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.
Can you share your Native name and its English translation, or your nickname?
It's SXwUXwIkW. In English it is translated to Whirling Wind. As for a nickname, the world calls me Tree.
Where is your First Nation located?
We are ten minutes north of the Canadian–American border, in a small area in the Similkameen Valley. Our reserves are around Cawston, British Columbia.
Where are your people originally from?
We are have always been located in the interior Plateau area. The languages here are very similar to those in Washington, Idaho, and Montana. We have moved around in the same areas due to the seasons and the harvesting of foods.
What responsibilities do you have as a First Nations councillor?
As a council, we are elected by the people and therefore are to speak on behalf of the people as a whole, for the band. That means we deal with issues on a band level, with the band administrator and according to the concerns of our office-level functions. On a higher level, we work on behalf of the nation for the protection of our Title and Rights as the Natives of this land—on issues like land use, for example, for mining, and water use. We also speak on the provincial level on band fundings received from the Canadian government and how those are spent in our communities.
As a representative of a treaty nation, how do you interact with the Canadian government?
The Similkameen people have never signed a treaty for our land issues.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead?
On a personal note I would have to say I was raised with my grandparents. I spent a lot of time with my elders growing up. I was introduced to many influential people. I have had the honor to sit at the feet of many political leaders. In my later years I still spend time with my elders. My day job is home care. I take care of the elders who took care of us, and I feel that has given me a lot of insight into what still needs to be done.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
My uncle, Glen Douglas. He was a great man in politics, along with Tommy Gregory. These men together shared a lot of views of the history and the Title and Rights of our people. They sat at very important tables and meetings for our people.
How is your First Nation government of set up?
We have one chief and three council members.
Is there a functional traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?
Yes, we tie in our stories and lessons that have been passed down through the generations. They are used in meetings over agreements, to show our history and the history of our use of our lands—the territory the people have always lived on and around.
Councillor Snow on Similkameen lands in British Columbia.
How often does your council meet?
The chief and council meet formally two times a month. We also meet on other issues throughout the month.
Approximately how large is your community? What are the criteria to become a citizen?
There are about 500 members. To become a member you have to prove your bloodline to our area. But also you can transfer into our band from your former band with the reason of a permanent relocation to our lands.
How many fluent language speakers are left on your reserve?
The last count was 28 fluent speakers, but we are working hard at educating more of our people to bring back the language. We already have in place classes funded by our council so that they are free for the members.
What economic enterprises does your First Nation own?
What activities and events does your First Nation sponsor?
We host many kinds of community activities. For example, we have community breakfasts, elders' lunches, and a sobriety awareness week. We will be hosting a small community powwow this year.
What attractions are available for visitors to your First Nation’s land?
There are many things here of historical value to my people. We have the story landmarks of coyote, and there is also our famous Spotted Lake just down the road. We have a larger powwow Labor Day weekend hosted by our community.
What message would you like to share with young people within your reserve?
I would like to share the importance of family and standing together. Working together. We need to fix the broken family issues, so that our young people understand the value of their children and their parents in the same breath. We need to be strong and understand our own value—that we are worth the effort it takes to be good parents and children. We are raising our future and we are respecting the time put in by our elders.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I have been honored by our people to sit in a leadership roll. I am looking forward to the challenges this will bring. I am hoping to make that difference. I hit the ground running. I am putting in my 110 percent. I hope that I can keep up this driving energy through my four-year position. The people have given me their faith, and I want to honor their voice.
Photographs by Billie Jean Gabriel Photography, Ashcroft, British Columbia, Canada.
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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.