Juanita Ahtone was ‘a guiding light and ray of wisdom’

Juanita Ahtone, Kiowa, points to her dad, James Dahgomah, with her right finger in the 1944 photo of NCAI's founding members.(Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye

Iconic volunteer dies days before annual NCAI convention

The volunteer booth and hundreds of attendees at the National Congress of American Indians 76th annual convention will deeply miss one Kiowa woman next week.

The organization announced that their long-time member and volunteer Juanita Daugomah Ahtone passed away days before the convention in Albuquerque.

“NCAI is sad to share the passing of Juanita Ahtone, a guiding light and ray of wisdom for NCAI and all tribal nations,” said the organization on social media. “Indian Country is stronger today because of her decades of selfless service. The family appreciates the love, support, and prayers.”

The organization told Indian Country Today: “Juanita Ahtone passed this morning at home in Oklahoma. She was born July 7, 1928 and recently celebrated her 91st birthday.”

Ahtone was involved with the organization for 46 years.

Last year she told Indian Country Today at the conference in Denver that she was 16 when her dad came home “enthused” from a meeting. Her father was one of the founding members of the national organization.

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Her eldest son Vernon Ahtone wrote on NCAI’s Facebook announcement.

“I just want to thank NCAI for your kind words, regarding our mother. Her mind, heart and soul revolved around her service with NCAI,” Vernon Ahtone said.

Several thanked Vernon Ahtone and his family for sharing their mom with NCAI and Indian Country.

Much of the memories surrounded her decades of for the organization and tribal nations. A few stated how her absence will affect the organization.

“NCAI will never be the same,” said Jim Gray, Osage.

Another memory from Ahtone’s friend, Yvette Joseph.

“I will miss my dear friend and cherish the Kiowa Nation blanket she gave to me. Juanita Ahtone has moved mountains in Indian Country, with her dedication to NCAI, the advancement of vital resolutions and her incomparable wit,” she wrote. “Now she joins her cherished Father who was a founder of the National Congress of American Indians and her dear sister Mame. My deepest sympathy and prayers extend to Gloria and her family.”

Co-President of the NCAI Youth Commission Rory Wheeler, Seneca, shared how her wisdom impacted youth and tribal nations.

“Juanita was a strong and passionate supporter of Native youth. She valued our perspectives and continually offered esteemed wisdom and guidance that were grounded in staying true to ourselves, our communities, our ancestors, our culture, and traditions,” he wrote. “Her vast encouragement, support, and advocacy will be deeply missed.”

juanita ahtone and youth
(Photo courtesy of Rory Wheeler)
juanita ahtone and youth 2
(Photo courtesy of Rory Wheeler)

George Tiger was sad to hear the news.

“She served dignity for many years with National Congress of American Indians,” he wrote. “The National Conference for the organization and NCAI will not be the same without her. RIP and God’s Speed sister, we will see one another again.”

And he said that she loved her work and told Brian Cladoosby, former NCAI president, how she knew how to enjoy it.

“Chairman, she is the only person I knew who was serious in her work and humor and laughed under her breath while waiting for you to react. Such a lovely person who will be missed immensely!”

Cladoosby says he will remember the memories he had with “one of NCAI’s national treasure,” especially one.

“I loved her sense of humor. One time she asked me to marry her,” he wrote.

Juanita Ahtone being silly
(Photo courtesy of Betsy Ahtone Cummings | Facebook)

Another time Cladoosby joked around with her about needing a new mom. She is pictured with his dad on Facebook.

“Told her I need a new mom. She's 89, dads 84. She said he was [too] young. Said they'd accuse her of robbing the cradle. Love our elders humor,” he wrote.

Juanita Ahtone and Brian Cladoosby's dad at NCAI.
Juanita Ahtone and Brian Cladoosby's father.(Brian Cladoosby | Facebook)

Everyone loved her humor during NCAI’s elections, especially Theresa Sheldon, Tulalip, who said Ahtone would run the show during elections.

