As I sat down with Lynn “Nay” Valbuena at Fantasy Springs Resort Casino in California, I felt extremely honored to be speaking with a woman who has made so much change in the lives of Indian people. Earlier that day, Valbuena accepted the award from Ernie Stevens Jr., chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association, for the Indian Gaming Advocate of the Year. It became very clear very fast that Valbuena is both proud of her achievements, and humble for what she has done in her community. She speaks with passion and a purpose—similar to the kind of life she lives. Just read some of what she said in her award acceptance speech:
I want to thank you for the recognition of the Indian Gaming Advocate of the Year. I am humbled by this award. Whenever I receive awards, I really don’t like to say anything to my friends. I get a little embarrassed because we all work so hard out there and we all work these tireless hours putting in our time for Indian gaming. Many tribal leaders will continue the hard work in the future, and I accept this award on behalf of all of you, all the tribal leaders, and as Ernie would say, we don’t do this without all of you. From our staff to our vendors, everyone that participates in Indian country, to make Indian gaming what it is today, thank you all so very, very much.
Prior to that, Stevens shared his thoughts on Valbuena and this award. He said: “This is one of the most significant awards in Indian country, and I have the honor of presenting this to Lynn. I really want you to hear some of these positions Lynn holds. Tribal Alliance of Sovereign Indian Nations, TASIN, 1995 to present she serves as chairwoman. It’s a an intergovernmental association of tribal governments that are very influential in shaping policy and communication as it relates to tribes in the southern California region. And 1997 to present she serves as secretary on NIGA’s board—she’s a senior member of our board and the longest serving officer in the organization’s history. She has also been the delegate since 1991 to present for the National Congress of American Indians, the oldest and largest tribal group in Washington, D.C., in our history. She is also fairly new but very active with the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. She’s also very active with the Autry National Center. … And so many other things. Joe Baca’s honored Lynn as Woman of the Year. She’s been honored at NIGA for the John Kiefer Award.
I want to say this: Lynn will go down in history as one of the most influential Indian leaders of our time. She is a Native American woman; she is a wife; she is a mom; she is a grandma. But most importantly and most effectively, she is a leader. I think it is important we understand and appreciate that. You read in the books about Geronimo and Sitting Bull and all these great leaders. You are looking at one today. She is our modern-day, contemporary leader.”
And so it is with much excitement and respect that I share with CEM readers the conversation we had after her speech. Read on to see what Valbuena has to say about various issues affecting Indian country and what her own life is like. From growing up on the reservation, to her hobbies, commitment to her tribe, and the balance she has to strike with her work and family life, it was an intriguing conversation. Get to know this true advocate for Indian country here.
CEM: We always see your name listed as Lynn “Nay” Valbuena. What does “Nay” mean?
LV: It certainly doesn’t mean no [chuckles]. At birth, my mom named me Lynnrae, but on my birth certificate, they separated the Rae from the Lynn, so it made it look like it was my middle name. She kept Rae as my middle name, but my family now still calls me Lynnrae. Growing up as a kid, my aunt who is only 9 months older than me, could never say Lynnrae, so she’d say Nay because it rhymed. That’s how the name stuck with me.
CEM: What was your upbringing and family life like?
LV: My family life growing up was all good. My mom and dad taught us family values as kids. I remember the days growing up on the reservation. I stayed with my grandmother and my aunt, and the school bus would come and pick up my cousin and I and take us to public school. It used to be fun as kids running up the mountain and up the hill. Our reservation is all foothills and mountains, a lot of dirt roads. We had this very small reservoir, maybe 5 feet by 10 feet, and to us it was a huge swimming pool. One time my cousins and I drained the water out of it and painted the inside blue. We must have been maybe 7 or 8 years old. We let it dry, and it looked like a swimming pool. We disconnected the pipes and let the water run until it filled up which was maybe 3 or 4 feet deep. And that was our swimming pool on the reservation. It was fun on the reservation growing up. Just kind of ran around, played kick the can, went to school and enjoyed life.
CEM: What other jobs have you held?
