In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native peoples today.
Please introduce yourself with your name and title.
My name is Ken St. Marks. I’m chairman of the Chippewa Cree Tribe of the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation.
Can you share your Native name and its English translation, or your nickname?
My great-grandmother gave me the name Skinnyman.
Where is your tribal community located?
Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation is in north central Montana.
Where is your tribe originally from?
Rocky Boy’s Band of Chippewa came from the Great Lakes area, and Little Bear’s Band of Cree came from the Canadian territories.
What is a significant point in history from your tribe that you would like to share?
Our reservation was created by an Act of Congress in 1916, helped by many prominent political activists in Montana. Both bands of Chippewa and Cree were landless at the time of reservation’s establishment.
How is your tribal government set up?
We have an elected chairman and eight elected members of the Chippewa Cree Business Committee (CCBC). The CCBC is the governing body for the Chippewa Cree Tribe.
Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?
We do have a group of Peacemakers, elected by the tribal government. The Peacemakers serve as a guiding entity to our traditional belief systems as Chippewa Cree.
How often are elected leaders chosen?
Members of the CCBC are elected to staggered terms lasting four years. The chairman is elected every four years. We are a sovereign nation, and we are one of the first tribes in the nation to go into an agreement with the federal government to establish ourselves as a self-governance nation. This was done in 1994.
How often does your tribal council meet?
The CCBC has monthly meetings, along with monthly subcommittee meetings. Most, if not all, members of the Business Committee sit on at least one subcommittee.
What responsibilities do you have as tribal chairman?
I wanted to be chairman for the sake of the people and the tribe. I’ve fought hard to be in this leadership position for the past four years. I would like to have a Native community healing gathering for all tribal members and to have the spiritual aspect of our culture be a central focus. I would like the tribe to be connected and united as one, once again, and to do so through prayer and spirituality.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead your tribe?
Before being elected chairman, I served as a Business Committee member. I’ve run various businesses for the tribe, as well as being self-employed and creating the excavation contracting company Arrow Enterprises, Inc. I am also a Vietnam-era veteran. I served with the 82nd Airborne Division.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
Former Chairman John “Roddy” Sun Child. I learned a lot from him and how he handled himself in Washington. Because of who he was and how he treated others, doors were easily opened for him, and with that, it became a better connection for his people. My three grandmothers—Mary St. Marks, Rosanne Saddler, and Gramma Taha Saddler—were also an inspiration for the way I think today. They were prominent figures in my life.
Are you a descendant of a historical leader?
I’m a descendant of Rocky Boy’s Band of Chippewas. Also, one set of my grandparents came from the Cree Nation in Canada.
Approximately how many members are in your tribe?
The tribe has around 6,400 members. Two-thirds of our members live on the reservation, and half are under the age of 18.
What are the criteria to become a member of your tribe?
To be a member, a person’s parents have to be enrolled and living on the reservation at the time of birth. For those living off the reservation, the criteria are 50 percent Indian blood and one enrolled parent.
Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?
Yes, Chippewa and Cree are still spoken, with an estimated 20 percent of the people speaking fluently. Chippewa Cree language is a primary reason why our culture is still flourishing and intact.
To read the full interview, visit the NMAI series here.