Former Tribal Chairman Reyn Leno bids farewell, but leaves door open for possible return

Former Tribal Chairman Reyn Leno bids farewell, but leaves door open for possible return

(Editor’s note: Former Tribal Council Chairman Reynold L. Leno, 66, retired from office after spending 21 consecutive years on Tribal Council and winning seven straight elections. He arguably has received more votes than any candidate ever for Tribal Council with 3,564. Those votes were cast during his seven successful runs and four unsuccessful runs in the early 1990s. Since 1996, Leno has served five years as Tribal Council chairman, 10 years as vice chair, one year as secretary and five years as a Tribal Council member. Below is a transcript of his “exit interview” with Smoke Signals conducted by Editor Dean Rhodes on Tuesday, Aug. 29.)

Smoke Signals: At the May 31 Tribal Council meeting when you announced that you would not seek re-election, you said it was a “quick 21 years.” What prompted your decision to not seek an eighth consecutive term?

Leno: Number one, 21 years on a Tribal Council is pretty grueling. You usually don’t have council people who run that long. I think it is just a good time in my life to step out for at least a year. I’m only 66 years old. Time to take a look, you know, do I want to do this some more or do I want to go into retirement and do some more of my personal stuff? So that was kind of why I decided this was a good year.

Smoke Signals: In your first four runs for Tribal Council in the 1990s, you were not elected. Did you ever think about not trying again?

Leno: No. It was a different atmosphere then. It was the Tribe coming together. People were really, “What can I do for my Tribe?” And, of course, I lived here all of my life so what can I do for my Tribe? I had kids so I knew potentially whatever you decided would impact the future. I had three kids and hoping someday I would have grandkids, which I got eight now. So, no, I didn’t. I was working. I was logging and the timber industry at that time was good. I guess I didn’t have nothing to lose. And it was a lot different. You didn’t have to spend $5,000 on an election and you didn’t have to make signs. Basically, you just had to get the support of the people and write your letter for Smoke Signals and that was pretty much it. There wasn’t really a whole lot of cost to it.

Smoke Signals: You spent 16 years on Tribal Council as a member and the last five years as Tribal Council chair? Is there a discernible difference being the chair in trying to get your legislative agenda accomplished?

Leno: I didn’t really have a legislative agenda because my agenda was always about the membership. Come being here during Termination, living here in a very poor community, that was always on my mind right through the whole 21 years. What can we do to make life better for the membership? I look back at when logging was a very tough occupation and you lived from payday to payday. If there was a snowstorm in between, you had a very thin payday. It was very tough and we were raising three kids and you started planning in the spring for buying school clothes in the fall. There was a lot more to it than that. It was tough.

I think the only difference is basically you have to gather a decision from the council and deliver that whether you like the decision or whether you don’t like the decision. You have to deliver that decision, but realistically you don’t get a vote on it unless there is a tie in it. Your responsibility is changed from being “Hey, I think we should do this and here’s my vote” to “OK, you eight have decided this and now I have to deliver this to whoever, whether it be in Congress, the governor or the membership.” That’s my responsibility now, to gather the decision of council and deliver it.

Smoke Signals: What do you think the biggest accomplishment(s) have been by the Tribe during your 21 years of service?

Leno: Oh, wow, that’s a long list. I think, looking back, I always tell people that I was very fortunate to have been here in the first probably 10 years of the casino time. We probably delivered more benefits in that time. Of course, I was the youngster on council, but we probably delivered more health care, per capita, Elder’s

Outgoing Tribal Council Chair Reyn Leno is gifted a Tribal Pendleton logo blanket, on behalf of council, by then-Tribal Council Vice Chair Cheryle A. Kennedy, left, and Tribal Council member Denise Harvey, right, after the swearing-in ceremony for the newly elected Tribal Council members in Tribal Council Chambers in the Governance Center on Wednesday, Sept. 13. (Photo by Michelle Alaimo)

pension and schools. I was here when we were only giving three scholarships. All of the different stuff … per capita. We started pouring money into our endowments and very fortunate now that they just went over the $700 million mark. Most important ones, I would say things like health care was a big one for me. Education, obviously, because it was something I looked at it was going to make a better life for somebody or their families. I think the sovereignty issues were always big for me. The regaining of our hunting rights, living here and hunting and everything. The fishing rights two years ago was a very emotional time when we went up and watched our fishermen. It was like watching the people I knew fishing on the rocks. Tribes don’t get an opportunity to regain sovereignty, but Grand Ronde has regained two or three different types of things with sovereignty. It’s pretty huge. I don’t know if people really realize how big that is in Indian Country.

