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Dallas resident and former Grand Ronde Tribal Chairwoman Cheryle Kennedy in the Tribe's Health & Wellness Center.
March 13, 2013
DALLAS -- Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Tribal Councilor Cheryle Kennedy remembers spending summers in Grand Ronde during the years her tribe technically wasn't considered a tribe.
Kennedy, a Dallas resident who served as the tribal council's chairwoman for 10 years, said after the tribe lost its federal recognition in 1954, Grand Ronde families would make an annual trip to their former home to care for the cemetery where their tribal leaders were buried.
The Western Oregon Indian Termination Act of 1954 stripped the tribe of its reservation -- and tribal members of access to health care services and education assistance provided to other Native Americans.
Cheryle Kennedy served as tribal chairwoman for 10 years during her tenure on the tribal council.
Kennedy, 65, has a copy of the Federal Register in which each member of the tribe was identified by name and declared to be no longer Native American.
Their very heritage was taken away with the passage of a law that proponents claimed would help Native Americans assimilate and become less dependent on the government.
Kennedy said it had the opposite affect.
"Your identity taken? That needed to be healed for the Grand Ronde people who went through that," Kennedy said, seemingly with the same determination her people must have felt during the fight for restoration.
That healing would come in time.
This year marks 30 years since the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde was restored to federal recognition.
For Kennedy, who still faithfully serves on the tribal council, those years have had many proud milestones. Many of those accomplishments -- especially in the health care field -- Kennedy was instrumental in making happen, though she humbly prefers to give credit to others.
"We are finally adult as a nation again with our accomplishments," Kennedy said. "It's almost, though, like we've only begun."
Kennedy would know. She's been there since the beginning.
A leader grows up
The same year the tribe's recognition was terminated, Kennedy's family suffered another, more personal tragedy.
Her father, John Allen, was an engineer who made most of his living helping Native American tribes build housing and service buildings. A member of the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, Allen had returned to his home to collect a judgment claim due to members of his tribe. He never returned.
"My father was murdered in 1954, when I was a very small child," Kennedy said. "It was big news in that area that Indian people were returning to receive a resource of some kind. On his return trip, he was beaten, stabbed, robbed and thrown off a train."
To make matters worse, Kennedy's mother, Cordelia, left with six children to raise on her own, feared the family would be broken apart even further.
Then-Tirbal Chairwoman of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Cheryle Kennedy, left, greets Chief Warren Brainard of the Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians before the Grand Entry of the fourth annual Gathering of Oregon's First Nations Powwow at the Oregon State Fair and Expo Center Pavilion in Salem on Jan. 28, 2012.
"I don't know if it was just Oregon or across the United States, but Native American children were up for grabs for adoption," Kennedy said. "It was a real scare that my grandparents and mother were under."
Refusing to allow that to happen, her grandparents adopted Kennedy and her siblings. Her mother continued to live with her parents and children until she remarried.
It was during this time that the siblings grew close to their maternal grandmother, Pauline Johnson. Kennedy credits her as the person who helped shape who she has become today.
Johnson taught the children how to live off the land through hunting, fishing and harvesting wild plants.
Johnson's strength, work ethic and kindness to others set an example for Kennedy.
"I never did know her to be afraid of anything," Kennedy said, smiling at the memory of her grandmother.
She added she believed her grandmother was a liberated woman even before the women's movement. "She figured things out. She was very industrious. One of the things she taught that I carry to this day is that you can't sit and do nothing. That's just not allowed."
Building a career
Kennedy took that wisdom to heart, moving to Milwaukie and taking her first job at Pendleton Woolen Mills at the age of 18. She excelled at the work, but she wasn't satisfied. Kennedy had earned her GED after quitting school just short of graduation, but was driven to pursue education further.
Cheryle Kennedy welcomes canoes to the homelands of the Tirbe during the Maritime Heritage Festival in St. Helens on July 13, 2012.
In 1967, she began attending the University of Oregon, but only for a year.
Soon she met Vernon Kennedy and the pair married in 1968. Two children soon followed: son, Marcel, and daughter, Tamara. They lived in Portland until 1971, when Kennedy took a job with the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.
In the beginning of what would become a long and distinguished career in the public health field, Kennedy worked as a children's counselor in the tribe's group home.
Still intent on finishing her degree, Kennedy enrolled in a community college to earn an associate degree. She would eventually earn a bachelor's degree and pursue a master's degree.
In 1980, the family moved to Burns to be closer to Vernon's parents, members of the Burns Paiute Tribe. She was there to help develop a health, social services and education program for the tribe.
At the time, relations between the tribe and the Burns-area community weren't always cordial. Kennedy sought to change that.
In addition to her administrative role, she became the chairwoman of the Burns-Hines Parent-Teacher Association and even coached a baseball team, the Eagle Feathers, playing in a community league.
"I think my participation in those events -- by leading by example -- it helped people of the Paiute Tribe step out and become involved," she said.
Her proudest accomplishment of that time, however, was in education. Before her family arrived, only one Native American had graduated from Burns High School.
In all four years Kennedy was involved with the tribe's education program, at least one Burns Paiute Tribe member graduated from the high school.
If those informal summer gatherings of Grand Ronde Tribe members were the seeds of restoration, the stories told of the tribe's ancestors -- its former chiefs who sacrificed so much for the tribe's survival -- were the water and sunlight needed for the effort to grow.
