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Goals to strive for

;Preserve the past, live in the present, and build the future'

SOMERTON, Ariz. - On July 11, Sherry Cordova was elected chairwoman of the Cocopah Indian Tribe for her seventh consecutive two-year term. She received 149 votes over her closest competitor, who had 67 votes.

The Cocopah Indian Tribe is one of seven descendant tribes from the greater Yuman language-speaking people who occupied lands along the Colorado River. Most of the tribes 1,000 members live on or near its 6,500 acres of reservation land, which is separated into three areas.

Cordova spoke to Indian Country Today about leadership and the challenges the tribe faces.

Indian Country Today: How do you account for your longevity as a leader of your


Sherry Cordova: Well, being a small community, you're able to know almost everyone. I've always tried to maintain that one-on-one with members. These people are my neighbors. I know them. My goal is to preserve the past, to live in the present and to build on our future. That was my goal the day I took office and I continue down that path.

ICT: That sounds like what a lot of tribes are striving for. There seems to be a big movement to revitalize and preserve tradition and culture.

Cordova: I think that's something the tribe wants to see.

ICT: And your land is in three parts?

Cordova: Yes. We have the East, West and North Reservations and they're in separate areas. We're here on the river and our East Reservation is on the mesa where our casino is located. It's a small casino, around 400-plus slot machines. We just completed construction of a hotel that opened its doors in December 2007. Because of our location right in the corridor between Mexico and Yuma, which is the next largest city, we felt there was a need to have a hotel resort type of facility. We have the old casino adjacent to the new hotel and we're currently working to turn that into an entertainment center. Our goal is to have a resort destination.

ICT: Is your casino being affected by the economic downturn?

Cordova: Yes, definitely we are. While we do cater to all segments of people, we cater to a lot of the local community and we're in a small agricultural, small businesses type of community; so when they feel the pinch, we feel the pinch. It's not so much a downturn in the number of patrons coming in the door but the spending habits have changed drastically. When you've got to buy the groceries and you don't have enough money to take the kids to the movies, you've got to make priorities. We've seen that and we understand that.

ICT: How is it affecting your business?

Cordova: Well, we provide jobs for the community. We're trying to do it so no one gets laid off. We pride ourselves on being a year-round facility. We offer jobs to people full time. This is what we told the community. We're here year round, not just when the traffic is high. We're your neighbors and we're here for you 365 days a year.

ICT: What big challenges are you facing?

Cordova: As in many places, the economy is a very big factor. We employ a great number of people. We have the casino, the hotel, a convenience store and an RV resort. We recently purchased a golf course. The challenge is going to be to keep all those businesses operational and keep our employees and somehow create a profit that we can use for the tribal membership.

The challenge will be to try to make sure that those who require assistance get the assistance they need. The challenge is to work with Indian Health Services to try to improve the services to our community. We're currently on the list for a new facility, so the challenge is to get that facility built, staffed and operating; to get the entertainment center built. The challenge is just to keep our heads above water and keep listening to what's out there and move forward.

ICT: How important is environmental protection to the tribe?

Cordova: It's very much a priority. We're working closely with the border police who are putting up the fence all along the border. We understand the need for protection. But we're also very conscious of our vegetation and our native plants that need protection. We're right up against the border where they need to put the fence. We're at the very end of the Colorado River and there are times when you can basically walk across because there's no water, just pure sand.

There's a great deal of illegal activity along the border. We do understand the need to protect the border, and we want to help in any way we can, but we also want to protect our culture and our people who have the right to go down and be part of the vegetation they've known all their lives. We're a river people. So we're working cooperatively with the various entities with interests along the border.

ICT: What about the water that isn't in the river?

Cordova: We've got so many dams, notably the Hoover Dam, and we're at the end of the line. We don't have any water. I attended a meeting recently where there was much discussion about the gaming issue, and one gentleman said, 'I don't know why we're talking about gaming because water is the commodity we need to discuss.' Whatever we've got going on, without water, we've got a problem. Arizona is a state that's clamoring for water. California is a state that's clamoring for water. Water is a very important resource and Native Americans have claimed rights to it, and it is an ongoing situation.

ICT: That sounds like the biggest issue you're facing.

Cordova: Water is gold. Water is precious. The environment is precious. You've got to maintain that balance. You've got to maintain today's world, but also understand what happened in the past and making sure you're taking care of that now and making sure that it's still there down the road for someone else. Water is vital to everyone's life. You can go a few days without food, but try to go without water and see what happens to your system, you know? So think about Mother Earth and what that does to her system when you deprive her of that water.