Patricia Riggs: Making Change Happen at Ysleta del Sur Pueblo

Bush Foundation and the Native Nations Institute

Patricia Riggs, Director of Economic Development at Ysleta del Sur Pueblo (YDSP), discusses how YDSP has developed and honed a comprehensive, multi-faceted approach to ciutizen engagement over the past decade in order to ensure that the decisions the YDSP government make reflect and enact the will of YDSP citizens.

This video resource is featured on the Indigenous Governance Database with the permission of the Bush Foundation.

Native Nations
Resource Type

Riggs, Patricia. "Making Change Happen at Ysleta del Sur Pueblo." Bush Foundation and the Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. St. Paul, Minnesota. February 6, 2014. Presentation.

Ian Record:

“So without further ado, I want to introduce Patricia Riggs. As I mentioned earlier, Patricia is the Director of Economic Development for Ysleta del Sur Pueblo in El Paso, Texas. We’ve worked with Ysleta del Sur for a number of years sort of off and on and we’re often asked to come and teach, do executive education with some of their leadership or program managers and so forth, and what we often find is that we end up learning a heck of a lot more from them than we actually teach them. We consider them one of the breakaway tribes that are really enacting these nation-building principles we’ve talked about and doing it in very culturally distinct ways. Patricia is going to talk about actually making change happen, how did they actually make change happen because they were faced with a crisis about 12, 13 years ago now, 2002, that threatened to really derail the nation and how did they come from that point where, listening to you guys talk, where a lot of your nations are, the struggles that you’re having and how do you actually begin to go down that nation-building road. So without further ado, Patricia Riggs. Thank you very much, Patricia, for joining us and enduring the cold weather.”

Patricia Riggs:

“Thank you very much. I’m really glad to be here. I know I emailed Ian yesterday and asked if it was still on because it was one degrees, and to me that’s like really a catastrophe because we don’t get that kind of weather. So I guess to you it’s pretty normal. I’m here and I’m really happy to be here and I want to share with you some of the things that we’ve done at Ysleta del Sur Pueblo. We’ve actually done quite a bit of work over the last 10 years and I know and I feel how you’re struggling to get everybody involved in what you’re doing. So I’m glad to share the practices of the programs, as well as the strategic plans and how we implemented them at Ysleta del Sur Pueblo.

One of the things that we really truly believe in is citizen engagement and we do it as a comprehensive approach. So we get everybody involved in whatever program or project that we’re working on and at first it was really, really difficult. We really didn’t have a plan, we didn’t have a structure and we just kind of figured it out as we went along, but what we’re doing now is we’re looking back and kind of evaluating our successes and coming up with a model, not just for ourselves, but to share it with other tribes as well, and also teaching that model within our own community to the different programs so that they can follow it.

So as far as community engagement is concerned, we really believe that all our tribal members have to be involved in the planning and decision-making, and especially when it comes to a particular issue. If it’s something that could be life changing for the tribe or has just significant meaning, we make sure that we get that input from our tribal community. And then the other thing is…one of the things is we really try to make sure that it’s not just one group or one person kind of setting the agenda for what we’re trying to change because that involvement from the community is necessary in order to get the buy in for the project. And then also just listening and respecting the community and leadership and elders, all your people that are going to help support this program. So at the end, you get all that feedback that you got for the community and that’s the tool that you use in order to make an informed decision.

So as we worked over the years with the community and we came up with different plans and program models -- as I said earlier -- we looked back and kind of started to look at what we actually did and at first we used things that were like theories and models and things that were developed by academia and what we realized is that all the time we had to tweak them. We were constantly tweaking them to make them meet our needs. So what we determined is really this is what our comprehensive model is at Ysleta del Sur Pueblo.

First you have to have a purpose and a passion. So we all know our purpose as leaders in our tribe, that we’re there to preserve and to do things for our community so that we can build stronger communities but…and so we all have passion for that, but we also have to break down that purpose into more detailed objective so that we can have a plan for what we’re doing. So we also harvest ideas and input from the community and along the way we have to find those core champions. There’s the people that will help you in the community to get things done and then…

So what you’re doing now with this action plan is you’re visualizing and assessing your community and then you’re going to plan. So you also have to measure the outcomes and impacts and at the end you have to have the data that something changed or that something was improved and you have to report the results. And I have ‘report the results’ at the end, but it actually takes place all the way through.

