Meet Native America: Interviews with Indigenous Leaders

January 31, 2016

Meet Native America: Ken St. Marks, Chairman of the Chippewa Cree Tribe of the Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation

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 Ken St. Marks
Chairman Ken St. Marks, Chippewa Cree Tribe of the Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation. January 2016, Box Elder, Montana.

Please introduce yourself with your name and title. 

My name is Ken St. Marks. I'm chairman of the Chippewa Cree Tribe of the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation

Can you share your Native name and its English translation, or your nickname? 

My great-grandmother gave me the name Skinnyman. 

Where is your tribal community located? 

Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation is in north central Montana. 

Where is your tribe originally from? 

Rocky Boy’s Band of Chippewa came from the Great Lakes area, and Little Bear’s Band of Cree came from the Canadian territories. 

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

Our reservation was created by an Act of Congress in 1916, helped by many prominent political activists in Montana. Both bands of Chippewa and Cree were landless at the time of reservation's establishment. 

How is your tribal government set up? 

We have an elected chairman and eight elected members of the Chippewa Cree Business Committee (CCBC). The CCBC is the governing body for the Chippewa Cree Tribe. 

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

We do have a group of Peacemakers, elected by the tribal government. The Peacemakers serve as a guiding entity to our traditional belief systems as Chippewa Cree. 

How often are elected leaders chosen? 

Members of the CCBC are elected to staggered terms lasting four years. The chairman is elected every four years. We are a sovereign nation, and we are one of the first tribes in the nation to go into an agreement with the federal government to establish ourselves as a self-governance nation. This was done in 1994. 

How often does your tribal council meet? 

The CCBC has monthly meetings, along with monthly subcommittee meetings. Most, if not all, members of the Business Committee sit on at least one subcommittee. 

What responsibilities do you have as tribal chairman? 

I wanted to be chairman for the sake of the people and the tribe. I've fought hard to be in this leadership position for the past four years. I would like to have a Native community healing gathering for all tribal members and to have the spiritual aspect of our culture be a central focus. I would like the tribe to be connected and united as one, once again, and to do so through prayer and spirituality. 

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

Before being elected chairman, I served as a Business Committee member. I've run various businesses for the tribe, as well as being self-employed and creating the excavation contracting company Arrow Enterprises, Inc. I am also a Vietnam-era veteran. I served with the 82nd Airborne Division.

Who inspired you as a mentor? 

Former Chairman John "Roddy" Sun Child. I learned a lot from him and how he handled himself in Washington. Because of who he was and how he treated others, doors were easily opened for him, and with that, it became a better connection for his people. My three grandmothers—Mary St. Marks, Rosanne Saddler, and Gramma Taha Saddler—were also an inspiration for the way I think today. They were prominent figures in my life. 

Are you a descendant of a historical leader? 

I'm a descendant of Rocky Boy's Band of Chippewas. Also, one set of my grandparents came from the Cree Nation in Canada.  

Approximately how many members are in your tribe? 

The tribe has around 6,400 members. Two-thirds of our members live on the reservation, and half are under the age of 18. 

What are the criteria to become a member of your tribe? 

To be a member, a person's parents have to be enrolled and living on the reservation at the time of birth. For those living off the reservation, the criteria are 50 percent Indian blood and one enrolled parent. 

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

Yes, Chippewa and Cree are still spoken, with an estimated 20 percent of the people speaking fluently. Chippewa Cree language is a primary reason why our culture is still flourishing and intact. 

What economic enterprises does your tribe own? 

The tribe owns Dry Fork Farms, Chippewa Cree Construction Corporation, PlainGreen LLC, and the Chippewa Cree Community Development Corporation. 

What annual events does your tribe sponsor? 

The largest event we host is Rocky Boy's Annual Celebration and Rodeo. Our annual celebration for 2016 will commemorate that it has been 100 years since our reservation was established. 

What other attractions are available for visitors on your land? 

There is the Chippewa Cree Recreation Area, in the Bears Paw Mountains, and the Bear Paw Ski Bowl. Also on our land is the sacred mountain Baldy Butte, along with many other landmarks that are sacred to the Chippewa Cree people. Tours that follow the proper protocols can be arranged for visitors. 

Rocky Boy's Reservation

A beautiful spring day on Chippewa Cree land. April 2014, the Rocky Boy's Reservation, Montana.


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

We have established a government-to-government relationship with the U.S. federal government. Because of historical ties, we also have unspoken trust and respect agreements with Canadian tribes. 

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

Our ancestors prayed hard for a place for our people to live and practice our traditional ways and system of beliefs. Take care of this land. It’s our home. And take care to practice self-sufficiency. Our older generation worked hard for what we have today. Follow those ways. 

