Kewa Pueblo leader believed ‘The people come first’

Everett Chavez used to be one of the 20 governors on the All Indian Pueblo of Governors. (Photo courtesy of Olivia Chavez)

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye

Everett Chavez shared passion and hope, and encouraged education throughout his years.

Four years ago, Everett Chavez went grocery shopping with his niece, Aliyah Chavez. They needed lard. At one point during their quest for lard to cook a meal, he told his niece, “I bet you grew up on shortening, huh? Not lard.” He laughed. “Get it?”

His niece stood 5-feet tall. He was about 5 feet 9 inches tall.

“You think you’re so funny, don’t you?” she replied knowing it was one of his many “corny jokes.” And this one was actually a good one.

“His laugh was full and from his belly,” his niece said. “Every time he laughed, he always had a full smile with it.”

And his head would tilt back as he laughed, said his oldest daughter Olivia Chavez.

Everett F. Chavez, Kewa Pueblo, passed away on Dec. 10 from natural causes in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

For 66 years, Chavez colored with his grandchildren in public restaurants, made time for his family and friends, inspired young people to strive for an education, served his community, met with diplomats and even cracked jokes with prominent figures.

Everett Chavez had President Obama cracking up the second time they met. (Yes, they met multiple times before and during Obama’s presidency. He was part of Obama’s advisory committee for Native American and Alaskan Natives.)

Olivia Chavez’s dad was a funny guy. “That’s how he broke down barriers, by telling jokes,” she said.

Even his younger daughter, April Chavez, agreed with her cousin Aliyah Chavez that he was the “King of Corny Jokes.”

Besides his “great sense of humor,” his colleague Pamala Silas remembers his love for karaoke the most. “He was a really great karaoke singer,” Silas said with a laugh. (His youngest daughter April Chavez said over the phone, “His jam was country, the old-school country.” Also, recognizing her bias, “He was objectively very good.”)

Silas got to know the trained engineer when she became the executive director for the organization. Everett Chavez had leave because he was elected to be the governor of the Kewa Pueblo.

“You need to have allies and people who can help you think through complicated decisions,” she said. “Sometimes I get bruised and beat up and he was always there for a shoulder to cry on and someone who deeply believed in our people.”

Silas knew this “very powerful, gentle force” was going to be a lifetime friend to her. “You wanted to be on his team and you wanted him on yours,” she said.

Former AISES Executive Directors pose for a photo (from left to right) Sandra Begay-Campbell, Everett Chavez, Pamala Silas and Norbert Hill. (Photo courtesy of Pamala Silas)

Even when he became a “big deal” with his long list of impressive accolades, he made you feel special.

“That warmth. I can’t say enough about that warmth for when he greeted everyone,” she said. “Sometimes it was right when you needed it and it made you strong enough to take on the next battle.”

Everett Chavez fought many battles. Most would probably say he fought the good fight and was perfectly equipped to do so.

He received his associate’s degree from DeVry Institute of Technology in Chicago and a bachelor in science from the University of New Mexico in electronics and electrical engineering.

One of the the many job titles Everett Chavez held was being superintendent at Santa Fe Indian School in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

In fact, Governor-Elect Michelle Lujan-Grisham of New Mexico appointed Everett Chavez as co-chair to her education committee one month ago. The committee would be part of Lujan-Grisham’s transition team for higher education, public education and Indian Affairs.

This position on the committee added to the former tribal administrator’s already full plate. Olivia Chavez said her and the family asked him to cut down on his commitments at one point. He was part of as many as 30 boards in his younger years. Lately, that trimmed down to about 11.

Education ranked high on his list. Just about anyone who knew the former superintendent knew about his advocacy for education and pursuing a higher education.

He was proud that many Gates Millennium Scholars came out of Santa Fe Indian School, Silas said. He had “high expectations of Native youth” because of the school’s and the power that Native youth possessed.

“He was one never afraid of what an education could do,” Silas said. “He saw it very much about what it can do for our communities whether it was coming back and doing good for the community or becoming an amazing contributor to what they did in their field.”

Both of his daughters graduated from Stanford University and his niece Aliyah Chavez attends the university. Olivia Chavez is now in law school at UNM.

He supported higher education and encouraged many to put it to work. His goal was to be a leader in tribally-led education and for Native people to be that leader in their own education.

The first thing Olivia said over the phone about her dad was, “He brought people together in a lot of ways. He did it through humor and food.”

