Anthony Pico: What I Wish I Knew Before I Took Office

Native Nations Institute

Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians Chairman Anthony Pico reflects on his experiences as leader of his nation, and stresses the importance of Native nations strengthening their systems of governance in order to protect and strengthen their cultures and ways of life. 

Resource Type

Pico, Anthony. "What I Wish I Knew Before I Took Office." Emerging Leaders Seminar. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. March 25, 2008. Presentation.

"First of all, good morning to all of you here! It's an honor and a privilege to be here before you, because I know that there literally has been 10,000, 15,000, 20,000 leaders that have come before you -- if you think about the history of your people and your Aboriginal histories. I'd also like to thank the Tohono O'odham Nation for allowing me to be here on their land. And I'm very grateful to Native Nations Institute, the University of Arizona and Ian Record for inviting me here today. And I'd also like to thank my people -- the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay -- and our tribal council and the honorable Bobby Barrett -- our chairman -- for making it possible for me to be with all of you. I'd like to introduce to you the Vice Chairman of the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay, the honorable Raymond {Coy) Hyde. Also, my good friend and childhood friend and one of the ones -- he and his mother approached me many years ago to run for tribal chairman. I remember that. (You're going to get it.) And I wish to express my deepest appreciation to the University of Arizona, the Morris K. Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy, Native Nations Institute and its founders and directors and its staff for their continuous and social and economic progress for America's Indigenous peoples. I'd like to particularly extend my gratitude to Manley Begay, Stephen Cornell, Joseph Kalt, Miriam Jorgensen and Joan Timeche and others who have tirelessly advocated for tribal sovereignty and self-governance.

I recently recalled with a friend, the early days in Viejas -- at a time when about 152 impoverished citizens shared the land with an equal number of dogs and cats and frogs and coyotes. There was little economic development then on the res. And for young men and women -- mostly young men I guess at that time -- without a job there wasn't much to do except play baseball and pitch horseshoes. I remember at nighttime, with a star-filled sky, and you could still hear the clanging of horseshoes on iron pegs. I served more than two decades as the elected leader of my people and there were many on the reservation who contend my greatest accomplishments during those days was my ability to pitch horseshoes in total darkness. As in the case with many American Indians, I was raised poor in an abusive and alcoholic family, and were it not for res adoptive parents -- and this was before the Indian Child Welfare Act -- and the support of a nurturing spirit of our community, I'm convinced that today I'd either be dead or I'd be wasting away in some prison, as was the fate of many of my contemporaries. I eventually received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane letters from Long Island University in New York, but I wasn't a good student in my early years. I was continually put in remedial classes, and halfway through high school [I was] still in those remedial classes. And I was really convinced that I was stupid. But there were exceptions, in the fourth grade and the seventh grades, I remember the teachers who expressed an interest in me and my grades soared from Ds and Fs to Cs and Bs. And so I learned then, in retrospect, that such is the power of the caring spirit. I battled alcoholism from when I was a young man, and it's a struggle that continues with me today. It's a struggle that I will continue for the rest of my life, but I am surviving this and I even thrive under those conditions. And why am I so sure? Because I've always been a firm believer of the strength of the human spirit; I've always maintained that the Creator instilled in every man, woman and child the ability to rise above the fray and to succeed where others have failed and to achieve what others may view as unachievable.

Leadership, in my experience, is defined and created by adversity; and I know this to be true. I saw it in Vietnam when I served as a paratrooper in the United States Army infantry, where I witnessed young and normally docile men who in combat reached down deep within, and grasping the courage that they never dreamed that they even had, overcoming fears and leading our comrades to victory or safe haven. And I've seen it here in the United States with American Indians' struggle for social and economic justice and the protection and preservation of sovereignty and self-governance. Our tortured history since European settlement is, of course, a saga of loss and struggle, death, poverty and disease, war and suppression, misguided federal policy, racism and neglect. We've been able to hold onto what little that we have only through the courage of our elders and our ancestors who rose above the turmoil and reached down deep within themselves to surface as warriors and scholars and diplomats and prophets. They were all leaders.

