Herminia Frias: Engaging the Nation's Citizens and Effecting Change

Native Nations Institute

Herminia Frias, former Chairwoman of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, discusses the citizen engagement challenges she encountered when she took office as an elected leader of her nation, and shares some effective strategies that she used to engage her constituents and mobilize their participation in and support for moving the nation forward.

Native Nations
Resource Type

Frias, Herminia. "Engaging the Nation's Citizens and Effecting Change." Emerging Leaders seminar. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. March 24, 2011. Presentation.

"Thank you, Cheryl, for your kind introduction. And like she said, my name is Herminia Frias, but most people know me as Minnie. And in fact, I ran for council at a younger age and I was elected to be on tribal council as the first woman, the first chairwoman and also the youngest chair of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe. Most of the community knew me as Minnie and most people know me as Minnie. And it was kind of funny because I had two kind of campaign slogans that I used to run for council. One of them that I used was I created an acronym LAW and I said, ‘LAW stands for Listen, Advocate and Work. That's what I'm going to do for you.' And then I did all my campaign information and everything around LAW and then wrote everything that I planned on doing, and it really was what I did for the whole time and believe me, people held me to that. ‘You said you were going to listen,' and it's very important to listen. But the other thing that I did is I did a little campaign slogan that said, ‘Don't be a weenie, vote for Minnie.' So I don't know which one got me elected. But either way, it was really an honor to serve the nation for as long as I did and I had a great opportunity to meet so many wonderful people and to really take what I had learned and to be able to help the nation move forward. But a lot of people knew me because I was a social butterfly. If there was issues going on in the community, I wanted to know about it. I was out there talking to everybody. So I was engaged in the community. If I didn't like something that was going on, I'd ask questions and I'd figure out how to get things done.

And I started my career working with the Pascua Yaqui Tribe as a social worker. So I really got to experience what was going on at the community level and some of the hardships and some of the poverty and some of the struggles that our community members were dealing with. And I realized that in order to solve these problems, it wasn't about being just the social worker and helping them to get by day by day, but it was really looking at it at a systems level and taking a step back and looking at our tribe, looking at our nation and thinking about what do we need to do as a nation to help our people move up. There's all these individuals that I was working with that suffered from serious mental disorders that were kind of lost and I was out there working that system for them. I knew every program within the tribe and outside of the tribe because I needed to find those resources for them. And I thought, ‘There's something here that has to be improved,' and that really inspired me to get into policy, to run for council, and to really pay attention to what's going on and to think about the community as a whole and how we move forward. It wasn't about me wanting to be chair. That wasn't even my intention. I just wanted to be on council so I could help. But it was really about how do I help the citizens of our community move forward? They've got a lot to say. And I didn't like people speaking on our behalf. I had gone to Washington on a few trips with my tribal council before I was on tribal council, and it just irked me to see our lawyers speaking on our behalf. I worked for a congressman, Congressman Tom Udall from New Mexico, and I would see lots of tribes from New Mexico come in and their attorneys did the speaking for them. So I made sure that when I was on council I was doing the talking. As the chairwoman of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, I was doing the talking. Sure, I'd have my attorney there for all the technical stuff, but you needed to tell me. I read so much and said, ‘Teach me what I need to know because I'm going to do the talking. This is why the people elected me.' And the same with the rest of the council members; we went up and we represented the tribe. It wasn't about someone else. But that's just a little bit about the Pascua Yaqui Tribe and my background and how I got involved in politics as a community member.

And one of the things that, for my tribe, we're a tribe of 14,000 and we're located here in Tucson, Arizona, the reservation. But just to give you a little bit more history is we're a federally recognized tribe, so we don't have a treaty with the United States. But we went through this whole federal recognition process. Before I was even born it started. So it was past leaders that started this federal recognition process and they knew that it was an important process, that it was important for us to be federally recognized. We were Indigenous people, we had our culture, we had our system, but we had all moved to all different parts of Arizona. So we had a group of people that kind of understood what was going on. We had another group of people that maybe understood it a little bit better. And then we had other people that really didn't know what was going on and we had all these different communities located throughout Arizona. And many of you are not from Arizona, but here in Tucson we had one community that said...we have three communities here in Tucson. The reservation, we have a community in...actually we have four communities. We have a community in South Tucson, which is a little pocket in Tucson, in the middle of Tucson. We have another community, Old Pascua, which is within Tucson and then we have another community in Marana, which is [north] of Tucson -- it got incorporated a few years back, Marana did. And we have a community up near Phoenix, our Guadalupe Community, and then we have another one in Scottsdale, our Penjamo Community.

