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Assistant Chief Lewis J. Johnson: NMAI’s Meet Native America Series

The National Museum of the American Indian interview series Meet Native America continues today with Lewis J. Johnson, assistant chief.
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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 peoples today.

Please introduce yourself with your name and title.

Lewis J. Johnson, mekko apoktv (assistant chief), Seminole Nation of Oklahoma.

Can you give us your Native name, its English translation and/or a nickname?

Fvs-Hvce-Cvpko. It means Long Tail Bird. I am of the Tallahassee Band and the Bird Clan of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma.

Where is your nation located?

The nation’s headquarters are in the city of Wewoka, Oklahoma, which is considered the capital of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma.

Where was your nation originally from?

The Seminole people are an amalgamated Southeastern Woodland indigenous people who have their beginnings as many diverse tribal towns and small tribes.

What responsibilities do you have within the nation?

The Executive Office of the Seminole Nation has the task of efficiently administrating all contracts and grants received from the U.S government, assuring tribal members of fiscal accountability while providing tangible services for them. All funds budgeted by general revenues and judgment funds must also be administered according to tribal law. With nearly 300 employees in many diverse programs and departments directly under the Executive Office, the Principal Chief, all the department or program directors, and I assure that services to the people and fiscal accountability are administered properly.

How did your life experience prepare you to lead?

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I was raised in a family that for decades has taken an active part in tribal affairs within several diverse elected or appointed offices. My father was a General Council member for several terms and very active in committees and commissioned boards for the nation. My uncles were also involved in tribal affairs as band chiefs. Even my sister was the tribal treasurer for many years. Also my great-grandfather was a council member. My band, as stated earlier is Tallahassee, and it was always expected of the ones representing them to speak openly with honesty and integrity. The Seminole often called these particular people their mouthpiece.

I was elected to several consecutive terms as a General Council member and served as band chief for a period of time. Over the span of the last 25 years I was appointed to committees and boards of the nation and by five different principal chiefs. I have worked in the museum field for 20 years, which has contributed to in-depth research projects and studies pertaining to treaties agreements between the Seminole Nation and the U.S government, court of claims cases, jurisdiction issues, and the expressive arts of the Seminole, which of course reflects the culture of the Seminole people.

All of the experience I gained, especially actively participating within the Seminole community and by my family being directly involved in tribal affairs, contributed to a clearer insight to understanding the desires, needs and dreams of our people.

Who inspired you as a mentor?

In an active Seminole community, we have so many individuals who play important roles in the development of a relative, not necessary as individual mentors but as links in the long chain of cultural impartation. All of these relationships we are privileged to be a part of in our lives actually invest in the productive people we become on behalf of tribe as a whole. I suppose it is taking our place of responsibility within the world the Creator has placed us in.

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

I was recently in Washington, D.C., attending the Code Talkers Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony. The Seminole Nation has the only living code talker who was able to make the trip. His name is Edmond Andrew Harjo. He is a relative of mine, and we are both related to Che Neet Kee, also known as John Chupco, a Seminole chief during and after the conclusion of the Civil War. He was known for his integrity and complete dedication to the welfare of the Seminole people. He was also noted to have been one of the chiefs who established the famed Seminole Light-Horse. They were the lawmen of the nation during territorial times and are still in existence today.

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

Although there are several key events in history with a significant impact, I'd like to tell how the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma’s constitutional organization structure, with the autonomy of the tribal towns or bands, was kept intact, retaining the original identity of these distinct people. This is reflected in the nation’s constitution ratified and implemented in 1969. The nation chose not to organize our constitution under the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act or the Indian Reorganization Act, which places the nation in a unique government-to-government relationship with the Unites States.

How does the Seminole government deal with the United States as a sovereign nation?

The Seminole Nation has been blessed to have leaders who have the diplomatic abilities to articulate clearly the nation's voice and concerns to help navigate through the complex issues of the government-to-government relationship with the United States. We have found that taking a strong unified stance backed by formal written agreements and federal law enables the Seminole Nation and the United States to keep in perspective the responsibilities both sovereign nations have to one another.

To read the full interview visit the NMAI series here.