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December 08, 2014

Meet Native America: Rudy Peone, Chairman, Spokane Tribe of 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 

Rudy Peone 1
Chairman Rudy Peone, Spokane Indian Tribe.

Please introduce yourself with your name and title. 

Rudy Peone, chairman, Spokane Tribe of Indians.

Where is your tribe located?

The Spokane Indian Reservation is in northeastern Washington State.

Where was the Spokane Tribe originally from?

Central/northeastern Washington, encompassing all of the current greater metropolitan area of the city of Spokane, northern Idaho, and western Montana. 

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

In defense of their homelands, the Spokane and allied tribes fought the U.S. Army at the battles of Steptoe, Four Lakes, and Spokane Plains. In 1881, President Rutherford B. Hayes formally established the Spokane Indian Reservation by executive order. The 160,000-acre reservation is bounded by water on three sides—the Columbia River to the west, the Spokane River to the south, and Tsimikin Creek to the east. The construction of Grand Coulee Dam destroyed the abundant salmon runs that lie at the center of traditional Spokane life ways. The dam was completed in 1942. To date, the federal government has not fairly compensated the tribe for the loss of its salmon runs or the inundation of its reservation lands.

How is your tribal government set up? 

Like most tribes we adopted a “cookie-cutter” constitution provided to us by U.S. government officials. Our constitution was adopted in 1951, though we have amended it over the years.  The constitution confers legislative and executive authority upon the Tribal Business Council, or simply Tribal Council, and provides the Tribal Council with the authority to establish a judicial branch. Many years ago, the Tribal Council established the Spokane Tribal Court, an independent court consisting of a chief judge, associate judges, and a court of appeals. Also, the Tribal Council has delegated substantial executive authority to an appointed executive director. 

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

Right now there is not, but over the last few years our tribe has adopted numerous constitutional amendments with a vision of moving closer to a more traditional form of government.

VP Biden and Chmn Peone
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Spokane Tribal Chairman Rudy Peone at a Women of Valor Ceremony co-sponsored by Senator Maria Cantwell. Seattle, Washington; October 9, 2014.

How often are elected leaders chosen?

The five members of the Tribal Council are elected to 3-year staggered terms by all tribal citizens 18 years and older. Currently, people must vote in person on Election Day, the first Saturday in June. Each year after the general election, the five sitting members of the Tribal Council vote for chairman, vice chair, and secretary.

How often does your Tribal Council meet?

As per our constitution, we have a meeting of the General Council—made up of all enrolled tribal members—twice per year, once in April and once in November. Along with these two constitutionally required meetings, this Tribal Council has implemented an additional two meetings per month that rotate amongst four locations throughout our current reservation and ancestral homelands, as well as four “Unity” meetings that coincide with the seasonal equinox and solstices. The Tribal Council typically meets at least once per week.

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

I must say that I did not plan to be in this position and would give the Creator and my parents all the credit. I was raised with eight siblings—not rich in finances, but rich in love, respect, and family members who would give the shirt off their backs if another asked. My extended family, including my uncles, aunts, grandparents and cousins, as well as my immediate family, shared this foundation. 

What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?

To lead by example both professionally and personally in all aspects of life. Some people need you to determine and set the example, while others need you just simply to be the example. 

Who inspired you as a mentor?

For the majority of my life I would have to say my parents. They seem to be total opposites, yet they have instilled in me honesty, integrity, respect, and perseverance.

As for my professional career, I've had a few mentors that have worked by my side, subordinates as well as supervisors. All of those folks are tribal members who have supported me and nudged me up the ladder to be director of the Tribe’s Natural Resources Department, run for the Tribal Council, and eventually serve as Tribal Council chairman.

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

My family is descended from Okanagan Chief Sia-ko-ken and the brother of Upper Spokane Chief Baptiste Peone.

Approximately how many members are in the Spokane Indian Tribe?

The tribe has approximately 3,000 citizens.

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

Members must have an enrolled parent and one-quarter Indian blood quantum.

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

Yes, our Salish language is still spoken, though less than one percent of the tribe speaks fluently. A larger number of our members can either speak some and/or understand when spoken to. 

What economic enterprises does your tribe own?

We own Spoko Enterprises, which include four fuel stations with convenience stores, a marina and RV campground, an Arby’s, a water-quality and drug-testing laboratory, a motor pool, and two modest casinos.

What annual events does your tribe sponsor?

We sponsor quite a few, such as a fund-raising walk to support the Susan G Komen Foundation, the City of Spokane Heritage Daythe Spokane Interstate Fair, numerous other events in the city of Spokane and larger area, as well as local powwows, celebrations, and local activities for elders and youth.

What attractions are available for visitors on your land?

The Lake Roosevelt Recreation Area is partly within our reservation, also Two River Resort and Marina, the Chewelah Casino, and the Auto Museum.

Rudy Peone 2
Rudy Peone on a training run. His singlet shows the word Spokane written in the tribe's Salish language. 

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

We work together on a government-to-government basis. Sovereignty has always been important to the Spokane. For example, we are moving forward with things such as vehicle licensing and registration, because as a sovereign nation it is our right to require registration and plating of all vehicles within our territory. These actions help our tribal citizens to realize, understand and utilize this right.

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

Respect one another, respect yourself. We are all one, a large family unit who in the past depended upon one another for our survival. Each citizen was a valued member of the tribal unit. Let's remember this, let's practice this.

Things such as jealousy, envy, vindictiveness are not in our tradition. These things were introduced along with colonization and became a part of life, acceptable over time. This needs conscious change. 

Is there anything else you would like to add?

In being an example for my children, family, and reservation community, I have been working hard to maintain a clean, healthy lifestyle that recently culminated in my taking part in the first-ever Warrior Dash World Championship held outside of Sacramento a month or so ago. Qualifying and participating demonstrates the ability for success regardless of your personal or professional situation. Set goals, pursue goals, take ownership of our lives. It's a choice we can all make. 

Thank you. 

Thank you.

All photos are courtesy of the Spokane Tribe of Indians.

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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