Now all these communities had been established long before the reservation was established. So when we were going through our federal recognition process, they decided to give us a piece of land way on the southwest side of town and said, ‘Here, go ahead and start moving all your tribal members over there. This is going to be your land, so everybody start moving.' So the people who were actually going through the process of getting this done started going to all the communities and telling them, ‘Pack your stuff, we're moving to the reservation.' Sound familiar? And the problem was not just people telling you to move, but the fact that we had already had ceremony on that land; that was our community now, we had built a community there. And once people, your own people, started telling you, ‘Pack your stuff, we're moving to the reservation,' and not even understanding what a reservation was. ‘Are we going to be wards of the federal government? Can we leave the reservation? Are we going to be fenced in? Is there going to be barbed wire?' There were just so many unknowns and yet the communication isn't like it is today. We didn't have internet. Not everyone had phones. It was about traveling back and forth and letting people know this is what's going on. So there was a lot of resentment and people decided not to go and said, ‘You can have your reservation and go ahead and move, start your reservation over there. We're staying in our communities.' And they did. They stayed.

Now these are not formally recognized communities as far as the municipalities are concerned or the federal government, but these are communities that we recognize as a tribe. So what ended up happening, and I share this story because I share it as a way of a learning experience about what not to do or not how to do it and it's not necessarily because they had bad intentions, the intentions were good, it's just the process that they took was not the best. And what ended up happening was there was distrust. Not all that information was shared. ‘Who are they to tell us, I don't even know him. He's related to me I think, I don't know, but they're telling me to move.' That distrust, there was anger, resentment. Those are the feelings that we felt, but when you think about it now and you think about all of the different things when you talk to your communities as tribal leaders and you say, ‘Trust in the government.' What is that? Knock on the door, ‘I'm here from the government, I'm here to help.' Yeah, right. People develop apathy. You've heard this throughout the presentations in the past few days, like, ‘Nothing's ever going to change, things stay the same. They say they're going to do one thing and they don't.' And in our case it also created these fractionated communities because we had communities that stayed in their own place and initially were not recognized. But later, 10 years later when we actually wrote our constitution, which is far from perfect, at least one thing that is in there is the recognition of our traditional tribal communities. So as a result of that change and that force to move these were the types of feelings, emotions that our community felt and hopelessness. You hear that a lot but that...I'm not here to depress you. These are just the facts. This is what happened.

Now again I use that as an example of how things have happened and how not to do things [because] I've learned things the hard way, kind of hard knock, how not to do things because I did it and I said, ‘Ah, I should have done it a different way.' But like I said, I was very involved in the community and I learned that it is extremely important to involve your community. It is extremely important to involve your citizens because your citizens are the nation. We talk about governance, we talk about government's role, and a lot of times meeting with different people, different tribes, people begin to believe that the tribe is the government and it's not. The government is just a system set up to govern. It's not the nation. How can a tribal council govern if it has no people? The nation is the people and that often gets confused in a lot of nations, or a lot of people that feel, ‘Well, the government's not doing this, I just leave it to the government, I just...' They're not the nation. So it's very important to know that. And the people, the citizens must believe in what the vision of the tribe is, of that nation is. So it's important to engage them to have them understand, ‘This is where we're going, this is why we're going there. What is our vision so that we can all get there together?' If we all understood the vision back then about why we wanted to be federally recognized, it probably would have been a little bit easier process but we all didn't know. There was a vision, but we just didn't know what it was. You need the citizens, because they're going to be the ones to determine sustainability and success.

