Business Committee are for a three-year term.
How often does the government meet?
The Business Committee meets once a month, and the General Council meets once a year.
How does your nation deal with the United States as a sovereign nation?
We are supposed to be treated with the respect given to foreign nations. Sometimes we are not, and have to fight for and remind the United States government of our sovereignty.
What attractions are available for visitors on your tribal lands?
What annual events does your nation sponsor?
What message would you like to share with Native youth?
Education will take you a long ways and open many doors. Respect—for others—will keep those doors open!
Is there anything else you would like to add?
It is our responsibility as stewards of the land to pass down to many generations the knowledge and ability to take care of our mother, Earth!
All photographs courtesy of Committeeman Poahway, 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.