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John L. Berrey: NMAI’s Meet Native America Series

The National Museum of the American Indian interview series Meet Native America continues today with John L. Berrey.

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.

John Lane Berrey. I'm chairman of the Quapaw Tribe.

Can you share your Native name and its English translation, or your nickname? 

I have two Native names—Hum-Bah-Gah-Kah, my Quapaw name, which means Big Elk, and Nee-Wah, my Osage name, which means Healing Water.

Where is your tribal community located?

The Quapaw tribal headquarters are in Quapaw, Oklahoma, in the northeastern corner of the state. On the Osage side of my family, Pawhuska, Oklahoma, is the capital of the Osage Nation.

Where was the Quapaw Tribe originally from?

Before we came to Oklahoma, we lived in Arkansas.

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

We are the survivors of forced removal. We were removed from our lands in Arkansas three times in the early 19th century. In our own time, we have a Superfund site on part of current Quapaw land.

How is your tribal government set up?

Or government is established by a Governing Resolution.

Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?

No.

How often are elected leaders chosen?

Members of the Quapaw Tribal Business Committee are elected every two years.

How often does your tribal council meet?

The Business Committee meets monthly. The General Council meets once a year.

What responsibilities do you have as tribal chairman?

I'm responsible for the management of tribal government, the oversight of tribal businesses, the care of tribal members, and the protection of Quapaw culture.

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

Elders have influenced me very much from my youth to today.

Who inspired you as a mentor?

I'm inspired by Ardina Moore and, from history, by Heckaton, who was a chief during the early 1800s.

Are you a descendant of a historical leader? If so, who?

Yes, I'm a direct, seventh-generation descendant of Chief Heckaton.

Approximately how many members are in the Quapaw Tribe?

We have about 4,800 tribal members.

What are the criteria to become a member of your tribe.

The criterion is direct descendancy from one of two tribal rolls—the 1959 Payment Roll or the 1890 Quapaw Membership Roll.

Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?

The Quapaw language is still spoken, and we teach it at our museum. About one percent of the people are fluent.

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