So this is that same model with a little more background to it. So for us the things as far as purpose and passion, includes really looking at what the Pueblo needs are. So our needs are always about our values and our culture and traditions and governance, but then you also break down those things into the other things that are necessary to survive today. So the purpose or the passion for your particular project could be health, education or in my case economic development.

So in regards to harvest ideas and input, what we really found as we kind of worked with the community is that it really is honoring the people. In the work that we do, we need to honor the people and that’s why we need that community engagement because they have something to say and they also sometimes don’t articulate it in the same way that we do because we’re professionals and we’re trained, but they have input that sometimes you’ve just got to bring out from them. And then also we talk about things like historical trauma and just everything that we have to do to survive as a community. So sometimes it’s really hard to get the ideas and input and get community engaged because they have their own things that they’re dealing with. So we have to find different ways to bring it out.

So one of the things that we do is we always talk about community values and figure out how we’re going to instill those values in the projects that we’re working on. So when you’re working with the community, you’ve got to earn that trust. You’ve got to demonstrate to them that what you’re doing is for the benefit of the entire community. So in order to earn that trust, you’ve really got to listen. When we first started listening, we started listening by doing like small advisory groups and focus groups and as time went on, we found that more and more people wanted to communicate what they felt about what we were doing.

So we started doing surveys and…which is not really a traditional way of getting information, but we made sure that the surveys really had questions in them that people cared about and that were going to benefit out community in the long term. And much to our astonishment, people were answering the surveys and we had these open-ended questions where people were just putting these really profound statements that we couldn’t have said any better. And as we started collecting the information, we found like maybe…we found trends and if it was about rebuilding or re-establishing maybe like old pueblo [style] homes, we kept finding those…people had the same concerns. So we were able to report that out and find consensus in that. And then the other thing is we never said who said what, but we put statements and actual quotes and people began to become proud of their quotes actually being in our reports.

We had a lot of community meetings and we did a lot of study, but we always have to report it out, always. So then what we found is we…you have to have those core champions in your community. You have elders and traditional people and opinion leaders. When you have your advisory groups, you get the people that have a lot of influence in different clans or different parts of the community and we brought them along. We also looked at the different partners, youth, as well as employees, and programs. One of the things that I do want to say about using employees is sometimes when we use employees we don’t realize that we saying, ‘Oh, they’re all tribal so that’s our community.’ But what we don’t realize is the employees are usually the ones that are better off and have bigger incomes and have less need than the people that are really out there in the community. So you’ve really got to be careful to make sure that your groups are really truly diversified.

And so what we’re doing right now, we’re creating these action plans. So we’re visualizing what we want to do, and assessing what our community needs are, in order to make that plan. But really what I call it is a shared dream. We have a shared dream to sustain our cultures and our communities both traditionally and economically and unfortunately nowadays we really have to have an economic foundation in order to save our culture and our languages and our traditions and our ceremonies. So we getting the input from communities, we’re able to visualize and to have that statement and create those goals and mission and vision statements.

Of course you set the goals and do all the traditional things that you do in strategic planning here, and so then we measure our outcomes and impacts and that really is about collective success. We’re a community who all have to have some sort of collective success in order to continue to live as a community. But we do those things like, for example, we teach nation building and we do the pre/post tests and we make sure that we increase the knowledge. If we do financial literacy, we make sure that people are actually saving money and that they’re creating bank accounts. And if we do…we have a VITA [Volunteer Income Tax Assistance] program. So we…but you report all those things out to the community and then you report the results.

We have all kinds of ways that we report the results. We have newsletters, we do community, what we call juntas, which is where the community is informed of certain things both business and traditional doings, but it’s a place where the community has a voice and so we also present whatever it is we’re going to…any big project that we’re going to start working on, we present it there. And we have a really good website also.

