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.
Orvena “Twiggy” Gregory, second chief of the Sac and Fox Nation.
Can you give us your Native name and its English translation?
My Sauk name is Kyokamekwa, pronounced kee-o-kum-mekwa and translated as “on a specific path.” Most tribal members know me by my nickname, Twiggy. When I was a baby, my grandma Bell on my Pawnee side called me twigs takoo. Takoo is the Pawnee word for prairie chicken. Grandma Bell said I reminded her of a skinny chicken. During the primary elections when I ran for second chief, many people didn’t know me as Orvena Gregory. An elder suggested that I put Twiggy on the ballot for the general election; I did and received the most votes in the history of our election.
Where is your nation located?
The jurisdiction of the Sac and Fox Nation is located within three counties in Oklahoma—Payne, Lincoln, and Pottawatomie. The headquarters are located approximately five miles south of Stroud, Oklahoma.
Where was your nation originally from?
The Sac and Fox are Algonquin and are a Woodland tribe who originally came from the western Great Lakes region.
What is a significant point in history from your people that you would like to share?
The Sac and Fox Nation have had many great accomplishments and firsts as a tribe, such as the tag case defending tribes’ right to issue license plates to tribal members living primarily on tribal lands, and our being one of the first tribes to elect a female chief. However, a significant point for me is when the Sauk Language Department was created in 2005. Many people worked hard for years before this became a reality.
I am honored to have been one of the first Sauk second-language learners and eventually a Sauk language teacher. Before leaving the Sauk Language Department to run for office, I made sure that my two interns were at my level or more advanced, so that the language would continue on. My hope for them was that they would bring two or more interns up to their level before they ever considered moving on. This is one way to preserve our language. My hope for the future is that the U.S. government will put money into promoting language revitalization for tribes.
How is your government set up?
The government of the tribe used to be conducted by tribal councils of either peace chiefs or war chiefs, depending on whether the tribe was at war or in peace.
Today our government consists of a Business Committee elected by the tribal membership. The Business Committee is comprised of a principal chief, second chief, secretary, treasurer, and committeeperson.
The Governing Council—all tribal members 18 years of age and older—and the Sac and Fox Nation Judicial System are important aspects of the Sac and Fox Nation as well.
Is there a functional traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?
Traditional tribal members still follow a clan system governed by hereditary clan chiefs. Clans include and have included the Fish, Thunder, Wolf, Bear, Fox, Deer, Bear Potato, Snow, Elk, Ocean, Peace, Warrior, and Beaver.
Clan membership is patrilineal, and babies generally receive their Indian names in the spring after their birth.
How often are elected leaders chosen?
All elected positions serve four-year terms, and the terms are staggered. The principal chief, second chief, and committeeperson were elected in 2011; the secretary and treasurer were elected in 2013.
How often does your council meet?
According to the Sac and Fox Nation Constitution, there shall be an annual meeting of the Governing Council the last Saturday of August of each year.
Special meetings of the Governing Council may be called at the discretion of the principal chief, and shall be called by him within 30 days upon the written request of a majority of the Business Committee or upon the written request of 50 members of the Governing Council, provided that at least 10 days notice shall be given in each instance.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead your nation?
I grew up within our tribal jurisdiction, attending tribal functions from a young age. My mom and dad help others when they can and are just good people; I try to be the same. My dad served on the Business Committee, so I was encouraged to attend council and try to be informed when it comes to our tribe. I was taught to stand up for what is right, even though you may be standing alone sometimes. I have always been in the midst of the concerns of my tribe, so as I make decisions, I follow the conviction of my heart.
What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?
As the Business Committee, we transact business and otherwise speak or act on behalf of the tribe in all matters on which the tribe is empowered to act. I am one of five votes on the Business Committee, so it’s important to gather as much information on the issues presented, knowing that my vote is going to affect the whole tribe.
It is my responsibility to advocate on behalf of our tribal members, whether it is within our tribe, or at a city, state, or national level.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
Judy Payne, my high school’s counselor. She was the high school basketball coach when she came to my elementary school when I was in the fifth grade. I was so motivated by all she had to say; I couldn’t wait to play high school basketball for her and become a coach/teacher. The year I became a freshman in high school, she retired from coaching and became the high school counselor. I was so disappointed, but she chose me to be her counselor’s aide. She was a life coach, which turned out to be more necessary for those Native students who came from dysfunctional families. She always encouraged me to do my best in whatever I was doing, to be respectful, and to continue my education. She was instrumental in my graduating from high school.
Approximately how many members are in the Sac and Fox Nation?
Presently we have just fewer than 4,000 enrolled tribal members.
What are the criteria to become a member of your nation?
The Sac and Fox Nation Constitution has been amended over the years regarding enrollment, and therefore has been interpreted differently throughout the years. At this time one must be at least one-eighth Oklahoma Sac and Fox and have a parent on the tribal roll.
Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?
It is disheartening to say that we have very few fluent Sauk language speakers. We have three speakers of Sauk as a first language who are elders; two have been working with the Sauk Language Department since before its inception in 2005 and continue to work today in our Master Apprentice Program. I have had the privilege and honor to work with Christine Williamson and Maxine Cobb from the early beginnings of the Sauk Language Department until being elected second chief in 2011.
Sauk language is critically endangered. Due to language revitalization, however, Sauk Language is making a strong comeback. We now have Sauk language classes in two high schools in Oklahoma.
To read the full interview, visit the NMAI series here.