“She is an absolutely beautiful leader! I’m so thankful for the decade plus of watching her work at NCAI,” Sheldon wrote. “It was always my favorite when she kicked off all the officers from the stage and conducted elections. She is a true boss and an amazing person. She will be missed.”

Last year during the annual convention, Ahtone was calling up the names of alternate vice presidents of NCAI. Some were on stage and some were not.

When one didn’t show up she said, “I tried but sometimes those Comanche don’t listen.” The room erupted in laughter.

The year before that Indianz tweeted that during the NCAI election she said, ”I’m trying to make this as dramatic as I can.”

It’s no doubt that Ahtone’s leadership shined through and had some impact on Indian Country. In 2018, that leadership was honored at the 23rd Annual National Indian Women’s “Supporting Each Other” Honoring Lunch. Ahtone received the appreciation award.

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Earlier this year she gave Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren the same award. She even circled the room in the Washington Hilton hotel to show everyone how beautiful the award was (and to say hello) before handing it off to Warren.

Juanita Ahtone, Kiowa, gives Sen. Elizabeth Warren her "Appreciation Award" from the National Indian Women's 'Supporting Each Other' Honor Lunch on Feb. 12, 2019 in Washington, D.C.
Juanita Ahtone, Kiowa, gives Sen. Elizabeth Warren her "Appreciation Award" from the National Indian Women's 'Supporting Each Other' Honor Lunch on Feb. 12, 2019 in Washington, D.C.(Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)
Sen. Elizabeth Warren thanks Juanita Ahtone, past honoree, for the award.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren thanks Juanita Ahtone, past honoree, for the award.(Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)

She also devoted her time to students.

Jessica Hauger said Ahtone “took time to read student-written Kiowa books online & began every session by stating that ‘we are learning the Kiowa ways together.’”

Her warmth was felt by anyone who met her.

Jan Caldwell said, “Every member of the staff felt her love and affection. I'll never forget her patience and wisdom. She made a lasting impression I'll carry for the rest of my days. Rest well Miss Juanita, job well done.”

Tonya M. Deal wrote, “This woman was an inspiration and spirit full of life stories. She would have us laughing at her experiences and adventures in her life. We were always so blessed to have her us during our conferences and our family. She will be missed but never forgotten.”

Charlie Wright and the Kletsel Dehe Wintun Nation Tribal Council sent their condolences. Wright said he’s seen her at all of the NCAI conventions during his 10 years as chairman.

“Ms. Juanita Ahtone, has always been an inspiration to me and many of our tribal officials who have known and seen her at the NCAI Conventions,” he wrote. “We will deeply miss her physical presence, but will always remember her spirit is still with us and to be strong like she was and has been for all of Indian Country.”

Others on social media said she was “one of Indian Nations finest!” and “always will be a legend” because “Kiowa blood is some of the strongest.”

L to R: Juanita Daugomah Ahtone (Kiowa), Evalou Ware Russell (center), Kiowa Tribal Princess, and Augustine Campbell Barsh (Kiowa) in the American Indian Exposition parade. Anadarko, Oklahoma, 1941.
L to R: Juanita Daugomah Ahtone (Kiowa), Evalou Ware Russell (center), Kiowa Tribal Princess, and Augustine Campbell Barsh (Kiowa) in the American Indian Exposition parade. Anadarko, Oklahoma, 1941.© 2014 Estate of Horace Poolaw

Cesar Alvarez summed up the loss of her.

He said: “Truly the loss of a matriarch for NCAI and Indian Country.”

NCAI said her family plans to release more information in the coming days. The cause of Ahtone’s death was not shared with the organization.

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Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Diné, is the Washington editor for Indian Country Today based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @jourdanbb. Email: jbennett-begaye@indiancountrytoday.com.

Indian Country Today, LLC., is a non-profit news organization owned by the non-profit arm of the The National Congress of American Indians. The Indian Country Today editorial team operates independently.

Comments (2)
No. 1-2

She was everyone’s mom. A real Indian woman.


Such an inspiring woman that I knew personally. So devoted in her repetitious work, in her community, family and tribe with respectable life. She had been a tremendous asset with our Kiowa Tribe. She will be greatly miss. A' ho.