50 Faces, Part V: Lyons, Lettig, Cole, Ellsbury, Northern Cree
Excellence, service and culture — these concepts, as much as any other, define success across Indian country in the 21st century. This batch of five standouts, part of our 50 Faces of Indian Country series, demonstrates the balancing act that successful Natives know all too well. The Grammy-nominated drum group, the superstar baseball player, the Congressman, the banker, the hall-of-fame lacrosse player who’s been honored by the United Nations. All forge ahead fearlessly while remembering their roots and their people. Yet none of this is unusual. This is how we do things in Indian country.
For more Native notables, see previous installments:
Oren Lyons is a Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation and a Chief of the Onondaga Nation Council of Chiefs of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, the Haudenosaunee. Lyons has been active in international Indigenous rights and sovereignty issues for over four decades at the United Nations and other international forums. In 1982, he helped establish the Working Group on Indigenous Populations at the United Nations, and was awarded the United Nations NGO World Peace Prize. In 1992, he addressed the General Assembly, where he opened the International Year of the World’s Indigenous People. Lyons graduated with a degree in fine arts from Syracuse University where he was an All American lacrosse player, and he was elected to the Lacrosse Hall of Fame. He now serves as honorary chairman of the Iroquois Nationals Lacrosse Team.
William “Mike” Lettig, a member of the Navajo Nation, grew up near the reservation in northern Arizona. He started working with KeyBank in 1994; a decade later he persuaded KeyBank to establish its Native American Financial Services segment with the goal of making financing more easily available to Native-owned companies and Native entrepreneurs who were often denied by mainstream lenders. The program now offers lending and leasing, construction loans, investment management, Trust and other solutions for general financial needs, as well as specific funding for resorts, casinos and other big projects. Today, Lettig serves as executive vice president and national executive of the company’s Native American Financial Services, and he is KeyBank’s national executive for agribusiness. Over the past six years, KeyBank has helped to raise more than $4 billion in capital for Indian country.
Time magazine called him, “one of the sharpest minds in the House.” Now serving in his seventh term, Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) is one of only two American Indians currently in Congress. The Chickasaw Nation member is an advocate for a strong national defense, a tireless advocate for taxpayers and small businesses, and a leader on issues dealing with Native Americans and tribal governments. Cole has been a champion of tribal sovereignty and a key player in the House vote in favor of the Violence Against Women Act. And while he supports pipeline construction and an increase in oil and gas production, has called for less federal spending, and votes for budgets that have negative impact on tribal communities, Cole has received the Congressional Leadership award by the National Congress of American Indians (2007) and was inducted into the Chickasaw Hall of Fame in 2004.
After spending his entire career with the Boston Red Sox, the 31-year-old centerfielder became one of the highest paid players in baseball last year when he signed a seven-year, $153-million contract to move down the East Coast (and trade sides in one of sport’s fiercest rivalries) and play for the New York Yankees. But Ellsbury, the first man of Navajo and Colorado River Indian descent to play in the major leagues, has not forgotten what his culture teaches him about the importance of community and humility. He has donated generously to his alma mater, giving $1 million to Oregon State University’s baseball program, and is a N7 Nike Ambassador, inspiring Native youth to reach their fullest potential in sports. Ellsbury told The New York Times, “I’m very proud of my heritage, the traditional beliefs. I have a lot of respect for the culture, and how my mom and grandparents grew up.”
For more than 30 years, the Northern Cree Singers drum group has delighted pow-wow-goers with their signature sound and harmony. (If you’re lucky enough to see them perform, note the number of people who form a perimeter around the group with tape recorders in hand.) Founded in 1982 in Alberta, Canada by Steve Wood and his brothers, the Northern Cree Singers came together after Wood and several performers needed money to get back home from a trip to Idaho, he told ICTMN in 2013. The group decided to play at a nearby pow wow, and that performance garnered them with enough money to make the trip back to Alberta. Since then, the group has been nominated for multiple Grammy and Juno awards, and has been invited to play across North America and even in Europe. “We have practically been to all four corners of Turtle Island, and it was our drum that took us there,” Wood says.
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