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Leonard Forsman: NMAI’s Meet Native America Series

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

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.

I'm Leonard Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Tribe.

Can you share with us your Native name and its English translation?

It's ?Gv?í (GwoWee). It means Raven.

Where is your tribe located?

The Suquamish Tribe is located on the Port Madison Indian Reservation in Kitsap County, Washington. We are located in the central Puget Sound region and are approximately a half-hour away from the city of Seattle by water.

Where was your tribe originally from?

The Suquamish Tribe’s traditional areas encompass much of the Puget Sound region.

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

Chief Seattle, for whom the city of Seattle is named, is a hereditary leader of the Suquamish People. Seattle signed the Point Elliott Treaty in 1855 on behalf of the Suquamish and Duwamish People. His father’s village of Old Man House was probably the largest winter house in the Northwest Coast, reaching nearly 800 by 40 feet (32,000 square feet).

Today, the Suquamish Tribe continues to be a leader in government-to-government relations. The Suquamish Tribe is one of the first tribes in Washington to collaborate with state government in order to create a new Tribal-Compact schools system. Suquamish was also instrumental in the implementation of a Native American curriculum in schools across Washington State.

How is your tribal government set up? How often are elected leaders chosen?

The Suquamish Tribe is led by a seven member Tribal Council. Members are elected each March by the tribe’s voting body, known as the General Council. The Tribal Council consists of four officers—chairman, vice-chairman, treasurer, secretary—and three at-large council members. The chairman only votes in case of a tie. Tribal Council officers and members serve three-year staggered terms.

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

No, but we have an Elder Council and a Youth Council that advise us on a variety of cultural and social issues.

How often does your Tribal Council meet?

Suquamish Tribal Council meets twice each month. Suquamish General Council—the community—meets annually.

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

Members of my family, especially my father and older siblings, were very active in tribal government, setting a great example. I was a student-athlete at public school, as well as a member of our tribal baseball, softball, and basketball teams. My oldest sister and brother were involved in education and national politics, which inspired me to get involved in both. I also was exposed to some of our cultural values and teachings at a young age, which led me into my work as a cultural researcher and anthropologist.

What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?

My first responsibility is to organize and lead our Tribal Council meetings and our annual General Council meeting. My second responsibility, in my opinion, is to represent the Suquamish Tribe and its interests within our tribal community, with other tribal governments, and with outside governments on the local, state, and national level. I also serve on many boards and commissions within and outside the tribe, which work to meet the interests of our people and the greater community, including serving as a member of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation since being appointed by President Barack Obama in 2013.

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