Chairman Reno Keoni Franklin: NMAI’s Meet Native America Series

The National Museum of the American Indian interview series Meet Native America continues today with Reno Keoni Franklin.

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.

Reno Keoni Franklin, chairman of the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians. I’m also first past chairman of the National Indian Health Board, the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers, and the California Rural Indian Health Board, and former vice chairman of the Sonoma County Indian Health Project.

Can you give us your Native name and its English translation?

I choose to teach who I am: My name is Reno Keoni Franklin; my family comes from the Kashaya village of Aca sine kawa li. I am the son of Dino Walter Franklin and Pearlann Kuulani Makaiwi, grandson of Adrienne Mae Franklin (Smith), great-grandson of Walter and Sara Smith (Antone), and great-great-grandson of Robert Smith and Minnie Salvador.

Where is your Native nation located?

The Kashia Band of Pomo Indians lives in northwest California, along the coast in Sonoma County.

Where was the Kashia Band originally from?

We are fortunate to remain in our traditional lands.

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

Our first sustained contact with non-Indians was with the Russians in 1812. They landed on the shores of our village Metini and were originally known to us as the “undersea people.” In 1817, the Kashia signed a treaty with the Russians—the Treaty of Hagemeister—and allowed the Russians to build Fort Ross, which quickly became a thriving trade port along the California Coast that brought in Natives (and traders) from Hawaii to Alaska. Our relationship was not a perfect one, but it was much better than the experience of our neighboring tribes, who suffered greatly at the hands of the Spanish, Mexicans, and later groups of white settlers.

The Kashaya way of life would never be the same, but because of strong traditional leadership and a deeply rooted foundation in culture and religion, we are still here. Our language is still spoken, our ceremonies are still practiced, and we are still a strong people.

While much is said of the good relationship with the Russians, it is important to note that there were groups of Kashia who didn’t like the Russians' prolonged stay and occasionally burned their fields or killed their non-Kashia workers to remind them of whose land they were on. Still, the Russians would not kill a Kashia, and many of our people who committed crimes were instead shipped to a Russian prison on the Farallon Islands. After the Russians left, our tribal members were set free. In one memorable story, two Russian Soldiers were hung for abusing a Kashia woman.

Our history has its dark times, and I encourage our members not to forget that those dark moments existed, but also not to let them define who we are.

What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?

First and foremost, my responsibility is to serve my people. Second, it is to work as best as I can with our Tribal Council to better the lives of those we serve. This is the part of the responsibilities where the hard work is done. I think this piece is often forgotten: That our tribal councils will not always see eye to eye on issues, but that the chair needs to make sure we are working together despite our differing opinions and views. My tribal members expect that of me.

How did your life experience prepare you to lead your tribe?

I spent a lot of time around my elders, even as a little boy. I would sit with my grandmother and her brothers and sisters, listening to their stories and sneaking bites of pie or tup tup bread while they spoke. I am blessed to be from a community that has a roundhouse, and in that place I learned a lot. Our sacred places lay the foundation of the path that is chosen for us. For me, our roundhouse has always been a place of clarity and learning.

As I got older, and made the choice to serve my people, my fire-fighting background and emergency medical technician certification played a big part in my wanting to engage aggressively in bettering the health care of my people. I remembered how frustrated I was that we were losing so many elders to diabetes and other preventable chronic health issues. I would spend hours driving elder relatives down the hill to Santa Rosa for dialysis treatment. It was hard to watch them in pain. Those images of my elders stayed in my head for years and eventually were a major part of my decision to chair the National Indian Health Board.

At the same time, the strong cultural upbringing and influence of our traditional people drove me to do all that I could to protect our Kashaya Ama (tribal lands) and sacred sites from destruction, while always looking for new and creative ways to gain access to sites on private lands. I remembered being a boy and going to a family gathering site for raspberries and a white rancher yelling and cussing at my grandmother and her sisters to leave or he would throw them in jail. Years later, I remember of one of our elders crying when they heard of the destruction of one of our roundhouse pits and the village around it to make room for a vineyard. These events and many like them drove me to do all I could, a path that eventually led me to chair the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers and serve for four years on the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation.

Who inspired you as a mentor?

My uncle Loren Smith, my cousin Walter Antone; Amos Tripp, and my grandmothers, Shirley Makaiwi and Adrienne Franklin.

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