- Associated Press - Sunday, November 23, 2014

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) - The call came out of left field back in June.

It was another workday at the Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi Indians’ Dowagiac government center, when Tribal Chairman John Warren was summoned to the phone — and a staff member calling on behalf of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence.

The governor, she explained, was wondering if Warren would be interested in an appointment to the state’s Native American & Indian Affairs Commission, a commission being revitalized after an acrimonious shelving in 2008.

Not just as a commissioner, she noted, but as chairman.

In August, as Warren was gearing up for the Pokagons’ annual end-of-summer powwow, the leader of the only federally recognized American Indian tribe in Indiana was officially named by Pence to chair the commission.

Now he sits facing east on one of those chilly, gray, Mother-Earth mornings that drizzles against the window of a room inside the Pokagon Band’s South Bend offices on Locust Road. Dressed in nondescript black T-shirt, jeans and a ball cap he pulls off his bald head to show the inscription “Nish” spelled out on the back, Warren periodically shifts in a chair situated on the west end of a large conference table peering into his Native culture’s spiritual direction for birth, and rebirth.

“It’s short for ‘Anishinaabe,’” he tells the South Bend Tribune (https://bit.ly/1xdvqpd ), referring to the autonomous Native culture shared by Algonquin tribes like the Odawa, Ojibwa and Potawatomi. “They used to call me ‘Nish’ when I was younger, but not so much anymore.”

Pence was drawn to Warren because of the extensive economic engine the Pokagons bring to the community.

Warren oversees a billion-dollar enterprise that employs nearly 3,500 area Native and non-Native residents through three casinos and a chain of building-development projects. The tribe has paid nearly $71 million into the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, more than $24 million to local governments in the New Buffalo area, and another $12.8 million to local governments stretching from New Buffalo to South Bend — all since 2007.

Housing and development of the tribe’s Dowagiac properties, most recently the building of a new health care facility next to the government center on Sink Road, have spurred the local construction industry, and last year’s land purchase on Locust Road moved the tribe into Indiana with expansion that includes a new health clinic to serve South Bend-area Pokagons.

Throw in the first pitch to naming rights at South Bend’s Four Winds Field, and the governor was impressed.

“John Warren has dedicated his life to preserving the legacy and enhancing the lives of Native Americans in the Great Lakes region,” Christy Denault, communications director for Pence, wrote in an email. “Governor Pence is deeply honored that a man of Mr. Warren’s passion and caliber is willing to serve in this role, and we believe his vision and leadership will help identify and provide opportunities to Indiana’s Native American community, as well as continue to enhance the cultural development of our state.”

Growing up on South Bend’s southeast side, Warren recalls being raised in an area “so bad then that they used to put up streetlights to make it look like daylight. Police would have to walk beats, it was so bad.”

“I was a very shy kid,” he recalls, “hardly talked to anybody.”

By 1980, Warren was 23, married with three children, and struggling to not only find a job during a tough recession, but his Native heritage.

“I remember the day sitting in the house, and it seemed like the whole world came down on me,” he says. “I was trying to raise a family and there were no jobs to be had anywhere. I remember that one day I dropped down, I was so overwhelmed at what was happening, and I asked if there’s anything out there that could help me.”

Warren followed his spiritual quest to the doorstep of Clarence White, the Pokagon Band’s spiritual leader. White guided Warren to discover the spirits of his ancestors in the drum. Warren took the elder’s teachings and began not only singing and drumming in Potawatomi drumming circles, he also took it upon himself to become one with his tribe.

“Five years later, and my life had turned around completely,” he says, recalling a prayer that set his life on a spiritual and career path that led him to record two CDs with the nationally acclaimed Pokagon drum group Ribbon Town, and serving as the Pokagon Band treasurer in 2007 when the first Four Winds Casino opened its doors in New Buffalo.

“I realized it was probably the most sincere prayer I had said in my whole entire life,” Warren says. “It was that moment, and I chased after that moment ever since.”

Now, after so much work in Michigan, home to 13 federally recognized Indian tribes, Warren sees a special opportunity to lead a commission in the “Land of the Indians,” even if Indiana has only one sovereign tribe.

