Deron Marquez: What I Wish I Knew Before I Took Office

Native Nations Institute

Former San Manuel Band of Mission Indians Chairman Deron Marquez reflects on his experience as the chief executive of his nation, from his unexpected return to the reservation to building a sustainable economy essentially from scratch.

Resource Type

Marquez, Deron. "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, 2009. Presentation.

"Should I stand up now, take a...thank you, thank you. [Because] as a tribal leader, or in this case former, we never got applauses. We always got yelled at, screamed at, told how we're doing everything wrong, so every applause I get I take and go, 'Thank you.' [Because] you didn't know my council. When I was first asked to present here today I jokingly sent back to, I can't remember who it was now, a while ago, the question was, ‘What I wish I knew before taking office,' and I said, 'Tylenol, and how many Tylenols I can take at one time.' Because before I realized what I was getting myself into, it was...Tylenol became my best friend right behind tequila. I think for many of you here are from California? One. Two. Three. Oh, okay, good. Four. Well, California is unique in their situation because its reservations are quite different, as we heard this morning about other reservations being discussed with these very large populations and very large land bases. My tribe, which was established in 1891 by executive order, is a very, very small tribe with roughly 641 acres, roughly one square mile, situated on the side of a hill with about 20 acres of useable land. So we don't have a lot of land to use. It always represents a unique situation when it comes to economic development for our people. With that being said, I was asked to talk about when I first came into the office. What was my expectations, what was it like, what was I doing?

Ironically enough, I came into office in 1999. And at the time I had just returned from a little short stint in Washington, D.C. as part of the Udall group. And so I had my internship in D.C. I returned back from D.C. My family just moved down from San Francisco where I was doing some graduate work. And I was actually sitting in my Ph.D. program, in one of my classes, when my phone started ringing. Now I have two younger kids. So my first thought was something's wrong with my children. So I pick up the phone and it's my mom who just told me that our chair and vice chair just resigned and they're wondering if I would be interested in finishing out the term, which would end in March 2000. Well, to me that was very interesting. And I say that because for myself, I was 29 years old at that time and I never ever lived on the reservation. I used to work there for about a year. In fact, when I left Arizona and went back home for a year because they asked me to come back to work, it got so political that my wife and I left. And probably true and you've heard these stories before, returning back home with an education was I thought a good thing, but at every step of the way my education kept getting thrown in my face. So I basically said, ‘The hell with this,' packed up my family and we left to San Francisco. I went to grad school.

And so now when I come back home, out of the blue, there's this request from a group within the tribe who wants to know if I'll be willing to run for the highest office we have. So it was very confusing to me at that time, I said, my mother, in 1965 or around there, left the reservation as well. And she didn't return back to the reservation for 30 some years. And she did this on purpose [because] she wanted myself and my two brothers to grow up off the reservation and not grow up on the reservation. People always said, ‘You're lucky not to grow up on the reservation.' I don't know; I grew up in Fontana. For those of you here from Fontana, go watch an old episode of COPS and you'll see Cherry Boulevard and Valley. And about a block-and-a-half away is where I grew up. And so it wasn't that much better. But for my mother, her desire was to have us grow up off the reservation and so we did. And so when this request came in, I was just really confused why they would be asking me, as I just said, who didn't grow up on the reservation, who always had my education basically thrown in my face [because] that's just kind of how it was then.

And so I went home to my wife and I asked and pondered what she thought and what we thought. And my mom obviously raised us with the expectations of never to get involved in tribal politics, find myself being asked to do what we were told never to do. And so for me, what it boiled down's a group of people, regardless of how they treated me and how they thought I was or was not, a portion of them were asking me to fulfill something. And so I turned to my wife and I said, ‘How do you tell your community no? How do you stand there, in good conscience, tell four, five, six people, whomever it may be, ‘No, I don't want to do this?' So I decided to do it. And at that time, I thought it was just going to be until March 2000 and I could go back to my Ph.D. studies and be on my way on that track.

Six-and-a-half years later, I finally returned to my Ph.D. program. I took six-and-a-half years of my life and developed, I believe, a very solid core government practice, economic development practice, and an infrastructure that our tribe has never seen before. When I took office in October of '99, we had seven people working in our tribal government. It was funny [because] when I first arrived on that Monday morning after the elections to introduce myself to my staff, whom I've never met and who have never seen me, I walk into the tribal office -- at that time it was a HUD [Department of Housing and Urban Development] house, it was just a HUD house converted into an office building -- and the very nice lady working as the receptionist; I walk in and she says, ‘May I help you?' I said, ‘Well, I'm here to start work.' And she thought I was a grant writer. So it was interesting enough that it was a nice introduction by way of, ‘No, I am now your boss. Nice to meet you.' The good news was there was only seven people to meet. So it didn't take very long to get my feet wet about who was doing what.

I think what was interesting, when I first went into the office -- and getting back to what I wish I would have known before I started -- was the budget process. The first thing I did as a chair was to freeze all spending because there was no budget. And I could not figure out for the life of me how can you have an operation with no budget? Well, there was a ledger with handwriting about what was being spent where, but there was no set amount. And it was basically free game for those who wanted to spend money. And I also should say that we have a gaming operation, at that time, which opened up back in 1985 -- bingo parlor, some slot machines. They too didn't have a budget, which I found very interesting. Now, when I took over and I froze those budgets, I did make a lot of people very upset because this was a new way of doing business. And they felt that I was stepping on their toes.

