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.
Iswkwist say’ ay’. My name is John Sirois. My title is chairman of the Colville Business Council, informally called the tribal council.
Your Native name, its English translation, and/or nickname?
My Indian name is say’ ay’, given to me by my maternal grandmother. say’ ay’ is one of those names that do not translate well into English. However, it describes my eyes and the vision that comes with my eyes.
What responsibilities do you have as a tribal/band/ Native community leader?
First and foremost, walk a good road. Listen with a good heart, no matter if you agree or disagree. Participate in traditional customs and speak your language; it grounds you in the history and land of your people. I have to be able to be available to the membership as much as possible.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead your tribe/band/Native community?
My experience is my walk along this road that the Creator provides to every single person. I have been fortunate to have a stable and happy upbringing with great parents and an extended family that has been so supportive and taught me many valuable lessons. I was lucky to have a grandmother who encouraged my interest in our Native culture/ways. I grew up learning how to gather our traditional foods and the relationships we have with those “chiefs”—foods—that sacrifice their lives for us to live healthy lives.
I was fortunate to have a solid education in the Native way and in the higher education of America’s college system. Through my jobs in education, planning, energy, and other fields, I learned other valuable lessons that have helped me incorporate systems and program development into my vision and direction in life.
All of these experiences, recognized by my people, have prepared me to represent my people. I fully believe the trust and relationships that I have had with my community centered my desire to represent them in a respectful and honorable way. I feel lucky and honored by this role and take it very seriously with a good heart.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
Mel Tonasket, former chairman of Colville Business Council, and Bruce Duthu, former Dartmouth professor, are two of my many mentors. I count so many of my elders who shared information with me as my mentors, so I tried to list a few, but I have many more!
Are you a descendant of a historical leader? If so, who?
I am not a direct descendant of a historical leader, but within my family there have been many heredity chiefs.
Where is your tribe/band/Native community located?
We are located in North Central Washington State, bordered by the Columbia River and the Okanogan River.
Where was your tribe/band/Native community originally from?
The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation inhabit portions of our aboriginal homelands. Of the twelve tribes—Wenatchee (Wenatchi), Nespelem, Moses–Columbia, Methow, Colville, Okanogan, Palus, Sanpoil, Entiat, Chelan, Nez Perce, and Lakes (Arrow Lakes)—we inhabit the Okanogan, Nespelem, Lakes, and Sanpoil regions. Essentially, the Colville Reservation is in our indigenous homelands we have occupied from time immemorial. We are unique and very blessed in that way of having our own lands to live upon.
Is there a functional traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?
Yes, our traditional systems play a significant role within our leadership and the families that consult to choose the candidate they want to represent them.
What is a significant point in history from your tribe/band/Native community that you would like to share?
There are many significant points in our history—the formation of the reservation, the 1930s when the federal government built the hydroelectric dams that destroyed our salmon runs and our way of life, the termination era. However, the significant moment I would like to highlight was the first return of salmon to our homelands through the efforts of our Fish and Wildlife Department and the First Salmon Ceremony that our traditional people carried out in the spring of 2008.
To read the full interview with John Sirois, chairman of the Colville Business Council visit the NMAI series here.