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August 07, 2015

Meet Native America: Kathy DeCamp, Ho-Chunk Nation Legislator

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.

My name is Kathy DeCamp. I am a Ho-Chunk Nation legislator and serve District 3, Seat 1. 

Legislator Kathy DeCamp
District Representative Kathy DeCamp, Ho-Chunk Nation Legislature.

Can you share with us your Native name and its English translation?

My Ho-Chunk name is Cat’i Naazii ga, which means Outstanding Woman, or I Am Easily Visible to See; it's pronounced Chantinazhee.

Where is your tribe located?

My tribe, the Ho-Chunk Nation, is located all throughout the state of Wisconsin—we are non-reservation. Our Tribal Headquarters are located in Black River Falls, Wisconsin. We are delineated by districts—four in the state and a district of at-large members who live outside Wisconsin.

We were formerly known as the Wisconsin Winnebago Tribe.

Where was the Ho-Chunk Nation originally from?

At one time in our history, the Ho-Chunk Nation originated from the Red Banks, near what is now known as Green Bay, Wisconsin. Ho-Chunks love to joke and tease, so we like to point out that the Green Bay Packers are located on what is traditionally Ho-Chunk country, but we are taught to be good to our visitors. Our lands occupied most of the state of Wisconsin and some parts of northern Illinois.

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

The Ho-Chunk Nation was forcefully removed from our lands on seven different occasions, and each time we walked back to our traditional lands. It can be said that we survived because of our stubbornness. Ho-Chunks are very connected to our land for spiritual and traditional reasons. The forced removals taught us to adapt to change easily, and also that we will hold on to what is important. 

How is your tribal government set up?

The Ho-Chunk Nation is composed of four branches: General CouncilLegislatureExecutive Branch, and Judiciary.

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

We are very fortunate to have our traditional chief, Mr. Clayton Winneshiek, and Traditional Clan Court, which is made up of our clan leaders.

Our traditional clan leaders may advise in matters of decision. Traditional Court is respected and revered, and although the clan leaders are very capable, at this time we do not use their leadership as such.

Swearing in
Representative DeCamp taking the oath of office. Ho-Chunk Gaming, Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin; July 2015.

How often are elected leaders chosen?

As set forth in the Ho-Chunk Nation Constitution, the Legislature is comprised of thirteen elected representatives. Tribal elections occur every four years; however terms begin and are completed at different times. For example I was inaugurated on July 1, 2015, and my term is over in four years; the term of the other District 3 legislator’s—our newly nominated vice president, Mr. Darren Brinegar, began on July 3, 2013, and is over two years from now.

How often does your legislature meet?

The district representatives meet once a month. We also serve on boards and committees, which meet once a month. At times the vice president will call a Special Meeting, and we have a General Council once a year. You could say we meet often as necessary, and we are in constant contact with our tribal members. It is an honor to be in service to our nation.

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

My life experiences have enabled me to be fair, honest, open-minded, and willing to be out of my comfort zone to complete a task. I have been in office a little over a month now. I enjoy serving the nation and do so in a humble manner.

I grew up in a non-tribal community where issues were often fueled by racism, discrimination, and prejudice. I decided to pay attention to what I learned from being treated unfairly and use this as a steppingstone to success. In the 1970s it was difficult to work where I would have liked, to earn an education and have a future. I decided I wanted more out of life, so I joined the military. I was able to get an education, travel, and see the world. In the military we were all green—no other color mattered—and we were promoted based on our ability, knowledge, and leadership.

I returned home and began working for my tribe at an entry-level job. I have 37 years of work experience. I have been a soldier, member of the bingo hall staff, blackjack dealer, owner of small arts-and-crafts business, hotel manager, and now by the grace of God an elected official.

I went through alcoholism and experienced death and loss. Through the loss of my sister Nancy, I was broken. I decided I wanted to change and am now 15 years clean and sober. I went back to school and completed an associate’s degree in Foundations in Business, and look forward to my next degree.

Please understand that I am not prideful about any stage in my life. I am a humble servant and grateful that many wonderful opportunities are in my grasp.

What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?

My responsibilities are to the people I serve. I am here to listen to their concerns and work toward an amicable solution. Legislators are lawmakers. The Ho-Chunk Nation Constitution states that the Legislature shall have the power to make laws, including codes, ordinances, resolutions, and statutes. The list of duties on my job description is long.  

Kathy & Darwin DeCamp
Kathy DeCamp and Darwin DeCamp.

Who inspired you as a mentor?

My mentors and first educators are my beloved parents: Mr. Martin and Mrs. Caroline Stacy. They instilled the love of God within me, and the power of prayer. I would be remiss not to include Grandmother Florence Boyce White Wing, who taught me the value of hard work. My husband Darwin is my coach and companion. He is a humble and righteous gentleman whom I love and respect very much. If you know my husband, he prefers to be in the background. However, I feel compelled to express my gratitude and adoration at this time.