As a chair for a tribe and even as a social worker, what good are your programs and services if people aren't going to use them? If there is a really good program out there like a cultural preservation program that the people want, you want them to advocate for that in the next budget. You want them to keep that program going. If you don't have enough money to sustain that program, you want people to take the time to volunteer to be able to continue to have these programs. It's not just about having the government give you everything and provide for you, but it really is going back to that sense of civic responsibility, your sense to your tribe. Not the government, not that leadership, but to your nation, what your responsibility is to each other. And then what I learned too is that -- I was young when I became chair, I was 31 -- is that perspective. I didn't have nearly the experience that many of the former tribal chairs that I served with had. They were there in 1960; I wasn't. They were there working on the cause for years and years and years before I even entered kindergarten. So it was so important for me to talk to them and to engage them. Not just the former leadership but the people in the past. There are so many beautiful stories that I heard in my life by just talking to some of the elders and listening to them and just thinking, ‘Wow! It is amazing.' And not just the leaders, but even in my work as social work to listen to those stories of the challenges that people had and to see how they have lived their lives and worked very hard. It's inspiring. And those were the kinds of stories that kept me going and kept me thinking. Hearing about people who have had...we've heard some of the tribes talk about suicide. That is a very painful and heart-wrenching experience for a family and a community as a whole, but to see the resilience is really inspiring. And those are the kinds of stories that kept me going and that's why it was so important for me to listen to what other people were talking about, to listen to other people's experiences because I hadn't experienced all that stuff. I had my own stories to share, but they weren't the same. I can only speak from my perspective. It was so important to hear from other people so that we can move the tribe, our nation forward.

And another reason it's important to get your citizens involved is to build that mutual relationship. I kind of hit on that a little bit earlier that it's not about your expectations of your tribe but your expectations to your nation, to your own citizens, to each other as a family. We talked a little bit earlier about conflict of interest and about familial relationships. Well, that goes far but it goes even further when you talk about ceremonial relationships. We had a judge that had to, she had to, she couldn't hear any cases because it wasn't that she was related to everybody in the tribe but she was ceremonially. So these are things that go beyond that you are a big family and as a family there are so many opportunities to help each other move up. But it's important to get the citizens engaged so you have that mutual relationships that it's not just, ‘You do this and you do that,' but we both do it and we all move forward. And it also helps with that reduced entitlement and give-me attitude when you have that mutual expectation.

When I used to get community members, I had this one elder, he was 90 years old and he was running for council but he was all full of energy, he still is. And I remember he was running for tribal council and somebody in his 30s came up to him and said, ‘What are you going to do for me? What are you going to do for me when you run for council?' And he says, ‘Well, what do you want?' And he's like, ‘Well, do you have kids?' He says, ‘Yeah.' ‘Well, what do you want?' ‘Well, I want to go to school and I want to do this and I want to do that.' And he says, ‘Well, then why don't you?' And he's like, ‘Well, aren't you going to help me?' He says, ‘Well, I'll tell you right now you missed the bus.' And that guy was like, ‘What?' ‘You missed the bus. You need to start doing these things right now. You have a family you have to raise. It's not just about you anymore. Now not only do you have to help yourself, now you've got to raise your family. You missed the bus.' So we started telling that to all these young kids, ‘Don't miss the bus. You don't want to be older and start asking for tribal council for all this stuff. Get on that bus and do what you need to do to get it together the first time around while you still can. And then help the rest of your nation move forward.' But it's really about reducing that entitlement and that give-me attitude. And at first I had ‘eliminate' but I didn't put that because ‘eliminate' is extreme; it's really about progress. We want to get it down and eventually eliminate it, but it doesn't happen overnight and it's attitude change. But at least we can start chipping away at it and start reducing it until it doesn't even exist.

So some of the...how do you do this? How do you engage your community? The toughest thing is to earn that trust back. That is tough. Because like I said, you go knocking on the door, ‘I'm here from the government, I'm here to help,' you've got to show them that you're there. You've got to prove that as a leader, you're there to help your community members, your citizens be productive, be proactive, be engaged. The citizens need to have respect for the government and at least believe that the government is legitimate. It's not this, what Rob Williams was talking about yesterday, kangaroo [court] city. It's not a joke, it's not a Mickey Mouse tribal council, it's not ‘just forget about it, I'm not even going to bother asking for anything [because] I'm not related to an important person, my family's not on the council, I'm on the blacklist.' It's really about fairness, equity and not who's who. And it happens everywhere, but as a nation, as your own nation, there's so many opportunities to build it the way you want to build it, not the way it's been built necessarily, but the way that really reflects who you are as a nation, who you are; matches your culture, what's important to you, your values, your tradition. It's an awesome opportunity. And that was one of the things that really excited me about when I was on tribal council. I was like, ‘Wow! Where do you get this kind of opportunity?' Even though it was hard and I took a lot of hits, it was still, ‘Wow! What an opportunity!' I wasn't always this happy. Sometimes I'd be like, "Uh! What a challenge.' But, when you really take the time to look back it's just like, ‘Wow! When do you get an opportunity or a chance to look at your nation and say how do we do this better. How do we create a thriving nation? A thriving nation, not just let's get to tomorrow, but let's get to tomorrow and think about the future. How do we get there?'

