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Robert James Super: NMAI’s Meet Native America Series

The National Museum of the American Indian interview series Meet Native America continues today with Robert James Super.

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.

Robert James Super, Karuk tribal vice-chairman.

Can you share your Native name with us?

Super comes from Supahan, which means "bringer of the morning star." My ancestor was a medicine man for our tribe, so he prayed to bring good days for our people. The non-Natives shortened it to Super.

Where is the Karuk Tribe located? 

Our main office is in Happy Camp, California.

Where are the Karuk people originally from?

Our aboriginal land is in Siskiyou and Humboldt counties, California, and a little piece of Oregon. We have stayed in our aboriginal territory. 

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

We signed a treaty in the mid-1800s. It was not ratified, but the U.S. government and the State of California still took our land.

How is your tribal government set up?

Our Tribal Council is comprised of nine members elected by our tribal membership. We have a chairman, vice-chairman, secretary/treasurer, and six members-at-large who represent our three districts.

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

We have boards and committees that interested tribal members are selected to sit on. Those bodies represent the membership and tribe throughout the organization.

How often are elected leaders chosen?

We have staggered four-year terms for each position on the Tribal Council.

How often does your council meet?

Our Tribal Council meets twice a month in meetings that are open to tribal members and twice a month for closed planning sessions.

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

I learned our culture when I was a teen. I also served on boards and committees throughout my life to help our people. I am 53 years old now, so I am more prepared to represent several different topics related to our people.

What responsibility do you have as a tribal leader?

To make the best decisions for our membership.

Who inspired you as a mentor?

My cousin and his wife, Fred and Elizabeth Case. She was our medicine woman for our ceremonies.

Are you a descendant of a historical leader? 

We originally had different villages on the Klamath River. We all met up when things needed to be prayed for and to observe ceremonies. Each family had head family members, so we are all descended from those leaders.

Approximately how many people are in your tribe?

There are 3,723 enrolled members in the Karuk Tribe.

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

A person must be one-eighth degree of Karuk blood to be considered for enrollment.

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

We have approximately 10 recorded fluent speakers of our language. We also have a language program to preserve and teach Karuk.

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