Bernadine Burnette, elected as Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation president on January 12 after losing her vice-presidential spot two years ago, is ready to finish what she started more than 25 years ago. “I’ve had a long-time vision that I would carry out our ancestors’ vision to become self-sustaining for the future,” says Burnette.
She learned that vision from her grandmother, who raised Burnette on Fort McDowell’s 24,600-acre reservation, which straddles the lower Verde River about 25 miles northeast of Phoenix, and other Yavapai elders. “I grew up with no running water or electricity, and a dirt floor,” Burnette, 60, says. A descendent of Wassaja, also known as Carlos Montezuma, the Yavapai renowned as the first Native physician and an early 20th-century Native rights advocate, Burnette soaked up the will to fight for her small tribe’s rights.
In fact, Burnette points out that the Fort McDowell Yavapais have a long history of standing tall for Native rights. Montezuma advocated for tribal self-governance and helped his tribe defend its reservation from being taken. In 1948, two Yavapai men sued the state of Arizona after being refused at the voting booth and won; this decision led to the end of states denying Indians the right to vote in state and local elections. Burnette lent silent support while her community stood up for tribal sovereignty in May 1992, when the U.S. government seized the nation’s gaming machines. The seizure led to a historic 18-day peaceful standoff, which resulted in victory for both Fort McDowell Yavapais and tribal gaming across the nation.
The Yavapai people‘s resolve to ensure that their rights would be upheld and respected also became incorporated into Burnette’s personality. She admits to possessing –and using—her distinctive voice (she calls it “loud”) when defending her community’s rights. Burnette says she keeps a precept by the late Martin Luther King close to her heart: “Everybody can be great...because anybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve, [just] a soul generated by love.”
Although her family had no resources to assist her, Burnette managed to attend business college and secured a job with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. While at the BIA, Burnette silently supported her small community during the epic struggle in the late-1970s and early 1980s to prevent construction of a dam at the confluence of the Verde and Salt rivers which would have drowned most of the reservation. Burnette says that “Our elders always told us that our land was the basis of our community and to hold on to it.” The defeat is still celebrated each November as Orme Dam Victory Days.
When she first joined the tribal council as secretary in 1990, Burnette notes that the inauguration ceremony was a far simpler affair: “We had punch, bologna and cheese sandwiches and chips,” she says.
Over the next two decades, through elections won and lost – Burnette lost the 1992 election but came to work for the tribe’s land use department before coming back to office in 1994 – she continued to work to improve not only Fort McDowell’s lands but its law, infrastructure and economy as well. In 1999, she was part of the team that developed and enacted the new constitution, including new ordinances. She was part of the team that secured Fort McDowell’s water rights; “I must have gone to Washington 24 times that year to get that deal!” Burnette says.
In 2012, Burnette’s work to preserve gaming rights was recognized when she was named Indian Gaming Advocate of the Year by the National Indian Gaming Association. She also recently completed two terms on NIGA’s board.
She points to the 300-plus homes that dot the landscape, the state-of-the-art water and wastewater infrastructure, the paved roads and new tribal public safety building as proof of her work on behalf of the Fort McDowell community. Burnette also committed to enhancing existing tribal enterprises and building new businesses to employ more tribal members in her last campaign. “I ran on a platform that encompasses the entire community, not just one voice,” she says.
Burnette says she will also spearhead constitutional amendments to update the tribal ordinances; continuing working on a project to construct a new casino building; continue to stand for tribal sovereignty; and to update the tribe’s master and strategic plans for economic and social progress.
She also knows who is really driving the boat: “I’ve heard loud and clear that because of my willingness to stand up for things that I can complete the plans we began,” Burnette says, “but I’m just the pilot; I’m driving in the direction the community wants me to go.”