Meet Native America: Interviews with Indigenous Leaders

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.

March 12, 2015

Meet Native America: Beverly Cook, Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Council Chief

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 Beverly Cook
Beverly Cook, Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Council Chief. Photo by Nathan Lashomb, Forevermore Studio. 

Please introduce yourself with your name and title.

Beverly Cook, Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Council Chief.

Can you share your Native name with us?

Kiohawiton is my name, and I am a Wolf Clan Mohawk woman. The translation is She Brought It with Her. It is a name given to me by my mother’s mother.

Where is your tribal community located?

The Saint Regis Mohawk Reservation, or Akwesasne territory, is located in northern New York State approximately 200 miles north of Albany. Our reservation is bisected by the border between the United States and Canada and by the great Saint Lawrence River. From east to west, it’s approximately equal distance between Montreal and Ottawa. There are several other sister Mohawk communities throughout Quebec and Ontario provinces.

Where are the Mohawk people originally from?

The territory we reside on is our original land. The Mohawk are traditionally the Keepers of the Eastern Door of the Iroquois Confederacy, also known as the Six Nations or Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Our original homeland is the northeastern region of New York State extending into southern Canada and Vermont. Prior to contact with Europeans, the Mohawk settlements populated the Mohawk Valley of New York State. Through the centuries Mohawk influence extended far beyond this territory and was felt by the Dutch and English who settled on the Hudson River, the French in Montreal, the Cherokee in the south and west to the Mississippi.

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

There are certainly many points in history that have influenced or otherwise altered the course of history for the Akwesasne Mohawk community. Below is one such point in our history that is illustrated by Sub-Chief Eric Thompson:

A pivotal moment in the history of the Mohawk community of Akwesasne—the Land Where the Partridge Drums, the traditional name for what would become known as the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation—was the execution of the 1796 Treaty with the Seven Nations of Canada, negotiated on behalf of the community of Akwesasne by representatives of the Seven Nations of Canada. This U.S. federal treaty recognized and reserved lands within our traditional territory that had become surrounded by the newly formed United States.

This treaty fortified the foundation that previous colonial governments had formed with the Mohawk nation proper and the seven communities, which made up the “the seven fires” of the colonial era, and is reflected in the title of the treaty.

The agreement set aside an area of six miles square, as well as meadows along a local river and two one-mile-square plots that became surrounded by two local towns built up around them. The importance of this treaty and the reservation of land that it recognized and ensured was pivotal in the history of our community in regards to recognition of sovereignty and delineation of federally protected territory (which becomes very important in the area of land claims and environmental protection, among other important areas).

The federal recognition of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe is also inextricably linked to the treaty, which recognized the people and tribal government and, importantly, the obligation of the federal trust relationship Chief Justice John Marshall elucidated in his trilogy of cases setting the foundations of federal Indian law. This recognition has been critical in the development and cultivation of programs and services provided for the community, as well as going to the exercise of inherent sovereignty and the exercise of jurisdictional arguments in all legal and political spheres.

How is your tribal government set up?

The Tribal Council is comprised of three Chiefs, three Sub-Chiefs, and a Tribal Clerk. Tribal elections are held each year on the first Saturday of June to choose one Chief and one Sub-Chief for a three-year term. The Tribal Clerk is chosen every third year.

The Sub-Chiefs receive their authority from the Chiefs. If the Chiefs are unable to fulfill their duties or are incapacitated, a Sub-Chief may also be called upon to substitute at a meeting, function, etc., for a Chief who has other commitments. 

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

Yes, there is the Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs whose members continue to conduct our traditional ceremonies and to uphold the three principles of our traditional government, called the Great Law of Peace—peace, power, and righteousness. Mohawks have three clans—Turtle, Bear, and Wolf. We have a long history of welcoming and adopting other nations and individuals who follow the White Roots of Peace to their source seeking refuge under the Great Tree of Peace (a symbolic representation of our government). Such was the case of the Oswegatchi who were absorbed into our community, resulting in a large number of Mohawks at Akwesasne who are Snipe Clan. Each of the three Mohawk clan families should have three Condoled Chiefs who are selected and raised up by their respective Clan Mothers with the support of the people. Our Clan Mothers have the power to depose a Chief who is determined not to be acting in the best interest of the people.