This presentation has kind of evolved over time and at first we were just doing the presentation maybe to council and the community and we…parts of the presentation we were doing to…presenting to youth council, but now we’re finding that more and more as we build more programs that are more sophisticated that you have to bring consultants in. And a lot of times, our tribal members don’t have certain expertise, so you have to bring those other people in to help you with your programs.

So these four…the 'Five Rs for Tigua' is what we’re calling them is we’re really advocating that people have a job to do and that they need to do it correctly and that they need to consider the community. Note that whatever you’re working on, you’re representing the entire Tigua community and the Tigua people. You have a responsibility to teach, protect, speak up for, ask, inquire, develop trust and stand up for the community. You have to reach out to the community and you have to teach, educate. Sometimes we go back and forth, it might take a year or two to actually get just the vision for one program. But you have to make sure that it is what the community needs. And then research, and this is mostly for researchers coming into the community, but even us as tribal employees, we have the responsibility to know that there’s cultural issues in research and that culture does matter and that whatever research and data that we collect that we have a responsibility to protect and then of course report the findings.

So I’m not going to go through all of these, but I’m sure you heard them every day in your work. I heard some people talking about negativity and how it is…how hard it is just to get past that, but the fact of the matter is that it’s just actually always going to be there and that you, as hard as it is, we have to find ways to tell people that that’s not actually true because some of these things that are being said are actually misconceptions or aren’t really true because…there are times that I’ve been sitting at the table and we’re discussing how we’re going to develop this new program or change something and people are saying things like, ‘Ah, what does it matter? Nobody cares. Tiguas aren’t going to listen. Tiguas don’t want to learn,’ and just some really negative statements where I think if I was somebody else, I would jump over the table and just kind of slap them upside the head, but you can’t do that, you’re working for the community.

One of the other things is that I know that we all have problems with our council, but sometimes we also use that as an excuse to not move forward. It’s easier just to blame everybody else than to look at our own programs and look at what we’re doing and to determine if there’s ways that we can change things to do better outreach and to educate people and to take more time to explain how things can be changed or things can be better. Believe me, I’ve gone through all kinds of just things with a terrible council, I don’t want to get into it, but there are days that they support me and there are days that they don’t support me at all. So I just have to figure out how to get through it and just keep moving. Otherwise I might as well just throw in the towel.

Does everyone think that sustainable development is a really difficult concept to teach? How do you build better economies? It seems really complex, right? But in reality we’ve been doing it forever. This is sustainable development -- finding ways to use your resources in a way that is best for your community.

This is Taos Pueblo, which somebody just mentioned today, but this community has been there for hundreds and hundreds of years and it’s still there and it’s still being maintained and people are still living there.

This is Ysleta del Sur Pueblo in 1880. Unfortunately, it’s no longer there in that way. What happened is in about 1880 the county decided that they wanted to extend a highway. So they held condemnation proceedings against the tribe and they tore it down and they put the highway right through there. So now actually to go through our ceremonies, we have to go across a busy highway and they have to stop traffic, tribal police stops traffic for us to go into procession to go into our traditional ceremonial places. But we’re still sustaining ourselves and we’re still sustaining our culture and despite all this adversity we’re still doing what we need to do to continue our ceremonies.

So I just can’t imagine what the people felt when the entire Pueblo was being torn down and the kind of adversity that they faced in order to continue our traditions. So we have a lot of adversity in front of us, but there’s been that adversity all the time, and it’s people like us, and it’s people like you that are going to get our people through it. So I’m just saying don’t give up because we’re still here and no matter how much…I’ve gone to bed crying. I never do it in front of community. I’m always like, ‘Suck it up, Pat.’ But I know how it feels to be working so hard for your community and just not feeling like you’re not getting to where you want to be.

I just feel like everything that we’re doing is a test. So we have these big things to do that are a test for our community and it’s a test that other people have already been through and it’s our turn to pass that test. So there’s different ways that we need to do it and one of the things that we do at Ysleta del Sur Pueblo is we’re always finding ways to educate the community and to empower the community. So as Ian said, we have all these different seminars, but we’re also now able to put these presentations on ourselves. So we’ve been learning everything that people like Native Nations Institute has showed us, as well as Harvard Project or NCAI, and we’ve tailored just about everything we’ve learned to fit into our community.

