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.
Hello, my name is Glenna J. Wallace, and I am chief of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma. My Indian name, Ni ni le wi pi mi , comes from the Eagle or Chicken clan and means An Eagle Overhead Watching Everyone.
Where is your tribe located?
The Eastern Shawnee Tribe is one of three federally recognized Shawnee tribes, all located in Oklahoma. We Eastern Shawnees are in the extreme northeast corner of Oklahoma, in an area where three neighboring states can be accessed within minutes—Kansas, Missouri, and Arkansas. The tribe borders Missouri, and we can be in Kansas or Arkansas in 30 minutes, max.
Where are the Eastern Shawnee originally from?
We were known to be a wandering, traveling tribe, living in close to thirty states until we settled in Ohio in the early 1700s. We eventually shared a small reservation there with the Seneca Cayuga Tribe. Together we were known as the Mixed Band.
After the passage of the 1830 Indian Removal Act, the Mixed Band was the first group to be forcibly removed to Indian Territory, a journey we made on foot with more than 15 percent not surviving the ordeal. That occurred in 1832, and we remained the Mixed Band until 1867, when we were separated into two distinct tribes, the Eastern Shawnee Tribe and the Seneca Cayuga Tribe. Both tribes remained in the northeast corner of Indian Territory, which became the state of Oklahoma in 1907.
What is a significant point in history from your tribe that you would like to share?
We are a small tribe, approaching 3,300 in number, but just prior to 1900 we were down to only 73 people. Historical documents state that we had only seven or eight men over the age of 21. It truly is an example of almost total genocide.
At that time our culture had so few people to support the ceremonials and dances, those practices became dormant. Not extinct, but dormant. Some way, somehow, the tribe, both men and women, miraculously held on, and in 1939 our first Constitution and Charter were approved. These documents served as our guidelines until 1994, when a new Constitution was adopted, making the chief a full-time position equivalent to a modern CEO. Today more than two-thirds of our membership lives outside our service area.
How is your tribal government set up? Is there a functional traditional entity of leadership, in addition to your modern government system?
The Eastern Shawnees are a self-governance tribe with a structure most similar to that of the United States—three separate but equal powers invested in executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The legislative branch is comprised of six individuals: three councilmen, a treasurer, and a secretary, plus the second chief who chairs the meetings but has no vote except as a tiebreaker. The chief comprises the executive branch and has no vote but does have veto power. At the present time we defer to the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Court for the judicial branch. Terms are four years in length, with no term limits. To stagger terms, an election is held each year, conducted by absentee voting.
We have no additional leadership entity in our modern government system with the exception of our Annual Council. The Annual Council meets each September at tribal headquarters following the annual election. And of course tribal citizens have the right to submit initiatives or referendums for action by the Business Committee or by the General Council comprised of all registered voters.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead your tribe?
I am now in my tenth year of serving as chief, having been elected in 2006. Before then, I served on the Business Committee for 18 years. Those years and experiences were invaluable in preparing me for my current responsibilities.
Two other life experiences shaped me as an individual. When I was nine and in the fourth grade, our family left Oklahoma and moved to the West Coast. There we became a migrant family, moving from community to community and working in all types of migrant labor. My four siblings and I were expected to reach a certain quota each day to contribute to the support of our family. Any earnings beyond that quota went to us as individuals, to spend as we wanted. At an early age I became an overachiever. I learned to set goals, work toward those goals, develop a work ethic, and think long-range, and I realized the value, self-worth, and confidence that come from those achievements.
The second life experience that shaped my entire essence was education. I was the first young woman in my family to graduate from high school, the first to graduate from college, the first to pursue postgraduate degrees, which resulted in my being a college instructor and administrative leader for almost 40 years. Those years prepared me for my current role, which ironically is as the first woman to be chief of any Shawnee tribe.
To read the full interview, visit the NMAI series here.