PHOENIX, Ariz.—Lynn Valbuena has another award to add to her vast collection. The well-known Indian country leader was honored at the National Indian Gaming Association’s annual meeting with the Chairman’s Leadership Award.
A citizen of the San Manuel Band of Serrano Mission Indians, Valbuena was presented the award by NIGA Chairman Ernie Stevens Jr. on the occasion of her retirement as the association’s secretary for 14 years – NIGA’s longest-tenured officer. The event took place at a special luncheon attended by more than 500 delegates to the conference.
“I can’t tell you how disappointed I was and how much I tried to talk her out of it when she said she was going to retire,” Stevens said. “This is our hero – Lynn Valbuena. She’s probably the most prominent leader in our contemporary history. She’s stood up for Indian country all her life.”
Valbuena is vice chairwoman of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians. Over the years, she has served in the capacity of tribal chairwoman, tribal councilwoman and as a delegate from her tribe to the National Congress of American Indians and on countless boards, associations and organizations.
“I want to thank all of you for the recognition today,” Valbuena said. “I accept this honor on behalf of all of you in Indian country, because we all work so many tireless hours, and I don’t know why people think traveling is so glamorous, because we all have horror stories of traveling from being stranded at airports to being stuck without a hotel or no luggage because it’s on another plane,” she said.
Valbuena’s resume lists an impressive array of leadership responsibilities that have made her one of Indian country’s most active leaders. In 1996, her volunteer work and advocacy earned her distinction as one of California’s “Women of the Year” and in March of 2005, the United States Congress honored her during Women’s History Month as a “woman making history.” In addition to her tribal government duties, Valbuena is serving her 15th year as chairwoman of the Tribal Alliance of Sovereign Indian Nations (TASIN), a consortium of 10 federally recognized Indian tribes in California. She has served as San Manuel delegate to the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) for 19 years; serves as delegate to the California Nations Indian Gaming Association (CNIGA), and is a member of the Advisory Council for the American Indian Chamber of Commerce of California.
Valbuena was appointed to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Indian Board of Trustees in January 2009. She serves in a similar capacity with the Los Angeles-based Autry National Center, an intercultural history center that celebrates the American West through three important institutions including the Southwest Museum of the American Indian.
She has served on numerous boards and advisory councils, among them the San Bernardino Valley Lighthouse for the Blind, Riverside-San Bernardino County Indian Health, the Native American Advisory Committee – UC Riverside, and YMCA of San Bernardino.
Valbuena has received numerous awards and distinctions throughout her career, including NIGA’s John Kieffer Award, California Assemblyman Joe Baca’s “Woman of the Year,” and one of the “Business Women of the Year” from the Inland Empire Business Journal.
She’s a popular public speaker sought by groups and organizations throughout the country. And no wonder, her speaking style is casual, user-friendly and down to earth.
While San Manuel is one of the biggest success stories of Indian gaming—and one of the most generous in terms of its philanthropic activities—during her acceptance speech Valbuena travelled down memory lane to recall a time when her nation was dirt poor and struggling. In the mid-1970s, San Manuel had fewer than a dozen HUD houses. “They were like little red boxes but we thought the homes were huge. I still remember the outhouses. I remember we didn’t have toilet tissue, but we used the yellow pages of a phone book. We didn’t have milk so we put our bowl of corn flakes under the water faucet and ate them with water. I remember those days and I really love those days because there were a lot of good memories about how things were before gaming,” Valbuena recalled with nostalgia and humor.
“Many of the tribes like San Manuel have looked to diversification and we’ve been successful, but it wasn’t always good as far as having money and being able to afford nice things. I still remember when most of our reservation was orange and apricot groves. We’d wait for the welfare truck to come up the dirt road and hand out cans of food that didn’t have anything on them apart from a white label with big black block letters that said green beans … We always said the reservation was our playground because all we did was run around and play tag and hopscotch and kick cans and now it’s all technology and Facebook and Twitter and the Internet, but times change…”
Valbuena related a conversation she had the previous evening with another woman leader in Indian country—Yavapai Nation council member Linda Evans. “Linda said something that really touched me because it’s a thing I always say and that is, it’s not about me, it’s about you. We’re elected whether it’s with a national organization or our tribal councils and what you elect us for is to look out for your best interests.” That’s why Indian solidarity is crucial, Valbuena said. “As you know, we have so many battles and so many challenges when it comes to protecting our tribal sovereignty and this is why unity is important to us,” Valbuena said.
And so is communication with legislators and the surrounding communities, she said. “Many times we’re at the capitol back home in Sacramento and we’ll see the legislators jump up and say, ‘Is there something going on that I should know about? The Indians are here again. Do I need an update on something?’’ So we tell them, ‘We have no issues right now but we just want to keep you on your toes. We’re coming back to educate you and update you.’ And we always want to have that dialogue.”
Valbuena thanked everyone in her life for their support—from her husband and family members to the San Manuel governmental team and her special mentor Dan Tucker, Chairman of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation. She talked about the importance of focusing on the future generations.
“It’s so important never to forget who we are or where we came from and it’s so important to continue to educate the younger generations on our language, on our traditions, our customs, our ceremonies, so that the legacy lives on from our elders. That’s so important for our children,” she said.
And she advised her colleagues to take good care of themselves and be strong. “I’ve been involved in tribal politics for more than 40 years and nothing surprises me anymore. All I can say is you have to have thick skin—you all know what I’m talking about—or it’s going to kill you. So, exercise, watch your diet—yeah, right!—and start running to the planes instead of walking,” she said.