Courtesy Sac & Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa/Meskwaki
Donald Wanatee, Sac & Fox Tribal Council member.

Donald Wanatee, Council Member: NMAI’s Meet Native America Series

Dennis Zotigh
August 29, 2013


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.

Donald Wanatee, Tribal Council member of the Sac & Fox Tribe.

What responsibilities do you have in your community?

I'm the liaison responsible for local, state, and federal programs, and for incoming mail. I help to validate tribal decisions and strive to communicate with the tribal membership.

How did your life experience prepare you to lead?

My parents often talked about tribal activities and discussed the problems of their times, especially the problems brought upon us by the Reorganization Act of 1934. At that time, when they discussed the history of the tribe, the Reorganization Act was one subject. They talked about how the tribe was put upon to accept or not, in a no-compromise situation, the constitution we still use today. Our tribe had their own government implementing their chieftainship, which followed the early customs and traditions of the Meskwaki.

In due time, I was voted onto the Tribal Council in the era of the 1960s. I followed my parents’ concerns by pushing the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to work with the tribe regarding our BIA-operated school problem: Our school system was earmarked for closure in 1968. We now operate our own tribal school system.

Who inspired you as a mentor?

I was inspired by the Meskwaki people. I found true inspiration in my parents, as I followed the discussions they had at home and in community gatherings.

Where is your community located? Where are your people originally from?

The Sac and Fox—the Meskwaki—originated along the St. Lawrence in southern Canada, near Montreal and Three Rivers. To get here I surmise was quite a march for our people. After running around from government troops, we settled in Tama County, Iowa. We, the tribe, in the year 1857 bought 80 acres of land along the Iowa River, which we eventually expanded to 10,000 acres, thus increasing the legitimacy of our land holdings and governmental structure. A so-called "self-governing" tribe, we should have been given instruction in "self-government." Receiving no guidance from federal lawmakers, we stand.

What is a significant point in history from your tribe that you would like to share?

In the year 1938, one Mr. John Byrd submitted his thesis, required to receive an M. A. from the University of Iowa. He stated that the United States government had removed the "Psychic and Moral fiber" formerly held by the tribe, which would allow them, and other Native peoples, to assume responsibility for themselves, to adopt new values, to assimilate to the dominate culture.

This process [of assimilation] was already taking place anyway, with the introduction of boarding schools. The functional, traditional entity of “leadership” within our own system that the writer considered lacking? We always had solid leadership.

Approximately how many members are in your tribe? What are the criteria to become a member of your tribe?

We have approximately 1,400 enrolled members, of whom 50 percent are over the age of 18.

We are a paternal tribe. In order to be an enrolled member, your father must be enrolled, the minimum [blood] quantum being one-quarter to qualify for enrollment.

Is your language still spoken on your homelands?

Our language is spoken, but language somewhat was broken in tribes pushed by the government to teach English only.

In some cases in the past, the rules regarding enrollment or membership required a petitioner to be able to follow the social, linguistic, ethno-historical, and religious beliefs of the tribe. Recent studies made by the government found that approximately 85 percent of Native Americans are not lingual in their tribal languages.

What economic enterprises does the Sac & Fox Tribe own?

Currently, we have a tribally operated convenience store and fuel station and a casino, which was established in 1993. The profits from these ventures have been used to build houses and roads, a water system, a medical center, and a high school. A good portion of the money is spent on infrastructure and tribal operations.

What attractions are available for visitors on your land?

The land is an attraction in itself: We are west of the Mississippi River and east of the Missouri.

What annual events does the tribe sponsor?

We will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of our tribal powwow in 2014. We welcome everybody to attend and celebrate with us. We extend an invitation to the president of the United States to come and dance with us and help us celebrate at this time, a joyous occasion for our people.

What message would you like to share with the youth of your community?

Our tribe has always maintained our culture. We will continue to carry our culture into the next millennium.

To read other interviews in the NMAI series visit here.