Smoke Signals: Do you have any regrets or disappointments? Things you would have liked to have seen accomplished that were not?

Leno: One of them would have been health care. For a long time, and it goes back councils … oh, we’ll never be able to endow … we got a health endowment, but we don’t have a health plan to use that endowment or build that endowment to provide that health care. I think had we ever viewed it like we do today … I believe now, and I have talked to Cheryle (A. Kennedy), who has been here a long time, now today we’ve turned and said, “Hey, we could do this.” It would take some work to put it all together and then take work to do the financial side to build it up to enough to have a health plan in place, but years ago we always said, “We’ll never be able to do that.” I wish we would have recognized sooner that that was potentially there and we could have done it. I wish we had one in place right now because if you really look for a weakness that would probably be one of the weaknesses. We have money in the endowment, but do we really have a health plan? And it’s going to be very complicated. You have people inside the six counties, people outside the six counties. Obviously, health care in Oregon is different than health care in West Virginia or New York. It’s going to be a difficult task, but I really do believe that now with the money and the finances and where the endowments are at, we can actually do it. It would be a lot of work, but I think it could be done.

Smoke Signals: As you leave Tribal Council, where do you see the Tribe heading?

Leno: I’ve seen the Tribe grow from being just a Tribe in Grand Ronde to a Tribe that is now recognized both at the state and federal levels. I see us moving forward. We’re successful. A lot of people would argue whether we’re successful or not successful. We’re very successful. It’s just can we maintain that success on both the government side and that success of taking care of our membership. I believe we can. I think it is work. The going out with the state now and the city of Portland, that’s the newer part of it, but we also have to make sure that we maintain the benefits and services for our Tribe. I believe we can keep making them better and keep moving forward. I think we need to quit panicking over things and start accepting the competition and getting better at dealing with it.

Smoke Signals: With your retirement, only two Tribal Council members will be 60 or older: What do you think of the new generation of Tribal leaders that is taking over?

Leno: There has been a change, I believe. A lot more policy and stuff that they use as opposed to direct contact with the membership. I don’t see our younger councilors having as much interaction with the Tribal membership as they used to have. I can’t say there’s too much policy because the Tribe has grown. It’s just a lot different from when you had 2,000 people and you had that direct communication with people and you had a 100 people working for the government as opposed to 400 people working for the government and a membership of 5,000. It’s just grown so big that you got to have so much policy and ordinances and everything to guide you that you’ve kind of lost that personal deal. A lot of older people don’t deal with as much policy. They like the word of mouth and the face-to-face stuff.

Smoke Signals: During the most recent Employee Service Awards, it seemed like you were hedging a little on this being your retirement, hinting that it might just be a “break” in service. Will it be difficult to be sitting out in the audience? Will you consider running again?

Leno: Am I thinking about running again? Yes, I’m thinking about running again. It’ll just depend on what I see happening in the Tribe because I care about the Tribe. Sure, I’m thinking about running again. Sitting out in the audience? I’m looking forward to sitting in the audience with the membership again. So many times that’s one thing I missed on council: Just going to a function and being treated just like a Tribal member as opposed to a council member. It seems like everybody’s got a question for you or whatever, and you got to be careful about what you say and you have to be careful of your opinion and all that stuff, but I really miss that growing up here in Grand Ronde. I know everybody and I really miss that, not being able to sit down and have a conversation like everybody else. So I’m kind of looking forward to sitting in the audience. But I also know now, sitting on the other side of the table, what a difficult task it is to make decisions and not be able to communicate your decision-making to them.

Smoke Signals: If I gave you a magic wand and said you could change one thing about the Tribe, what would it be?

Leno: I love the Tribe. I love the success of the Tribe. I love what we can do for the membership today. I wish I could instill all the things that I grew up and learned from my grandparents, my mom and my dad and my aunts and uncles and all the people I knew here at Grand Ronde, which was a very small group. I wish every Tribal member out there could know that: the way I grew up here in Grand Ronde. I think it gives me a more of a sense of what Grand Ronde really is as an Indian Tribe. If you go too much business or whatever, are we really a Tribe? Do you lose that Tribal reputation if you go too much business? If everything is corporation, do you became a corporation or are you still a Tribe? That is one thing that would worry me: Are we becoming too much corporation and not enough Tribal? Holding on. We can go write books and read books, but it seems to me like we don’t listen enough to the Elders. It’s just a different world.

