Different approaches to Wampanoag leadership

A new slate of candidates challenges experienced tribal council members in Nov. 20 election.

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Members of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) will have an opportunity to select the tribe’s leaders during an election on Sunday, Nov. 20, at 12 noon at the tribe’s community center. Mail-in ballots need to be received by Friday, November 18.

The seats on the ballot include the tribal council chair, secretary, and two council members at large. The tribe is federally recognized as a sovereign nation and thus its elections are private — only open to tribal members. There is no obligation for those running for office to cooperate with the newspaper ahead of the election, but two incumbents and two members of a group trying to unseat them agreed to speak with Times reporters. 

Given the tribe’s land holdings in Aquinnah as well as the federal laws, including tribal gambling, and federal grants the tribe receives, the tribal government is an important component of Island life.

Incumbent chair Cheryl Andrews-Maltais and other incumbent council members Naomi Carney, Steve Cradock, and Kristina Hook face challenges from NaDaizja Bolling, Kayla Manning Darcy, Camille Madison, and Linda Coombs. The challengers are running a slate of candidates called T8HKEESH (read too-keesh), which Bolling said is the Wamponoag word meaning “wake up.” The incumbent Hook is also a member of this slate. Eleanor Hebert is also running for an at-large seat, instead of re-election to the secretary position. Andrews-Matais and Cradock agreed to interviews. Carney and Hook did not respond to requests sent via email. Meanwhile, Bolling also agreed to an interview. Madison did not return phone call requests. Darcy returned a phone call, but did not respond to subsequent calls. 

Andrews-Maltais has been the tribal council chair for 5 terms and 12 years, though not all consecutively. She touts her experience, not just as the long-time chair, but as someone with connections with the Bureau of Indian Affairs where she worked under the Obama administration. “Then I got a chance to see the perspective from the other side. It was frustrating before I was actually there, then it was a little less frustrating when I came back as a chair,” she said of the BIA.

Bolling told The Times she has “quite a bit of experience in nonprofit and corporate management.” With an undergraduate degree in public health, African American humanities, and medical anthropology from Syracuse University and a masters degree in business and data science from the University of Virginia, Bolling underscored that stepping into leadership roles is natural to her. “I think a lot of my experience in the past, starting when I was a young, young girl — always captain of the cheerleading team, I started new clubs and organizations in high school and college. I’ve always just raised my hand whenever it was time to step up into a leadership role, and this is no different, really,” she said. “Of course, being a chairperson of a federally recognized tribe is somewhat political, but from my perspective, that’s not my main focus of being a chairperson. It’s being a leader and I feel like I absolutely have the qualities that my tribe needs right now.”

In the past year, Andrews-Maltais has been at Logan Airport to greet Vice President Kamala Harris and was invited to events hosted in Boston by President Joe Biden. The tribe has also secured $1.8 million for housing and an additional $800,000 to hook the tribal offices into a wastewater treatment plant. Off-Island, the tribe secured office space in Fall River to meet the needs of the Aquinnah Wampanoag who live off-Island.

Andrews-Maltais is particularly proud of the tribal leadership’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. “COVID hit and everything had to take a pause. But during that pause, we literally created programs and services to prevent, prepare for, and respond to a worldwide pandemic that nobody had ever seen before. I literally had to create new programs and services out of thin air, expanded the services and reach of our community members and during that time also increased our funding capabilities, and finished our community center,” she said. She added that the tribe re-established its relationship with other tribal leaders and political leaders at the state and federal level. “Basically, I’ve been spending a lot more time either being invited to be a panelist at the White House Council on Native Affairs and other federal policy panel discussions. I’ve been doing a lot of testifying before Congress to help shape legislation as well as policy through the consultations with our federal partners. I’ve been tapped and tasked a lot to be able to help really be on the ground floor and help formulate reasonable and responsible policy and also have been asked to sit on multiple national secretarial advisory committees in the past 3 to 5 years.”

Bolling said something missing in the tribe’s work is conducting cultural outreach for Wampanoag people who live off-Island. She said many of them live in the Boston area and this missing link is a “major pain point” for the community. 

“I think that there’s a lot of effort in trying to expand service offerings and that sort of thing to folks off of the Island, but to me, from what I observed, from what I’ve heard is that what people want who are not here is the connection,” Bolling said. She and her sister have been working on the Wampanoag Way initiative for the past two years, which is an effort to keep Wampanaog people “in the loop” with what is happening with the tribe. “That’s really important if we’re supposed to stay one large community and avoid any potential rifts that may occur because of geographic location, our proximity to this place,” Bolling continued. “We don’t want to be relegated to just like a social club, which is what you are if you don’t have the culture, if you don’t have the land because to me, that’s what makes you Wampanoag and those kinship bonds. We can’t just be paperwork pushers and making friends with people of the United States government. It has to be reflected back into this community.”

Additionally, Bolling believes that improvements need to be made in Aquinnah, such as the many empty administrative positions, before expanding more services off-Island are made. “To me, you can’t have an expansion if you don’t have a strong base. All you’re doing is relocating,” she said. 