The other thing is we go to conferences and we have the opportunity to go to training and get certifications, but our people don’t. So somehow we need to bring those things back and make sure that we teach it in a way that they can understand also. Right now you all are developing programs and your action plans. These are our views of how we see what we need to do to reach our community. Like economic development for example, we want sustainable self-determination. Land use, we do land use also. We have to bring housing, roads and water. And we have social and health concerns, we have cancer, diabetes, and child abuse just like any other Native community. And then we also have education programs and we want to get them from pre-K to get them college bound, and actually become college graduates. And then we have cultural programs as well.

But there are ways that we view it and all those technical aspects of the programs that we’re developing, but you really have to sit back and think about what the community thinks because they’re viewing it different. They have the…a lot of it is not as complex to them and also about what it means to them personally and traditionally and culturally. So we have to find ways to make our programs culturally relevant and change those messages to get it out there to the community. Just keep in mind that they have a completely different view potentially than you do. At the end it might be the same, but how to make sure that you’re on the same page is you…it takes a lot of effort.

In order to harvest these ideas and input, we also have to address the longstanding concerns such as land loss, historical trauma and discrimination. Some of our people or our kids don’t even know that our…their great-grandparents went to boarding school. We have really nice housing and a really nice community, but these…all this housing and new infrastructure is new. All these other things such as historical trauma and…it didn’t go away. You can’t put somebody in a new house and it all of a sudden disappears. So we really try to discuss these things and talk about it even to the youth.

We also honor Indigenous knowledge and make sure in everything that we do we get those expertise from the community to incorporate Indigenous knowledge into what we’re doing. And then just realize…I know that…I think I heard somebody talk about how everybody has different views. So in Native communities, we all don’t think the same so we need to make sure that we get the different views from different community members and that we get those people with the knowledge. So look for those people that can help you with your programs and again earn trust. I can’t stress that enough.

So this is about value systems and as I said I teach this to different people, sometimes with local agencies that work with the tribe, but the top part here is kind of the value systems that everyone has or should have. They’re values from different organizations, maybe tribal…city governments, corporations, but then we also have our own set of value systems and we have to make sure that these things mesh and that they balance in order to get our programs and our goals out there.

A little bit about community engagement. If you invite them, they will not come. This is the flyer method and I did it, too. When I first started I just kind of sent out some flyers and then sat there and talked about how nobody was engaged, nobody cared, and in reality how many flyers do you get or correspondences that you never look at? And if you’re never looking at them, how do you expect to have a different reaction from your community members? So you have to figure out different ways to engage your community.

This is us at work, playing games instead of working, but we’ve developed these different games, traditional games and this is a game that we did with the directors. You can see they’re having a lot of fun, kind of icebreakers and stuff. But the point that I want to make is sometimes we have these inter-agency or director meetings and we start doing all our planning, but we’re not really engaging your community because this is your community -- it’s the people that are out there.

So what we do as far as trying to do effective marketing and getting the community engaged and involved is we actually will host a different series of events and we have different partners engaged. We will take our message to things like Grandparents’ Day. We’ve had like just mini pow wows to show off what the youth can do, and also go to the elder center and take our message to them and try to get people involved in the projects that we’re working on, and just recruit advisory people from even a community picnic. We do a lot of things for the vets also because we’ve also found that they’re just…there’s a lot of leadership there as far as the vets are concerned and so our message is put out there through various ways.

You really have to look for those core champions. You have to work with the youth. We do have a youth council and we teach them the nation-building concepts and we work with youth in entrepreneurship and other ways, but the thing about youth is they all have parents. So when you honor your youth and you demonstrate to them and you have these awards and certificates, their parents come too. And then so we do a lot of things with leadership as well. As I said, we work with elders, with the different program directors and then we also invite traditional people to a lot of our events and we have them give the traditional prayer, we might have them do storytelling or a blessing.

And then we also have the tribal enterprises work with us and we teach this to new employees coming in, but we also teach it to the enterprises as well. So we ask the people that are coming in, especially when they’re outside of the community, to take this training, which actually has about…there’s actually 10 different presentations that we do. We work with them as well and they also sponsor us, but it’s also a marketing and advertising tool for them also.