How often are elected leaders chosen? 

We serve three-year terms and are elected on a yearly, rotating basis.

How often does your government meet?

We meet with the community regularly on the first Saturday of every month. In addition, Council meets weekly in public work sessions and later in executive session. Throughout the week we have regularly scheduled meetings with our chief financial officer, legal counsel, compliance officer, communications staff, Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) coordinator, Division of Social Services (DSS) commissioner, and education director, and our executive director’s administrative team. We also have meetings as needed with community members and groups, as well as outside agencies.

SRMT Tribal Council
The Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Council presenting community seniors with a new van for use by the Office for the Aging transportation service. Council members and government officials (standing, from left to right): Sub-Chief Michael Conners; Sub-Chief Eric Thompson; Chief Beverly Cook, Lora Lee LaFrance, director of the Saint Regis Mohawk Office for the Aging; and Tsiorasa Barreiro, executive director of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe. Photo courtesy of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe.


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

Since graduating from nursing school in 1974, I have been deeply involved in my people’s struggles to defend our inherent sovereign rights. Eventually I had to concentrate on supporting my family and raising my three beautiful daughters. I focused on my work as a family nurse practitioner at our medical clinic. For 29 years it was boots on the ground with my people. Bearing witness to their health issues, their social struggles, their emotional traumas, as well as their joys and triumphs over adversity, was my privilege. 

From that experience I learned patience, compassion, and how to confront an issue at its roots, though that is not a popular approach. Spiritual and emotional healing is not always readily accepted in medical or political circles, and I learned paradigms are extremely hard to shift. I can see how the layers of grief, trauma, hardship, and struggle that our people endure even as children affect their physical and emotional health later on in life. 

It’s abundantly apparent to me that if the people are not well, then everything else we do as leaders is moot. It’s a slow process to change attitudes, but clearly, if we continue to do things the way we’ve always done them, then we’ll continue to get the same results. In order for our people to recover and overcome the ramifications of historical and intergenerational trauma, leadership needs to understand that wellness of body and wellness of the mind are inextricably linked. The required shift to trauma-informed approaches cannot stay isolated in individual programs but must become an integral part of policy from administration and government on down. 

I think leadership needs to strike a balance of its own that flows and has a broad vision, as opposed to a one-track mind. Economic development, political fights, and sovereignty issues are certainly important. We shouldn't forget that sovereignty also includes child safety, education, food security, and the prevention of and recovery from addiction and violence against our women.

What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?

All Native leaders bear the responsibility of the coming generations’ well-being. A long vision is necessary to weigh the risks and benefits of any action we take no matter how small. In the long run there is no greater obligation than to our planet, mother earth, to our inherent sovereign rights, and to the safety and well-being of our women and children.

The Tribal Council Chiefs are responsible for setting policy and making major decisions on behalf of the tribe. They oversee the operation of the tribal government and assure that quality programs and services are made available to the Mohawk people. More specifically, the Chiefs review and approve grants, contracts, and new programs; and assist tribal members with governmental problems; and preside over monthly meetings. 

Who inspired you as a mentor? 

My father, the late Julius M. Cook—who was a Tribal Chief, as were two of his older brothers—is my inspiration. My father was a devoted husband and loving father, an ironworker, artisan, silversmith, musician. He was an articulate orator and proud patriot of the Mohawk Nation.

Today, I am continually inspired by the powerful women of Konon:kwe Council—Katsi Cook, Randi Barreiro, Karonienhawi Thomas, Jessica Danforth, Louise Herne. Together we co-founded a Mohawk women-led grassroots organization that encourages collaborative approaches to the care, empowerment, and transformation of a traumatized community. 

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

Our Creation Story describes the descent of Otsitsison (Mature Flower), also called Sky Woman. Her journey to this world is the root of all female life. She brought the earth and seeds from where she came and laid the foundation that all Creation is dependent upon.

