After more than three decades of service defending and advancing Indian rights and championing tribal self-reliance, longtime Coeur d'Alene tribal leader Ernie Stensgar is being honored—though he's not one to bask in the limelight.
The National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA) bestowed Stensgar its John F. Kieffer Sovereignty Award during its Mid-Year Conference & Expo, held November 2-4 at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, Florida. The award recognizes a selfless dedication to advancing the lives of Indian peoples socially and economically, building self-sufficiency through gaming enterprises, and being an advocate for Indian self-determination.
Stensgar epitomizes this “selfless dedication.”
“I’m very honored and humbled to receive such a prestigious award,” Stensgar told ICTMN. “I find it difficult to receive this knowing Indian country and all the great leaders in Indian country. There’s probably people out there that have done more than I have that should have received this award.”
Stensgar served as chairman of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe for nearly 20 years (1986-2004) and as vice chairman for nearly the past decade (since 2007). Under Stensgar's chairmanship, the tribe won numerous political and legal battles related to gaming, sovereignty, taxation and land. Stensgar served as a council member between his tenures, and prior to his first election to chairman. During his leadership, he also helped found NIGA in 1985. He served on the board of the Affiliated Tribes of the Northwest Indians, a nonprofit today representing 57 tribal governments, as both president and 2nd president; and as vice-chairman of the National Congress of American Indians.
The humble Coeur d’Alene tribal leader is deflecting the attention from him onto the award's namesake: his late, dear friend John F. Kieffer, former vice chairman for the Spokane Tribe and a fellow, founding member of NIGA. Kieffer was instrumental in NIGA’s development and the protection of tribal sovereignty until his untimely death in 1999.
“John and I always worked together, the Spokane’s and Coeur d’Alenes,” Stensgar said. “What happens to them usually happens to us or vice versa. John was a tireless worker in gaming. He didn’t take any guff from anybody. He knew what [self-sufficiency] meant to his tribe, ... other tribes and the Coeur d’Alenes, and what we’ve been able to do because of our gaming.
“The attention we [have been able to] give to our youth and our elders to address drug and alcohol programs or police force. Almost all our programs we’ve been able to enhance because of gaming dollars. That’s what John wanted to do, so we worked tirelessly with the National Indian Gaming Board and the directors to combat threats that were coming against gaming. Just responding to those issues was very difficult.”
Stensgar's many leadership positions and his quiet, steadfast dedication to the jobs have created many strong friendships and immense support across Indian country.
“Ernie [Stensgar] has been a tireless advocate for economic development for not just the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, but for all of Indian country. His efforts have created so many economic opportunities for our tribal people; we are incredibly proud of him,” Coeur d’Alene Tribal Chairman Chief Allan said in a press release. “This award is a fitting tribute to his work. We are all better off today because of Ernie’s commitment to tribes.”
That respect for Ernie Stensgar is widespread. Joe Pakootas, former chairman of the Colville Tribe and presently CEO for Nez Perce Tribal Enterprises, sang Stensgar's praises to ICTMN. “For Ernie the award is well deserved,” Pakootas said. “He’s well respected in Indian country. I worked with him in the late '90s and early 2000s. I attended many meetings and conferences with him and all other tribal leaders respected him greatly too.”
For Stensgar, having John F. Kieffer's son present at the award ceremony was truly rewarding. “I was just so proud to receive that award, and to have John’s son Danny there too. He’s on the Spokane tribal council now. That was awesome!”