"We would all come back and work in that cemetery ... remembering our elders and who they were," Kennedy recalled. "Our chiefs ... we knew where they were buried. We knew who they were through talking and telling stories. We never let it die."
Kennedy's personal journey took her to all ends of the state of Oregon, but she said it has always been linked to that of the Grand Ronde Tribe.
"I was never disconnected from the Grand Ronde people," she said. "My grandmother would never, ever let us forget."
In the 1970s, tribal members decided it was time to regain the tribe's status, and along with it, restore its culture and heritage.
Then-Tribal Chairwoman Cheryle Kennedy testifies before the Portland City Council about a resolution to formalize consultation with tribal governments during a city counil meeting at Porltand City Hall on July 11, 2012.
Three tribe members, Margaret Provost, Marvin Kimsey and Merle Holmes, led the effort that took the work of many.
"The elders -- now they are all gone -- they would support the lobbying trips by buying supplies to write letters and to make phone calls to get our cause known," Kennedy said. "They supplied money with bake sales, through yard sales, through selling quilts, making jams and jellies, to help finance (restoration) ....
"They didn't know what it meant for them because they pretty much figured they would be gone -- most of them are -- but they wanted something better for their grandchildren and their grandchildren's children."
That commitment finally bore fruit in 1983, when President Ronald Reagan signed a bill restoring the tribe.
Rebuilding a nation
Restoration was only the beginning as the tribe turned its attention to establishing a reservation and providing services for its people.
Kennedy served on the council from 1984-85 that researched and crafted a proposal for establishing a new reservation. It was approved in 1988, dedicating 9,811 acres.
Once that was completed, she resigned from the council to become tribal health director.
"My biggest issue was bringing quality health care to my tribe -- healing in all ways to my people and healing to our land," Kennedy said.
Kennedy's first task was to find out what was needed in health and human services. She conducted a needs assessment and began the slow process of building a system to meet those identified.
That culminated in the opening of the tribe's 40,000-square-foot health and wellness center.
The center opened in 1997 and was designed to offer comprehensive care in one location: primary care, mental health, dental care, physical therapy, and drug and alcohol counseling.
Each detail of the building holds cultural significance, from the art on the walls to the shape of the central tower -- made to resemble the cedar basket hats tribe members wore -- to the wood post carvings on second-level railings. Kennedy remembers the story behind every piece.
A significant achievement for the tribe, Kennedy wanted it to help the larger community, too. She opened it to anyone who needed care.
"Native Americans were not the only ones going without care in our area, it was everyone," she said. "There's a fee for service for anyone who is (not Native American), but anyone can come there."
When the clinic opened, Kennedy believed her work was finished. She resigned her position and became the executive director of the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board, which coordinates services to 43 tribes in the Pacific Northwest.
But it wasn't long before her life led her back to Grand Ronde.
In 2000, Kennedy was involved in a car accident and seriously injured. The crash made her re-evaluate her life.
She felt it was time for a change and it presented itself when she was nominated to serve on the tribal council again.
"Something inside nudged me, `Accept it,'" Kennedy recalled. "I've been on the council ever since."
Ten of those years she served as tribal council chairwoman, essentially the public face of the tribe. During that time the tribe expanded Spirit Mountain Casino, established a tribal police department, gave millions back to the community through the Spirit Mountain Community Fund, and -- of special importance to Kennedy -- successfully lobbied for the inclusion of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act in the Affordable Care Act, making it permanent.
"All of it has been a lot of work, but the future for our children is much brighter than it was," she said.
Kennedy said the tribe still has challenges ahead. She said it needs to focus on sustainability and care for the earth, as well as studying and promoting its culture.
"Culture is very important to me. So much more work needs to be done. We need to live 1,000 years to get it all done," Kennedy said, then adding with a smile, "It's a good thing I come from a family line that lives long."
Meet Cheryle Kennedy ...
Hometown: With the frequency she moved with her family as a young child, she can't really narrow down her "hometown." However, she did spend a large portion of her childhood on her grandparents' ranch in Warm Springs with a large multi-generational family.
"That was the building blocks for being responsible and for caring for others. In a large family, of course, you learn to share ... it's the family perspective."
Family: Husband, Vernon; daughter, Tamara; son, Marcel; and grandchildren.
Heroes: Grandmother Pauline Johnson: "I think the wisdom that she knew was that -- way before the women's movement -- she was a liberated woman. She knew that women ruled the roost and that we take care of things. We treat people right and we are honorable people. When folks need a helping hand, you help them, and you do that with joy."
Aunt Maud Hudson: "She was very kind and resourceful. Children were never out of place around her."
First Job: Pendleton Woolen Mills at age 18.
Proudest Feats: Building of the tribe's 40,000-square-foot health and wellness center; providing services for Oregon, Washington and Idaho as the executive director of Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board; making the Indian Health Care Improvement Act permanent with inclusion in the Affordable Care Act; and restoration of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde in 1983.
"A lot of healing took place," Kennedy said of restoration. "When you study groups of people, the one thing they need is an identity. When you don't have it, you have problems amass. That's what happened to us. ... That (restoration) was one of the highest points in my life when that happened."
Something most people don't know about her: She loves bead work. Her creations have even been displayed in Native American museums.