Asked why her opponent would challenge her, Andrews-Maltais said people often look at the council from the outside and don’t understand what’s at play. “Part of any challenge to any chairperson or any tribal council member is that a lot of times people are looking from the outside in and aren’t really familiar with how our government works, how our administration works, our responsibilities for the delivery of our programs and services because we are actually stepping in representing the United States through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. For all intents and purposes, we are the United States therefore and we have to comply and conform to laws, regulations, and statutes and everything else. Most people only perceive it that we have this money that we can do what we want with the money. If somebody says, I need, I want, we’re obliged to provide and give. We simply can’t do that,” she said. “Our constituency is closer than anyone else’s so if somebody doesn’t get what they need or they want then they’re very much aggrieved by it. They speak to friends and family. If they’re familiar with the process or the structure of our internal government, how that relates to state and local government, programs and services, and how that relates to sovereignty, then they have this perception that, oh I can come in and I can do the job. How hard can it be?’ Then when they get there, they have an idea. That’s what we face and that’s why we’re trying to create a structure where people can elevate themselves into tribal leadership.”

Andrews-Maltais said she encourages new faces to join the council, but to understand there’s a lot to learn. “The only way to get these skills, knowledge and experience is to be part of the process — serving on committees, then coming in as a tribal council member at large, which is how a couple of people who challenged before are now on tribal council and understanding the complexity of being on tribal council and running a tribal government,” she said. “So they’ve kind of changed their perspective. Then spending a couple of terms at least on tribal council and/or working with the tribe to see the administrative function and then when you have a little more understanding transitioning into officers positions or eventually into a chairperson’s position because it’s an awful lot of information that you need to know.”

Bolling underscored the importance of maintaining the connections Andrews-Maltais established, but she also has guidance in her run for chair. “She’s not the only person with connections,” Bolling said. “I’ve got advisors that are all of our previous chairpeople who are helping me through this and helping me navigate this and assess what it is we’re going to need in order to transition through this properly. I value their experience and their wisdom, and the current chairperson’s. I love my tribe, I love my people, and I know she does, too.”

When asked about T8KHEESH, Bolling clarified it was not a political party. “We wanted to present ourselves in a unified way because it’s important for those tribal members, especially those who haven’t been paying close attention politically to understand that if there are this many people who are this aligned and understand the issues at such a deep level and they’re on the same page about it, that’s something worth paying attention to … I think that within a tribal government, once we get to the point where it seems like there’s the establishment and then there’s [the opposition], it just seems like you’re trying to divide up ideologies, and I don’t think that’s necessary or really the case. I think there are a lot of issues that people take sides on and what we agree on is the issues. But, it’s hardly a Democrat-Republican type of thing. It’s more so we’re aligned on the issues,” she said. “… Since we don’t always agree on everything, we’re able to have good conversations about these things and come to a consensus sometimes about what’s best for our community.”

COVID put the tribe’s pursuit of casino gambling on the back burner, Andrews-Maltais said. Right now the priority is dealing with federal grants, including AARPA and infrastructure money, that have deadlines tied to them. “We need to make sure we get these projects underway and completed in the time frame we’re given,” she said.

Craddock, who is running for re-election to an at-large council seat, told The Times he has been on the council for three terms. “We are presently engaged in an epic moment of opportunity and revitalization for our Tribal Nation which is equally challenged by the volatile dynamics of climate change, the pandemic and our economy,” he said in response to what he sees as the key issues. “Protecting our sovereignty as a federally recognized tribal nation on our indigenous lands, cultivating a diverse economic development ecosystem that is grounded in our assets and elevating the quality of life for our Aquinnah Wampanoag tribal families both on Noepe and the mainland are key areas of focus for my platform. Our ability to marshall all of our collective talent, skills and available resources towards building a vibrant tribal community is essential towards successfully navigating the road ahead for generations to come.”

Craddock said experienced leadership is vital during this “very volatile and clouded time.” “The collective knowledge of how to navigate the huge ocean and intricacies of policies, resources and programing throughout the federal and local government is vitally important,” he said. “I believe the capability to leverage years of leadership experience and professional expertise in our tribal governance provides a solid foundation to evolve and optimize blue sky possibilities.”

Craddock touted his leadership in nonprofit management, business development, social justice and public affairs. “I promote optimism and a collaborative, inclusive approach to our service that nurtures the very best of our collective abilities,” he said. “We are just beginning to realize the fruit from the hard work and tireless dedication of our tribal leadership efforts to bridge new ground with our new program services building on the mainland, cultivate strong relationships with national leadership and collaborate with innovative business organizations and diverse community stakeholders that will strengthen our footprint on our homeland and positively impact our community neighbors.”

Editor George Brennan contributed to this story. 

2 COMMENTS

  1. The difference between the two candidates is that Ms.Maltais slate has been colonized and her
    actions do not consider the views, wishes of the
    people. Whereas the slate of Ms. Bolling is all about inclusion, cultural and tradition.
    Our standing w/ federal organizations is due to the hard work of Ms.Maltais and others before her. A change in leadership will only enhance the ground work already accomplished.

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