howesi kiiseki caakiwiyeefa (Good day, everyone)
As I settle back into the full swing of things after the tribal elections and holiday season, I’ve been reflecting on my first term as Chief and the outlook I’m taking into 2024.
At the outset of my term in 2019, the Tribe’s new economic engine was in its first month of operation in Guymon; the cultural center was trying to find its rhythm in Miami, and weekly Shawnee language classes were underway across northeast Oklahoma.
I distinctly remember our pre-pandemic challenges in establishing the Shawnee Tribe Cultural Center. While Golden Mesa opened to a warm welcome from the panhandle community, the cultural center faced obstacles that slowed its progress. A persistent issue was travelers along I-44 stopping in primarily for the center’s clean restrooms rather than a cultural destination. Another instance was the State Tourism Department’s tone-deaf installation of tipi-shaped picnic areas blocking the view of our beautiful building from the highway. (Of the nine tribes headquartered in the Miami area, none of us historically lived in tipis.) Thankfully, we had a productive meeting with Lt. Governor Matt Pinnell and have since built a working relationship with Tourism.
Just a few months later, we were thrown into the stressful unknowns of COVID-19 and the operational & financial implications that pandemic shutdowns brought. While there were considerable silver linings of the pandemic, such as the advent of our Shawnee Language Immersion Program’s virtual education initiative, the following two years were mostly defined by the Tribe’s litigation against the U.S. Treasury for calculating CARES Act funding with a population figure of “zero Shawnee people” in their formula.
As many of you remember, I saw absolute red over the Treasury’s affront on two counts—we are obviously not a nation of zero people, and the Tribe has a justified claim to every resource rightly due to our people. The flagrant erasure at the federal level, juxtaposed with the recent successes this Tribe encountered in other areas, solidified what I see as my utmost duties as Chief.
I firmly believe tribal officials must prioritize their nation’s resources and initiatives in ways that continuously increase the prosperity of individual citizens & families and the Tribe as a whole. Further, our values dictate that “resources” are far broader than financial wealth—we also have responsibilities to our ancestors, the land we have ancestral ties to, our systems of care and kinship with one another, and future generations.
After a successful settlement with Treasury in the summer of 2021, our staff developed and implemented over a dozen new, direct services to Shawnee people in 2022 and 2023. We prioritized these programs for their significant, immediate impact on citizens’ lives, and we are committed to sustaining and refining them as time continues. The Higher Education Awards program has distributed over 1 million scholarship dollars as of last fall. The Fire Safe Tribal Citizens program recently saved one family’s residence, and nearly $3.6 million in direct support has been distributed so far in the latest round of COVID-19 Impact Assistance.
The experiences of the past four years have taught us the importance of insisting on being seen and heard. We have demonstrated that erasure is not an option, and we must continue advocating for our rightful place in history and at the tables of power.
Shawnee history spans more than two dozen states and six international relationships. Today’s Shawnee people are scattered across all 50 states and abroad. Recognizing this widespread dispersion, we must also acknowledge that initiatives to generate Shawnee representation and visibility take significant resources and must be methodical. The initiatives we invest in today are seeds planted for a future where our presence and contributions are recognized and celebrated nationwide.
I’m fully aware of those among us who are eager to see the Shawnee Tribe Cultural Center in Miami reopened as soon as possible. I am eager to see that day myself. As I mentioned before, I believe it is incumbent upon our leadership to act in the benefit of our people, even when those choices are difficult. So, when COVID closed this site, we took the opportunity to reimagine how this resource can be used to better highlight our culture and serve our people. I am excited about the future plans our team is putting together. At present, the entire language team is using the center as their homebase where they offer 13 classes a week to more than 170 Shawnees across the country. We have found eager Shawnees reconnecting to their Tribe and donating their precious time to more than just language classes, but it was the Shawnee Language Immersion Program that found them and brought them home.
I anticipate bringing forth very good news on both the cultural center and the Shawnee Indian Manual Labor School in Fairway, KS. Additionally, our recent statement to Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt on his administration’s latest stunt of politicizing tribal car tags is published in the News section of our website. Please subscribe to our monthly digital communications at shawnee-nsn.gov/subscribe if you have not already.
As we move forward, let us remember the values we hold dear, understanding that we must leave room to welcome Creator’s hand and timing in every plan we dream up.
niyaawe, hiini lehki (Thank you, that’s all),
Chief Ben Barnes
hatito caaki wiyeefa, (Hello everyone,)
I hope that everyone was able to experience a wonderful holiday season. As we begin 2024, I would like to reflect on the achievements made by the Shawne Tribal Government during 2023 in programs and economic development.
In the 2020 Annual Report our listed programs consisted of the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, NAHASDA (Native American Housing and Self Determination Act, Historic Preservation Program, Shawnee Tribe Tax Commission(tags), Childcare Development Fund Program (CCDF), Natural Resources and Environmental Program, Enrollment and the Shawnee Language Program.
Since date we have added programs covering Behavior and Mental Health, Communications, Victims Services, Burial Assistance, Education Assistance, Homeowner Assistance Fund, Emergency Home Repairs, Low Income Water Assistance, Indian Child Welfare, Workforce Reimbursement Program and an Elder Reimbursement Program.
We will continue to expand the abovementioned programs through the grant funding process and profits received from Shawnee Development. We will do so while working to ensure that all programs are sustainable, so that we will never have to experience the closure of certain programs due to lack or reduction of funding. Some of us still remember a recent past in which we had to suspend funding for education assistance after losing funding from TCNS (Cell Tower) consultations.
During 2023 were also able to retire our debt on the Golden Mesa Casino, negotiate a refinancing agreement that will expand our casino floor, add a hotel and an RV park. Using ARRPA funds were able to purchase several office buildings, one which will house a Business Council Chamber with streaming capabilities as requested in Tribal (General) Council. Work has begun to ensure that streamed meetings will become available soon.
In closing, I would like to say that new ideas for programs are always welcome, so feel free to contact me or your favorite council members with any questions or suggestions you may have.
niyaawe (thank you),
Roy D. Baldridge