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Badger Wahwasuck wants to make a difference

MAYETTA, Kan. - Badger Wahwasuck has been sworn in as new Prairie Band of Potawatomi tribal chairman. Wahwasuck was selected by the tribal council from a pool of nine candidates nominated for the position.

He will serve out the remaining term of ousted leader Mamie Rupnicki who resigned earlier this year following a recall effort by tribal members.

In his speech to the large crowd that attended the Dec. 4 ceremonies, Wahwasuck pledged to keep an open door policy for tribal members and urged them to make sure he was accountable to them.

"Come in talk to me, here, at home, anywhere. I will appreciate that," Wahwasuck said.

"To the elders I want to say again, if you ever think I'm not doing my job, you think there is something I need to do, if I do something wrong, I'm asking you to come and get after me and tell me what I need to do. That is the respect I have for the elders. For anyone else ... come up and tell me."

Wahwasuck said he is trying hard to bring the government back to the Potawatomi people and wants to make sure that all the Potawatomi know that. "I accept this position, not as the leader of the people, but as a representative of the people."

The new chairman said he believes the tribe has to support its people who live both on and off the reservation. Too often, he said, those who aren't living on the reservation find themselves left out of not only the decision-making process, but they lose out on benefits from the tribe also.

He said he wants the tribal council to work together to achieve even more for the Potawatomi people and to go beyond merely providing adequate service.

"I really have a problem with adequate. People say we have an adequate program. Adequate means it is as good as necessary. When you are dealing with your people, I don't think it should be just as good as necessary. Adequate isn't good enough."

Wahwasuck plans to hit the floor with his feet moving, he said since the success of the Potawatomi people is having a strong tribal council whose members all work to benefit Potawatomi tribal members.

"The first thing I want to do is sit down with the tribal council and let's look at ourselves and work together," Wahwasuck said. "Then I want to sit down with the program directors and see where they are at and what they need."

Economic growth, other than Indian gaming, is another project Wahwasuck said he has in mind for the tribe. His first move will be to see if the gift shop at Harrah's Prairie Band Casino can be expanded. He said he would like to see another building to house the gift shop and have it specialize in Indian arts and crafts.

"There is no supply - there is a big void in the market here," he said. He said he believes that even a double-wide trailer could suffice until a larger building can be built.

"Some of these things are simple, like building a motel," Wahwasuck said. "We need more rooms, so why can't the tribe build a motel? A lot of time people have families and they don't want to stay at the casino hotel. We could build it near the casino, within walking distance or provide a shuttle service."

He also looks at the possibility of a grocery store for the area. There is none close by and he said he believes a tribally built grocery store would not only benefit tribal members, but farmers in the area. He said the possibility of buying produce from nearby farmers would help build strong relationships between county residents and tribal members.

True to his word, Wahwasuck told those attending the swearing in ceremony he welcomes help from those around him and said he wants to know what council members and tribal employees need to succeed at their jobs.

Health care is an issue he cites as being very important. Dental and eyeglass programs are nearly non-existent for tribal members. Long waiting periods for health care and insufficient funding have made it difficult for tribal members to receive the services they need.

Wahwasuck said tribal elders who can't get their teeth fixed or new dentures have to be attended to and that he plans on going to work on that right away.

He would also like to see such services provided for Potawatomi tribal members who live off the reservation, saying that they cannot be forgotten.

Wahwasuck sees beyond just short-term fixes and Band Aids for building a strong economy. He said one thing most tribes must struggle with is the turnover of tribal council members over the years.

"A new council is elected and then they move in another direction," he said. That is why he wants to get a 20-year plan in place that will help guide the financial future of the Prairie Band Potawatomi.

He said a long-range plan will make it possible to better evaluate whether or not tribal services and programs are doing what they need to do.

"I think the first thing the tribal council should do is evaluate what is going on. If there are problems, then they can work with people to improve them. After all, you want to keep those people in there. You just need to start helping some of them out. I think we should get into more workshops for department managers."

His wife, Karen, said she is proud of her husband and believes that he will have the support of the community in his efforts to benefit tribal members. She said his experience with the National Congress of American Indians and various other positions will help him deal with situations that arise while he is in office.

"He delegates authority. He never says he knows everything and he looks for the best people who are knowledgeable in their fields to work with him," she said.

For the time being he is working hard to get up to speed on issues facing the Potawatomi tribe. As he left the ceremony, he was anxious to take his place at tribal headquarters.

Seeing a lot of obstacles in front of him, Wahwasuck said he is confident that, as a representative of the Potawatomi and with the backing of both his family and tribal members, he can make a difference. He said he looks for the day the Potawatomi can follow the example of the Oneida Nation and turn back government funding.

"I'd love to see that. That's a dream that all tribes have. We call ourselves a nation now, we're sovereign. It would do so much for the people to see them turn this money back and say 'give this to another tribe that needs it.' That would be great."