LV: I started out in tribal politics 35 years ago. At the age of 20, I was hired as a secretary for the San Bernardino Indian Center. It was a
non-profit organization that helped Indian people in the community who were in need of food, clothing and other types of assistance. I was the secretary and then I worked my way up after a couple years to the assistant director. That’s when I started learning more about Indian people and the politics. I would go to the board of directors meetings, and I would see the political arena as far as board members disagreeing on various issues, and I’m sitting there as a 20-year old secretary thinking ‘wow, people are really getting mad,’ and a lot of it was just political. That was really my first introduction to politics.
Before that, I had graduated from Skadron College of Business in San Bernadino. I was able to obtain a grant from the BIA to attend Skadron College. During that time, I was the housing commissioner for San Manuel and would attend meetings with AMIHA (All Mission Indian Housing Authority) to try and bring better housing to San Manuel. So, while working at the Indian center, I was still seeking other employment, and eventually I was hired by the San Bernardino Police Department. I worked there for 16 years and I believe that my position with the police department really helped me when I was elected to the business committee for San Manuel in the early ‘90s, because in my position with the police department, I built a lot of good working relationships with the people that I had to know in politics, from the mayor to chief of police to judges, to the DAs, and various people in those high-profile positions in the local government. I resigned in 1992 to work more closely with my tribe and other tribes, and when there was an issue with my tribe and the city, I’d pick up the phone and call the mayor or the city attorney. It was easy access because people knew me and gained my trust during my tenure with the PD. And then when I left the PD in ’92, I was the public information officer. That also helped me as far as public speaking and talking to people because that was my role and responsibility and it became easy for me when I was elected to the business committee at San Manuel.
CEM: How long has your tribe had a casino?
LV: We’ve had gaming since 1986, and that started with the bingo hall. We were one of the largest bingo halls in the nation, maybe one of the top three, because our bingo hall would hold about 3,000 people. Then we got into the casino part of it where we were able to have slot machines. We put slot machines into the huge bingo hall and had some of them on one side on the bingo hall, and eventually we built a whole new casino. We still have the 3,000-seat bingo hall and the new casino, and that’s been about five years. We just celebrated our 24th year in gaming in July.
CEM: How instrumental were you in bringing gaming to your tribe?
LV: Back in the late ‘70s, we had various people visiting the reservation asking if the tribe ever thought about a bingo hall and letting us know what our options were. It was kind of new to us. We knew nothing about gaming, nothing about high-stakes bingo. They offered to show us different bingo halls in the nation. One was at Seminole in Florida, and there was one in Arizona. I remember going to a couple of those places and looking at the bingo halls, coming back and talking to the tribe about it. Everyone was like, ‘What the heck, who is going to want to come and play bingo?’ Little did I know, or we know, you’re playing 12 cards per game, and they’re calling numbers every 20 seconds, and this is high-stakes bingo. You’re talking about thousands and thousands of dollars.
Today I introduced and said thank you to the casino management from San Manuel who were here in the audience. They were the first ones that came from the Seminole bingo hall to train our new employees as floor clerks, food runners and bingo callers. We ended up keeping them, and they didn’t go back. Now, they’re in management, and they’re like family to us because they’ve been with us for over 20 years.
It wasn’t easy because we had different management groups coming to the tribe and you don’t know who to trust. Who has the credibility, and who are these people? Are they going to get a cut? Do they just want the profit? So, we had to have an attorney look at everything. We decided one day let’s try it, and we had our opening day on July 24, 1986. We had neighbors crawling over their backyard walls [to get in line] and they were the ones complaining about this huge wall blocking their view of the mountain.
CEM: What are some of the issues closest to your heart in Indian country?
LV: Keeping our culture and traditions alive and never forgetting who we are or where we came from is very important to me. Also, continuing the sustainability of what the tribes have been able to accomplish through tribal government gaming. It has allowed the tribes to diversify through economic development and implement their own programs such as education, health care and home loans. Some tribes no longer have to rely on federal grants from the BIA for these types of services. The average person doesn’t realize or understand that if you live off the reservation and you want to build a home on the reservation, you can’t go to a private financial institution and say ‘I want to borrow x amount of dollars to build a home on the reservation.’ They’ll look at you and say ‘That’s federal land and you have no collateral. We’re not going to loan you any money.’ Now, San Manuel has established our own home loan program and our own tribal credit union. So our tribal members can now borrow from our credit union and pay back the tribe through a mortgage payment if they choose to build on the reservation. Offering assistance to other tribes in need is also close to my heart. I will do what I can to help others.
