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Robert J. Welch Jr.: NMAI’s Meet Native America Series

The National Museum of the American Indian interview series Meet Native America continues today with Robert J. Welch, Jr.
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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.

Howka—hello, my name is Robert J. Welch, Jr. I am the chairman of the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians.

Where is your tribal community located?

My tribe is the Capitan Grande Band of Diegueno Mission Indians of California: Viejas (Baron Long) Group of Capitan Grande Band of Mission Indians of the Viejas Reservation, California. The Viejas Reservation is located approximately 35 miles east of San Diego and contains 1,600 acres of land.

Is there a significant point in your people's history that you would like to share?

The Viejas Band originates from the Capitan Grande Reservation and the village of Los Conejos, in the area known today as El Capitan Reservoir. The Capitan Grande Reservation was comprised of 22,000 acres and actually included the original land of two bands: Capitan Grande and Los Conejos. Due to the growing needs of San Diego, in 1935 the city dammed the river and diverted the water. Capitan Grande and Los Conejos tribal members were convinced to sell the heart of their reservation, since the land was inevitably going to be taken by imminent domain by the City of San Diego and flooded by the new reservoir.

A significant point in our history is during this time in the 1930s, when the original members of the Capitan Grande Band and Los Conejos Band were forced to sell their lands. The proceeds from the sale of the land could have been divided equally amongst the current members, allowing them to purchase individual land holdings throughout San Diego, which was, at the time, a small city. Instead, the tribe agreed to stay together and pool their money to buy new lands. After careful consideration by members of the tribe, they bought the Baron Long Ranch. After members of the band relocated, however, the water rights and infrastructure promised never came to fruition. The Viejas Valley became solely dependent on the meager supplies of rainfall and groundwater. Without river water, farming—which the people depended on as their sole source of income—was no longer possible. 

Today, Viejas tribal members are proud owners of a tribal-government-owned and operated casino. There is a job for every tribal member who desires one. There are no Viejas tribal members on welfare or dependent on taxpayers for social services or improvements to their lands. The economic foundation we fought hard to create is providing a better future for our people, from housing and healthcare to college scholarships. In addition, the casino has created nearly 1,700 jobs and contributes millions to the local economy through the purchase of goods and services.

How is your tribal government set up?

The Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians is a sovereign government recognized by the United States as having governmental jurisdiction over its land and tribal members. The tribe’s government consists of two levels: General Council and Tribal Council. The General Council includes all of the band’s voting members. A rigorous form of participatory democracy, the General Council has approval over land use and tribal budgets. The General Council elects the Tribal Council, which includes the chairman, vice chairman, secretary, treasurer, and three council members at-large. Tribal government officials are elected to four-year terms of office. Like local governmental entities, the Tribal Council serves as the executive and legislative branches, and has quasi-judicial powers as well. Like special district boards (water district, port authority, economic enterprise or redevelopment agencies), the Tribal Council also serves as the “board of directors” for Viejas Band economic enterprises, with all tribal members as “shareholders.”

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

The foundation for policies and procedures is our custom and tradition.

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