In the earlier days of tribal leadership, there was no financial compensation for the chairman or for tribal council members.
Only those tribal members truly dedicated to serve the tribe for the welfare of all the people chose to run for the office of tribal chairman or for a seat on the council. In those days, it was a simple honor and a humble privilege to serve the tribe. And, with just 600 tribal members, we all knew one another and had respect, concern and compassion for one another.
In the span of less than half a century, we have grown into a nation of 1,765 enrolled members. We have been lifted out of poverty. We have been delivered from plywood shacks with no utilities to comfortable homes with running water, gas and electricity.
In the early days, our tribal government had no office space. We simply met in an old government building on the Middle Verde Reservation or in a Clarkdale town office when the need arose. Today, our Tribal Administration Building encompasses 15,044 square feet and our total administrative work force and tribal enterprises spread out through 17 separate tribal buildings in three tribal communities.
We have grown from a tribe with no income to a nation with millions of dollars in income and spending. As children, we played by the river and in the dry creek beds with toys fashioned by our imagination. Today, our children and grandchildren are supported with a gymnasium and two recreation centers. We have grown from a tribe with little to no employment to a nation that stands alone as the largest employer in the Verde Valley.
With the casino, tribal administration and tribal enterprises such as tourism and the sand and rock operation, we have a job opportunity available for every tribal member who may want to work for the nation. And, we are doing what we can to help heal the hearts of our people and our community with a dedicated staff of community health resource and social service individuals.
In 1970, our Tribe encompassed 650 acres. Today, we have expanded our land base and are prepared for the housing needs and economic development needs of our people with 5,000 acres of fee land that is awaiting transfer into tribal trust land status.
While so many things have changed since I first took office in the 1970s, the tribal chairman still provides leadership and direction for the nation. The chairman’s leadership and prayers must ensure that the nation continues to grow toward greater economic, social and educational success with better health and living conditions for the tribal membership.
I spent the first few weeks in office familiarizing myself with the nation’s numerous departments, personnel and a new day-to-day routine. Aside from the many routine problems that face any large organization, there are two significant areas that currently concern the health and well being of our nation.
The No. 1 issue facing the nation is the renewal of our gaming compact with the State of Arizona. Our current compact expires in year 2003. Together, with other Arizona state gaming tribes, we are in intense negotiations for a new compact. Together, we have formed an Arizona State Tribal Coalition in order to expedite a suitable compact that will be favorable to the tribes and to the state.
Herb Yazzie, who recently left the employ of the Yavapai-Apache Nation to pursue other endeavors, was one of our key negotiators on the coalition. Today, we are still strongly represented on the coalition with our tribal leadership and tribal liaisons. The coalition now has its own office and has hired a public relations firm to help us with this endeavor. We have invested a great deal of time, personnel and money into this very important effort. While we have made some headway in our meetings with other Arizona tribes to formulate a unified approach for a new compact, our public relations firm has requested that the results of our meetings be kept confidential. Revenue from the Cliff Castle Casino accounts for the bulk of the nation’s operating expense budget. It is so very essential that we renew our compact with the State of Arizona as soon as possible.
The No. 2 issue facing the nation is the reorganization of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. This is a crucial issue for the nation as we receive important funding from the BIA and have financial holdings in BIA trust accounts. Some years ago, it came to the attention of tribes throughout the United States that the BIA allegedly was mismanaging tribal trust funds. After further study there proved to be conclusive evidence that the BIA could not account for all the tribes' funds.
Failure by Bruce Babbitt to resolve this issue during his term in office resulted in a fine for Mr. Babbitt of $600,000. The same judge that fined Mr. Babbitt is now threatening to file contempt charges against the current secretary of the Department of the Interior, Gale Norton. In response to this threat, Norton devised a plan to reorganize the BIA to help resolve the problem. However, prior to developing the new plan, she failed to follow the laws, which state that she must consult with all federally recognized tribes before any changes can be implemented within the bureau.
In response to her oversight, she scheduled a series of national, tribal consultation meetings. The first meeting has held in Albuquerque for all the western regional tribes. Our vice-chairman, Fred Sanchez, our tribal attorney general, our public relations director and members of the Tribal Council attended to represent our nation. As a result of this meeting, a consensus was reached to appoint a tribal task force to work with the secretary of the interior.
Essential in our efforts on the issue of the state gaming compact and the BIA reorganization is to secure financial stability for the nation. Prior to my term in office, there were employee layoffs, work-hour reductions and budget cuts. There was even rumor that the annual tribal membership Christmas bonuses would be halted. These situations were caused by a number of events linked to projected casino revenues falling short of the projection.
The tragic events of Sept. 11 also compounded the problem. We have combined the efforts of the tribal council, the finance officers of the nation, casino management and the investment firm of Miller and Schroder are working to resolve our financial shortfall. It is my hope and the goal of the nation to re-employ those that were laid off and to return all full-time employees to a 40-hour work week.
In closing, I want to acknowledge the prayers, inspiration and encouragement of our ancestors that have helped to carry us this far. And, I ask for your prayers, inspiration and encouragement for all our tribal members, tribal leaders and non-tribal employees to help carry us into the future.
Aaron Russell is the chairman of the Yavapai-Apache Nation.