Mamie Rupnicki is rebuilding nations

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MAYETTA, Kan. - Looking across the fence, she smiles and asks, "What do you think of my little girls?" as four young buffalo heifers come toward the fence. "Aren't they pretty?"

Standing in the green pasture against the blue Kansas sky, Mamie Rupnicki watches as her husband, Joe, pours grain into a nearby feeder for the buffalo. The 61 year-old dynamo is relaxed and her face softens as she watches Joe.

Rupnicki, whose brusque, no-nonsense attitude has made her a powerhouse on the Native American political scene, is at ease as she walks through the pasture. Rank and position don't intimidate her as she fights for the rights of her people.

Her philosophy is simple: "Don't depend on anybody else. If you depend on somebody else, you're going to get messed up! Say what you mean, don't blow smoke and get it right up front and get it over with."

Mamie Rupnicki, chairwoman of the Prairie Band of Potawatomi in Kansas, is always up front and always moving forward, heeding her own advice. She doesn't look for others to do the hard stuff. She just rolls up her sleeves and leads the way.

"I have a problem with people who verbalize and don't say anything," Rupnicki said, with a smile.

Her philosophy appears to be working. During her leadership, the Potawatomi have seen great change in the financial picture of the tribe.

Harrah's Prairie Band Casino brought prosperity to an area once forgotten and undeveloped.

But don't ask Rupnicki what Harrah's has done for the Potawatomi. "The question is what have the Potawatomi done for Harrah's. I didn't know the casino business, but I know it now", she says, with a glint in her eyes.

Rupnicki believes that although the tribe has prospered in its partnership with Harrah's, they have also brought the casino a financial opportunity it wouldn't have otherwise had.

Although life on the Potawatomi Reservation has improved for tribal members, Rupnicki refuses to take all the credit. She contends the improvements are a direct result of the hard work of the tribal council and the general membership of the tribe.

The Potawatomi have great potential, she says. "The sky is the limit to where they can go and where they want to be. It is up to them where they want to be. The potential is there, it can grow and be as big as it wants to be," Rupnicki says. Although she says she doesn't know the steps to get there, she believes they have to be steps forward.

The only thing she sees holding Indian nations back is themselves. "If all tribes, not only our tribe, would quit their back-biting and get on with it ... We have enough to deal with outside politics without having to deal with inside politics. I would like to see them have full jurisdiction and own every piece of land on this reservation," Rupnicki continued.

The Potawatomi Reservation sits near the Kickapoo and Sac & Fox reservations in northeastern Kansas. The intermarriages of tribal members have given many area residents a choice about which tribe they can be enrolled with. Many tribal members joke about enrollment, especially when they are asked which nation they come from.

Rupnicki said times must be good, because Potawatomi tribal enrollment is growing.

In the lobby of the Potawatomi tribal headquarters, a member of one of the nearby tribes who was applying for a job said, "They are always hiring, so I thought, why not."

Mamie Rupnicki doesn't care what tribe an employee comes from, as long as they can do the job for which they are hired.

Her no-nonsense style of leadership comes from a lifetime of hard work.

Rupnicki left school when she was 17. Her father told her she was either going to go back to school or get married. Her answer was that returning to school wasn't an option and her father let her know he had someone she needed to meet. Rupnicki met Joe and the couple was married two weeks later.

Their marriage has endured for more than 43 years.

Rupnicki learned about hard work and ethics from her years as a rancher's wife. She says they have lived all over. They spent time in Arizona and in South Dakota.

During their years in South Dakota, Rupnicki said she got a better understanding of religion. "I know why the God was right when he called his people lambs. Sheep are the dumbest things on this earth and they say the Lord protects fools ... ."

Her sense of humor keeps those around her on their toes, something Rupnicki enjoys.

Mamie and Joe returned to Kansas in 1989 after years away. "I guess when you get old you go back home. I was just ready to come home."

Rupnicki wears a lot of hats these days, tribal chairwoman, president of the Board of Regents of Haskell Indian Nations University, NCAI officer and she is a member of several other organizations.

"Whatever taskforce comes up, I'm on it," Rupnicki said during a recent phone call from Washington, D.C.

"See that picture right there?" Rupnicki asks as she points to a painting in which an Indian woman is riding ahead of a group of warriors. "They gave this to me because I am a warrior, a leader, they tell me. I wonder though, are those people in the painting chasing or are they following me? It has two connotations there. I agree with the concept, if she is leading these people and they are following, more power to her. If they are chasing her then there is something wrong and she needs a faster horse," Rupnicki chuckles as she looks at the picture.

Her political views are known to all she meets. Rupnicki pulls no punches and she isn't afraid to let others know how she feels or that her beliefs have changed, especially regarding the American Indian Movement.

"My mother was at Wounded Knee, 70 years old. I was a strong supporter for AIM. I thought it was a good thing.

"Money came into play and they lost it ... When it was over and they took these women out, you know because they said they needed to be out of there, my mom walked out.

"My mother was living on the street. No money, nowhere to go because they (AIM) didn't tell them where to go. The thing of it was they had all this money and these people had gone up there thinking they were going to be taken care of and they were not ... My husband picked her up off the street.

"I said, 'If that's the way they take care of my mother, then they aren't worth a s---.'

"My mom died in 1976 ... I saw Dennis Banks and I told him I thought he was the most worthless piece of s--- that ever crossed the earth. That woman up there that you called 'Grandma' was my mother. When my mother left up there she got sick and finally died of a heart attack, but it started there," Rupnicki said angrily.

With Joe as her partner, Rupnicki has weathered many such storms. While Mamie travels the country, Joe keeps the home fires burning. She is proud of the fact her marriage has been so strong over the past 43 years.

Following her marriage to Joe, Mamie didn't return to school and it wasn't until she was 48, that she completed her GED.

"I thought, 'What the heck, I can do this school thing.'" So she did. The mother of five and grandmother of 20 graduated from Washburn University in Topeka at 51, with a bachelor's degree in political science and then began law school. "I didn't finish law school, but you never know."

Education is very important to Rupnicki, something she believes Native Americans can't afford to go without.

"I like to use the terminology, rebuilding nations. What we had before was nothing. They had the land, some of the land, but not a lot of it. Before any foreigner set foot on our grand land, we had our laws and we had gaming, too.

"We were big gamblers, we still are, because we have to trust in other individuals in hoping they will do something right and that's a gamble, a big gamble. Life's a gamble, you get out of bed it's a gamble. Now we are rebuilding what we had previously, maybe not in the same context, but we are rebuilding nations."

She believes that to rebuild nations, Indian people have to be educated and understand how big business and big government operates if they are to survive as sovereign nations.

"My big push is and always has been education. We are now in a new era. It's an old story ... you can memorialize your history like the holocaust. It was worse for our people because the numbers have never been taken. The tenacity of our people to survive has been incredible. Remember it and let it make you stronger.

"You have to move on and become stronger, but you have to move beyond it. It's a business world. Indian people are into business. Education, not only book learning, but hands on learning, is what is viable.

"When two attorneys are in the courtroom they can holler and yell all they want, but when they leave the courtroom they go have a cup of coffee together. This is what the Indian people need to learn. I have learned that role very well."

Rupnicki sees a need for more Native Americans in the media, to not only tell the stories of those who live in Indian country, but to tell them correctly.

"What Indian people need is positive stories and reports coming out of Indian country. Every time a non-Indian reporter gets out there and reports, it's always negative. We don't need that. They have no idea about what goes on. When something bad happens, they (non-Indian reporters) are right there," Rupnicki stresses.

She also has advice for women who have an eye toward the political world. "Watch your back," Rupnicki says with a smile. "A woman is going to have to work twice as hard - twice as hard, maybe three times as hard, because she has points in front of her that set it up before she even begins. Not only is she a woman, she is an Indian woman, a family woman, then she will become a grandmother. She will have her husband there and either he will support her or he won't. You have to have somebody that supports you and is a sounding board, not money wise and you need that support to go on.

"My husband Joe is just there for me."