If Bernadine Burnette could describe herself with one phrase, it would be, “I shoot straight from the hip!” As the vice president of Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, Burnette must makes important decisions that affect her community on a host of tribal issues, and she is sure to accomplish these tasks with the perfect amount of sass.
National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA) Chairman Ernie Stevens Jr. selected Burnette as this year’s recipient of the Indian Gaming Advocate of the Year award. The award, he says, is one of the most significant awards in Indian country, and Burnette was an obvious choice. “Bernie is a straightforward, no-nonsense leader, who wants to get the work done efficiently and effectively,” Stevens said. “She encourages everyone to work hard in everything that we do, and has a way of projecting that in a manner that is respectful and pleasant. Bernie is a fine, hardworking, contemporary leader.”
CEM has hosted the Indian Gaming Advocate of the Year awards for several years, and looks to Stevens for a selected individual each year. Past winners are Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Lynn “Nay” Valbuena and W. Ron Allen. “The award really highlights one of hundreds of tribal leaders who go the extra mile to stand up and support tribal sovereignty and help us to educate America about tribal government gaming,” Stevens said. “Not enough people really understand the term tribal government gaming, so the people that are out front are really spokespeople for our industry.”
Stevens continues, “Bernie is one person who represents the real strong tribal leaders who have gotten people to understand that we are about getting our government on our feet, educating our young, and taking care of our elders. She is a role model and a sister to us all.”
Burnette has been in a leadership role in Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation’s government for nearly 18 years, serving in the capacity of secretary, vice president and president, which is the longest any female has held a leadership role within the tribe. Prior to public office, she worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) for 18 years. “I started from the ground up, as a dispatcher for the police,” Burnette said. “I later transferred to the tribal operations office, which is tribal government-based, working with constitutions, resolutions, etc.” Following the BIA, Burnette was hired by Fort McDowell Yavapai Materials and served as the acting general manager of that enterprise. “Hard work, that’s how I gained my business experience. I then decided to take this knowledge and serve my community, and was subsequently elected to the tribal council, and you know what, I have never looked back—I love what I do!”
Burnette is a lifelong member of the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, a 930-member Native American tribe located in central Arizona. The history of the Yavapai is filled with stories of triumph in the face of great adversity. As noted on the tribe’s website, Fort McDowell Yavapais take great pride in their community, and through perseverance and hard work they have built a strong, stable community and economy. Over the years, Burnette has witnessed a great many changes in her community. For example, she was raised by her grandmother in a house with a dirt floor and no running water or electricity. “There were only 30 to 40 homes here back in the ‘60s,” she said. “I would walk to the bus stop even if it was raining or storming, because we didn’t have a car at home. I was poor growing up, but we didn’t know that back then. When I look back today, and compare it to what people like my grandkids have access to, I realize we were very poor.” Now, there are more than 300 modern homes, an accomplishment Burnette credits to the tribe’s successful business enterprises and the income they generate. “The tribe has raised additional resources for housing and we are currently building a new school in our community—we’re kind of playing catch up,” she said.
While she has seen growth and expansion in the areas of businesses and structures, she says it’s sometimes scary to see the expansion because of the changes it brings, and that she often misses the old dirt roads where people did not drive as fast. “I remember when we used to trick or treat and walk two miles on the one paved road in the community, and we’d be done in two hours,” she said. “You can’t do that anymore today.”
In honoring and preserving memories the past for future generations, the tribe is remodeling a building to accommodate a new cultural museum, which is set to open in November. This is something Burnette is passionate about since it will showcase the Yavapai heritage and history. “The museum will be funded through the government budget process,” she said. “It will display traditional art and basketry, and the vast and rich history including the aboriginal beginnings, the establishment of the tribe, the taking of our land, the Trail of Tears march, our voting rights and several gaming victories that have taken place over the years.”
Burnette says that she never saw herself in the position she holds now, as she never dreamt of being a politician. “I only wanted to be a housewife and a mother,” she said. “Although when I was in boarding school, I was always the leader of our group. I was very athletic, and always captain of our team or leader of the dormitory—that’s probably where my leadership started!” She enjoys her leadership position and relishes the opportunity to give back to her community and family; she is inspired and motivated by her two children and her grandchildren. Burnette is also glad for the opportunity to put a lot of effort into securing tribal sovereignty. “Making sure that there is hope for tomorrow and a secure future for our young people is not always easy. We have to think about education, housing, jobs and making sure we upkeep and uphold the lands of the community.”
In her position as vice president, Burnette is the liaison for several departments, including public safety, fire, prosecutor, tribal court and the legal departments. She says it’s all in a day’s work. Burnette insists on an open-door policy in order to be readily available to anyone needing her assistance. “It’s the only way to conduct business in a small community like Fort McDowell,” she said.
She says that one of her biggest personal challenges is that she is quick to use the two-lettered word, “no.” “I’m an aggressive and assertive woman,” she said, “and people have confidence in me, but sometimes I’m too quick to answer. But, the problem, regardless of how small or how large, gets my full attention and we resolve situation as a team.”
As an elected leader, there have been a number of important accomplishments Burnette was intimately involved in including federal and state government negotiations and subsequent congressional approval of the tribe’s federal water rights. “I helped see it to completion in 1991,” she said. “Now we have federal rights to certain acreage of land usage of water on tribal land for domestic, industrial, and farming activities, and no one can take that away from us.” She also helped with the restructuring of the management contract of the bingo hall in 1992 and the total revision of the tribal constitution in 1999.
Burnette is very modest about her accomplishments, but she has been long recognized by many as a respected leader. For example, she was selected as “Women of the Year” by former Gov. Jane Hull and honored by the Arizona Republic for her resolute leadership as one of only seven female Native American tribal presidents in 1999. In 2007, she was honored as one of CEM’s own Great Women of Gaming award winners, as a Proven Leader for her commitment and stand that made tribal-state compacts in Arizona a reality. In 2009, she was honored by the “Women Empowering Women for Indian Nations” for her dedication and contributions in Indian country, Fort McDowell, and the women in her community.
Besides holding the position of vice president, Burnette also holds responsibility as the NIGA secretary, a balance she says is sometimes difficult to achieve. “Having to hold both positions is very demanding and it often takes me away from my family,” she said. “But, I am very fortunate as I have their love and support. At the end of a very long day, I remind myself that what I did today will help preserve tomorrow’s prosperity of not only my community but those of other tribes, and that responsibility I take to heart.”
Her ability to balance both positions, Stevens says, is something that comes natural to Burnette. “The Fort McDowell people have been at the forefront of gaming leadership for many years,” he said. “It’s natural for her to add a leadership role, and to add a responsibility with us at NIGA. Her leadership style has resonated not just with the NIGA executive board, but with all of our staff and team. They really appreciate her good nature and punctuality. If there are every any frustrations or impatience during a meeting, she has a way of telling people, ‘Let’s get our work done; let’s bring our team together.’ She really unites people. She’s always happy, professional, and emphasizes teamwork, and we as an organization appreciate that.”
As for the future, Burnette hopes to one day hold the position of president of the tribe. She has great advice for anyone hoping to hold a leadership position: “Pray about it. Let your heart and mind guide you and the outcome; whatever your decision is, will be a good one. And remember to trust your instincts, they are usually right.”
One thing’s for sure—no matter what Burnette sets her mind on accomplishing, this Indian Gaming Advocate of the Year is certain to achieve it.