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Vincent Armenta: NMAI’s Meet Native America Series

The National Museum of the American Indian interview series Meet Native America continues today with Vincent Armenta.

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.

Vincent Armenta, tribal chairman of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians.

Where is your tribal community located?

The Santa Ynez Reservation is located in Santa Ynez, California, in Santa Barbara County.

Where were your people originally from?

The Chumash once numbered in the tens of thousands in villages spread over 7,000 square miles from Malibu to Paso Robles. The tribe also inhabited inland to the western edge of the San Joaquin Valley.

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

The federal government created Indian reservations even before many western states were established. To remedy the poverty of the Indians in California who were previously part of the Spanish missions, Congress passed the Mission Indian Relief Act of 1891. The act established a federal commission to research the creation of tribal reservations for Mission Indians, one group of whom was the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Mission Indians. The Santa Ynez Reservation was established and officially recognized by the federal government in 1901. Today, the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians remains the only federally recognized Chumash tribe in the nation.

Although the tribe was relegated to 99 acres in a flood plain, our people have made the most of it. Among the most significant moments in our history was securing running water on the reservation in 1969. Not long after, in the 1970s, the Tribal Health Clinic was opened in a small trailer. The opening of our casino in 1994 is another significant moment in our history. It set our tribe on the long-term path to economic self-sufficiency and independence. Today, our Chumash Casino Resort is one of the premier gaming destinations in the region. More importantly, our economic development initiatives have brought vital services to our tribe, from health care and education to cultural and environmental programs. The prosperous Chumash tribal economy has also been a boon to the local economy. Our business enterprises and government departments employ more than 1,700 people.

Our tribe has faced its share of challenges in our quest to better the lives of our tribal members and future generations, but perhaps among the most challenging goals have been our efforts to reclaim our ancestral land. That’s why it was one of the most significant moments in our history when we placed 6.9 acres into federal trust in July 2014. This victory followed nine years of appeals and remands. We are now able to build our long-awaited Chumash museum and cultural center.

How is your tribal government set up?

Our government leadership is made up of four elected members and an elected tribal chairman. This Business Committee oversees the legal and business affairs of the tribe and makes recommendations for the overall good of the tribe. No major decisions are made for the tribe without a vote by the tribal membership.

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

Chumash elders have long been honored and respected for their knowledge and experience. Traditionally, they have been sought out for advice and guidance. That is still very true today. They have a strong voice in our tribe.

How often are elected leaders chosen?

Tribal members hold elections every two years.

How often does your government meet?

General Council meetings are held monthly. The Business Committee meets once a week.

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