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

We all have historical leaders in our family. I highly recommend reading a book about the life of Stella Blowsnake Stacy, my late paternal grandmother, titled Mountain Wolf Woman, Sister of Crashing Thunder: The Autobiography of a Winnebago Indian. This content will tell you of my historical roots.

Approximately how many members are in the Ho-Chunk Nation?

Our tribal membership is approximately 7,427 members.

What are the criteria to become a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation?

The requirements for membership are described in Article II of the Constitution of the Ho-Chunk Nation. First, members may not be enrolled in any other Indian nation. Then: 

1(a) All persons of Ho-Chunk blood whose names appear or are entitled to appear on the official census roll prepared pursuant to the Act of January 18, 1881 (21 Stat. 315), or the Wisconsin Winnebago Annuity Payroll for the year one thousand nine hundred and one (1901), or the Act of January 20, 1910 (36 Stat. 873), or the Act of July 1, 1912 (37 Stat. 187); or

(b) All descendants of persons listed in Section 1(a), provided, that such persons are at least one-fourth (1/4) Ho-Chunk blood.

(c) DNA must prove parentage. "DNA" means deoxyribonucleic acid. [Amendment II adopted on May 6, 2009 which became effective June 20, 2009 by operation of law.]

(d) Beginning the date this amendment is approved the Ho-Chunk Nation shall no longer consider or accept for enrollment any person who has previously been enrolled as a member of another Tribe (including the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska). [New section adopted by Amendment I on January 26, 2000 and approved by the Secretary on March 3, 2000.]

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

Yes, our language continues to be spoken on our homelands. We strive to sustain our language. At this time we have about 10 percent of the tribe who are fluent. I speak and understand on a limited basis. My goal this year is to speak in complete sentences, rather than slang.

What economic enterprises does your nation own?

The Ho-Chunk Nation owns Ho-Chunk Gaming on six locations:

Ho-Chunk Gaming Black River Falls, in Black River Falls, Wisconsin;

Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison, in Madison, Wisconsin;

Ho-Chunk Gaming Nekoosa, in Nekoosa, Wisconsin;

Ho-Chunk Gaming Tomah, in Tomah, Wisconsin;

Ho-Chunk Gaming Wisconsin Dells, in the Wisconsin Dells, Baraboo, Wisconsin; and

Ho-Chunk Gaming Wittenberg, in Wittenberg, Wisconsin.

The nation also owns and operates six convenience stores, an RV Park, the Ho-Chunk RV Resort, and other various retail shops.

What annual events does your tribe sponsor?

We have a most wonderful event honoring our veterans every Memorial Day weekend. Ho-Chunks hold all veterans in the highest esteem. I promise you won’t be disappointed with our annual Memorial Day pow-wow. 

There is also Neesh-la Pow-wow, which we hope will have larger capacity numbers for 2016. We host various sporting camps and college visits, our annual Night of Remembrance (Walk for Cancer Awareness), and the Annual Family Wellness Conference, to name a few events. We also participate in the community through sponsorship of various sporting events, local sports teams, etc. Each year is exciting and different depending upon what we are inclined to support. 

What attractions are available for visitors on your land?

We are non-reservation and are scattered over the state. Our Ho-Chunk hospitality is available to anyone who is able to experience it.

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

Being a new legislator, at this point one month into my term, my answer is this: Effective, tactful education and communication of what a sovereign nation is must be taught to those who do not understand the term. All sovereign nations must exercise independent status appropriately and effectively and on a daily basis.

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

I share with our youth the message to take on the duty and honor to be our future leaders, and to always remember the sacrifice our ancestors made for us so we may continue to be Ho-Chunk, People of the Big Voice. I encourage our young people to remember where we came from, and who we are. I humbly ask our youth to learn our language, remember your lineage, work hard, and be full of compassion and sincere love for each other. Most importantly, build on your diversity; there is power in differences. If you ever run for office, remember this, from Wisconsin Winnebago Business Committee Election Procedures, April 20, 1963: 

Heart and sincere concern for its Tribe is a requirement, if you want good tribal government you must determine who in your area will best understand your needs, be sympathetic with you, be able to interpret and speak on your behalf to the Committee and to your community for you, be able to place your welfare ahead of personal aspirations, who has the ability to make the right decisions for the Tribe, and who has faith in the ability of the Winnebago to determine for himself what is best for him. 

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Thank you for honoring me in this way. It is my hope you have learned something new, and that I was forthright about my tribe. If I have misspoken, it is not intentional. Lastly, I am grateful for this wonderful opportunity.

Thank you.

Pinagigi—thank you. 

All photographs are courtesy of the DeCamp family.

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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