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.
Rudy Peone, chairman, Spokane Tribe of Indians.
Where is your tribe located?
The Spokane Indian Reservation is in northeastern Washington State.
Where was the Spokane Tribe originally from?
Central/northeastern Washington, encompassing all of the current greater metropolitan area of the city of Spokane, northern Idaho, and western Montana.
What is a significant point in history from your tribe that you would like to share?
In defense of their homelands, the Spokane and allied tribes fought the U.S. Army at the battles of Steptoe, Four Lakes, and Spokane Plains. In 1881, President Rutherford B. Hayes formally established the Spokane Indian Reservation by executive order. The 160,000-acre reservation is bounded by water on three sides—the Columbia River to the west, the Spokane River to the south, and Tsimikin Creek to the east. The construction of Grand Coulee Dam destroyed the abundant salmon runs that lie at the center of traditional Spokane life ways. The dam was completed in 1942. To date, the federal government has not fairly compensated the tribe for the loss of its salmon runs or the inundation of its reservation lands.
How is your tribal government set up?
Like most tribes we adopted a “cookie-cutter” constitution provided to us by U.S. government officials. Our constitution was adopted in 1951, though we have amended it over the years. The constitution confers legislative and executive authority upon the Tribal Business Council, or simply tribal council, and provides the tribal council with the authority to establish a judicial branch. Many years ago, the tribal council established the Spokane tribal court, an independent court consisting of a chief judge, associate judges, and a court of appeals. Also, the tribal council has delegated substantial executive authority to an appointed executive director.
Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?
Right now there is not, but over the last few years our tribe has adopted numerous constitutional amendments with a vision of moving closer to a more traditional form of government.
How often are elected leaders chosen?
The five members of the tribal council are elected to 3-year staggered terms by all tribal citizens 18 years and older. Currently, people must vote in person on Election Day, the first Saturday in June. Each year after the general election, the five sitting members of the tribal council vote for chairman, vice chair, and secretary.
How often does your tribal council meet?
As per our constitution, we have a meeting of the general council—made up of all enrolled tribal members—twice per year, once in April and once in November. Along with these two constitutionally required meetings, this tribal council has implemented an additional two meetings per month that rotate amongst four locations throughout our current reservation and ancestral homelands, as well as four “Unity” meetings that coincide with the seasonal equinox and solstices. The tribal council typically meets at least once per week.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead your tribe?
I must say that I did not plan to be in this position and would give the Creator and my parents all the credit. I was raised with eight siblings—not rich in finances, but rich in love, respect, and family members who would give the shirt off their backs if another asked. My extended family, including my uncles, aunts, grandparents and cousins, as well as my immediate family, shared this foundation.
To read the full interview, visit the NMAI series here.