“It’s the Midwest,” he says, “and most of the non-Natives I run into mostly think there’s Indians everywhere else but here. And so, you know, you have to give kudos to Governor Pence for saying, ‘You know what, let’s bring this commission back to life again.’

“All I’m looking forward to is the future and the now,” Warren says. “My focus is bringing everyone together and creating a team environment where everybody can work together and tackle some issues.”

The list of issues facing Native American life today is daunting: Health care; alcoholism; domestic violence; foster care taking children out of Native homes and transplanting them into white culture. Plus more mundane topics, such as where to direct money from the state’s “Land of the Indians” license plates. And, of course, casinos — none of Indiana’s are Native-owned.

Like similar state commissions for women, black males, and Latino affairs, the Native American & Indian Affairs Commission is asked to study problems that are common through the population. After studying an issue, the commission is then responsible for submitting suggestions to the governor’s office on possible ways to benefit the population.

Warren says activating what was reported in February by the Bureau of Motor Vehicles as $276,350 in “Land of the Indians” license plate funds sitting in a Native American trust fund is among the first items on the commission’s agenda.

“And you have to remember Native people that live in the suburbs and off-reservation, and many of them suffer the same social plights as any other group of people,” Warren says. “I’ll look at government in three different tiers: You have your federal, you have your tribes, and you have your state. And each of those three in that triangle needs to communicate.”

Communication breakdowns derailed the commission in 2008, when five members resigned from the group citing a lack of support from former Gov. Mitch Daniels’ administration.

In a joint statement released in June 2008 by Brian J. Buchanan, Linda Madagame, Dark Rain Thom, Ray Gonyea and Reggie Petoskey, the resigning commissioners contended Daniels failed to fill all the vacancies on the commission — leaving only 14 of 15 voting members, which risked deadlocked votes.

The former commissioners also accused Daniels of ignoring emails from his staff that contained “disparaging, disrespectful and hateful messages” directed toward the Native American commissioners.

Daniels, now president of Purdue University, “will not have any comment on this topic,” according to a spokeswoman’s email.

Brent Gill, a Bloomington attorney of Cherokee lineage, served as the commission’s first chairman from 2004 to 2005 after being appointed by then-Gov. Frank O’Bannon. He recalls the commission’s problems stemming from a lack of funding and infighting among the appointed Native commissioners at the time.

“All of the problems that they had with Daniels, I’m not sure what they were because I’d been gone by then,” says Gill, who resigned the post in January 2005. “It’s kind of difficult when there’s no funding to get anything done. … But in my mind, my main problem was just trying to herd the cats, and I didn’t think I was herding them very well.

“Everybody had what they saw as their own pet projects or pet interests.”

With Warren at the helm for the commission’s resurrection, Gill says he’s “glad to see they’ve got another chief,” and adds that the Pokagon Band leader is stepping into his new role with leverage that none of his predecessors carried: “At least Pokagon land is federally recognized,” Gill says.

“You’re sitting on it,” Warren says of the only Indiana land owned by sovereign Native Americans — the 164-acre site on South Bend’s south side that facilitates the Pokagon Band’s offices amid plans to expand into housing and health service facilities for about 500 enrolled Pokagon tribe members living in the area.

The Pokagons have clearance to operate within a 10-county service area as a reservation — six counties in Indiana, and four in southwestern Michigan.

“This is our area, yeah,” Warren says, adding, “It’s a far cry from 5.2 million acres that we ceded over in 1833 in Chicago.”

Like the Pokagons, whose Native tradition carries on in name at Pokagon State Park near Angola, the Miami Tribe — which maintains tribal headquarters in Peru — remains among the state’s last-standing original tribes, along with the Wea and Shawnee. Unlike the Pokagons, however, the Miami Tribe does not possess federal sovereignty to meet land-ownership requirements to house its own community for tribal members that would include housing, health care facilities, or a casino.

A state mandate prohibiting commission members from making recommendations on “negotiations between a tribe and the state or federal government concerning tribal sovereignty” makes it unlikely the Miami tribe would become the second sovereign Native tribe in Indiana in the near future.

“I don’t have any trouble saying this,” Warren insists, “but I think Indiana has a long ways to go to understanding tribes and how to deal with federally recognized tribes. And I think they’ve come a long ways in the last few years.”

___

Information from: South Bend Tribune, https://www.southbendtribune.com


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