Dakota Whitecloud retires after more than 21 years of service to Tribe

05.31.2011 Dean Rhodes People, History, Elder Profile, Tribal employees

After almost 22 years of employment with the Tribe and standing as the sixth longest serving employee, Tribal Elder Dakota Whitecloud is heading out for the good life.

She's not going all that far - only across the street to her home in Grand Meadows, where she intends to putter in the yard and continue with her many crafts, but not everybody who knows her thinks she is gone for good.

"I have to say, I laugh when they say Dakota's retiring, going away," said Tribal Council Vice Chair Reyn Leno. "She's got my home phone and my cell number, so she ain't going nowhere."

Her tenure with the Tribe and her positions assisting the Tribe's executive staff over all those years make her an invaluable source of the Tribe's recent history.

She remembers when the Tribe moved its headquarters from the Manor Building, where she started on Grand Ronde Road, up to a new shed built on what is now the Tribal government campus when ground also was broken for the Community Center nearby.

"There wasn't nothing out there then," she said. Well, nothing but that big oak tree that still sits in the middle of the old powwow grounds.

"(Former Tribal Elder) Merle Holmes remembered that tree from when he was a boy," she said, "and he asked Tribal Council to never take it down.

"In the morning when we first came up here, I'd make coffee and stand on the deck and watch coyotes, elk, deer and some of the most beautiful sunrises and sunsets that you've ever seen."

And she continued that tradition in one form or another throughout her career.

"We'd always have our little talks in the morning," said Tribal Council member Steve Bobb Sr. "I always get in early, and Dakota is there, and we'd pour ourselves some coffee. I'll miss them little chats. She pretty much knew about every department. She's worked in almost every one."

Tribal Council member Chris Mercier also remembers early morning chats over coffee with Whitecloud.

"I will definitely miss our morning chats," he said.

"When she prepares a report," said Leno, "she is very detailed - an excellent, dig-down-get-all-the-facts-before-you-present-an-issue."

"She had an encyclopedia-like knowledge base of this Tribe, one that probably takes years to amass," said Chris Mercier. "She was valuable for that and will not be easy to replace."

Back in the day, she worked as administrative assistant to Tribal General Manager Jim Willis, who had given her "the dubious honor" of coordinating the move from the Manor Building.

"There were four semi-truck loads," she said. "It took us one week packing up, two days for the move, but unpacking took considerably longer. We were working out of boxes for probably a month."

The move had its moments.

"We had to clean out the attic in the Manor Building," Whitecloud recalled, "and (former Tribal Elder) Jackie Whisler was terrified of bats. We heard a scream. I went in and rescued the bat."

 "Leave it to you," Whisler said to Whitecloud, "to rescue a bat."

"I took it home," Whitecloud recalled, "and turned it loose.

"Back then on a Friday afternoon, it was nothing for (Tribal Elder) Mark Mercier to haul out his barbecue. It was all potlucks in those days and you couldn't believe all the food there was to eat.

"And nobody got paid for being on a committee's staff. After we moved up here, Tribal Council finally agreed to $3.50 (minimum wage then) payment for their time, if they chose to take it, and not everybody did.

"Then gaming came along. At first, the Tribal Council was dead set against it. They talked about it and talked about it and talked about it.

"Finally Mark Mercier, (who was Tribal Council chairman then), said, 'If you won't let it drop, then let's talk to other Tribes and see what they think of it.' " Along with Kathryn Harrison and Merle Holmes, Mark visited two or three gaming Tribes.

"They came back, had a whole bunch of meetings and decided, 'Yeah, we'll try it.' "

At that time, the Forestry Department was housed where the casino is now located, so Tribal Council went about bringing that land and the land that Natural Resources now occupies into Trust.

Whitecloud was instrumental in bringing in Travis Benoist (Cheyenne River Sioux) to bless the original casino building.

"We (Benoist, Tribal member Randy Butler Jr. and Whitecloud) went completely around and through the building for the blessing," she said.

"One thing I'll never forget," she said, "is how shocked everybody was when we got the first month's numbers, and the numbers of vehicles visiting the casino. To this day, I drive by and see all those cars. Where do they come from?

"People were so shocked, it was almost scary.

"They started thinking about expanding some of the programs. One of the first things was to create the endowments. For the Elders security, it started out at $50 a month. Then, it went up to $100 a month.

"In 1997, I bought my house and I was thinking, when I'm finally an Elder, I'll be able to have a few more dollars to make my home payment."

A few years later, Elders payments increased to $500 a month and then to $1,000, where it is today.

"It still amazes me that we have been able to do so much," she said. "And it's not just the Tribal Council. It's the staff, the Elders. It's everybody."

She remembers the first per capita payments when Tribal members stood out in the cold starting at 6 a.m.

"It was like a celebration, almost," she said.

For the first General Council meeting held at the Community Center, Whitecloud remembers that Tribal Council provided the meat and Tribal Elder Val Grout and her family prepared the rest of the meal. Everybody brought salads and desserts.

"Everybody was so excited about the room they had."

Whitecloud initiated the door prizes that have been a landmark of General Council meetings ever since. She started it by buying gifts as part of a 50/50 prize, but Kathryn Harrison suggested that instead of gifts, the Tribe should just give out money. And that's the way it has been ever since.

Whitecloud also created the system that allowed Elders to receive their payments by direct deposit.

She has written five ordinances for the Tribe, three of which are still in effect.

"I've written enough policy to fill this office," she said. "It needed to be done. I knew how to do it. I just did it."

"When I first came on council," said Bobb, "I was thinking I knew a little bit of what was going on, but, of course, I was not even close. They said, 'Here's your stuff. Go for it.' Dakota was the only one that helped me out, got me squared away. Every day, she said, 'You need this. You need that for the day.' She's always been a very good, helpful friend."

Leno recalls the way Whitecloud sometimes growls at folks. "I always just think that you growl louder than what she's growling. She's one of the most loyal employees to the Tribe."

"She'll be missed," said Bobb.

Whitecloud's last day of work was Friday, May 27.