Chairwoman Cristina Danforth, Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin.

Cristina Danforth: NMAI’s Meet Native America Series

Dennis Zotigh

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.

Cristina Danforth, Chairwoman, Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin.

Can you share with us your Native name?

My Oneida name is Kwahlak^ni. It means influential, or she is able to respond, respect her. I received my name in Oneida, Canada, at the Longhouse during Midwinter Ceremony when I was 14 years old. I am Wolf Clan.

Where is the Oneida Tribe located?

Our tribe is located in northeast Wisconsin and is adjacent to the city of Green Bay. Our original reservation boundaries of 1838 make up 65,400 acres that are home to five municipal governments and two county governments.

Where was your tribe originally from?

The process of settlement into what is now known as the state of Wisconsin (statehood, 1848) began with the United States Treaty with the Menominee of 1831, in which the federal government ceded land to the New York Indians. The treaty was agreed to by the Menominee Indian people and the U.S. president, with assistance from the Indian agent of Green Bay. The 1831 Menominee Treaty was furthered by the U.S Treaty with the Oneida in 1838. That treaty, also known as the Buffalo Creek Treaty, acknowledges the Oneida Indians and our ancestral ties to New York state.

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

The point in time for our tribe I want to share is the period of 2002 to 2005. I was serving my third term on council and my first term as tribal chairwoman. I had just finished my term as vice chairwoman, and our gaming compact was up for renewal with the state of Wisconsin; the compact was set to expire in 2003. In September of 2002 my first grandson, Calvyn, was born, and he was my motivation to get things done and move the tribe forward. We were also in the midst of mediation with the state of New York over our Oneida Land Claim Settlement. Both agreements were top priority and kept me traveling on an almost weekly basis.

The Agreement of Settlement and Compromise to Resolve the Oneida Indian Land Claims in the State of New York was established and acknowledged during my first term as Oneida chairwoman. This agreement discusses the rights retained and exercised by the Oneidas of Wisconsin and the terms of settlement and conditions that must exist in order to resolve the claim. This agreement was signed and acknowledged by a Proclamation from Governor George Pataki and Chairwoman Cristina Danforth on December 7, 2004.

The gaming compacts were being discussed collectively by the United Tribes of Wisconsin. This delegation was formed in June 2002; I was designated as their spokesperson. In November 2002 Governor Jim Doyle was elected, and in January 2003 he was inaugurated. His first task was to meet with the eleven tribes in Wisconsin. He invited the tribes to Madison and made a commitment to the tribal leadership. He convened the meeting with the tribal leaders and then introduced his Cabinet of State Administration and secretaries. He told the tribal leaders that meeting with his staff was equivalent to meeting with him, as they were authorized to renegotiate the compacts on his behalf and with his direction. Under Governor Doyle’s leadership, the Oneida Gaming Compact was concluded in April 2003.

The Oneida compact renewal was historic and significant: We had been operating on a five-year renewal, and the newly negotiated compact became a perpetual-term compact. It is the only compact in the country to be perpetual. The compact also now has a 4 percent regulatory fee, which is the lowest in the state. It was significant for us in Oneida so that we could fund community infrastructure development projects and secure long-term loans utilizing revenues from our gaming operations. The 2003 Gaming Compact allows Oneida to continue long-standing programming, education, and community services.

How is your tribal government set up?

Our tribal government consists of nine elected Business Committee members who govern the tribe when the General Tribal Council (GTC)—the body composed of our tribal membership—is not in session. The Business Committee includes four officers—chair, vice chair, treasurer, and secretary. The remaining five members are at-large council members.

How often are elected leaders chosen?

A general election occurs every three years. Candidates must be at least 21 years of age and must be enrolled tribal members living within the boundaries of the reservation or in Brown and Outagamie counties.

How often does your council meet?

Our council meets every second and fourth Wednesday of the month to conduct official business. The council also meets every Tuesday before the regular meeting to discuss items in executive session, which is closed to the public. Actions on those items must be done in open session at our regular Wednesday meeting. The council also meets with state, federal, and tribal officials on a consistent basis and is required to attend GTC meetings—the annual meeting in January, semiannual meeting in July, budget meeting, and special meetings.

To read the full interview, visit the NMAI series here.

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