Editor’s note: Antone Minthorn has served on the Ecotrust Board of Directors since 2002.
For most of his life, Antone Minthorn has served his people and his community. Raised on the Umatilla Indian Reservation by a Cayuse grandfather and a Nez Perce grandmother, Antone learned about the Nez Perce War of 1877 from some of its survivors when he was just seventeen years old. He heard about the fighting skill of a few hundred warriors who managed to hold off the U.S. Army after tensions exploded into battle. The Nez Perce eventually fled their homelands in the Wallowa Valley, led by Chief Joseph, traveling over 1,500 miles until Joseph, not wanting to lose any more of his people, ultimately surrendered in Montana Territory. Antone kept this story close, and later left home to spend three years at Gonzaga University before joining the Marines in 1957.
The 1950s and 60s were a trying time for tribal people. The Bureau of Indian Affairs initiated its Relocation program, and after six years of military service, Antone entered the program and traveled to Los Angeles to find work. He got married, started his family, and when he was able, transferred within the Relocation program to San Francisco.
When he arrived in the Bay Area, the Civil Rights movement was in full swing in Southern states and had begun to spill over into the urban areas. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Berkeley was in the throes of the free speech movement, and the war on poverty was declared in 1964. He stayed for nearly a decade, bearing witness to and participating in many of the movement’s actions and marches. Antone lived in the Sunnyvale Housing project, was Chairman of the Housing Committee, and led his first protest at the housing authority offices demanding tenant rights. He managed an Indian basketball team and met tribal people who were Navajo, Sioux, Comanche, Hopi and Apache. He and his son experienced the race riots of 1966, the occupation of Alcatraz, and he followed the Fish Wars on the Nisqually River where Billy Frank Jr. held “fish-ins” in protest of treaty violations.
His time in San Francisco was one of learning about community action and how to administer programs. And it was here he began to understand the true meaning of the word “sovereignty.” Antone began to wonder who he was after meeting so many Indian people from across the nation. He wondered what to do with the stories of the Nez Perce War that would not leave him.
After he finished college in 1973, the Umatilla Indian Reservation called him back. His degree in urban and regional planning landed him a job at home with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) development office as a land use planner and zoning administrator. In 1981, he was elected as the CTUIR general council chairman and later the chairman of the CTIIR Board of Trustees. His vision was and continues to be one of restoration – to restore the CTUIR land base to its original treaty boundary, to build a tribal economy, and to develop a strong education program for tribal youth – and of resilience. A resilience founded on the stories of his people’s survival.
Through his experiences, Antone cultivated a leadership philosophy based on that of Chief Joseph: A good leader should be fearless, but always concerned about the safety of his people. His fearlessness, dedication and patience influenced many CTUIR’s successes, including re-acquisition of tribal lands, the return of salmon to the Umatilla River and the development of an innovative reservation economy. According to Antone, resilient people know that creating change takes time, vision and commitment. Effective leadership means hiring people who are smarter than you, letting your managers manage, being proactive, learning how to leverage treaty rights, negotiating rather than litigating, and most importantly, an effective leader must walk their talk.
Chief Joseph surrendered in the Bear Paw Mountains in the cold Fall of 1877 so his people would survive. Antone Minthorn carries this legacy. His people have survived wars, broken promises, loss of lands, and total assimilation. But instead of surrender, he is doing something extraordinary. He is rebuilding his nation.