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Robert Salgado receives Wendell Chino Humanitarian Award

Soboba chairman honored for decades of leadership

SAN DIEGO - Robert Salgado, chairman of the Soboba Band of Luiseno Indians, has received the Wendell Chino Humanitarian Award - the most prestigious honor from the National Indian Gaming Association.

The award ceremony took place April 22 at a banquet attended by almost 1,000 people in a vast ballroom at the San Diego Convention Center at NIGA's 17th annual meeting and trade show - ''Indian Gaming '08.''

Salgado, 65, was honored for his decades of leadership to his tribe whose homelands are located in the San Jacinto Valley in southern California. The Soboba Band has about 900 members and is one of six federally recognized Luiseno-speaking bands on reservations in southern California.

The Wendell Chino Award is named after the celebrated Mescalero Apache leader who was born in 1924, elected chairman of his tribe at the age of 28, and served in that position for 43 years. Chino has become known as the ''Father of Indian Casinos'' for his insistence on the inherent sovereign rights of a tribe to control its land and resources and to pursue economic development through gaming and whatever diverse businesses it chooses. He led his tribe into economic growth and prosperity that was at the time unprecedented in Indian country.

Waving a long feather as the gospel song ''Rough Side of the Mountain'' played, Salgado took the stage to accept the award and pay tribute to Chino, who was both a friend and mentor.

He recalled meeting Chino in 1976 when Chino told the BIA, ''I'm not here to rock the boat; I'm here to turn it over!''

''He taught me the tricks of the trade,'' Salgado said.

Salgado also recalled Chino's legendary remark at a meeting of tribal leaders when he was said to have joked, ''The Navajo make blankets, the Zuni make jewelry and the Apache make money.''

Salgado still lives at the San Jacinto reservation, where he was born into a two-room house that wind and rain came through.

''But that house was all over Indian country at that time and it still is. It just has a different address and that's why tribal leaders and chairmen have to really fight for our people in a strong way, in a good way, so our people don't have to suffer anymore,'' Salgado said.

He urged tribal members to be proud of their heritage.

''I just want you to know that we come from a bloodline of champions, that we're the only group of people who can trace our bloodline back to this earth.''

Offering advice to the gathering, Salgado first asked all the Native women to stand.

''Our Native women are the most beautiful women on this Earth. I want you to know that our Native women are the backbone of every tribe that sits out here today. So, gentlemen, I want you to take care of our Indian women. They're not to be abused, you understand? There's too much of that going around.''

He urged the tribes to be forward looking.

''Don't let your past rob you of your future,'' Salgado said. ''And another thing is, don't look down on somebody unless you're going to pick them up.''

He appealed to leaders to provide education for young people who will be future leaders and teachers.

Mark Chino, Wendell Chino's son, noted that November will mark the 10th anniversary of his father's death.

''I ask that on that day, wherever you are, that you remember my father and the things he did - the fight that he started on behalf of all of us as Indian people. I urge you to continue the battle in his memory, so that our rights and our sovereignty are protected for the generations,'' he said.

The award ceremony also featured a film about Salgado's life with tributes from his sister, Rose Salgado; U.S. Rep. Joe Baca, D-Calif.; U.S. Rep. Mary Bono, R-Calif.; Soboba Band Vice Chair Rosemary Murillo; and Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians Chair Mark Macarro, among others.

The masters of ceremony were actor Adam Beach and actress Irene Bedard.

California Attorney General Jerry Brown delivered the evening's keynote speech, and National Conference of American Indians Chair Joe Garcia, of the San Juan Pueblo in New Mexico, said a prayer in his language.

''We all come here for a cause and that cause is our livelihood in the United States of America; and if we continue to work together, we can accomplish great things and I asked this of the Great Spirit. Thank you for having me here. I am honored. Take care and be cool,'' Garcia said.

Before the award presentation, Kevin Leecy, chair of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa Indians in northern Minnesota, was sworn in as NIGA vice chair; and J.R. Mathews, vice chair of the Quapaw Nation of Oklahoma, was sworn in as NIGA treasurer. The swearing in was conducted by Gerald I. Hill, former special counsel to the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin council and current president of the Indigenous Language Institute.