The title of this seminar is 'What I Wish I Knew Before I Took Office.' Who thought that up? Huh? Where is Mr. Kalt? I had some difficulty with the topic, largely because I'm not at a place in my life where I harbor any great deal of regrets. I can say, however, that I went through a transformation of sorts. It occurred later in my second decade of my nearly 24 years as tribal chairperson. I was not so much groomed for leadership as I was influenced by the caring spirit of my people at Viejas -- citizens of Viejas who freely gave of their time. And it's the Kumeyaay way to share and to care for other people as it is I know for your people. Even when we were poor in finances, we were and are rich in spirit and our sense of community of family has always been strong. That's why I've always given freely of my time. As I said earlier, were it not for the community of Viejas I would be dead or in jail, I have no doubt about that. When tribal leaders in 1983 asked me to seek public office, my response was of course to say 'yes.' They knew me. They saw me growing up as a boy to manhood. They had confidence in me, and suffice to say their belief in the human spirit was perhaps greater than mine. And the fact is that they really pulled me up out of the gutter and asked me to lead them.

Our tribal government budget deficit at the time was $3,000. My elders wanted me to create an economy there at Viejas and that was my focus for the first 15 years as elected tribal leader of my people. Viejas is recognized today for its success in creating a strong and diversified tribal economy. We have of course a casino, we own our own community bank, a shopping center, two RV parks, an entertainment business, and we created tribal partnerships in the development of the Marriott Residence Inn in Washington, DC -- a block and a half from the capitol, from that museum, and actually on the capitol mall in Sacramento. And one of our partners is Oneida. And we today are planning to build an $800 million casino resort. I can't take the bulk of the credit for my success. The strategies and policies that paved the way to progress on Viejas was largely the achievement of a competent staff under the direction of able leadership from the Viejas tribal council and our general membership.

Viejas also benefited from the leadership of California tribes during the gaming wars of the 1990s that resulted in landmark ballot initiatives in tribal-state compacted gaming. And again, it was adversity that brought out our leadership qualities of Indian tribes. When we were fighting the gaming wars, California tribal leaders walked in lock-step unity. We knew how to manipulate the press and we were savvy in our public relations. We learned the political game and played it like a drum and we were a formidable coalition. When the war was over we became complacent; we forgot what made us so formidable. With the leadership of four tribal governments rose yet again in referendum success earlier this year and that allowed us to expand the casino operations. It was late in the gaming wars of 1990 that I went through a transformation as I mentioned earlier. Danny Tucker, my good friend and mentor and chairman of the Sycuan Band of Kumeyaay hired a brilliant tactician -- former chairman Larry Kinley of the Lummi Nation -- to assist us in developing strategy in our ongoing political confrontation there in California. The Lummi and other tribes of the Pacific Northwest fought the landmark legal battles with Washington State and the federal government over the fishing rights. The battles resulted in the victorious 1974 decision by U.S. District Court Judge George Boldt affirming tribal rights to 50 percent of the salmon and the harvest of Washington State. The landmark Boldt decision was later upheld in the United States Supreme Court. The Lummi later were among several tribes that adopted newly elected federal policies of self-governance, embracing self-determination -- independence from the Department of Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Lummi Nation has never accepted money from the federal government paid to them for their land and despite crippling poverty and desperate needs, it sits in a bank untouched. To take the money, the elders taught, would be an erosion of their sovereignty. The Lummi have never signed a treaty and to this day they say would be a violation of that sacred right. I've always embraced a vague notion of sovereignty and its importance to Viejas and other tribal nations.

