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January 16, 2015

Meet Native America: Gary Pratt, Chairman of the Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma

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.

Gary Pratt, chairman of the Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma

Can you share your Native name with us?

I am extremely honored to have been given my great-grandfather Blaine Kent’s name of Ahu Thaway (Black Wing). I am the great-great grandson of Frank and Emma Kent. 

Where is the Iowa Tribe located? 

The offices of the Iowa Tribe are located three miles south of Perkins, Oklahoma. Our jurisdiction covers four counties—Lincoln, Logan, Oklahoma, and Payne.

Chairman Gary Pratt, Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma
Chairman Gary Pratt, Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma. Photo courtesy of the Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma.

Where was the Iowa Tribe originally from? 

History of the tribe dates us back to the 1600s when we were present in the Red Pipestone Quarry region in Minnesota. The Iowa people lived the majority of our recorded history in what is now the northern region of Iowa. The state of Iowa takes its name from the Iowa Tribe.

How is your tribal community set up?

We are organized under the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act with a constitution last amended in 2008.  We are a self-governance operating under Public Law 638, which enables us to carry on a positive relationship with the federal government. We have a Business Committee that is made up of five elected positions—chairman, vice-chairman, treasurer, secretary, and council person.  All serve two-year terms. We meet twice a month as a committee. 

Approximately how many members are in your tribe?

We are small tribe with a current enrollment of 815 citizens. To become a citizen, you must have a parent on the roll and possess a minimum of 1/16 Ioway blood quantum.  

Is your language still spoken in your homelands?

One of the disadvantages of being a small tribe is that we are running out of members who are fluent in the Iowa language. We are currently working to preserve what we have and make it available to our youth and all others.

I believe tribes everywhere are beginning to understand what an amazing generation we just lost and continue to lose, and the impact they had on our survival as a tribe today. For example, last year at the Presidential Summit in Washington, D.C., I shook the hands of five Code Talkers. This year there were only two in attendance. 

What economic enterprises does your tribal community own?

We currently operate two casinos—Cimarron and Ioway—and just recently opened a new travel plaza. We also operate a medical/dental clinic that provides healthcare services to Native Americans as well as the general public. Other operations include a gallery, smoke shop, and RV park. With casinos and tribal operations, we employ over 300 people and are making a positive economic impact in the area. 

What attractions are available on your homeland?

Golden eagles
Bah Kho-Je Xla Chi provides rehabilitation for injured golden eagles (above) and bald eagles, and a sanctuary for eagles that cannot be returned to the wild. It also conducts education and conservation programs. Photo courtesy of the Grey Snow Eagle House Facebook page

I believe the one program that sets the Iowa Tribe apart from other tribes is our eagle aviary, Bah Kho-Je Xla Chi (Grey Snow Eagle House). We have developed an eagle rehabilitation program in order to protect injured eagles and increase community awareness of wildlife and Native American culture.  We have successfully released thirteen eagles back into the wild. The facility opened in January 2006 and currently houses 47 eagles.

Victor Roubidoux, the founder and director of our program and an Iowa tribal elder, is one of the leading experts in the world on the subject of eagle research. We are working with Oklahoma State University to develop a nationwide genetic research program. Our goal is one day to be able to find an eagle and have the ability to determine where that particular eagle came from—for example, from Alaska, Wisconsin, New York, or whether the bird is local. We understand our responsibility to this magnificent creature and take this responsibility seriously. We are very excited about the possibilities and direction this program is going.

Another wonderful thing to take part in here is the Iowa Tribal Powwow. The Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma will host the 30th Annual Iowa Tribal Powwow on June 19, 20, and 21, 2015. The public is invited to attend the full weekend of events. The Iowa Tribal Powwow is held at the Bah-Kho-Je Powwow Grounds in Perkins, Oklahoma, which offers facilities for traditional camping. All dance competition categories are represented at the powwow, and there are daily Gourd Dance sessions in the afternoon, as well. Arts and crafts and food vendors are encouraged to contact the Powwow Committee for more information. 

What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?

My role as chairman of the Iowa Tribe is to uphold the Constitution of the Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma, to seek out opportunities that lie ahead, and to understand the options when dealing with the federal and state government on the issues of sovereignty, healthcare, and gaming. The decisions are always made in the best interest of the people. 

Who inspired you as a mentor?

My inspiration and mentors have always been the elders—their stories of survival, their preservation of customs and ways, song, prayer. Family values have always been an inspiration for me to do my best and help those around me. Taking the time to talk to an elder, recognizing a veteran, or shaking hands with a Code Talker gives me my energy. It doesn’t get any better than that.

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

Listen to your elders, pray for your elders as they have been praying for you since you came in to this world. The day will come when you will play a critical role in the existence of your tribe. Use education as your weapon of choice. Every day seek out the opportunity to make a difference. Prepare yourself for that moment.

Thank you.

Thank you.

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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