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Self-sufficiency is vow of tribe's chairwoman


By Stephanie Innes

TOPAWA - The first woman to lead the Tohono O'odham Nation took her oath of office Friday in a ceremony that blended progress with tradition.

In front of about 2,200 people who packed the gymnasium at Baboquivari High School, Vivian Juan-Saunders vowed to lead her tribe toward self-sufficiency. Chief Tribal Judge Betsy Norris presented her with a Bible, explaining it would be a source of advice and direction.

Before a crowd that included teen-agers in baggy pants, babies and elderly tribal members in wheelchairs, Juan-Saunders vowed that during the next four years the 28,000-member tribe will rely less and less on non-Indians.

"When we don't make decisions, other people make decisions for us and that has certainly happened in the past,'' said Juan-Saunders to loud applause from the otherwise quiet audience, which later gave her a standing ovation.

The importance of Friday's occasion was clear to anyone driving through the nation's capital of Sells, where hand-made signs in purple and yellow - the colors of the Tohono O'odham flag - pointed cars to the village of Topawa for the inauguration. Paper flowers decorated all the signposts between Sells and Topawa, about 68 miles southwest of Tucson.

The new chairwoman, who is married to Tohono O'odham Police Chief Richard Saunders, praised tribal members for preserving their culture for thousands of years, in spite of efforts by Europeans to assimilate them.

"With the constant taking away of who we are as a people, I'm amazed ourdances and songs survived," said Juan-Saunders, who gave her inaugural address in the O'odham language before switching to English.

Out of the 22 American Indian tribes with reservation land in Arizona, eight of them, including the Tohono O'odham Nation, now have female leaders. The tribe, which was recognized by the federal government in 1937, was known as the Papago until the late 20th century, when it replaced it with Tohono O'odham, which means "desert people."

Among those who attended Friday's festivities were Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, University of Arizona President Peter Likins and Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson. Juan-Saunders, who like the majority of tribal members is Catholic, personally invited Kicanas to lead a Mass before her swearing-in.

Also in the audience was Mary Jo Fox, director of the American Indian Studies Program at the UA, the same program in which Juan-Saunders earned a master's degree in 1993. The chairwoman earned her bachelor of arts at Arizona State University in 1982.

During the election, Juan-Saunders and her new vice chairman, Ned Norris Jr., were billed as outsiders by some tribal members who noted that Juan-Saunders spent several years off the reservation getting an education and in the work force, and that Norris, who is not fluent in O'odham, lives in Tucson.

But during Friday's ceremony, Norris made his first public attempt at speaking O'odham and then sang a traditional O'odham song. And Juan-Saunders, who is a former Miss Papago and Miss Indian America who lives in the O'odham village of North Komelic, stressed that her intention was always to return to the reservation after obtaining the education and experience necessary to help her tribe improve.

During the ceremony, Juan-Saunders honored the tribe's former chairmen. She presented the living former chairmen and the family members of the deceased leaders with plaques and displayed their photos. Then, Juan-Saunders and Norris joined Tohono O'odham children in a traditional dance.

Napolitano recognized the inauguration as a historic occasion for a tribe that in the past has had only male leaders. She promised to work with the tribe to improve education - a statement that drew applause.

Among other social problems, the Tohono O'odham Nation has an extremely high dropout rate. One in every four students who begins the ninth grade at Baboquivari High School, for example, does not graduate.

Norris, 47 said "Third World conditions," continue to exist on the 2.8 million-acre reservation and that more casino revenue should go to tribal housing and roads. The tribe operates three casinos, including two Desert Diamond casinos in the Tucson metropolitan area.

In an interview earlier this week, Juan-Saunders said she wants to remove bureaucracy from the budget process and is in the process of assessing the positions of the tribe's department heads.

One of her first tasks was accepting the resignations of support staffers for former Tribal Chairman Edward D. Manuel, who lost the election May 24.

Manuel, who did not attend Friday's inauguration, had led the tribe with Vice Chairman Henry Ramon since 1995.

When the tribe's former chairmen were introduced to the audience in the slide show, one by one, Josiah Moore drew the heaviest applause and a few tears. Moore, a soft-spoken leader, died of cancer in 1993 at the age of 58 while still serving as chairman.

He is credited with guiding the tribe into its modern form of government and luring commerce and building schools.

Moore also inspired Juan-Saunders, the new chairwoman recalled Friday.

"When I was at ASU Josiah Moore came and took some of us to lunch," Juan-Saunders said in an interview, wiping tears from her eyes. "He said, 'Come home. Don't forget to come home. We need you.' "

* Contact Stephanie Innes at 573-4134 or at sinnes@azstarnet.com.