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Brian Cladoosby: NMAI’s Meet Native America Series

The National Museum of the American Indian interview series Meet Native America continues today with Brian Cladoosby.

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.

Brian Cladoosby, chairman of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and president of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI).

Can you share your Native name with us?

It's Spee-Pots. It means Little Bear in our language. Spots is bear. When I was growing up my nickname was Cub. An elder, the late Vi Hilbert, bestowed that name on me. It is a gift that keeps on giving.

Where is your tribal community located?

The Swinomish Reservation is located about one hour north of Seattle and one hour south of the Canadian border. We are about 15 minutes off I-5. We live on an island, Fidalgo Island. We have 7,000 acres of land that is about 70 percent trust, and about 3,000 acres of tidelands.

Where were your people originally from?

Swinomish is one of the tribes who were not removed from their homelands. We have been living in the same place for generations. We are also descendants of three other bands that were removed from their lands and relocated to Swinomish: We are successors to the Samish, Lower Skagit, and Kikiallus who had to relocate to Swinomish after the signing of the 1855 Point Elliott Treaty.

What are the criteria to become a member of the Swinomish Indian tribal Community?

You have to be one-quarter Swinomish.

What is a significant point in Swinomish history that you would like to share?

There are many—when we signed the Point Elliott Treaty, the fact that we have 70 percent of our reservation back in our ownership, having taxing authority on our own lands, sovereignty, and, of course, the Boldt decision in 1974, when the federal courts affirmed our treaty rights to our historic fishing grounds. All these will have generational impacts on the Swinomish people.

What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?

As chairman of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, I preside over all Senate meetings and meetings of the General Council—which is made up of all voting-age members of the Swinomish. I am paid full time, so I also supervise all our departmental directors.

As president of NCAI, I preside at all conventions of the organization and all meetings of the Executive Committee, and I am authorized to exercise other duties delegated to me by the Executive Committee.

How is your tribal government set up?

Swinomish has eleven senators who are elected to five-year terms. Two Senate seats are up every year, and three seats are up on the fifth year. I believe we are one of the only tribes in the nation whose government has five-year terms. This was created during the Indian Reorganization Act. We currently have about 170 years of Senate experience at our council table.

How often does your government meet?

The Senate meets the first Tuesday of every month.

Who inspired you as a mentor? 

I really enjoyed attending grade school and high school. It was a great experience for me. I had some excellent teachers as role models who had a very positive impact in my life.

I also had the opportunity to listen to some of the best tribal speakers in our community growing up. We are an oral tradition culture, and listening to public speakers was very valuable for me. Landy James was a Swinomish tribal member, and not only my high school teacher, but also my football and baseball coach in high school. This man was all about building up the self-esteem of everyone he interacted with, especially youth. Morris Dan, Dewey Mitchell, Richard Peters, Dave Joe—these were some of the best speakers in our community, and growing up I had the opportunity to listen to them. Robert Joe Sr., Chet Cayou Sr., Susan Wilbur, Laura Wilbur—these were some of the senators I had the opportunity to learn from when I was elected to our Senate in my 20s.

And of course my father, Mike Cladoosby. He is the best father anyone could ask for. He prepared me for life, from raising me, to teaching me how to fish, to just being an awesome example on how to be a father.

Kel-Kahl-Tsoot, my dad’s great grandfather, put his X on the Point Elliott Treaty for the Swinomish Tribe on January 22, 1855. My father is 81 years old. When you think about it, my dad’s great-grandfather signed our treaty in 1855. My dad is still alive, and he is the great grandfather to my grandchildren. My grandchildren are the seventh generation since the signing of our treaty.

To read the full interview, visit the NMAI series here.