She and all women are gifted with the power to create life along with the male side of creation, but it is only she who can carry life, give birth, and sustain life even unto a cellular level. Her story is the story of all women. 

Through telling the story of her journey I’ve seen women come to realize and appreciate, in a new way, their own capacity to create and sustain life’s essence and spirit in the form of a human being.  They are renewed in their commitment to carry that responsibility the best they can, with strength, dignity, and grace, and most importantly, believing themselves worthy of honor and respect. I am proud to be a descendent of a historical leader—Otsitsison—and all the powerful women who came after her.

Approximately how many members are in your tribe?

We have about 15,000 enrolled members; however those who live on territory number around 5,000.

What are the criteria to become a member?

To become an enrolled member, we currently accept one-quarter blood, but we are in the midst of restructuring our membership code. The tribal members will have final say on any future changes to the requirements of membership to the tribe.

Traditionally, we are a matrilineal society and follow the clan of the mother. Our ancestors also made the provision for adoption of people into one of our three clans (Turtle, Bear, and Wolf) if theirs was lost to them along the way. 

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

Yes, we are fortunate to have many speakers who range from completely fluent in the Mohawk language to just learning. Fortunately, there have always been pockets of families and neighborhoods that have kept the language alive.

Thirty-five years ago I was fortunate to be one of the founding parents of the Akwesasne Freedom School that rose out of a struggle over sovereignty. We wanted our children to learn the truth of their culture and their language. We wanted them to be able to understand and contemplate what they hear in the Mohawk language without having to rely on someone else’s translation or interpretation. Freedom meant the ability to draw your own conclusions and form your own opinions, to think freely. We encouraged the children to ask questions about everything. 

There is now a second elementary school in the village of St. Regis, Quebec, that is total Mohawk immersion. In Mohawk country we are actively turning back the effects of the destructive policies of termination and assimilation promoted by the U.S. and Canadian governments. Mohawks have the highest percentage of fluent speakers among the Haudenosaunee nations. 

What economic enterprises does your tribe own?

The Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe operates two gaming enterprises that serve as a primary revenue source for the Tribal General Fund, which helps fund essential community services and other benefits for tribal members. The Akwesasne Mohawk Casino Resort is a class III gaming operation that opened in 1999, while the Mohawk Bingo Palace is a class II gaming facility that has been in operation for 30 years. Together, they are the Mohawk Gaming Enterprises, and they employ nearly 1,000 people, with more than 41 percent being tribal members. The addition of a seven-story, 110-room hotel at the casino in 2013 has helped bring more than 1.6 million guests to Akwesasne—people whose visits support our community’s economy. 

These efforts were complemented in 2014 with the tribe’s rollout of broadband Internet services that support the community’s ongoing economic and educational growth.

What annual events does the tribe sponsor? 

The Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe is proud to host, or support, a number of annual events in the community of Akwesasne, such as the Akwesasne International Powwow, Ironworkers FestivalAkwesasne Winter Carnival, Akwesasne Wellness Day, Community Roadside Cleanup, Hogansburg–Akwesasne Volunteer Fire Department Fire Prevention Week, Kids for Fishing, Akwesasne Mohawk Police Service’s Racing against Drugs, Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe's Senior Olympics, and our tribe's participation in the North American Indigenous Games, as well as numerous other athletic, cultural, educational, and community organizations’ annual event. Our community is also especially proud of the Akwesasne Freedom School Annual Quilt Auction and Survival Race, as well as Oherokon Rites of Passage

Honoring 4th-year participants in Oherokon
The Akwesasne community gathers to receive the return of young people from the fast that marks their fourth year as participants in the Oherokon Rites of Passage. Photo by KrystalBluePhotography. 

What other attractions are available for visitors on your land?