So these are just kind of again different things that we do. I won’t go over all of them, but of course food always works, and letting people talk, and also we all have our own little kind of tribal jokes that we tell also.

This is just a map that I kind of put out there to try to help you map how you’re going to get your community…you can do it whatever way that you want, but depending on the project, the map might go in different directions to be able to get the input and engagement and support that you need from different community members. I think Ian is going to have this available. We don’t have a whole lot of time. I don’t need to go over that. I think we all know that. But sometimes you get people from the outside that just don’t understand. The reason…teepees might be relevant where you have Sioux, Lakota, but for us we have Pueblos. That stereotypical kind of put some guy on a horse type of thingstill happens from time to time. We actually had one director who was non-tribal that thought that she could incorporate cultural relevancy by just putting the word 'tradition' in front of every bulletin agenda item.

June Noronha:

“Pat, just a question. So when you say not to do it. You’re not saying not to do traditional education, right?”

Patricia Riggs:

“No, it’s actually two different things. What not to do is put the word 'traditional' in front of every bullet item and expect it to be traditional. And then in order to really get out there and figure out what you need to do for your community, you really do have to know the footprint of the community. You need to know everything. What are the community values, what do you think the elders are concerned with, what is this generation concerned with and what is the next generation going to face? We need to know the ancestors and our history and everything cultural and ceremonial and where our sacred places are because everything -- no matter what it is that you’re doing -- it somehow interrelates. And you have to take all those things from the past and all our cultural things and apply them to what we’re doing now.

I have ‘make no assumptions’ out there, because a lot of times we don’t really go out there and study what the needs are. We just kind of make these assumptions based on our own experiences, but you really do have to have a collective measure of what the community needs. And then I have this up here because our communities have always been planning. And so this model, whether we know it or not, it worked in the old days, too. So in our community, we had to build homes. So that was our purpose and our passion, but we had to go out there and we had to look for the clay and we had to get the trees so we had to harvest the ideas from people in the community to figure out where to get those resources from. We had a core of champions that would actually make the things happen and build the architecture in the community and then we had to visualize, assess and plan. Our communities always faced east.

And then we had to measure the outcomes and impacts. We figured out whether we were building homes that were going to sustain the community and then report results. We love to brag. The same thing works with food. We had to plan our acequias. We actually created or established the entire irrigation system, what is in El Paso’s lower valley, which is no longer under our control, but we’re the ones that put the main channels of water systems into that community. And then of course our ceremonies took a lot of planning as well and throughout the year.

Why did we do this? Ian talked a little bit about how we had major problems that we really had to address and that we were kind of dumbfounded on how we were going to move forward. Well, our tribe, because we were situated in West Texas, we were never federally recognized because we were part of the…Texas was in the Confederacy when Abraham Lincoln acknowledged the Pueblos in New Mexico so we got left out. We continued to practice our ceremonies and continued to have a tribal council, but it wasn’t until the 1960s, when we were losing all our homes to tax foreclosure because our properties weren’t on trust and in the 60s we were in El Paso. El Paso was growing around us and everybody in El Paso had electricity and running water except for us. We had this community right in the middle of El Paso and our unemployment rate was 75 percent, our education was fifth grade. We worked in the fields that were once ours to sustain ourselves.

And so we had somebody come in, an attorney assisted us and we were federally restored in 1969, not restored, but recognized. So our economy started to get a little bit better. Our unemployment was by the 70s at 50 percent, which is better than 75 percent and our education started to rise as well. At least we made it to high school and we built our first housing division. When we were recognized, we were also terminated at the same time. I know it’s kind of odd, but Texas had the Texas Indian Commission so the United States transferred the trust responsibility to Texas, but when Texas went broke in the 80s they decided the first thing they were going to do away with was the Texas Indian Commission. So we had to go back to Congress and get federally restored.