Smoke Signals: An Elder once said to me that he sees any division in the Tribe as more of a schism between those who were raised in Grand Ronde and those who were not. Do you think that has any validity?

Leno: I can’t speak for the people on the outside, but I can tell you that I have a lot of relations who lived in Los Angeles, who lived in Oakland, Calif., lived outside of Grand Ronde, and some of them grew up and left here and some of them came back here on a consistent basis. I guess, for me, it kind of goes to my point of I wish everybody could’ve grown up here at Grand Ronde. If they’d have grown up here at Grand Ronde and then left then they might have a different feeling. Is there a difference because you grew up out here? I don’t know. Some of them lived in Tribal communities outside of here. Cheryle grew up in Warm Springs. I knew different ones who grew up and were involved in Indian movements and stuff outside of here. I don’t think it really matters where you lived.

Smoke Signals: Like the nation as a whole, a vast majority of eligible Tribal members do not vote. Do you think there is any way the Tribe can improve voter participation or is that just the way it is because of the historical trauma and relocation of Tribal members after Termination?

Leno: I think if you did the statistics on it, the vote is whose family is running. If this person ain’t running, their family won’t vote. That impacts the outcome of the election. I bet if you went through and checked out everybody’s vote to see what years they did vote, it would relate to somebody of their family running in that election. I think when you look at the national level, we’re still pretty average even with the county and the state. I think the thought is because we only have 3,800 Tribal members over the age of 21 or something around there that we can get more. I don’t think you’re going to. It may, I guess. Families tend to spread out, but realistically I don’t think until that changes … I don’t think it will change. It’s going to be family oriented.

Smoke Signals: Opinions on per capita vary. Even previous Tribal Council members still occasionally criticize the practice during the Other Business portion of meetings. Overall, do you think it has been a good or bad practice for the Tribe?

Leno: I think it is one of the fairest things we do. I don’t think it’s outrageous. I don’t think it harms the Tribe. I don’t think we give enough that it makes people become reliant on it, but I can tell you from somebody who worked in the timber industry and lived from weekend to weekend, I would have loved to have had per capita to help my family during my 25 years in the woods. It would have been great to have something like per capita help you catch up every three months. I think it is very beneficial to the working man. It’s great for the kids because theirs goes into a fund. And, of course, Elders are always stretched thin with just Social Security. I think it’s good and I don’t think it hasn’t made people become dependent.

Smoke Signals: You are known for your strong and unwavering support of veterans based on your two years serving in the Marine Corps and tour of duty in Vietnam. How has that wartime experience shaped your life and your service to the Tribe?

Leno: I’ll go back to not only my time in Vietnam but also my 25 years working in the woods, a very dangerous occupation, especially back in those days when you were logging big logs and you didn’t have an opportunity to make mistakes … mistakes would cost you your life. Hesitation will, unfortunately like in Vietnam, get you killed. I always like to keep things moving forward. I think too much hesitation does more harm. It’s like if we were dealing with an organization and we tended to just hesitate with them on a consistent basis, pretty soon they’re going to lose interest in you. You got to do something positive and keep moving forward. It’s easier to correct something than not do nothing at all.

Smoke Signals: I had the honor of interviewing you and your uncle Russ Leno for the 25th Restoration video and he commented that he wanted to see you as Tribal Council chair before he walked on. Do you see any of the next generation in your family possibly serving on Tribal Council? Is that something you would like to see?

Leno: Some of them have talked about it. I don’t push them either way. I think to be successful on council it takes a special knack for doing it. If they want to, I would certainly be proud to have them serve on Tribal Council someday, but I don’t push them one way or the other.

Smoke Signals: What is that “knack” that you are talking about?

Leno: Here’s how I look at it. If you’re successful at home and raising your family, doing good things, securing your finances to make sure you are going to be taken care of the rest of your life, your kids are good. Realistically, when you move to council you are just moving to a bigger family and you should use the same common sense. My dad always told me it’s just adding zeroes. When you get on council, it’s just adding zeroes. If you are successful raising a family and having a good family, then you will be successful on council.

Smoke Signals: What parting words of advice to you have for your fellow Tribal members?

Leno: I’ll use the words of my dad: Don’t forget where you come from because if you forget where you come from how will you know where you want to go? And it goes back to my comments about too many people tend to forget where we came from … from nothing, from the two-acre cemetery and a name to where we are today. Too many people forget the journey.