Lynn Valbuena has lead San Manuel and California tribes through great growth of tribal gaming.
Courtesy San Manuel Band of Mission Indians
Lynn Valbuena has lead San Manuel and California tribes through great growth of tribal gaming.

Valbuena Joins Gaming Hall of Fame 'On Behalf of Indian Country'

Kristin Butler

"It's not about me, it's about us," says Lynn Valbuena, chair of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, of her recent induction into the American Gaming Association's (AGA) Gaming Hall of Fame. 

The Gaming Hall of Fame is the industry’s highest honor awarded to those who have made significant contributions in leadership and entertainment. The prestigious society now counts 89 members.

Among the Gaming Hall of Fame's inductees are widely known gaming figures like Steve Wynn and Donald Trump, and entertainment legends including Frank Sinatra and Celine Dion. Valbuena was named to the 2015 class along with Victor J. Salerno, chairman of the board of William Hill U.S., and Larry J. Woolf, founder and chairman of Navegante Group, at a September 30 ceremony at MGM Grand in Las Vegas during the annual Global Gaming Expo (G2E), presented by the AGA.

Valbuena says she is "very humbled and very honored" by the invitation. "When I gave my ‘thank you’ Wednesday [September 30] evening in Las Vegas, I had said, 'I'm accepting this award on behalf of Indian country.' We all work so tirelessly, and we are not all recognized for what we do," she says.  

Since the Gaming Hall of Fame's inception in 1989, Valbuena is the third Native American to be elected. The first Indian inductee, in 1993, was Leonard Prescott, former chair of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community and then-chairman of Little Six, Inc., the tribal gaming enterprise. He was followed in 2014 by Ernie Stevens, Jr. (Oneida Nation of Wisconsin), who this spring started his eighth consecutive two-year term as chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA). 

RELATED: NIGA's Stevens Inducted to Gaming Hall of Fame; Receives Leadership Award

Native recognition in the Gaming Hall of Fame is significant to Valbuena, because it is "the result of our efforts over many years to build mutually beneficial relationships within and outside the gaming industry," Valbuena says. 

In Valbuena's more than four decades of service to San Manuel and Indian country, she has arduously fought to protect and advance tribal rights. Valbuena cites one of the greatest victories in her storied career as a collaborative effort: when 58 tribal governments signed tribal-state compacts with California Governor Gray Davis in 1999. "The ballot propositions that led to tribal-state compacts for Tribes in California were the result of tribal unity," Valbuena says.  

Today, of the 110 tribes in California, there are 62 gaming compacts, which have helped tribes to effectively chart their paths to becoming "self-reliant, self-sufficient and to maintain sustainability," Valbuena says. But she is quick to counteract one great misconception often held by the general public: "Just because a tribe has a casino doesn't mean they are wealthy and self-reliant," Valbuena says. "It all has to do with location and demographics."

The San Manuel Band of Mission Indians' nearly 1,000-acre reservation in Southern California consists mostly of mountainous land in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountain region, but its San Manuel Indian Bingo & Casino is easily accessible off Interstate 10, located just north of the reservation in Highland on the San Manuel Indian Reservation. It's the nearest class III gaming facility to Los Angeles, approximately 70 miles east. "We are so fortunate that we're in a location that pulls in the populations from both Los Angeles and Orange Counties," Valbuena says. 

San Manuel community, known as the Yuhaviatam or “People of the Pines,” remains today one of several small tribes of what was once a great Serrano Indian Nation composed of many clans and thousands of tribal members before the incursion of non-Natives into their region. San Manuel has come a long way since launching their gaming enterprise in 1986  when they lived in 500-square-foot HUD [U.S. Housing & Urban Development] homes and waited on welfare provisions, remembers Valbuena.  

"We literarily had nothing," Valbuena says. "It just makes me so happy to be able to share memories and talk about how things were back in the day. We had no water or electricity until the 1950s. As a child growing up on the reservation, I remember eating corn flakes. We would have to go outside and put water on them from the spout because we had no milk. We had welfare trucks come to our reservation with powdered milk sometimes. 

"I like to share those good memories. Those are things I'll never forget. I don't take for granted what we have now at San Manuel with [business] diversification and gaming." 

Valbuena has worked for the tribe in some capacity for more than 40 years. "I turned 61 this year. I started working with my tribe as a housing commissioner at age 20. From that point I stayed involved with the tribe. I served as secretary/treasurer from 1992-1994, then as chair from 1994-1996. I was vice chair from 2008-2012. How things have changed!"

Valbuena began her most recent term as San Manuel chairwoman on April 15, 2014. 

According to Valbuena, among the challenges that persist for tribes is the need to educate elected officials and the general public about Indian tribes, tribal sovereignty and our government structures. As chair of the Tribal Alliance of Sovereign Indian Nations (TASIN), a coalition of tribes in California, for 20 years, Valbuena initiates conversations with local and state politicians. "We hold state legislature candidate forums, where we ask questions like, 'What does sovereignty mean to you? Have you ever visited a reservation?'" Valbuena says. "They let us know some of the things they don't understand about tribes. And we're always educating newly elected officials."