Our original Chief Stone Child’s last words were, “Be kind to one another and help one another.” 

Is there anything else you would like to add? 

The Chippewa Cree Tribe has been through some difficult times while we tried to clean up our government and to see that the business of the tribe was conducted by the legally elected Business Committee, whose members represent the people's interests. It got very personal. 

I’m grateful to my family and many others on the reservation and in neighboring communities who stood by me and helped me fight this. I’d also like to thank the law firm of Fredericks Peeples & Morgan for all their work. With their help, I became the first American Indian tribal leader to receive federal whistleblower protection while we fought to make things right here.

The chairman’s office and the Business Committee are working well together now, for the welfare of our people. That’s the most important thing I’d like people to know.

Thank you. 

Thank you. 


Photos courtesy of the Chippewa Cree Tribe of the Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation.

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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January 15, 2016

Meet Native America: Jeff L. Grubbe, Tribal Chairman of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla 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 Jeff Grubbe
Tribal Chairman Jeff L. Grubbe, Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.

Please introduce yourself with your name and title. 

Me yah whae (hello), I am Tribal Chairman Jeff L. Grubbe, Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians

Where is your tribal community located? 

The Agua Caliente Indian Reservation is located in the Coachella Valley, in Southern California, and crosses the municipal boundaries of Palms Springs, Rancho Mirage, and Cathedral City, as well as portions of unincorporated Riverside County. 

Where is your tribe originally from? 

We have deep roots here. The Cahuilla name for the area was originally Sec-he (boiling water) for the nearby hot spring. The Spanish who arrived named it Agua Caliente (hot water). Then came the name Palm Springs, in reference to both the native Washingtonia filifiera palm tree and the Agua Caliente Hot Mineral Spring. 

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

A significant turning point in the tribe’s history was when the Agua Caliente Band adopted its first Constitution and By-Laws in the mid 1950s. The first all-woman tribal council in the United States was formed in 1954. This group, and subsequent councils, successfully opposed federal termination efforts, obtaining the first long-term land lease legislation in the United States for Indian lands and clearing the way for tribal land development across the country.

How is your tribal government set up? 

The Tribal Council is the governing body that sets policy, makes laws and implements the direction voted upon by tribal membership. The structure of the Tribal Council is composed of five positions and four proxy members. The council includes a chairman, vice chairman, secretary–treasurer and two council members. 

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

No. 

How often are elected leaders chosen? 

Tribal elections are held each year. Officers serve two-year terms, and council members serve one-year terms. 

How often does your tribal council meet? 

We meet weekly, with some exceptions throughout the year. 

What responsibilities do you have as tribal chairman? 

My responsibility as chairman is to ensure that the decisions we make today improve the lives of our future generations. That’s why we are investing in educational opportunities for our tribal members, economic development for the future vitality of our tribe, and community organizations that provide much-needed services in and around our community. 

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

I had the opportunity to grow up in and around tribal government. My grandfather, Lawrence Pierce, served on the Tribal Council, so I was able to learn from him. I also became interested in serving my tribe at an early age. 

Chairman Grubbe 2
Chairman Grubbe. August 2014, Palm Springs, California.

Upon completion of college, in 1999 I entered the Agua Caliente Resort and Spa Tribal Intern Program, where I worked in the casino as a table games shift manager. My experience there led me to my involvement in other tribal service, including the Agua Caliente Child Development Committee, the Agua Caliente Election Board, the Gaming Commission, and the Tribal Building Committee. I later joined the Agua Caliente Development Authority. I was elected to Tribal Council in 2006 and elected chairman of the Tribal Council in 2012.

Who inspired you as a mentor? 

An important mentor has been former Tribal Chairman Richard M. Milanovich. He shared with me over many years how to lead with diplomacy and grace. My grandfather also played an important role of inspiration, but he passed away while I was in high school. My mother also inspired me through her work on the board of the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum and on our Enrollment Committee.

Approximately how many members are in your tribe? 

We have approximately 480 enrolled members.

What are the criteria to become a member of your tribe? 

Our enrollment requirements include that the applicant must be one-eighth degree of Indian blood and the issue of a legal marriage. 

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

Like many other tribal nations, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians is working on recovering our language and teaching it to others through language classes by our Cultural Preservation Committee. 

What economic enterprises does your tribe own? 

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians owns and/or operates the Spa Resort Casino in downtown Palm Springs; the Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa and The Show in Rancho Mirage; and the Indian Canyons Golf Resort and Tahquitz Canyon and Indian Canyons recreational areas. In addition we manage land leases throughout the reservation. 