CEM: What other activities are you involved in outside of representing Indian country?
LV: That’s easy—I don’t have any [laughs]. It’s all Indian country because I’m so involved on a local, state and national level when it comes to the tribes. It’s the passion that drives me. With that comes the commitment and dedication. One of my hobbies is I like to sew. My husband always laughs when he sees that in my bio because he says ‘I bought you a new sewing machine and I think I saw you sit at that machine twice in five years.’ I did a lot of sewing when I was in high school and after high school. It relaxes me to sit down and sew when I have the time. I love doing that, but my schedule is just so busy that I really don’t have time or take the time for any projects outside Indian country. I do realize, though, that I need to make the time to do other outside activities. Maybe that time will come soon.
CEM: With all the positions you hold in Indian country, how do you juggle all of your commitments?
LV: I do the best I can. I have to rely on my assistant to keep up my calendar. It gets hectic at times with having so many different responsibilities. I am very lucky to have the support from my husband. It drives him crazy when I multi-task. Sometimes at a moment’s notice when I need to do something or be somewhere, it gets a little stressful, and I just have to sit back and take a deep breath. I know that after I go and do what I have to do, I really have a good feeling about it. There’s been many times where I’m just so tired and I want to sleep in, but I have to catch a flight and go here or go there, and in the morning I’ll wake up and tell my husband ‘I’m really having second thoughts about going to that meeting today. I know I have a flight in a couple hours, but I’m burnt out and tired.’ He’ll say ‘You’re a leader and people are depending on you. You’re going to feel better once you get there.’ And he’s right. He’ll give me that little nudge and pep talk and then I do feel better and I’m glad I decided to go. It helps to have support on the home front.
CEM: Do you have children?
LV: I have two children. My son is 37; my daughter is 36. My daughter is married and has three children. I don’t see my grandchildren as much as I would like. I’ve missed birthdays; I’ve missed a lot of family celebrations because of my commitments to Indian country. But, I always make it a point that if I’m going to be gone on one of their birthdays, to see them before I leave.
It’s a lot of sacrifice and compromise with family when being so involved and passionate about what you do. For example, just this past April we had the annual NIGA conference. Our membership meeting and the Wendell Chino award banquet were on my husband’s birthday and I told my husband I would be home early to take him to dinner. He said, ‘Better yet, let’s do dinner in Vegas. I’ll catch a flight this afternoon. Meet me in Vegas.’ I left the membership meeting early to catch a 5 o’clock flight to Las Vegas. We had a great dinner in Vegas. Sometimes you have to make those sacrifices when it’s at home with your husband, your kids and family. You just have to do what you have to do and put your priorities in place.
CEM: If you could have one wish for Indian country come true today, what would that be?
LV: I wish for the tribes to continue their sustainability. Sustainability through tribal government gaming has given the tribes the opportunity to become self-reliant and self-sufficient. Sustainability allows tribes to help other tribal communities in need and also others in our local community as well. Many times, the tribes are faced with issues and challenges that affect our tribal sovereignty. The tribes are so diverse and unity is an important factor as there is strength in numbers. We also have to continue to educate the general public so they have a better understanding of what tribal sovereignty means and what our tribal communities do as a government. There are still people out there who think we don’t have the right to vote or that we don’t pay taxes. We get these questions all the time at meetings.
CEM: Do you have any goals for the future?
LV: My goals for the future are to continue doing what I do and help the tribes as much as I can in the capacities and roles I have in Indian country with the various organizations I work with. There is so much work to be done in Indian country and the tribes are always facing challenges that affect our sovereignty as Indian nations. I’m happy and satisfied for right now—just continuing the work I do in Indian country. It’s a part of my life; I grew up with it.
CEM: What advice do you have for others looking to make a difference in something they believe in?
LV: It’s all about passion. Once you have the passion, it’s easy because then comes the commitment and dedication. Without that passion to love what you do or want to accomplish, it’s just not going to happen. Building relationships and partnerships is very important, too. Meet new people and build those relationships and resources. Why reinvent the wheel? Follow what’s in your heart … Working with all the tribes gives me self-satisfaction because I know I am doing something that is important to them and also to me.
Visit www.aceme.org/videos to view CEM’s video coverage of CasinoFest 8, including the Indian Gaming Advocate of the Year keynote address and an interview with Lynn Valbuena.