Valbuena additionally stresses the responsibility of tribal people to educate the public on the beneficial impact tribes make on their surrounding communities. Misleading information is rampant, and continual outreach is vital to correct it, she says. "A few years ago, I was asked to speak about tribal gaming and the structure of tribes at the Anaheim Convention Center in Orange County for a non-Native conference. When I said San Manuel is the county's largest employer in the private sector with 3,700 employees, people in the audience were shocked!" Valbuena says. "They didn't know we had 3,700 employees and that 97 percent of those employees are non-Indian people living in the local community. They said, 'We didn't know you employ non-Indian people!'"

Also central to Valbuena's mission is tribal solidarity. "We have partnered with other tribes on economic development projects, including a hotel in Washington D.C. on Capitol Hill, walking distance to the Congressional offices," Valbuena says.  The $43 million Residence Inn by Marriott, located three blocks from the National Museum of the American Indian and just blocks from the U.S. Capitol, is the result of a tribal partnership called Four Fires between the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, the Forest County Potawatomi Community of Wisconsin, the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin and the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians of California. The 13-story, 233-suite Residence Inn by Marriott opened in 2005. It is the first-ever joint business venture between Indian tribes and is the first tribally owned enterprise in Washington D.C. A sister hotel, the $53 million Residence Inn by Marriott, Three Fires, in Sacramento, sits a block from the California State Capitol. 

San Manuel's relatively recent success has made it possible for the tribe to give back. Over the past 15 years, San Manuel has contributed more than $100 million to community-based groups and non-profit organizations in the Southern California region, and to Indian tribes and Native non-profit groups across the country. "It makes us so happy that we're able to do things like this and give help to others in need," Valbuena says. "It's great because we could never afford anything like that before. We are driven by memories of how the reservation used to be as well as our Serrano traditions of sharing with others."

Valbuena passes on stories, traditions and the Serrano language to her family. Like her grandmother and mother, Valbuena and her kids visit local schools, libraries and museums to educate people about tribal sovereignty and history. Valbuena's late mother, Pauline Murillo, who was born and raised on the San Manuel Reservation, even wrote a book (Living in Two Worlds: The life of Pauline Ormego Murillo, 2001) describing her experiences of living on the reservation and in non-Indian society. 

San Manuel is greatly focused on fostering Serrano speakers and carriers of culture. The tribe runs multiple programs through its Serrano Language Revitalization Project, and offers kids and teens a glimpse at tribal politics through its youth committee.

"We have an education department with tutoring and other programs where our kids and adults can take classes," Valbuena adds.

Additionally, the tribe is committed to helping its members pursue higher education. "Any college or vocational school [a San Manuel member] wants to attend, the tribe will take care of it, as long as they finish and graduate," Valbuena says. 

In addition to supporting the development of tribal youth, Valbuena is vested in supporting fellow women in leadership and gaming roles. "Being involved with tribal politics for 40 years, you see things. Back in the day, it was rare to see female leaders in tribal councils, as leaders, or as chair. I think nowadays, more and more, you see that," Valbuena says. 

"It's great, because we have a lot of great leaders who are females now in the gaming industry. I do what I can to mentor gaming leaders," Valbuena says. "I'm just building those relationships through networking. It always helps to know people when have a problem or issue—to just pick up the phone and call someone who can help you with whatever problem there may be."

For Valbuena, networking and maintaining good relationships have been keys to her success. "I still keep in touch with the girls I started working with in the 70s at the police department," Valbuena says of her 17-year career with the City of San Bernardino Police Department, where she worked various roles including stenographer, police assistant in narcotics and missing persons, court officer, and Public Information Officer. She left the police department in 1992, when she was elected to the Business Committee at San Manuel.

Another attribute central to Valbuena's career climb is perseverance. In the 1980s, Valbuena recalls finishing her 8-to-5 job with the police department, immediately driving to the tribe's bingo hall, and changing into her uniform at the bingo hall to work her night shift from 6 p.m. to midnight. "I wanted to learn the business and operation. It was new to all of us," Valbuena says of gaming. 

Decades later, Valbuena is no stranger to hard work and forming and strengthening connections. Valbuena specifically cited her work with the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington, D.C., and the close ties she maintains with executive director Kevin Gover. In December, she reached the end of her six-year term on the NMAI Board of Trustees with two years as board secretary. "I have been able to forge relationships with many leaders and communities, connecting San Manuel and myself to indigenous people around the world," she has said.

RELATED: Lynn Valbuena: NMAI’s Meet Native America Series

Valbuena also highlighted her strong relationship with Jackie Autry, founding chair and life trustee of the Autry National Center, a museum in Los Angeles, California, dedicated to exploring an inclusive history of the American West. Valbuena is an Autry National Center trustee and maintains a close working relationship with Richard West, President/CEO. 

Two of her other longest-held roles include NIGA secretary for 14 years (she currently serves as a NIGA delegate), and member on the American Indian Chamber of Commerce of California advisory board for the past 16 years.

RELATED: Valbuena Receives NIGA Chairman’s Leadership Award 

Valbuena comes from a long line of inspiring women, including her grandmother Martha Chacon, who served as chair and spokeswoman for San Manuel in the early 1950s. "My mother and grandmother always told me 'Don't forget who you are and where you came from.' Things were hard; it wasn't easy. I appreciate everything we have now," Valbuena says. 

She is also a descendant of the tribe's namesake, Santos Manuel. She is the great-great-granddaughter of the revered ancestor who bridged both traditional and contemporary leadership of the Yuhaviatam Clan of Serrano Indians. Valbuena and her husband Stephen have two children and three grandchildren. And about two months ago, Valbuena became a great-grandmother.

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