Chairman Grubbe

Chairman Grubbe standing at the entrance to the Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa. May 2014, Rancho Mirage, California. 

What annual events does your tribe sponsor? 

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians provides hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to support many community and nonprofit programs and events. In addition we host an annual Celebrity–Charity Golf Tournament that benefits five charities each year, as well as the annual Richard M. Milanovich Legacy Hike, which benefits an educational scholarship within the Native American Political Leadership Program at George Washington University.

We also support the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum and the events they put on every year, including the Dinner in the Canyons, the Native American Film Festival, and the Singing of the Birds. These are all great events that share not only our culture, but also cultures and traditions from throughout Indian Country.

What other attractions are available for visitors on your land? 

The most unique are Tahquitz Canyon and the Indian Canyons. The tribe is steward to more than 60 miles of hiking and walking trails in the beautiful Southern California desert. The canyons include the world’s first and second largest groves of Washingtonia filifera palm trees, the only palm tree native to California’s desert. Tahquitz Canyon features a 60-foot waterfall. These canyons are also our ancestral homes. 

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

We have government-to-government relationships with local, state, and U.S. federal government. We have important and close relationships with decision-makers at all levels. 

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

The future success of our tribe and our tribal members is with our youth. We are making decisions and investments now to provide opportunities so that our young people can grow up and become strong, proud, educated, and successful adults. 

Is there anything else you would like to add? 

I am honored to a part of this project. You have interviewed many great leaders, many of whom I know and work with today. We have a long, proud history in this country, and we have overcome so many injustices to get where we are today. Although we have come very far the last 10 to 15 years, we have so much farther to go. I look forward to those challenges and to working with our past, present, and future leaders in Indian Country. Alowah (thank you), and God bless. 

Thank you. 

Thank you. 


Photos courtesy of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, 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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January 08, 2016

Meet Native America: Francis Gray, Tribal Chairman of the Piscataway Conoy 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  

Sen. Campbell and Chariman Gray, NCAI 2015
Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Northern Cheyenne) and Piscataway Conoy Tribal Chairman Francis Gray at the Tribal Leader Reception during the White House Tribal Nations Conference. 

Please introduce yourself with your name and title.

My name is Francis Gray (Bear Clan), the eldest son of Charles and Regina Gray. I am currently the Tribal Chairman of the Piscataway Conoy Tribe.

Can you share your Native name and its English translation, or your nickname? 

I have yet to receive a Piscataway name. When I do, it will be determined by how I exhibit my character within our tribal community. 

Where is your tribal community located? 

Currently our main core is located within the southern region of Maryland in Charles, Prince Georges, St. Mary’s, and Calvert counties.

Where is your tribe originally from? 

We are the people from where the waters blend. This encompasses all of the area on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay from our northern boundary of the Patapsco River watershed (just south of Baltimore) extending south and west to the Potomac River watershed (to include the Virginia, District of Columbia, and Maryland tributary creeks) and west to the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.

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

January 9, 2012, the date of the official re-establishment of the Piscataway Conoy people with the State of Maryland. Some people like to refer it as recognition. However, we have always been here, so that day actually reflects when our people and the State of Maryland reinvigorated a relationship that began over 300 years ago. This historic relationship is well documented in Maryland's rich history. 

We, the Piscataway Conoy Tribe, formally revived our official, duly elected Tribal Council as our governing body and reinstituted a government-to-government relationship with Maryland. Today the Piscataway Conoy people continue to embrace our culture and traditional values. 

How is your tribal government set up? 

We have a Tribal Council made up of a seven members elected by our people based upon a democratic process. 

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

Yes, we have traditional Clan Mothers and an Elders Council, as well. 

How often does your Tribal Council meet? 

The Tribal Council meets on a monthly basis. 

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

As a young man, I was instilled with strong principles while growing up in our community—knowing who you are and where you came from and making those important connections of culture and relationships that define the Piscataway Conoy people. While traveling up and down the East Coast with my family, I interacted with other tribal nations and took part in the Trail of Self-Determination and the Longest Walk during the 1970s, to name a few important events.

I also witnessed the removal of a cinderblock structure that was built over one of our ancestral ossuaries located on National Park land. Inside this cinderblock structure, visitors could look through windows and view the bones of my ancestors which lay upon the ground. Schoolchildren and tourists would come and view these remains. In 1976, our tribal leadership requested that the National Park Service tear down this structure, and our demand was granted. The National Park Service demolished the blockhouse in the summer of 1976, and my elders reinterred the remains back into the ossuary.

These life experiences bring me here today.

What responsibilities do you have as tribal chairman? 