He made a point to call up former graduates of Santa Fe Indian School and take them to dinner wherever he traveled in the country, she said. That could be in Washington, D.C. or Chicago. He gifted green chile, tortillas or things from home to help the students be a little less homesick.

Within the past couple weeks, the family received many calls from friends, family, relatives and beyond.

Of those phone calls, the family had conversations with four young women. All of them said they became engineers because of Everett Chavez. And they weren’t even his students, said April Chavez. He also inspired another young woman to pursue her doctorate.

“He believed in women,” she said. “For a lot of these women, he was the first and only man in their entire lives who believed in them and they were capable.”

After any conversations one had with him you felt “calmer and capable.”

Former three-time Kewa Pueblo governor sat on the Kewa Pueblo council after his time as governor. (Photo courtesy of Olivia Chavez)

One of his close friends, Debra Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, who just the won the congressional seat in the first district in New Mexico, considered him a mentor early in her career.

“I mean like every time I called him, he answered. He helped. There were some times I called him and he was down at his fields because he grew corn every year,” she said of their 15-plus year friendship. “He was busy, but stopped and answered the phone.”

He was very passionate about Natives getting out to vote, too. (He ran for senator twice, too.) Many say he was the reason why so many people in the community voted over the years.

“He just never missed an opportunity to raise people up. That’s what he really wanted to do was raise people up whether it was people from his tribe, the governor, tribal officials, kids, students,” Haaland said. “He got people to care about things and realize the power they had in themselves by speaking out and taking action. Never missed an opportunity to make sure young people were keeping charge and doing the right thing.”

Haaland said she always saw the “kind, gracious and helpful” leader participating and singing in their ceremonies. He worked hard to protect them whether it was sacred sites and traditions.

Two of his notable attributes were nation-building and his commitment to his community, the Kewa Pueblo.

Olivia Chavez remembers as a kid that her dad started working for the tribe by driving the head-start school bus. Soon after, he was tapped to be a tribal official, or traditionally known as a capitan.

He liked to cooperate with people (even those who have done wrong) to create partnerships that would led to initiatives that benefited the community.

An example is the emergency services he helped set up once just off the exit of Interstate 25 to go to Kewa Pueblo. Part of the emergency services include EMTs, fire department and a clinic. Later on he added the Kewa gas station, childhood center and senior center.

Recently, as part of the tribal council, he worked on getting equipment close to the community to improve cell phone reception and receive better internet service so students could take advantage of academic opportunities. It’s been a six- to seven-year process and is still in the works.

Other projects focused on the environmental, such as water and fracking, education, economic development and more infrastructure, said his older daughter.

Again, you can say he always carried a full plate. However, that didn’t stop him from doing more, especially for his community.

“One thing I remember him saying quite often was ‘The people come first,’” said Olivia Chavez. “That was his philosophy.”

He looked up to his father, who was a veteran and served for the community, so he grew up with the same values.

“When we would get discouraged, he would tell us, ‘The people come first,’” she said.

Nation-builder. Giver. Believer. These were words told over and over to describe Everett Chavez’s efforts during his life. He never boasted or bragged about it. He kept pushing forward and was “always doing something for someone else.”

That explains why he ran for senator twice and received the Ely S. Parker Award in 2011 from AISES, the highest honor from the national organization. The same award Mary Golda Ross, Cherokee, received in 1985 for her work in mathematics & aerospace engineering.

Beyond his accomplishments, his colleagues said his greatest achievement was his family and one could see the love he had for them.

Olivia Chavez said even though he was so dedicated to the Kewa Pueblo and tribal communities, he continued to be their father - encouraging, loving, teasing and celebrating with them.

“We knew we shared him with others,” Olivia Chavez said. That sharing included his grandsons, too.

Everett Chavez would often show videos of his grandsons to people. (Photo courtesy of Rochelle Chavez)

“He loved, loved, loved them. He was so proud of them,” she said. “They loved their Moomoo.” Moomoo means grandpa in Keres, the language of the Kewa Pueblo. His grandsons were his “pride and joy.”

Of all the interviews, phone calls and social media posts, Haaland explained his effect on people perfectly.

“He lives on in everyone he knew and mentored,” she said. “If you knew Everett, you thought the world of him. He was so kind and gracious and helpful. Everybody wanted to know him.”

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Diné, is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @jourdanbb. Email: