The Wendell A. Chino Humanitarian Award – National Indian Gaming Association’s most prestigious honor – is usually given to a tribal leader whose actions have improved the lives of American Indian peoples. For the first time in the 14-year life of the award, it has been presented to an entire tribe whose altruistic and humanitarian actions helped tornado victims and their devastated community last year.
The award was presented to the Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma in honor of their heroic efforts to help the community of Joplin, Missouri, which was destroyed by a tornado in May 2011. The award ceremony took place at the Wendell Chino Banquet during NIGA’s annual Indian Gaming Trade Show and Convention in San Diego the first week of April. Prior to the presentation, attendees viewed a short video of the Quapaw Tribe’s actions during the storm. The tribe’s Fire and Emergency Service Team, based at its Downstream Resort Casino and in Quapaw, Oklahoma, was among the first responders to arrive at the scene of devastation just minutes after the storm. The casino was turned into a temporary storm shelter, providing hotel rooms for storm survivors, relief workers and members of the American Red Cross for weeks. Casino restaurants provided storm victims and relief workers alike with thousands of hot meals and sandwiches delivered to the Joplin Emergency Command Center and to workers in the disaster zone. Tribal members donated clothing, household items and financial assistance to victims and sponsored a number of fundraisers.
NIGA Chairman Ernie Stevens Jr. called the Quapaw Tribe a “nation of First Responders (who) demonstrated their innate ability to mobilize and provide a safe recourse for Joplin.” He said the Wendell A. Chino Humanitarian Award is one of the highest awards in Indian country and that the Quapaw Tribe has earned it. “That’s what this is all about – people helping people, Indian and non-Indian alike,” Stevens said.
But the joyfulness of the occasion was tinged with sadness at the recent loss of a vital young Quapaw citizen to whom Stevens dedicated the award: “We dedicate this historic recognition to Seneca Mathews,” he said. Seneca Mathews, 27, a Downstream Resort Casino employee, who spent weeks helping people at the disaster site last summer, died in a car accident in February. He was the son of Downstream co-founder J.R. Mathews.
“My son Seneca,” J.R. Mathews said, “when the tornado happened, from the first day he was there every day, helping people. He was killed nine weeks ago but if he was here today he’d be so happy because of this award, because he always wanted to make a difference and that’s what he’d say.”
Overwhelmed with emotion, J.R. Mathews addressed the audience directly and urged them to embrace their lives fully and actively. "Don't stand idly by, don't sit back, stand up, do something! Make this a purposeful day today. Go out and help somebody. Help yourself. Hold your family tight! Know that life is precious. We never know when it’s going to be taken. But make today count and make tomorrow a better day!” Seneca Mathews’ brother Thomas, the Quapaw vice chairman and his grandma Flossie Mathews both wiped away tears and there were few dry eyes among the audience members. Flossie Mathews took the microphone to say, “We love our people, not just Quapaw people, but we love all of our people and we want to all strive to go forward and do the best for our people. I mean all of us. We have come such a long way in such a short time.”
Quapaw Chairman John Berrey, echoing Flossie’s words, said thanks were due to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act that provided the tribe through its Downstream Resort Casino with the resources to help the tornado victims. “We think that Downstream and the Quapaw were why they created the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, because we came from nothing and today we have something,” Berrey said. “We try to always respect people, we always try to love people and we always try to give to everyone that’s in need and we love that about being an Indian business. But we think everybody in this room would do the same thing.” But the tribe doesn’t define itself by what it did during the tornado or what it does on any particular day, Berrey said. “We define ourselves as proud Native Americans. We want to make our grandparents proud, our parents proud, and we want to leave something for our children,” he said.
Stevens asked Mark Chino, the son of Wendell Chino, to present the award to Berrey on behalf of the tribe. The late Wendell Chino is an iconic, nationally recognized Mescalero Apache leader who was an unflagging advocate for Indian sovereignty and self-determination and one of the strongest voices for American Indian rights during the 1960s until his death in 1988 at the age of 74. He set the stage for the Cabazon decision more than 10 years before that case opened the doors to Indian gaming by establishing one of the earliest Indian casinos in 1975 and asserting that the state of New Mexico could not outlaw gaming on sovereign tribal land.
Born in 1924—the year that Congress gave American citizenship to all indigenous peoples on Turtle Island—Chino was a leader from the age of 28 when he was elected chairman of the Mescalero Apache’s tribal governing committee. He was reelected every two years until 1965 when he was elected the first president of the Mescalero Apache Tribe. He served in that capacity for 16 consecutive terms.
Over the course of his leadership Chino led his tribe on a rags-to-riches journey not only by establishing a casino, but also by shifting control of the tribe’s resources from outside forces to the tribe. When Bureau of Indian Affairs-controlled contracts for everything from mining to timber to grazing contracts on the Mescalero reservation came up for renewal in the mid-1960s, Chino allowed them to lapse and then created companies to develop the resources that were under the tribe’s control. Under his guidance and philosophy of what he called “red capitalism,” the Mescalero Apache Nation built a ski resort, the Inn of the Mountain Gods, a casino, a timber mill and a metal fabrication plant, as well as Indian schools, a hospital and a health centre. During a 1977 court case involving control of Mescalero natural resources, Chino stated, “The white man has raped this land and now he wastes six million acres of Indian land use in this state.”
Altogether Chino led his nation for more than 43 years. “He took stances that affected Indians not only on his reservation, but all over the country,” said Roy Bernal, chairman of the All Indian Pueblo Council and a member of the Taos Pueblo nation in Chino’s obituary in the The New York Times. “In the scheme of the 20th century, it has been said that Wendell Chino was a Martin Luther King or a Malcolm X of Indian Country. He was truly a modern warrior.”