I am responsible for bringing about positive change and moving the tribe forward while at the same time preserving our history. It is my focus to ensure the betterment of the tribe by making certain that the development of cultural awareness is a priority and to sustain a strong governing structure for our tribe’s present and future. 

Who inspired you as a mentor? 

Wow, naming just a few would not be justified as there are so many who have played important roles throughout different phases of my life. I can say my elders are my mentors, as well as other tribal leaders throughout Indian Country; I am honored and humbled by their being here with me. There is a constant theme as we progress through life that we must stand up and carry on what the elders have provided. We must protect it so that their efforts were and are not in vain.

Approximately how many members are in your tribe? 

There are approximately 3,000 enrolled tribal members today. 

What are the criteria to become a member of your tribe? 

The criteria to become a tribal member are based upon genealogy. The Elders Council has a stringent process that determines one's eligibility. 

What economic enterprises does your tribe own? 

We currently do not have any economic enterprises, but we are working towards such endeavors. There are many Piscataway Conoy people who own successful businesses in almost every industry. 

What annual events does your tribe sponsor? 

We host several internal, cultural ceremonies, including the a Seed Gathering in early spring, a Feast from the Waters in early summer, and a Green Corn Festival in late summer, and we finish off our year paying tribute and celebrating our elders (Elders Dinner). When we are contacted, we also host many tribal nations coming to the Washington area from as far away as Hawaii. 


 

Francis Gray, 125th Anniversary of Indian HeadChairman Gray holding a ceramic bowl made by his ancestors and dating to between 2500 and 3000 BC. Archaeological surveys show that Native peoples have lived in the area for more than 10,000 years. Celebration marking the 125th anniversary of the establishment of the Naval Support Facility at Indian Head, September 2015, Charles County, Maryland. 

What attractions are available for visitors on your land? 

There are a few attractions all within an hour-and-a half drive south of Washington. Jefferson Patterson Park on the south end of the Patuxent River in Calvert County, Maryland, displays a Piscataway Conoy villageHistoric St. Mary’s City, in St. Mary's County, also has a Piscataway Conoy village. Piscataway Park in Accokeek, Maryland, is only a half hour south of Washington in Prince Georges County. These are a few of the attractions that are rich in our culture. 

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

Our interaction with the federal government has always been somewhat schizophrenic. At times our tribe received federal funding for instituting Indian education programs in the local county school systems. In the past we have received job placement grants to help reduce the unemployment rate in our community and to teach our members marketable employment skills. And we received grants to help address other needs within our tribal community. Our individual tribal members have been eligible to receive federal funding for college scholarships based upon both need and merit. Then, administrations changed and the eligibility criteria in federal programs became more restrictive, creating a situation in which we have less direct interface than at other times during our recent history. 

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

I would want to ensure that our youth truly understand all of the efforts that generations of our ancestors expended to retain our identity and culture as Native people. When I was growing up in our historical homeland in southern Maryland, like many generations of Piscataway Conoy before me, we were a third race in a two-race society. Prior to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, we had little opportunity to tell our story. As a tribe we were not included in official state demographics. But our ancestors persevered in the face of this onslaught upon our identity. 

I want our youth to know that following the traditional ways for over 13,000 years has sustained our tribe over the last 400 years of European, Colonial, and American control. I want our youth to know that learning, practicing, and embracing the traditional ways will be our path to a brighter future. 

Is there anything else you would like to add? 

As tribal hosts to indigenous nations who visit our historical homeland (which includes Washington and the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian), the Piscataway Conoy people are proud to see Native people from the Western Hemisphere come to this area and experience the beauty of the natural world here. My ancestors enjoyed and preserved this part of the world for so many thousands of years. As tribal people, we no longer have physical control over our historic homelands, but we retain the stories, the legends, and the relationships with the lands and waters that make us who we are today, "The People from Where Waters Blend." 

Thank you. 

Thank you. 


Photos courtesy of the Piscataway Conoy Tribe, 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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I love the interview Mr. Francis Gray gave. I came to know a lot about his tribe from his interview.

December 18, 2015

Meet Native America: Jeromy Sullivan, Chairman, Port Gamble S'Klallam 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

Chairman Jeromy Sullivan
Chairman Jeromy Sullivan, Port Gamble S'Klallam Tribe.

Please introduce yourself with your name and title.

Jeromy Sullivan. I'm chairman of the Port Gamble S'Klallam Tribe.

Can you share your Native name and its English translation, or your nickname? 

I don’t have a Native name. It isn’t something my family has done. Only a few Port Gamble S'Klallam families on the reservation have gone through the ceremony. This is an issue of lost culture: It’s almost impossible to practice your culture when you aren’t allowed to have any, as was the case during the periods of forced assimilation. 

