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January 08, 2015

Meet Native America: Cristina Danforth, Chairwoman of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin

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.

Cristina Danforth, Chairwoman, Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin.

Chairwoman Danforth
Chairwoman Cristina Danforth, Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin.

Can you share with us your Native name?

My Oneida name is Kwahlak^ni. It means influential, or she is able to respond, respect her. I received my name in Oneida, Canada, at the Longhouse during Midwinter Ceremony when I was 14 years old. I am Wolf Clan. 

Where is the Oneida Tribe located?

Our tribe is located in northeast Wisconsin and is adjacent to the city of Green Bay. Our original reservation boundaries of 1838 make up 65,400 acres that are home to five municipal governments and two county governments. 

Where was your tribe originally from?

The process of settlement into what is now known as the state of Wisconsin (statehood, 1848) began with the United States Treaty with the Menominee of 1831, in which the federal government ceded land to the New York Indians. The treaty was agreed to by the Menominee Indian people and the U.S. president, with assistance from the Indian agent of Green Bay. The 1831 Menominee Treaty was furthered by the U.S Treaty with the Oneida in 1838. That treaty, also known as the Buffalo Creek Treaty, acknowledges the Oneida Indians and our ancestral ties to New York state.

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

The point in time for our tribe I want to share is the period of 2002 to 2005. I was serving my third term on council and my first term as tribal chairwoman. I had just finished my term as vice chairwoman, and our gaming compact was up for renewal with the state of Wisconsin; the compact was set to expire in 2003. In September of 2002 my first grandson, Calvyn, was born, and he was my motivation to get things done and move the tribe forward. We were also in the midst of mediation with the state of New York over our Oneida Land Claim Settlement. Both agreements were top priority and kept me traveling on an almost weekly basis.

The Agreement of Settlement and Compromise to Resolve the Oneida Indian Land Claims in the State of New York was established and acknowledged during my first term as Oneida chairwoman. This agreement discusses the rights retained and exercised by the Oneidas of Wisconsin and the terms of settlement and conditions that must exist in order to resolve the claim. This agreement was signed and acknowledged by a Proclamation from Governor George Pataki and Chairwoman Cristina Danforth on December 7, 2004. 

The gaming compacts were being discussed collectively by the United Tribes of Wisconsin. This delegation was formed in June 2002; I was designated as their spokesperson. In November 2002 Governor Jim Doyle was elected, and in January 2003 he was inaugurated. His first task was to meet with the eleven tribes in Wisconsin. He invited the tribes to Madison and made a commitment to the tribal leadership. He convened the meeting with the tribal leaders and then introduced his Cabinet of State Administration and secretaries. He told the tribal leaders that meeting with his staff was equivalent to meeting with him, as they were authorized to renegotiate the compacts on his behalf and with his direction. Under Governor Doyle’s leadership, the Oneida Gaming Compact was concluded in April 2003. 

The Oneida compact renewal was historic and significant: We had been operating on a five-year renewal, and the newly negotiated compact became a perpetual-term compact. It is the only compact in the country to be perpetual. The compact also now has a 4 percent regulatory fee, which is the lowest in the state. It was significant for us in Oneida so that we could fund community infrastructure development projects and secure long-term loans utilizing revenues from our gaming operations. The 2003 Gaming Compact allows Oneida to continue long-standing programming, education, and community services. 

How is your tribal government set up?

Our tribal government consists of nine elected Business Committee members who govern the tribe when the General Tribal Council (GTC)—the body composed of our tribal membership—is not in session. The Business Committee includes four officers—chair, vice chair, treasurer, and secretary. The remaining five members are at-large council members.

How often are elected leaders chosen?

A general election occurs every three years. Candidates must be at least 21 years of age and must be enrolled tribal members living within the boundaries of the reservation or in Brown and Outagamie counties. 

How often does your council meet?

Our council meets every second and fourth Wednesday of the month to conduct official business. The council also meets every Tuesday before the regular meeting to discuss items in executive session, which is closed to the public. Actions on those items must be done in open session at our regular Wednesday meeting. The council also meets with state, federal, and tribal officials on a consistent basis and is required to attend GTC meetings—the annual meeting in January, semiannual meeting in July, budget meeting, and special meetings.

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

My leadership development came from mentors and life experiences from my family. When I was growing up, I was the middle of nine children. My family moved around a lot, and I went to several schools. Changing schools meant new friends and new teachers. This led to my experience of being adaptable. My mom raised us nine kids by herself while still attending college. So on days when I felt stressed, I would think of my mom and all her struggles as a single parent. She also expressed the need to go to college and the benefits of being educated. Her family values were passed on to us and our kids. 

Chairwoman Danforth
Chairwoman Danforth teaching tribal youth Oneida raised beadwork techniques.

The family goes beyond the immediate family and encompasses extended family as a resource for support and encouragement. Everything we do is to benefit the family, which extends to the community and the nation. Making sacrifices is necessary to promote a work ethic and setting goals. Having a vision and a purpose while realizing that all we do is for the children, the family, and our elders. 

When my mother died I was 13 years old. I told myself it was up to me to take care of myself and to do what is necessary to get by. It was the realization that I am an independent person and whether I would succeed or not was up to me. Maybe the reason I was compelled to survive as best as I could was the fact that I felt so alone that April day in 1975. It took me until I was in my twenties to realize that it is OK to ask for help. 