So some of the strategies about...some of the strategies to do this and to get your community engaged, there are many, and I'm sure and in a minute we'll share some of those that you may have done, but some of the strategies that I put together is really about transparency within your government, sharing with the people what is going on. Yesterday we talked about one of the tribes that published their budget. I did that at an employee meeting before we passed the budget, put it on a big PowerPoint, ‘This is where all our money's going. These are perpetual funds. This is how much your program costs. This is this and that. These are our capital projects that we have for the next five years.' And people were shocked. ‘Wait, what are you doing?' And I had a council member tell me, ‘Be careful what information you give them because they're going to expect more.' It did make my job tougher and they said, ‘Benevolent dictatorship, that's what it is, benevolent dictator. It's for their own good, just as long as you know you're doing the right thing.' Sure benevolent dictatorship is a whole lot easier, but it doesn't mean it's right. It sure made my job a lot tougher, but I knew that I had to do my homework and I had to be up to par when it came to that budget. I had to know where everything was going.

But I shared that and I also shared our plans. When we had a big project coming up like, for example, there's a big hotel going up, it was important to share that with the community and let them know what the economic impact was going to be of that hotel, let them know that if it's going to have an impact on government services, how much that loan is going to be, how long we're going to pay for that loan. Let them know what the return on investment is going to be in the long run. And also, I always saw it as, if we're going to invest in economic development, we've also got to invest in the community and education. It's really about a balance. You can't just put all your eggs in one basket but you've got to...people want to see something, too. They can't just say, ‘Well, we got a really nice casino and an awesome hotel but I'm still part of the crappy school system. I'm not getting what I need for me in the future.' So it's got to be that balance. You've got to think about how you're going to help your nation as a whole and not just think about it as one way. Really, you've got to think about it in the bigger picture. But there's opportunities for you to share this information and also opportunities for you to engage the community by having committees, having boards, advisory boards For my tribal council when I was there that was very tough to do, very tough because as Steve [Cornell] was talking about earlier a lot of the thought was, ‘We're the tribal council, we're supposed to do everything.' But I thought, ‘Wow, there's so many other people that are not politicians that could do a much better job on an education board or a cultural committee or a youth council or advising on healthcare or social services or substance...' There are so many opportunities you can look at within your community to develop these types of advisory boards, committees, councils. It doesn't all have to be tribal council. There is more opportunities for the rest of the community to get involved. Also improve communication, share information that's going on, publish your tribal council minutes in the newspaper, share on the radio if you have a radio station. If you don't, work on maybe establishing one or using the internet. It just depends on the type of environment that you're in. You may be able to use this, you may not, but these are just some things to think about. And you may not be able to use it today but you may be able to use it in the future.

Another thing that we've seen a lot and we did within our school on the reservation is incorporate the nation's history in the education curriculum. Have them teach tribal history not only to the students but also to your employees so they understand what their role is, so they have pride every day when they go to work and say, in our case, 'I work for the Pascua Yaqui Tribe.' I used to meet with my employees once a month, last Friday of the month with all of the employees and just give them a ‘this is what we're doing,' and always thank them -- tribal member or non-tribal member -- for the work that they did for our nation and always try to help them understand that the work they were doing was important. You have opportunities to help these non-tribal members or even tribal members that maybe don't know that much about their own history by sharing that with them, in orientation. We'd have an orientation. It was only...ours was short, it was only about two hours, but some tribes have ongoing orientations, classes, certificates, that people who work for the tribe have to pass. That's not a bad idea. That's pretty neat. Wish we would have done something like that. It doesn't mean we can't. But these are just ideas of what you can do and also with the students -- identify and create civil responsibilities. What is your role in the community as a citizen?