Where is your tribal community located?

The Port Gamble S'Klallam Reservation is located on the northern tip of the Kitsap Peninsula in Washington state. Our reservation was established in 1938.

Where is your tribe originally from?

The Port Gamble S'Klallam were originally known as the Nux Sklai Yem or Strong People. We are the descendants of the Salish people who have been well established in the Puget Sound basin and surrounding areas since 2400 B.C.

Before explorers and settlers arrived to the Pacific Northwest, there were S'Klallam villages scattered throughout the Olympic Peninsula. Our oral history tells us that one of our most important settlements was located on the shores of Port Gamble Bay, which, in the S'Klallam language, is known as Noo-Kayet. Today the site of that ancestral village, called Teekalet, is located across the bay from our reservation in the town of Port Gamble.

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

In 1853 the Port Gamble Mill was established by the Puget Mill Company at the S'Klallam village of Teekalet. For a time my ancestors lived on the spit adjacent to Port Gamble Bay, but soon they were moved across the water to an area we know today as Point Julia. Oral history tells us that my tribal ancestors agreed to move away from their established village in exchange for enough lumber for each family to build a home and jobs as long as the mill remained operational.

This agreement would shape the lives of the Port Gamble S'Klallam people forever. Many Port Gamble S'Klallam families can trace back several generations who worked full time at the mill. Tribal historians estimate that, conservatively, in the mill’s 142 years of operation, Port Gamble S'Klallam members worked the equivalent of 500 years. While the mill displaced the S'Klallam people from a key settlement, it also strangely kept us together. While other tribes scattered with the industrialization of America, the Port Gamble S'Klallam stayed relatively intact because, in part, of the employment opportunities available through the mill.

After 142 years of operation, the mill shut its doors in 1995. It remains the longest operating sawmill in U.S. history—in no small part due to the work of my tribe!

Unfortunately, during the mill’s tenure, it also deposited untold levels of woody debris and toxic sentiments into Port Gamble Bay, which is an irreplaceable fishing and shellfish harvesting area for the Port Gamble S'Klallams.

Twenty years after the mill’s closing, the Department of Ecology has negotiated with Pope Resources, the company liable for the mill’s actions, to clean up Port Gamble Bay. Work began this fall and signifies a huge milestone for my tribe. While our ancestral villages can never be restored, this cleanup will ensure that our tribal members will be able to practice their treaty rights for generations to come.

How is your tribal government set up?

In 1992, the Port Gamble S'Klallam Tribe became one of the first self-governing tribes in the United States and has since assumed control of its Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian Health Service programs. By being in control of these programs, we have been able to expand and improve services to our tribal members. For example, we were the first tribe in Washington state to introduce a program of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), and we were also the first tribe in the nation to be able to offer independent foster care, adoption, and guardianship services.

Our tribal government is divided into two branches: Tribal Government Administration and Tribal Government Services. A six-member Tribal Council, which includes my position as chairman, governs the tribe.

HHS secretary meeting at Port Gamble House of Knowledge

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Sylvia Mathews Burwell meets with tribal leaders. August 2014, Port Gamble S'Klallam Reservation, Washington. From left to right: Brian Cladoosby, chairman of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and president of the National Congress of American Indians; Dr. Yvette Roubideaux (Rosebud Sioux), director of the Indian Health Service (IHS) from 2009 to 2015; Andy Joseph Jr., councilman, Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation; Secretary Burwell; Chairman Sullivan; Susan Johnson, HHS regional director; Liz Mueller, vice chair, Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe; Leonard Forsman, chairman, Suquamish Tribe; Frances G. Charles, chairwoman, Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe; JooYeun Chang, associate commissioner of the HHS Children's Bureau from 2013 to 2015. Secretary Burwell used the occasion, her first tribal visit as head of HHS, to learn about the Port Gamble S'Klallam Tribe’s foster care program and health initiatives, as well. 

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

While we don’t have an official, sanctioned traditional leadership entity, like a chief, there are certainly hierarchies of people within the community we trust to counsel on issues of culture or tradition. In some cases when people within our own community have lacked the knowledge of traditional ceremonies, we have turned to other tribes for this information. This has included the re-introduction of lost songs, which have had to be re-gifted to my tribe. This ties back in to the loss of culture that was forced upon Native tribes during periods of assimilation.

How often are elected leaders chosen?

Tribal Council and chair positions are open for election every two years. An election is held every year for three council positions. These positions alternate with the other three annually.

How often does your Tribal Council meet?

Our Tribal Council meets every other Monday for day-long sessions. Special sessions are called as necessary.

What responsibilities do you have as tribal leader?

