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September 20, 2013

Don Patterson, President of the Tonkawa 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 peoples today. —Dennis Zotigh, NMAI 

Please introduce yourself with your name and title. 

My name is Don Patterson, and I am president of the Tonkawa Tribe. Sometimes I am referred to as “chairman” unofficially, but not “chief.” The idea of electing contemporary chiefs by majority rule mystifies me. Chieftainships were established in traditional times under an entirely different order, based upon an entirely different set of selection criteria, but not by general election.  

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

My Indian name is Pe-atch-e-thot, meaning Comes Flying Over. You will notice I prefer the word “Indian” rather than any other. My grandmother, born in the 1890s, called herself Indian, political correctness not being part of her mindset. 

Don L. Patterson
Don Patterson, president of the Tonkawa Tribe. Photo courtesy of the Tonkawa Tribe.

What responsibilities do you have in your community? 

I try always to think as tribal president. All that implies is sufficient.

How did your life experience prepare you to lead? 

My youthful involvement in Indian activism during the 1960s and '70s at places like Alcatraz, Wounded Knee, the March on Washington, D.C., etc., gave me insights about the strained relationship between tribes and the dominant society surrounding them. That certainly helped groom me for the task.

Who inspired you as a mentor?  

My dad, my grandmother! 

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

I think so, but then aren’t we all? I would rather be judged on my own merit rather than who I am descended from. 

Where is your community located? Where are the Tonkawa people originally from?

The Tonkawa Tribe is located in north central Oklahoma. Our tribal town is called Fort Oakland and is situated on tribal reservation land approximately one-and-a-half miles southeast of Tonkawa, Oklahoma.

The Tonkawa people are originally from south central Texas. We are considered one the southernmost of the Plains tribes.

What is a significant point in the history of the Tonkawa people that you would like to share?

I think the period of forced removal from our original homeland in Texas to a reservation in Oklahoma was probably the most significant. The Tonkawa Tribe was the only tribe in Oklahoma to have been removed twice to two different reservations.

Approximately how many members are in the Tonkawa Tribe?

Approximately 700 individuals.

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

One must be born to a parent who is an enrolled member.

Is your language still spoken on your homelands?

Yes, but like most tribes, we see our ability to speak our language diminishing as time moves on. We have developed a dictionary, texts, and readers, which have helped to preserve as much knowledge as possible.

What economic enterprises does the Tonkawa Tribe own?

We have two casinos and a third is under construction, a travel plaza and motel, and an agricultural operation.

What annual events does the tribe sponsor?

Our annual powwow the last weekend in June is the most significant.

What attractions are available for visitors on your land?

Again, our powwow and casinos.

How is the tribal government set up?

On the federalist model somewhat—a constitutional government based upon the principles of a democracy.

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

Yes. Cultural functions require altogether different kinds of knowledge and skills, acquired through a lifetime of involvement in traditional activities.

How often are elected leaders chosen?

Every two years in a general election.

How often does the Tribal Council meet?

The council is constitutionally mandated to meet every calendar quarter with the December meeting designated as the annual meeting.

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

We work with the federal government and governments at other levels on a government-to-government basis and usually somewhat contentiously, especially in Oklahoma.

What message would you like to share with Tonkawa youth? 

Retain your traditional way of life—your culture—for that is what defines you as an Indian. A great chief once said: “If you lose the ways of your forefathers, and the drum is no more, and the melody of the flute is replaced by noisy jazz, then you are dead as an Indian, even though you live, and breathe, and walk the streets of big cities!”

Thank you. 

To read other interviews in this series, click on the banner below.  


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 images used with permission. 


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This remarkable interview throws light on the American Indian tribes and the Tonkawa clan. Bringing tribe leaders and cultural figures is a good idea in terms of spreading awareness and enlightens the general populace about their socio-economic problems. Great price of work!

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