A Candid Q&A With Donna Miranda-Begay, Tubatulabal Tribe Chairwoman

A Q&A with Donna Miranda-Begay.

Donna Miranda-Begay, Navajo/Tubatulabal, has served as chairwoman of the Tubatulabal Tribe of Kern Valley, California since 2006. She is in a rare position for a tribal leader: Her predecessors signed a treaty with the U.S. government in 1851, her people live on 1,600 acres of land allotted under the Dawes Act, government agencies recognize her people as being indigenous, and yet because the treaty was not ratified by Congress the tribe lacks a full government-to-government relationship with the United States. But she’s confident that will change soon.According to a history written by Tubatulabal Tribal Councilman Robert Gomez in 2009, the Tubatulabal people and other Kern Valley Indians organized the Kern Valley Indian Community in the 1980s. Gomez wrote that the organization “made an application to petition the federal government for federal recognition as a tribal entity. While this was a multitribal organization, the core of activities and meetings were conducted by Tubatulabal tribal members.” The Tubatulabal Tribal Council was elected in 2006 and the tribe began what Gomez called the “long, laborious and tedious process of petitioning the federal government for recognition status.”Meanwhile, Miranda-Begay forges ahead, working to improve economic, educational and housing opportunities for her people. In this Q&A with Indian Country Today Media Network, Miranda-Begay talks about the challenges she faces as Tubatulabal leader, and the bright future she sees coming.

What has been your primary focus during your tenure?

Basic needs of the allotment lands, federal recognition and developing strong government-to-government relationships with tribal, federal, state and local entities.

What have been your major challenges?

Sustainable funding for projects. There are many grant opportunities for initial projects, but the maintenance and ongoing support needs are the hardest to address, especially for a nonfederally recognized tribe.

What made you become a public servant?

My parents made it obvious that as tribal people we help out each other and support one another. As a young girl, I was influenced by a Maidu elder, Marie Potts. She was the editor of one of the first national Indian newspapers, Smoke Signals. She was also my babysitter. Marie would work with California and national legislators on Indian health care and on getting tribal voices heard. She traveled all over the U.S. and back-and-forth to D.C.

Were you active in tribal politics before becoming chairwoman?

I worked 20 years with California’s Department of Water Resources and California Conservation Corps. I was a state tribal liaison and always helped outreach to tribal people about state employment opportunities. From 1991 to 2001, I was chairwoman of the Sacramento Urban Indian Health Program board. I learned very quickly about limited Indian health funding. No matter where a tribal person lives, they are entitled to health care. Look what their ancestors lost, gave up and endured, be it through treaties, wars or forced assimilation.

Growing up, what was your knowledge of being Tubatulabal?

In the summertime, we visited my mother’s tribal Miranda allotment. I knew since I was about 9 the unique status of my mother’s heritage, Tubatulabal. I was raised in Sacramento, California, but I was exposed to other tribes and my parents enjoyed taking us to Tuolumne, Chaw’se Grinding Rock Park, and up to Miwok and Maidu gatherings. It wasn’t until I was 22, when I worked for the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs [BIA], that my BIA family tree and Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood was prepared. When I read “Tubatulabal,” I immediately started conducting research and talked with my mother about her knowledge of our tribe.

How can health care be improved for Kern Valley Indian peoples?

Our nearest Rural Indian Health program is at Lone Pine Shoshone-Paiute Reservation—about two hours away, and there is no public transportation to and from this medical clinic. Also, since our tribal members are not federally recognized, there may be a challenge in getting service from other nearby tribal clinics.

What lessons do you take from Tubatulabal history?

Our history goes back thousands of years. It has taught us to address change through adaptation, transformation and resilience. Regardless of the horrific past, we still have our culture, language and improved governance. We talk more about today and the future.

What is the tribe’s relationship with the state and federal governments?

We have a memorandum of agreement and grant with U.S. Indian Health Service (IHS). We are working on an agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Forest Service regarding the Lake Isabella Dam repair project. We are registered with the California Native American Heritage Commission. We’ve worked with the IHS on improving access to quality drinking water and wastewater disposal on our allotment lands. IHS doesn’t discriminate. They see us living on trust land. With the BIA, it’s hit and miss. We’ve had applications for Certificates of Degree of Indian Blood sitting on an enrollment officer’s desk for three years. Because of politics, our people’s blood is a nonpriority.

What do you foresee for the tribe in the next 10 years?

Federal recognition soon, expanded tribal operations and funding sources, and economic development—Native tourism, lodging, conservation lands management.

What happens to the tribe after it gets federal recognition?

Our tribe will grow because once the news gets out people will want to get enrolled. After a six-month period, we will have an election and then a one-year enrollment period will begin. That will establish our base roll. Our challenges will be staying on track with the strategies we’ve had, keeping our values intact, and preservation of our language and culture. Once you get up one mountain, like federal recognition, it’s easy to think, “I’ve made quite an accomplishment.” But you find a bigger mountain in front of you. You climb one mountain, but there’s still a mountain range.

How many people are enrolled in the Tubatulabal Tribe?

Two hundred eighty-seven. There are 75 on a waiting list. I think 500 to 600 more out there would qualify. Enrollment is based on descent from ancestors on a base roll from the mid-1800s to 1900s. There is no blood quantum.

What are the biggest issues affecting Indian country as a whole?

Health—the battle of diabetes and alcoholism, family wellness. Having a united voice. The ongoing exclusion of nonfederally recognized tribes from public-funded programs, services and policy.

What is your level of involvement in Tubatulabal culture?

I am learning our tribal Pakanapul language. I help develop tribal songs and prayers. I attend our annual Bear Dance ceremony.

What Tubatulabal leaders from the past do you admire or emulate?

Steban Miranda witnessed the 1863 Tubatulabal Massacre at Tillie Creek. Soon after this massacre, he and his mother moved to the Tejon Reservation. He learned other tribal cultures, songs and history, but he never forgot that he was Tubatulabal. He came back to Kern Valley in his early 20s and soon became chief of the Tubatulabal Tribe. Aunt Stefana Miranda—his daughter—protected our allotment, and it did not get sold because of her.

Were you at the White House Tribal Nations Conference last December?

No, this conference is only for federally recognized tribes. I got a rejection letter once when I tried to sign up to go.

Do you see tribal leaders working together for the betterment of Indian country?

The last time I saw national tribal unity was at the opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. [in 2004]. A sight to see: thousands of Native Americans and many of the 500-plus federally recognized tribes and 100-plus nonfederally recognized tribes present at this event. It was truly historical. If there were a major threat to Indian gaming, I would imagine the tribes would unite on that. If there were a call to end the tribal reservation system and tribal self-governance or sovereignty in the U.S., you would probably see tribes unite. But other than those issues, it is really hard to see how tribes would unite on any issue in Indian country.

What do you think the world can learn from the Tubatulabal people?

We have a pretty good sense of humor, we enjoy being with our families, and we are proud people who will move forward without forgetting where we came from or forgetting our ancestors’ strength.