I take seriously my role as a tribal leader, which includes being an ambassador for the tribe to the outside world. Storytelling is a key aspect of our culture, and a part of my job is to tell the story of the Port Gamble S'Klallam. I also have a responsibility from those who came before me, including past leaders and our elders. It is my job to take their counsel to make sure I’m making the best decisions for my tribe.

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

My previous job experience played a big role in how I lead today. I worked for nine years at the Bingo Hall. This job was very social and helped me come out of my shell. I was very shy and didn’t talk much before starting at the Bingo Hall, where I was forced to work with the public and learn how to communicate.

After that job, I started working in Information Technology for my tribe. That was an eye-opening experience, as I worked with every single department and got to hear about all the various issues. That gave me a much more detailed understanding of everything my tribe is responsible for when it comes to taking care of its community.

Of course, I would also hear from my friends, family, and neighbors about their frustrations, and I encourage that kind of feedback today. Transparency is very important to this community, and that’s why I ran for Tribal Council 11 years ago—I felt like I could do a good job at that.

Who inspired you as a mentor?

My mentors have evolved throughout different phases of my life. My mom taught me about tribal issues. My dad is a good family leader. There have also been many members of my extended family who have taught me important life lessons.

Jake Jones and Ron Charles are former council members who have always been willing to give me their counsel when needed. Within the community, there are those who are spiritual leaders and people that are just all-around good people whose advice I seek.

Are you a descendant of a historical leader? 

No, I am not the descendant of a historical leader.

Approximately how many members are in your tribe?

The Port Gamble S'Klallam have approximately 1200 members.

What are the criteria to become a member of your tribe?

Enrollment into the Port Gamble S'Klallam is open to all persons of Indian blood who are descended from a member of the base roll and are of one-eighth degree or more Port Gamble S'Klallam Indian Blood.

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

The Klallam language was almost lost due, in large part, to more than a generation of our people being removed from their homes and placed into boarding schools.  

The situation grew so dire that by 1990 there were only eight people who could speak the Klallam language. In 1992 our sister tribe, the Lower Elwha Klallams, began transcribing tapes dating back to 1953 that included conversations with native speakers. This was the first step in revitalizing the language, and Lower Elwha has made huge strides since then with Klallam being taught at their local high school. Over 200 students have taken advantage of these classes since 1999.

As we had no elders left who were fluent in the language, Lower Elwha shared their knowledge and curriculum with us so we could set up a certification system that has allowed members of our tribe to learn the language and begin teaching others. Today we begin teaching Klallam words and phrases to our children during their earliest on-reservation educational experiences.

What economic enterprises does your tribe own?

The Noo-Kayet Development Corporation is an agency of the Port Gamble S'Klallam Tribe and is responsible for economic development and managing established enterprises. These include:

  • The Point Casino, which we remodeled in 2012 and which now features three restaurants, a cigar bar, and an events center;
  • Gliding Eagle Marketplace, a convenience store, deli, and gas station complex located on the reservation that does business with people from all over the area; and
  • Heronswood, a renowned botanical garden in Kingston, Washington.

The tribe purchased Heronswood in 2012 and set about trying to restore it to its original state after more than a decade of neglect. Currently the Port Gamble S'Klallam Foundation, our tribe’s nonprofit entity, is in charge of the garden’s management. While the money it earns right now goes back to support restoration and maintenance activities related to the garden, we may eventually offer Heronswood as a wedding venue, or host classes and other special events.

We also just broke ground on a new hotel, which will be built adjacent to our casino. The new complex will be called The Point Casino and Hotel. The hotel will be four stories and will include 94 rooms, meeting space, an outdoor courtyard with a kitchen and fire pit, and a restaurant called The Point Julia Café.

It took several years of planning to come up with a final hotel design that would meet our needs, satisfy those from all the communities we serve and work with, and be reflective of our tribe’s culture and values. This project does just that. We’re especially excited about the art elements throughout, including an outdoor, four-story “paddles up” welcoming statue, totem poles throughout the courtyard, and elements that represent tribal life and the natural world in each of the guest rooms.

PGST Point Hotel groundbreaking

Chairman Sullivan (fourth from left, wearing a red shirt) with colleagues on the Port Gamble S'Klallam Tribal Council and members of the economic development team at the groundbreaking for The Point Hotel. September 2015, Kingston, Washington. 

What community events does your tribe sponsor?

We sponsor several community events, including the Strong Families Fair, which provides an opportunity for our tribal departments to interact with community members.

We also host an annual S'Klallam gathering to recognize new youth royalty and, in 2012, after more than a generation, we began to host an annual Return of the Salmon ceremony, which integrates the old traditions with some new ones, like a fishing derby.