What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?

On any given day I can be asked to address concerns from the community, corporate decisions, financial directives, or policy questions. That requires being flexible, having a vision for the people, and respecting the cultural differences that can clash with commercial aspects of our tribe—recognizing that they are to be handled with care and the balance of creation.

Who inspired you as a mentor?

When I wanted to quit college, I was inspired to continue by my husband, Paul. When I wanted to run for public office, I was inspired by my aunt Shirley Hill. When I wanted to give up on my life purpose, my spiritual helper, Ernie St. Germaine, encouraged me to seek the wisdom of the Creator. Now I am inspired by the gift of my grandchildren: Taneal, Lenna, Avary, Karmyn, Keeshon, Seanae, and Calvyn. They lighten my load with love and laughter when the responsibility of leadership demands my full engagement. 

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

My maternal grandfather was Levi Parker Webster. His Oneida name was Lahstohsles, meaning Chief Tall Feather. My grandfather was a vegetarian and an extraordinary athlete and professional runner. He attended Carlisle Indian School and excelled there as well. On his 50th birthday he ran 50 miles from Green Bay to Oshkosh, Wisconsin. He also did a non-stop promotional run from Milwaukee to Chicago in 23 hours. I guess that’s where I get my stamina. 

Approximately how many members are in your tribe?

Our tribal membership is just over 17,000. 

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

In order to be an enrolled member, you must be at least one-quarter Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin blood degree by proving ancestry to a family member on the 1935 Oneida base rolls.

Is your language still spoken on your homelands?

Yes, the Oneida language is still spoken in the community, and several of our departments have been working on finding new ways of making the language more accessible. The Oneida Language and Speak Oneida apps were recently launched and are available for download. Language classes are also offered year round in the community. Having said that, there is still a need to create awareness for our people to begin learning and speaking the language more. Many of our fluent elder speakers have passed away in recent years, and because of that the community is going through a generational language disconnect. Lack of Internet access has also prevented many of our community members from utilizing available resources. 

What economic enterprises does your tribe own?

Oneida owns a number of enterprises that contribute to the local and state economy. Our gaming operations consist of six facilities including a new $24-million expansion and renovation of our Main Casino. Our bingo hall and three of our Oneida One-Stop convenience stores also offer gaming.

Our tribal-owned Bay Bank was founded in 1995 and provides financial services specific to assisting tribal members obtain mortgages and start entrepreneurial ventures. It is the only bank in the city of Green Bay with a HUD Section 184 Indian Housing Loan Guarantee Program, which offers any Native American who is part of a federally recognized tribe an opportunity to own a home. 

Oneida Total Integrated Enterprises (OTIE) is an SBA-certified 8(a) business that provides a number of services including environmental services, restoration and remediation, construction, engineering, and recovery to government agencies as well as commercial customers around the world. OTIE provides a training and recruitment opportunity for young Native people in the fields of engineering and construction. 

Some other enterprises include Thornberry Creek at Oneida Golf Course, Oneida Community Integrated Food Systems, and our Radisson Hotel & Conference Center, established in 1986.

What annual events does your tribe sponsor?

Oneida sponsors multiple powwows including the annual Fourth of July Powwow. We also sponsor the Big Apple Fest every September at our Apple Orchard.

What other attractions are available for visitors on your land?

I would encourage guests to visit the Oneida Nation Museum, Thornberry Creek at Oneida Golf Course, the Oneida Buffalo Farms and Observatory, and the Oneida Nation Gate at Lambeau Field, just to name a few. Our Tourism Department also provides personal and bus tours of the reservation. 

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

As a tribal government we continue to lobby Congress regarding policies that affect Indian Country. Oneida governance demands a presence in Washington, D.C., to solicit each presidential administration for our land claims in New York and for environmental, health, economic development, education, and intergovernmental affairs. 

White House roundtable
Native American leaders at a roundtable discussion with President Barak Obama in advance of the 2014 White House Tribal Nations Conference. From left to right: U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (partially obscured); Chairwoman Danforth; Chairman Darrin Old Coyote, Crow Nation; Speaker of the Navajo Nation Senate Lorenzo Bates; and President Obama. Not shown: Chairman W. "Ron" Allen, Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe; Chief Phyliss Anderson, Mississippi Choctaw; Chairman Thomas Beauty, Yavapai Apache Nation; Governor Joseph M. Chavarria, Santa Clara Pueblo; Chairman Jeff Grubbe, Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians; Co-Chair Jerry Isaac, Alaska Federation of Natives, Tanacross Native Village; Chairwoman Myra Pearson, Spirit Lake Nation; and Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear, Osage Nation. 
Washington, D.C., December 2, 2014.


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

Be proactive and stay involved in your local community, because issues affecting Indian Country will continue to be part of our efforts going forward. We will need educated leaders eager to learn about the laws and policies affecting our land, beliefs, economic development, governance, and the health of our people. Involvement with social media has proven to be an effective way of sharing our voices and being creative in our approach to express community values. 

Thank you.

Thank you for the opportunity to share a glimpse of the Oneida Tribe, and may the New Year bring you many blessings. Hoyan! 


All photos are courtesy of Chairwoman Danforth. 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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