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August 14, 2014

Meet Native America: Stephen R. Ortiz, Chairman, Prairie Band Potawatomi 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 

Steve Ortiz a
Chairman Stephen R. Ortiz, Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation. Photo by Nathan Ham Photography, courtesy of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation.

Please introduce yourself with your name and title.

Stephen R. Ortiz. I've served on the Prairie Band Potawatomi Tribal Council for the past 15 years—as secretary from1998 to 2006, then as chairman from 2007 to 2014. The new chairman will be chosen in a run-off election later this month. 

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

Mon-wah M’jessepe, Wolf Clan. It means Dark Wolf that Travels along Big Bad River at Night that Travelers Hear Rustle along the Riverbank Scouting.

Where is your nation located?

Our Government Center is in Mayetta, Kansas, located in northeast Kansas.

Where were the Prairie Potawatomi originally from?

The Great Lakes region.

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

As I was told by my family elders, all Potawatomis who did not flee elsewhere in the 1800s were gathered up and relocated to Kansas. Upon getting to Kansas, a split occurred when the U.S. government offered the Potawatomis citizenship and land in Oklahoma. The Potawatomis who chose to stay and not accept the offer became known as the Prairie Band Potawatomi Indians. The U.S. government surrounded the Prairie Band Potawatomis, who were willing to fight and not to go to Oklahoma.

At this point for some reason the U.S. government left the Prairie Band Potawatomi in Kansas and granted them a reservation. The reservation was 30 square miles—later reduced to 11 square miles, where we are today. In 1998 the tribal government consisted of 85 employees and had a $2.1-million annual budget. Today we stand at 1,021-plus employees working for the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation in our government operations, healthcare facility, casino, and Economic Development Corporation.

How is your tribal government set up?

A tribal constitution was established creating a General Council membership who vote for seven Tribal Council members—chair, vice-chair, secretary, treasurer, and three members—to perform the duties described in our constitution.

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


How often are elected leaders chosen?

A Tribal Council term is four years, and council seat elections are staggered so that there is an election every 2 years. The order is that the chairman, secretary, and one council member are voted on in one election, then vice-chair, treasurer, and the remaining two council members in the next election.

How often does your Tribal Council meet?

Tribal Council meetings are held twice a month and as needed depending on the situation. General Council meetings are held four times a year, and special General Council meetings can be called as needed. 

What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?

To protect the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation's rights inherent in the United States Constitution, our treaty rights, and other rights that arise from statutory law, executive order, tribal or other law, and judicial administration. To ensure that those rights will be fully protected, exercised, and preserved; to ensure justice and our security; to maintain Potawatomi traditions and customs; to promote harmony, the common good, and social and general welfare; and to secure the blessings of spiritual, educational, cultural, and economic development for ourselves and our posterity. 

I have also tried to serve Indian Country through work on the Secretary's Tribal Advisory Committee of the Department of Health and Human Services (where I am co-chairman), the Oklahoma City Inter-Tribal Health Board (vice-chairman), the advisory team on Tribal Consultation Policy for the Department of the Interior (member/alternate), the National Indian Gaming Commission Health and Safety Committee, and Kansas Governor Sam Brownback's Council of Economic Advisors. 

Ft Riley Day 11-12 a
Members of the U.S. Army 1st Infantry Division host Chairman Ortiz and other members of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation to honor Native American Heritage Month and the contributions of Native servicemen and -women. Fort RIley, Kansas; November 27, 2012. Chairman Ortiz was guest speaker for the event. Photo courtesy of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation.

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

I served in the U.S. Marines Corps from 1969 to 1971 and left with an honorable discharge and the rank E-3, then from 1973 to 1975 in the U.S. Army Reserves, 410th Evacuation Hospital unit (SMBL), honorable discharge, specialist E-5. I graduated from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, with a Bachelor of Business Administration, then went on to work 24 years in the corporate world with IBM as an administrative assistant, with Kansas Power & Light as an area manager, then with Hallmark Cards, Inc., as a plastics manufacturing section manager.

These experiences gave me insight into working with others to manage an ongoing operation for a profit, leadership skills to develop personnel to run an ongoing operation, customer satisfaction skills, and what brand loyalty can do to overcome competition. 

Who inspired you as a mentor?

My uncles, who were leaders in the Native American Church, and who gave me my ceremony and my Indian name when I was six months old.

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

Yes, I'm a descendant of Chief Shab-eh-nay through my grandmother Minnie Wahwassuck Jessepe.

Approximately how many members are in your nation?

There are 4,729 enrolled members.

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

Members must have 1/4 degree Prairie Band Potawatomi blood from the 1940 rolls.

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

The Potawatomi language is spoken fluently by 1 to 2 percent of the Prairie Potawatomi.

What economic enterprises does your nation own?

The nation's economic enterprises include the Prairie Band Potawatomi Casino and Resort, a propane company, two convenience stores and gas stations, health contracting services, and two smoke shops.

What annual events do the Prairie Band Potawatomi sponsor?

We host the Prairie Band Potawatomi Pow Wow every year in early June.

What attractions are available for visitors on your land?

In addition to the casino and annual pow wow, we manage a buffalo program with a herd of some 200 bison. 

NA Day At Capital-2012 b
Representatives of the Iowa Tribe, Kickapoo Tribe, Prairie Potawatomi Band Nation, and Sac and Fox Nation join Governor Sam Brownback for the signing of the proclamation creating the first Native American Day at the Capitol. Topeka, Kansas, February 8, 2012. Photo courtesy of the Office of the Governor.

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

Over the years, Tribal Councils have developed working relationships with key regional directors of U.S. agencies and departments in the U.S. government and Kansas state government, including the governor. The Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation has also taken the state of Kansas to the U.S. Supreme Court over issues. 

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

Developing communication skills is key to leadership and resolving conflict. Understanding that all enrolled members, living on the reservation or off, are entitled to be treated fairly and are entitled to services set forth by guidelines. If you are elected to Tribal Council, leave your conflicts with others at the front door and work for the benefit of all, both on and off the reservation.

Is there anything else you would like to add? 

Our tribe has a number of community programs, including a financial assistance program to support members in their education, free rent to tribal elders who are disabled, a tribal meals program, and quarterly per capita payments to all members. We offer health care services to non-tribal members with insurance. The Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation's social service programs providing Tribal Victim Services and SAFESTAR (Sexual Assault Forensic Examinations, Support, Training, Access, and Resources) have been cited for excellence by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence

Due to the cooperation of Tribal Council members over the past 15 years, the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation is debt-free at this time.

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 photos used with permission. 


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This was an excellent article. I have done some work north of Topeka on the Potawatomi Nation land.

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