Throughout the year, we also host a number of clambakes, informational meetings, celebrations, and other events.

What attractions are available for visitors on your land?

Our tribe is one of the favorite stops on the Canoe Journey. We’re known as great hosts, and everyone is invited—those on the journey, their family and friends, and whoever else might like to attend, tribal and non-tribal alike. We’re very proud to have people come visit our lands.

While we don’t have a lot of tourist activities on the reservation, we welcome visitors who want to come to our campus to take a look at our Longhouse, where we also host a number of events.

Our tribally run entities, The Point Casino and Heronswood, are also very popular with visitors.

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

We see the federal government as our partners and we collaborate well together. Of course we do have times when we disagree, and there are some issues we work better together on than others. For example, they have always been encouraging of our efforts surrounding supporting our tribal families. We may hit potholes in coming up with solutions, but they aren’t insurmountable.

A part of the reason our relationship is so strong is because we have learned to be clear with what’s important to our tribe. For example our strong voice on treaty rights has helped the federal government understand the importance of this issue to our tribe and that we will not back down from protecting these rights.

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

Participate and learn about your community. Listen to your elders and the people with experience. You may not agree with what they say or even follow their advice, but you need to listen because they have the wisdom of experience.

Our kids also need to remember that hard work is key to getting what you want and need, not just for yourself, but also for your community.

Thank you. 

Thank you. 


Photos courtesy of the Port Gamble S'Klallam Tribe.

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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December 11, 2015

Meet Native America: Hon. Eric Robinson, Deputy Premier of Manitoba and Minister of Aboriginal and Northern Affairs

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 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


Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs

Hon. Eric Robinson (right) and Chief Derek Nepinak (center), Grand Chief of the Manitoba Assembly of Chiefs, taking part in a rally to support the families of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Winnipeg, 2015. Deputy Premier Robinson played a key role in the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba and the creation of the Aboriginal Justice Implementation Commission.


Please introduce yourself with your name and title.

My name is Eric Robinson (Ka-Kee-Nee Konee Pewonee Okimow). My full title is the Honorable Eric Robinson, Deputy Premier of Manitoba and Minister of Aboriginal and Northern Affairs. I am the minister responsible for Manitoba HydroAboriginal Education, the Communities Economic Development Fund, and the East Side Road Authority. I also represent the constituency of Kewatinook in the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba. 

What First Nation are you affiliated with?

I am a member of the Cross Lake First Nation, also known as Pimicikamak Okimawin. 

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

The 1875 Treaty Five agreement with Canada and several First Nations, including Cross Lake. 

How is your provincial government set up?  

The leader of the political party who wins the most seats in provincial elections becomes premier and forms the government. 

How are ministers chosen?

Ministers are chosen by the premier. 

Is there one political party that is more dominant than the others in your province? Do elected officials vote along party lines? 

The New Democratic Party is the dominant party in Manitoba and is currently in its fourth term of government since 1999. On most issues voting is on party lines. 

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

Amanda Lathlin, member for The Pas, is the first treaty woman elected to the Manitoba legislature. She is a member of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation. Ministers Kevin Chief and Greg Dewar are Metis members of the legislature. 

How many bands are in Manitoba? Do you meet with the Native people of your province? 

There are 63 First Nations in the province:

Barren Lands First Nation, in Brochet, Manitoba
Berens River First Nation, Berens River 
Birdtail Sioux First Nation, Beulah 
Black River First Nation, O’hanley 
Bloodvein First Nation, Bloodvein 
Brokenhead Ojibway Nation, Scanterbury 
Buffalo Point First Nation, Buffalo Point 
Bunibonibee Cree Nation, Oxford House 
Canupawakpa Dakota First Nation, Pipestone 
Chemawawin Cree Nation, Easterville 
Cross Lake First Nation (Pimicikamak Cree Nation), Cross Lake 
Dakota Plains First Nation, Portage La Prairie 
Dakota Tipi First Nation, Dakota Tipi 
Dauphin River First Nation, Gypsumville 
Ebb and Flow First Nation, Ebb and Flow 
Fisher River Cree Nation, Koostatak 
Fort Alexander First Nation (Sagkeeng First Nation), Fort Alexander 
Fox Lake Cree Nation, Gillam 
Gamblers First Nation, Binscarth 
Garden Hill First Nation, Garden Hill 
God’s Lake First Nation, God’s Lake Narrows 
Hollow Water First Nation, Wanipigow 
Keeseekoowenin First Nation, Elphinstone 
Kinonjeoshtegon First Nation, Dallas 
Lake Manitoba First Nation, Lake Manitoba 
Lake St. Martin First Nation, Gypsumville 
Little Grand Rapids, Little Grand Rapids 
Little Saskatchewan First Nation, Gypsumville 
Long Plain First Nation, Portage la Prairie 
Manto Sipi Cree Nation, God’s River 
Marcel Colomb First Nation, Lynn Lake 
Mathias Colomb First Nation, Pukatawagan 
Misipawistik Cree Nation, Grand Rapids 
Mosakahiken Cree Nation, Moose Lake 
Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation, Nelson House 
Northlands First Nation, Lac Brochet
Norway House Cree Nation, Norway House 
O-Chi-Chak-Ko-Sipi First Nation, Crane River
Opaskwayak Cree Nation, Opaskwayak 
O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation, South Indian Lake 
Pauingassi First Nation, Pauingassi 
Peguis First Nation, Peguis Reserve 
Pinaymootang First Nation, Fairford 
Pine Creek First Nation, Camperville 
Poplar River First Nation, Negginan 
Red Sucker Lake First Nation, Red Sucker Lake 
Rolling River First Nation, Erickson 
Roseau River Anishinabe First Nation, Ginew 
Sandy Bay First Nation, Marius 
Sapotaweyak Cree Nation, Pelican Rapids 
Sayisi Dene First Nation, Tadoule Lake 
Shamattawa First Nation, Shamattawa 
Sioux Valley Dakota, Griswold 
Skownan First Nation, Skownan 
St. Theresa Point First Nation, St. Theresa Point
Swan Lake First Nation, Swan Lake 
Tataskweyak Cree Nation, Split Lake
Tootinaowaziibeeng Treaty Reserve, Tootinaowaziibeeng
War Lake First Nation, Ilford
Wasagamack First Nation, Wasagamack
Waywayseecappo First Nation Treaty Four, Waywayseecappo
Wuskwi Sipihk First Nation, Birch River
York Factory First Nation, York Landing 

Manitoba is also the home of an important Metis population. As minister and as member for Kewatinook, I meet with Indigenous people virtually every day. 

Do the Native people in Manitoba vote in provincial elections? 

Native people got the right to vote in 1960. 

How often does your ministry meet? 

I meet with senior staff of the Ministry of Aboriginal and Northern Affairs, along with staff of the Communities Economic Development Fund and East Side Road Authority, on a regular basis. 

What responsibilities do you have as a provincial minister? 

As mentioned previously, I am responsible for the Department of Aboriginal and Northern Affairs, which works to improve the opportunities and quality of life for Aboriginal and northern Manitobans. The department is also responsible for 50 off-reserve Indigenous communities, most of which are adjacent to First Nations. The Communities Economic Development Fund provides commercial and fisher loans for northern residents and businesspeople on and off reserve. The East Side Road Authority is building two road networks in partnership with 13 remote First Nations on the East Side of Lake Winnipeg, none of which had all-weather roads before this initiative. 

Deputy Premier Robinson, Manito Ahbee
Deputy Premier Robinson at the Aboriginal Peoples Choice Music Awards. Manito Ahbee, Winnipeg, 2013.

What is a significant point in Manitoba history that you would like to share? 

In 1999 two First Nation Crees were appointed to the provincial cabinet—the late Oscar Lathlin and myself. In the same year, George Hickes was elected Speaker of the Assembly, becoming the first Inuit to hold that post. In 2009 I became the first treaty Indian appointed as deputy premier.

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

I am a survivor of a residential school system designed to assimilate Indian people into the mainstream of Canadian society. The fire in my belly is to fight for respect for our people. 

Who inspired you as a mentor? 

Two people in particular have been my mentors: George Manuel, an early leader of the National Indian Brotherhood, and Ken Robinson, my father. 

Are you a descendant of a historical leader? 

No. 

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

Over 85 percent of the people in Kewatinook are First Nations. The constituency represents roughly 27,000 people in a province of approximately 1.2 million. Province-wide, the Aboriginal population is more than 150,000. 

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

As minister I have been active in developing and promoting a number of initiatives to recognize treaty rights, promote reconciliation for Indigenous people, and see the culture and history of Aboriginal people in Manitoba recognized, from the creation of Manito Ahbee—now the largest Indigenous arts, culture, and music festival in Canada—to the devolution of child welfare to First Nations, Metis, and non-Aboriginal communities, to building partnerships in hydro development. 

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

Leadership is inbred in all of us. 

Is there anything else you would like to add? 

The hurt of one is the hurt of all. The honor of one is the honor of all. 

Thank you. 

Thank you. 


Photos courtesy of the Office of the Minister of Aboriginal and Northern Affairs, Legislative Assembly of Manitoba. 

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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