The Lummi Nation taught me that sovereignty was the journey -- it was a long and never-ending trek. That through a hurricane of rival interests, competing political agendas, and a greed for power, the Lummi ignited a fire in my belly and it still burns to this day. It's not economic progress that will sustain Native America for the next seven generations and beyond; it's sovereignty and the strengthening of our governments that will insure that future generations will continue to live what you consider, a Native way of life. That is in fact, what is put forth by Native Nations Institute -- that only by strengthening our governments and non-economic institutions can we build a foundation for long-term economic and social progress.

As you know, times have changed. Tribes are changing. Our children are changing, subject to the influence of the modern world in which we all live. Our languages are dying and so are those who practice and teach us the old traditions and values. We need to see, feel and imagine and reinvent Indian sovereignty into what it is. And we need to do this within each tribe within all Indian Country, and there are different paths and future emphasis for tribes to take. Some tribes will strengthen heir sovereignty through spiritual and religious beliefs and practices; some will provide new modern and strong 21st-century tribal governments. Others will focus on economic development as they build the infrastructure. I hope the tribes will focus on healing the pain of the past and the psychological damage of poverty and social disintegration that haunts each generation. Each can and will carry us to a new place if we continue to share and learn from each others' experiences and examples. It's critical that we find ways to free ourselves from the patterns of self-destruction, the unrecognized anger we have, the abuse and racism that drives so many to alcohol, to drugs and suicide. We have to learn to live life again not deaden ourselves to it. If not for ourselves, then we must learn to be life-affirming for the sake of our children and those children that aren't born.

It's an incredible challenge to break new ground in Indian Country. It's an ever greater challenge to find and forge a path that preserves our roots while accommodating the demands of today's world. The moment has come to exercise and claim such a place for modern Indians. Can we seize this opportunity and create a renaissance for our tribe and people in the present? What we and our elders and those of us before have struggled so hard to hold onto, our sovereignty and our right to self-governance, we can so easily lose. The greatest and most important legacy that we leave our children, grandchildren, and those generations to come is the opportunity to live a Native way of life. We can only keep that promise if we grasp our sovereignty tightly and not let it gradually slip away as grains of sand through a clenched fist.

Am I worried about the future? No. There will be struggles, there will be adversity, but the struggles will make us strong and diligent. From the seeds of adversity will grow our future leaders. Struggle and adversity can bring the best in the individual. I know this to be true and it can do the same for tribes. I have a concern and it rests with the United States Supreme Court and its ability to strengthen or erode sovereignty and our right to govern our own lands. This is where our focus must be, in my opinion, in protecting our shield of sovereignty from attack by the nation's highest court. I have a wish that tribes embrace transparency in governance, openness with both tribal citizens and non-Indian governments. Truth is our most important and powerful ally and I strongly advocate that tribes look carefully at their image with the non-Indian public. How we are perceived by the public and elected officials and policy makers will define our future. We are increasingly being perceived not as nations and governments, with a stalwart and culturally rich past, but as businesses and corporations, purveyors of gambling and that is a dangerous trend. Openness in public relations is an arrow in our quiver, which we have not successfully used. We must sharpen it and aim it to where it does the most good. Make no mistake, I believe -- and I've been criticized for saying this -- but I firmly believe this: when push comes to shove, it's the voting public of this country that will determine the fate of Native Americans.

I'm in the autumn of my years now; my days in public office are over.* But I look over the audience today -- and speaking to others while I've been here at today's and tomorrow's leaders -- and I take great pride and comfort knowing that the future of Native America is in competent and capable hands. I will not chart your future; that's for you to decide. You must look to yourself, to your tribe, to your Creator and just as important, to your ancestors who have gone before you and communicate with them, through prayer or however ways you can do that. They are there and they're willing and they're able and they will listen to you. And in conclusion, never, never forget the blood of our ancestors have blessed the continents of North and South America. That blood runs in your veins right now as I speak. To not do the best that we can and are capable of would be an insult to the suffering and their pain that they had to endure. Fight as fiercely and as wise as you can and deliver Native America to the next generation. Thank you." 

* Anthony Pico was elected to another term as Chairman of the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay in December 2010.

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