The community of Akwesasne is situated along the picturesque St. Lawrence River on the international border between the United States and Canada. It encompasses nearly 100 miles of waterways with more than 400 islands of assorted sizes, which makes it as an ideal location for sports fishermen. For gaming enthusiasts, the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino Resort is located in the heart of the community and boasts more than 2,500 gaming machines, high-stakes bingo, and the new hotel. Adjacent to the tribe’s gaming operations is the Comfort Inn & Suites. Together the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino Resort Hotel and Comfort Inn offer 180 rooms for guests to visit Akwesasne. Both accommodations are located just minutes away from the Mohawk International Raceway, which features exciting dirt track racing in various categories. To learn more about Akwesasne, visitors are encouraged to visit the Akwesasne Cultural Center and the Native North American Traveling College.

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

Relationships between Indian nations and other governments are complicated, some more than others. Ours is compounded by the need to work with two countries, two provinces, two counties, and three governing councils on our territory.

The Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Council is committed to open communication between our own community governments and outside agencies and governments in order to maintain jurisdiction over our tribal lands and protect our sovereign right to do so. This requires constant vigilance and scrutiny of political and enforcement actions taken or contemplated by outside agencies on or near our territory. We maintain government-to-government relations through open dialogue and diplomacy with New York State and the federal government.

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

I would like our youth to know how important their opinions are. They’ve had a voice all along, and I’m always sad when they don’t feel they can use it. What they think and feel matters. They see the world through different eyes, a different lens, than we adults do. Their opinions are refreshing and deserve to be heard.

My wish is for them to step forward and question what doesn’t make sense to them. Question what seems wrong to them. Ask, Why? Ask, Why not? 

Ask for help when you need it. Ask for what you need. 

Is there anything else you would like to add? 

I would like to say that I am grateful for the sacrifices of our ancestors who have gone on before us. Niawe:kowa—big thank you—to those who left us long ago and for the prayers they laid down on our behalf, so that we could continue to live as Onkwehonwe (real people or human beings), so that our Onkwehonwe ways remain intact for our benefit. I extend my gratitude to our ancestors, our relatives, who have left us more recently for their courage and steadfastness in carrying that prayer forward to today. 

Thank you. 

Niawen (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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Kuundah, Beverly, you are an inspiration and Shero of mine. I am grateful to know all the women of the women's council. I pray for your continued journey as a leader of the peoples. I stand with you. Love.

thanks so much

Courage is what many women lack to advance in their career and personal life. We are smart and able to do almost anything, but get quickly discouraged and this is what we have to learn to overpass. I'm still learning...

I am so happy to have found this blog. Your confidence and drive to educate readers to love and embrace themselves is inspiring.

March 02, 2015

Meet Native America: Lisa Johnson-Billy, Oklahoma Representative for District 42

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 
 

Rep. Lisa Johnson-Billy 2015
Oklahoma Representative Lisa Johnson-Billy (Chickasaw and Choctaw). Photo courtesy of the Oklahoma State Capitol.

Please introduce yourself with your name and title.

Lisa Johnson-Billy, Oklahoma representative for district 42.

What tribes are you affiliated with?

Chickasaw and Choctaw. 

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

The year 1832 is the removal for the Choctaw Nation, and it was very significant due to the loss of life along the removal.

For the Chickasaw, people the removal was 1837, and it literally removed our people out of prosperity into poverty. But also significant for the Chickasaw people were contacts with the Spanish conquistadors—the Chickasaw people forced these foreigners off the Chickasaw boundaries. Years later the Chickasaw forced back the French, and eventually the Chickasaw people became allies with the Americans—specifically, with George Washington. The Chickasaw leader Piomingo forged a lasting relationship with Washington. The Chickasaw people joined alongside the Americans fighting against the British to build the United States.

World War I and World War II were also extremely important. Native people were not allowed to speak our languages in our educational institutions during this time. In fact, it was actively discouraged: Tribal children were severely punished for speaking Native languages in schools. But at this same time, our tribal men were joining the U.S. military of their own free will and at a higher rate than any race. And these same men went on to serve in the military and create the tribal code languages that America's enemies were never able to decipher. Members from Oklahoma tribes of the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Comanche, and Seminole helped to create and carry out these secret tribal code languages. 

