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Stephen R. Ortiz: NMAI’s Meet Native America Series

The National Museum of the American Indian interview series Meet Native America continues today with Chairman Stephen R. Ortiz.

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.

Stephen R. Ortiz. I've served on the Prairie Band Potawatomi Tribal Council for the past 15 years—as secretary from 1998 to 2006, then as chairman from 2007 to 2014. The new chairman will be chosen in a run-off election later this month.

Can you share with us your Native name, its English translation, and/or your nickname?

Mon-wah M’jessepe, Wolf Clan. It means Dark Wolf that Travels along Big Bad River at Night that Travelers Hear Rustle along the Riverbank Scouting.

Where is your nation located?

Our Government Center is in Mayetta, Kansas, located in northeast Kansas.

Where were the Prairie Potawatomi originally from?

The Great Lakes region.

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

As I was told by my family elders, all Potawatomis who did not flee elsewhere in the 1800s were gathered up and relocated to Kansas. Upon getting to Kansas, a split occurred when the U.S. government offered the Potawatomis citizenship and land in Oklahoma. The Potawatomis who chose to stay and not accept the offer became known as the Prairie Band Potawatomi Indians. The U.S. government surrounded the Prairie Band Potawatomis, who were willing to fight and not to go to Oklahoma.

At this point for some reason the U.S. government left the Prairie Band Potawatomi in Kansas and granted them a reservation. The reservation was 30 square miles—later reduced to 11 square miles, where we are today. In 1998 the tribal government consisted of 85 employees and had a $2.1-million annual budget. Today we stand at 1,021-plus employees working for the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation in our government operations, healthcare facility, casino, and Economic Development Corporation.

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How is your tribal government set up?

A tribal constitution was established creating a General Council membership who vote for seven Tribal Council members—chair, vice-chair, secretary, treasurer, and three members—to perform the duties described in our constitution.

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


How often are elected leaders chosen?

A Tribal Council term is four years, and council seat elections are staggered so that there is an election every 2 years. The order is that the chairman, secretary, and one council member are voted on in one election, then vice-chair, treasurer, and the remaining two council members in the next election.

How often does your Tribal Council meet?

Tribal Council meetings are held twice a month and as needed depending on the situation. General Council meetings are held four times a year, and special General Council meetings can be called as needed.

What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?

To protect the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation's rights inherent in the United States Constitution, our treaty rights, and other rights that arise from statutory law, executive order, tribal or other law, and judicial administration. To ensure that those rights will be fully protected, exercised, and preserved; to ensure justice and our security; to maintain Potawatomi traditions and customs; to promote harmony, the common good, and social and general welfare; and to secure the blessings of spiritual, educational, cultural, and economic development for ourselves and our posterity.

I have also tried to serve Indian country through work on the Secretary's Tribal Advisory Committee of the Department of Health and Human Services (where I am co-chairman), the Oklahoma City Inter-Tribal Health Board (vice-chairman), the advisory team on Tribal Consultation Policy for the Department of the Interior (member/alternate), the National Indian Gaming Commission Health and Safety Committee, and Kansas Governor Sam Brownback's Council of Economic Advisors.

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