I think one of the things that I first realized very early in my days as a chair, is that...I obviously gained the support of my community, who elected me and again who didn't really know me but they still trusted enough in me to put me in office. And now there's a difference between being the elected leader and becoming the leader. And I had to basically encounter the established; I call it the established regime because they've been there since day one. They've actually been on the reservation a lot longer than I've been on the reservation. And so now I had to turn my attention into courting these individuals to start to believe what we were doing was the right thing to do. And what we were doing was putting in a system, a system of a formal process by which things were moved through. And as we all know with anything new comes resistance.

And so when this started to go into practice, the first reaction that a lot of these upper management individuals had from the casino operation was to run to their tribal friends, who then would come to council and start to maneuver with the council about how to get around, for example, creating budgets. Well, I didn't realize at that time how strong these ties were. And one of the first things we did after that was implement a handbook by which we sought to end or at least quash some of the interactions between the community and the employees, which didn't go over very well, but nonetheless it started to change the culture for our community. And it allowed the alliance between employee and tribal citizens to start to come more in line with the tribal community. And interesting enough, they being the directors as well as the general council themselves, started to realize and believe that a system in place is a good thing to have. And once we were able to change this culture and put into practice a system of operation, we started to see things happen.

Now in California we had this big series of gaming initiatives and battles that took place. And once we got through with those initiatives and the ability to operate, one of the first goals of my office was to move away from gaming as fast as possible. We always talk about seven generations. We talked about two generations. Our goal was to get away from gaming in the next 20 years [because] that's when our compact came up and we always believed gaming was only a fad; it's not going to be here forever. And so we started to develop economically. Now the talk this morning was about economic development. For our reservation, given the fact that we have no land, the majority of our economic activities is off reservation. One of them happens to be with the Oneida of Wisconsin and a hotel in D.C. We have hotels in Sacramento, office buildings in D.C. and in southern California. So we had no choice to move this forward, but we had no mechanism to do that, so we had to create a system by which these things can be vetted through and that meant development: hiring development people, hiring lawyers. And as we started to look at the bills through our budget process, we started to realize we're spending a lot of money on consultants. And the more we started bringing the operations in-house the faster, the better and the more crisp these policies began to form. And the community started to buy in, mostly because this wasn't a lawyer sitting in Boston or L.A. or New York; this was a lawyer sitting in our community center who is able to get yelled at just as we are able to get yelled at by the members of our community.

Long story short -- [because] I know my time's short here -- when I took office there was seven individuals working in the tribal government side; when I left my office, there were over 500 people working on the government side. And this is only because, when I came into office, public safety, our security force -- we're a Public Law 280 state so we can't have a police force -- was under the umbrella of the casino, which made no sense to me whatsoever. So we took that over. Human Resource was under the umbrella of the casino and we took that over. In fact, at one time we had five different handbooks under our government operation. And it was schizophrenic about how and what and who -- what book do you follow? So when we started to basically get these things in line with the tribal community, the tribal culture -- and once we got the tribe to buy in and see that this is going to work -- again, the community got to witness this explosion of growth.

Now one of the things that was asked about, ‘If there was something I could have done different what would that have been?' And for me, looking back at what took place, I wish we would have done things slower [because] we did explode. We did a lot of things very, very fast. And with success becomes responsibility, or comes responsibility, I should say. And unfortunately, you guys are familiar with per capita, right? I've been known to say, if you want to see the quickest death of your community, start the per capita system because nothing goes downhill faster than the per capita disbursements. Once these individuals get these monies, what do they have to work for now? It's amazing and I can share these numbers with you because they've been in newspapers. And if you haven't followed it, here is the things I could have and would have and wish I did change, was not allowing per capita to take place at the rate it did. We have now a monthly per capita payment of $100,000. You wake up every morning and you receive these funds for absolutely nothing and it drives me absolutely crazy. And I say this because, if you haven't been following the newspapers in California, if you look at what's taking place on my reservation, it's a huge problem. It's because of these monies we have individuals who are heavily involved in gang activity. Whenever you have the ATF [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobbaco and Firearms], the sheriff's department, and the FBI roll onto your reservation with tanks and raid homes and council sits back -- I'm no longer in office -- and they sit back and they say, ‘Boy, that's just two individuals. There's nothing wrong.' That's, in my opinion, a very sad statement to make.

In fact I'll share a quick story with you. The last council meeting I attended over a year ago now, I asked the question -- so we're talking about disenrollment -- I wanted these members disenrolled. I wanted them out of our reservation, off the reservation, away from our community. In fact, they should have been in jail, but they're not. They plea bargained. I think the tribe's influence was very helpful when it came down to these plea bargains. And I asked the question of one of our elected officials, I said, ‘If somebody walked into this room and started shooting people around this table,' which was our council table, ‘you're saying to me that they should not be disenrolled?' And her words back to me were, ‘Yes.' And so when you have a failure of leadership, in my opinion, as I told my mother, ‘That's no longer my community.' Now I never grew up there, I don't live there; my kids don't go there now. And so with leadership you have to be responsible for what you do. And I think in time, when this new leadership's in place and they are actively not seeking to remedy these situations, and not go out and capture these kids from our community before the gangs capture these kids from our community, that's a huge problem. And it's something that leadership needs to tackle.

Now, in closing I was asked, ‘If there was something I could share with potential leaders, what would I share?' And I think it's kind of what we already heard this morning. As a leader, you have to be a good listener; and as a listener, you have to be a good follower. Being the chair doesn't make you right. As much as we would like it to make us right, it does not make us right. And once I was able to get the buy-in from our employees who -- once they understood they can come to me and share with me, challenge me, tell me 'no,' and then from that process a superior product emerges -- that is something that I think really helped our tribe explode into something that it is today. Unfortunately, it was too much too fast and I wish I could change that, but that's neither here nor there. And my time is limited and I think I'll go ahead and leave it right there."

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