Courtesy Tonkawa Tribe
Don Patterson, president of the Tonkawa Tribe

Don Patterson, President: NMAI’s Meet Native America Series

Dennis Zotigh
September 20, 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. 

My name is Don Patterson, and I am president of the Tonkawa Tribe. Sometimes I am referred to as “chairman” unofficially, but not “chief.” The idea of electing contemporary chiefs by majority rule mystifies me. Chieftainships were established in traditional times under an entirely different order, based upon an entirely different set of selection criteria, but not by general election.

Can you share with us your Native name, its English translation and/or nickname? 

My Indian name is Pe-atch-e-thot, meaning Comes Flying Over. You will notice I prefer the word “Indian” rather than any other. My grandmother, born in the 1890s, called herself Indian, political correctness not being part of her mindset.

What responsibilities do you have in your community?

I try always to think as tribal president. All that implies is sufficient.

How did your life experience prepare you to lead?

My youthful involvement in Indian activism during the 1960s and ’70s at places like Alcatraz, Wounded Knee, the March on Washington, D.C., etc., gave me insights about the strained relationship between tribes and the dominant society surrounding them. That certainly helped groom me for the task.

Who inspired you as a mentor?

My dad, my grandmother!

Are you a descendant of a historical leader? If so, who?

I think so, but then aren’t we all? I would rather be judged on my own merit rather than who I am descended from.

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

The Tonkawa Tribe is located in north central Oklahoma. Our tribal town is called Fort Oakland and is situated on tribal reservation land approximately one-and-a-half miles southeast of Tonkawa, Oklahoma.

The Tonkawa people are originally from south central Texas. We are considered one of the southernmost of the Plains tribes.

What is a significant point in the history of the Tonkawa people that you would like to share?

I think the period of forced removal from our original homeland in Texas to a reservation in Oklahoma was probably the most significant. The Tonkawa Tribe was the only tribe in Oklahoma to have been removed twice to two different reservations.

Approximately how many members are in the Tonkawa Tribe?

Approximately 700 individuals.

What are the criteria to become a member of the tribe?

One must be born to a parent who is an enrolled member.

Is your language still spoken on your homelands?

Yes, but like most tribes, we see our ability to speak our language diminishing as time moves on. We have developed a dictionary, texts, and readers, which have helped to preserve as much knowledge as possible.

To read the full interview with Tonkawa Tribal President Don Patterson visit the NMAI series here.