Joel Frank Sr. was honored for his determination to fight for Native rights during the National Indian Gaming Association’s conference April 11 in San Diego as the recipient of the 7th Annual Tim Wapato Sovereign Warrior Award. Frank, a member of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, stood shoulder-to-shoulder with NIGA founders Tim Wapato, Wenatchee of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and his wife, A. Gay Freeman Wapato, to establish the gaming institution and fight for the rights of tribes to build strong economies and determine their own destiny.
The award, established by Wapato’s family and NIGA after Wapato walked on in 2009, is presented to a Native American who “shares the passion and drives that Tim Wapato had for all people throughout Indian country,” according to a statement released by NIGA.
“We stand on the shoulders of leaders who went before us,” said Freeman Wapato. “The battle was in every state, as the governors didn’t want to compact with us. If it hadn’t been for Indian country leaders, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”
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Hill said, “Tim really was a mentor.”
Hill also praised Frank: “We were blessed to have Joel, a strong person during this militant era of mano a mano.” Frank served alongside Hill and the Wapatos in the early days of NIGA, organizing tribal communities to insist upon their sovereign rights to build their economies and devise the rigorous regulations that protect the gaming industry. Their labors supported the Cabazon case, which became the foundation for Indian gaming.
“The $30 billion industry that we protect was their dream,” said NIGA Chairman Ernie Stevens, Jr. “This is America’s warrior; he’s worked for all of us.”
“It’s always been a right for us [tribes] to determine what is good for us, not what somebody tells us what’s good for us,” Frank said when accepting the award. “Indian country will always survive as long as we have leaders who will deal with other leaders—we have more coming up who will make that effort.”
Three tribal groups from the Kumeyaay Nation in Southern California, Alaska and Wisconsin honored Frank, the Wapato family and well-wishers with song and dance. Also present was current Colville Tribes Chairman Mike Marchand, Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, former National Congress of American Indians President Jefferson Keel, and Wapato’s daughters to honor the award’s namesake and current recipient. Mike Her Many Horses, Lakota, served as the master of ceremonies for the evening.
“Someone will always try to take our sovereignty,” Freeman-Wapato noted that her husband would frequently say. “If I have any legacy, it’s to preserve our sovereignty.”