So that’s when we decided that we were going to open the casino because Texas had passed a gaming law with the Lottery Act. And there was one small clause in our restoration act that said, ‘The tribe shall not have gaming that is illegal in Texas.’ And with that one sentence they were able to sue and close us down. So for a short time we experienced high employment rates and we had…our unemployment rate went down to five percent, we started building all this infrastructure and housing, we started buying our land back. We went from 68 acres to 75,000 acres and then when Texas sued, they actually won, and most of that is because we were in the Fifth Circuit and the Fifth Circuit doesn’t really have any experience with tribes.

So by 2002, the casino closed and our unemployment rate went immediately up to 18 percent in one year and we haven’t been able to lower it to single digits since then and all our businesses except for the smoke shop were failing so we had to come up with something. So we started doing nation building. And in order to do nation building we really started looking at our…and assessing where we were as a community so we did a lot of data collection and those are one of the surveys that we started getting information from all the community and started having to educate them about how important it was for them to give us this information because we needed to bring more money into the community. Some of the money came in through grants and we needed this money to be able to build other ways to be able to sustain ourselves and we didn’t think that the grants were going to be a long-term solution, but we needed them to have…jumpstart us.

I’m not going to go through all the profile, but just to let you know that we do on an annual basis collect all this data. We know who’s enrolled, what the poverty levels are, what the unemployment levels are and what basically the status of all tribal members as a whole. When we started working on different projects, first we started with a comprehensive economic development strategy, which include economic and community development in both housing and jobs and community development corporation and we established Tigua Inc. to separate business and politics. And then we also created policy and infrastructure that would help the tribe be more successful.

One of the things that we did is we changed our tax code because for some really odd reason the tribe had decided to borrow the State of Texas tax code, which made absolutely no sense and it was way too long and we couldn’t enforce it. So just by changing it we went from like a 200 page tax code to 20 pages. In one year we went from $58,000 in taxes collected to $1.2 million.

And then this is our new Tigua Business Center, which is an incubator for the Tigua Development Corporation, as well as houses Economic Development and that was in Brownsville. There was an old Texas Department of Public Safety maintenance facility and now it’s a LEAD certified energy efficient building. And then just real quick here…

We’re also doing a lot of planning and development in land use. So planning and development and protecting our lands is important to cultural preservation as well as our traditional practices, but we also need land for residential and commercial uses and agriculture and transportation as well. So this is kind of lays out our plan over the next 100 years in a snapshot, but really what the reality is is that we need to preserve Ysleta del Sur Pueblo because we’re in the middle of the city and the city keeps encroaching even more and more on us and we have all these kind of technical things that we need to do, but in the end 100 years from now it’s still about preserving Ysleta del Sur Pueblo and continuing our culture.

We are always continually looking for resources to get this done and planning and this is all the planning that takes place in the modern sense, but I think it was Winona LaDuke that said that, ‘Loss of biodiverse land and natural resources is directly correlated to loss of culture for Indigenous communities.’ So in the end we’re trying to buy back as much land as possible to bring back and to keep those traditional places.

This is just an example of our land use survey and we did different…these are…on the bottom we had these maps and we had the community draw out in certain areas what they wanted the community to look like and then of course we went through a series of different questions. And these are…I talked a little bit about us when we do the reports, we put actual statements. We don’t identify the people. These are also statements. And then what we found as we were talking to the community is that they wanted to see our cultural life cycle built into the way that we planned our community. So we have places for youth to nurture them in our plan and as well as places where people come together to do, like we have a nation-building hub and elder center. And at the end how is our plan going to sustain us into the next generation. And then this is some of the modern areas that look not so nice right now, but these are also areas that are slated for land acquisition that we no longer own and this is a plan of what we can potentially do with them. This real quickly is, everything in yellow is what we own because we have a severe checkerboard situation and we know we can’t buy everything back, but what’s in purple is what we eventually want to look like.

We also do some things around citizenship. In our restoration act also our blood quantum was set at one-eighth. So we had to go back to Congress to remove our…we were one of the only two tribes in the country whose blood quantum was set by Congress. So that was one of the big things that we just recently had passed by Congress, so there’s a lot of planning around that and how we’re going to get everybody on the rolls and also provide services for everyone. And then this is just a little joke for my nephew Chris [Gomez], just saying that people in the community have thoughts and messages to convey, so make sure you get them.”

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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…