In 2009, with the support of the Oklahoma Native American Caucus, I was able to bring forth Oklahoma House Resolution 1031 and honor the Choctaw Code Talkers on the House floor. It was a significant event for the descendants! Choctaw Chief Gregory E. Pyle and Assistant Chief Gary Batton were also recognized on the House floor for their leadership in preserving the history of the Code Talkers. My own grandfather was punished for speaking Chickasaw in boarding schools, and yet years later the State of Oklahoma honored our tribal people for their language. 

How is your state government set up?

The government of the State of Oklahoma, established by the Oklahoma Constitution, is a republican democracy modeled after the federal government of the United States. The state government has three branches: the executive, legislative, and judicial. Through a system of separation of powers or "checks and balances," each of these branches has some authority to act on its own, some authority to regulate the other two branches, and has some of its own authority, in turn, regulated by the other branches.

The state government is based in Oklahoma City, and the head of the executive branch is the governor of Oklahoma. The legislative branch is called the legislature and consists of the Oklahoma Senate and the Oklahoma House of Representatives. The Oklahoma Supreme Court and the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals are the state's highest courts.

How are leaders chosen?

They are elected from their districts.

Are Democrats or Republicans more dominant in your state? Do legislators vote along party lines?

Republicans are the majority party, and we work together on most issues. Occasionally, there are votes casts along party lines. 

Are there any other Natives who are elected leaders in your state?

Yes, there are other Native Americans who serve in the legislature. In fact, nearly 10 years ago, Rep. Paul Wesselhoft (Citizen Potawatomi) and I set up the first Oklahoma Native American Caucus. As we began the process of developing the caucus, then-member Shane Jett, a Cherokee citizen, eagerly jumped on board, and together we developed by-laws and elected chairmen. I served as the first co-chairman. We designed the caucus to be bipartisan, in that we always elect one chairman who is a Republican and one who is a Democrat. Our original goals included developing better relationships with our tribal governments and leaders. We also assisted House and Senate members in knowing which tribe or tribes live in their districts. The caucus has accomplished these goals and has passed several pieces of significant legislation, including a tribal law enforcement bill and a tribal language bill. We also created a tribal liaison position with the governor's leadership team. The caucus has about twenty members with most of those holding Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood (CDIB) cards.

How many tribes are in your state? Who are they?

Oklahoma is home to 38 federally recognized tribal nations:

Absentee Shawnee Tribe 
Alabama Quassarte Tribal Town 
Apache Tribe
Caddo Nation 
Cherokee Nation 
Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes 
Chickasaw Nation 
Choctaw Nation 
Citizen Potawatomi Nation
Comanche Nation  
Delaware Nation 
Delaware Tribe of Indians
Eastern Shawnee Tribe  
Fort Sill Apache Tribe
Iowa Tribe 
Kaw Nation 
Kialegee Tribal Town 
Kickapoo Tribe of Oklahoma
Kiowa Tribe 
Miami Nation 
Modoc Tribe 
Muscogee (Creek) Nation 
Osage Nation 
Otoe–Missouria Tribe 
Ottawa Tribe 
Pawnee Nation 
Peoria Tribe
Ponca Nation 
Quapaw Tribe 
Sac & Fox Nation 
Seminole Nation 
Seneca–Cayuga Tribe 
Shawnee Tribe 
Thlopthlocco Tribal Town 
Tonkawa Tribe 
United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians 
Wichita and Affiliated Tribes 
Wyandotte Nation

Do you ever meet with the Native people of your state?

Yes, as a representative and as a Native, I meet with various tribal leaders and tribal organizations across the State of Oklahoma.

Do the Native people in Oklahoma vote in state elections?

Yes, we do.

How often does the state legislature meet?

Oklahoma session meets for legislative duties every February through May.

What responsibilities do you have as a state representative?