When I was working for a non-profit I was working with a lot of youth who...it was a substance abuse, HIV/AIDS prevention program but one of the things that we made sure that the youth did -- they got counseling and services and field trips and stuff like that -- but one of the important things that we did is we engaged them in the community. Service learning, we called it. They had to volunteer. We'd take them to these fairs [and] they were the ones giving out the questionnaires, they were the ones doing all the stuff and they really took ownership of that program. They were our...they could target that audience better than I could as a peer, as a young 13-14 year old, they could go talk to somebody about substance abuse, about HIV/AIDS where...at first I thought, ‘I wonder if these kids are going to want to do it.' And they did it, they loved it, they wanted to be involved. And these are young people. You can do that within your community.

We talked about the roles of tribal council, the role of government, the role of everybody else's role but what about your role, your responsibility to your tribe? And there are ways too to incorporate that into policy, into your constitution. It's not just as part of your enrollment, it's not just about blood quantum, lineal descent, who you are, but what are your responsibilities? And we see that a lot. In my tribe we see that a lot. ‘Well, these people just moved into the reservation, they don't even know what being Yaqui is.' Well, teach them. It's not just about moving on the reservation and getting on the top of the housing list, it's about sharing your culture, your history with each other and feeling [Yaqui language] in our case. So there are ways to do that is to identify ways that you can create that. Having a cultural committee or a council of elders, a steering committee that'll help you create that, incorporate it into an ordinance, a constitution, whatever fits your community or just these are the principles, this is what you'll do.

So how do you ensure an engaged citizenry? Well, it's a process and it is a trust issue, but if you have some of these, some of the infrastructure there, the communication, it boils down to transparency about what you're doing. We heard Chairwoman [Rebecca] Miles yesterday talk about what you do behind closed doors. There are a lot of stuff that's confidential, but you have to explain that to the community so they know why. They have to understand why, otherwise it's just going to be that question mark, ‘Why do they always do that?' But communication is so important and it's so important for you to keep that level of trust. Not everybody's going to trust you, don't get me wrong. I'm not Pollyanna. I know how it works. But it's about getting there. And I think that's my last slide which is my conclusion is about progress. It takes time. Things don't happen overnight. One step, two steps back, a giant leap, a tumble and a fall, but as long as you pick yourself up and you continue to have that vision. And the tribal council can't have that vision without the buy-in from the community. They're the ones that are going to move it forward. When you hear about these stories that you've heard about, one tribal council starts something, another council removes it and starts it all over again or just quashes it, somebody else...If the community had really, there was an opportunity for the community to say, ‘No, you're going to keep that project because it's important to us,' then maybe all of that flip flop wouldn't happen as much. So you need to think about progress as a process, as a long-term process. And believe me, that was a reality [check] because there were so many things that I wanted to get done. People said, ‘Slow down, slow down.' And then I had to realize, ‘Yeah, you know what, I've got to take the time to share what the vision is and to show them the steps of how we're going to get there, because right now I'm just showing them the end-all product, but I'm not really being honest with them by telling them that it's going to require a little bit of sacrifice here, a little blood and sweat and tears here.' You have to share that with the community. It was amazing though once you did start sharing this that people started saying, ‘Wow, nobody ever told me that. If they would have told me that it would have been alright.' But it's a good thing I didn't follow that council member's advice. It did make my job harder by sharing more information, but I'm not on council anymore but a lot of people still ask me, ‘How does the system work, who do I need to talk to, how do I get this done?,' and I have no problem sharing that with them, ‘This is what you need to do, this is who you need to talk to,' because to me it's our tribe.

So just remember progress takes time and as leaders I know that you get inundated with what they call these social ills, ‘I've got to take care of this problem right away, I've got to do this,' but it's so important to think about the long term, the future, and to use your citizens to help the tribe move forward. Really, there's so many opportunities for them to be involved -- I just named a few -- but there's so many opportunities for them to become involved that'll help the nation and they'll be a part of it, a part of the success."

Related Resources


Patricia Riggs, Director of Economic Development for Ysleta del Sur Pueblo (YDSP), discusses how YDSP has spent the past decade developing and fine-tuning its comprehensive approach to engaging its citizens in order to identify and then achieve its nation-building priorities. This video resource is…


Jim Gray, former Principal Chief of the Osage Nation, provides an overview of how the Osage Nation completely overhauled its constitution and system of governance, sharing the strategies that Osage used to educate and engage its citizens in order to ensure that their new government reflected the…


"We do have pride in ourselves." Miawpukek citizens talk about the importance of engaging citizens to overcome challenges and build a strong community.