My responsibilities include being available to my constituents and hosting town halls and various meetings across my district. District 42 has nine communities, and I make myself available to the local schools, where I visit annually and lead mock legislative sessions so students better understand the process. I also meet with our local fire fighters and visit the Chambers of Commerce, senior citizen sites, and local youth and community events. I attend as many youth livestock shows and sporting events as I can, which makes it possible for my constituents to share their concerns

I am currently serving as the floor leader in the Oklahoma House of Representatives, so my duties include reviewing all legislation as it comes out of committee and preparing the House agenda. I am also a vice chairman for the Public Safety Appropriation Committee, which means I assist the chairman in reviewing all budget-related items for the Oklahoma Alcoholic Beverage Laws Enforcement Commission (ABLE), Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training (CLEET), Department of Corrections, Office of the Fire Marshal, Office of the Medical Examiner, Bureau of Narcotics, Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation (OSBI), and Department of Public Safety. And I serve on the leadership team for Speaker Jeff Hickman. 

What is a significant point in the Oklahoma state history that you would like to share?

Oklahoma Statehood, November 16, 1907: At this point the sovereignty for tribes was nearly dissolved. Our tribal communities began to melt into the State of Oklahoma. It has taken a significant amount of time, effort, and work by tribal leaders to restore tribal governments. 

Our tribal leaders still work very hard for tribal members. Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anoatubby always reminds me that we are Chickasaw citizens who live in Oklahoma, driving on the same roads and attending the same schools, and that therefore it is important that we work together as a team to move Oklahoma forward. 

The Billy family 2015
Lisa Johnson-Billy and her husband, Phillip Billy, with their children. Photo courtesy of the Billy family.

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

I believe my total life experience has prepared me. I was raised on a small farm where work had to be completed regardless of the weather, or if I was sick or thought I was too busy. My parents taught me the value of hard work and working alongside our neighbors when work had to be done. Growing up in small towns helped me to be accountable and responsible. I attended college at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah and later received my Master of Education degree from the University of Oklahoma. 

I ran for the Chickasaw Nation Legislature while in my twenties and served two terms. I had the privilege to serve alongside my father. This provided me the opportunity to recognize how smart my dad is and to recognize his loyalty to the Chickasaw people. I developed a small business called Peacemakers while I was in college at NSU, and this experience truly assists me now as I make policy decisions for the State of Oklahoma. 

I also think being a mom helped me to be a better legislator for my tribe and now for my state. 

Are you a descendant of a historical leader?

Not that I am aware of.

Who inspired you as a mentor?

I have many mentors, and I am extremely grateful. My parents, Frank and Beverly Johnson, are my first teachers. Helen Cole, Neal McCaleb, Governor Bill Anoatubby, Congressman Tom Cole, to name a few, have had a huge impact on my thinking and believing in new possibilities! I also had an extraordinary professor while at NSU—Dr. Susan Frusher. She lifted the limits of my own dreams. A man named Jake Chanate helped me to believe I could build the Peacemaker youth group and touch lives. Chief Wilma Mankiller also encouraged me to see that, many times, dreams are really made of hard work. I had the opportunity to meet Howard Rainer when I was a freshman in college. Later, my husband and I had the opportunity to work with Howard. His dignity, his character, his morals still guide me today. One of his favorite sayings is, “If you chase your dreams with excellence, nobody can stop you!” Howard Rainer has left a lasting imprint on me, along with Native families everywhere.

Approximately how many constituents are in your district? Approximately how many are Native?

I have about 43,000 constituents in my district. Probably about 20 percent are Native American of various tribes.

How have you used your elected position to help Natives and other minorities?

I have been able to bring various tribal leaders to the table, so to speak, at the Oklahoma State Capitol, whether in meetings with the Speaker of the House, the governor, or the lieutenant governor. Hopefully I have also been a voice for Native issues at the capitol. We now have Cherokee Day, Choctaw Day, and Chickasaw Day at the capitol. These are new events that are making a big impact on policymakers. 

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

I tell young people to dream big and never give up, no matter the obstacles, no matter the opposition. 

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I believe a quote that Margaret Mead said many years ago: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” 

Olympic gold medalist Billy Mills also inspired me decades ago when he said “Find your dream. It’s the pursuit of the dream that heals you.”

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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