By Hilary Corrigan
Triplicate staff writer
As the new year begins, Maria Tripp and Bonnie Green settle into their seats as Chairperson and Vice-Chairperson of the Yurok Council to lead the the largest tribe in California.
The two have long worked with state and federal government officials. They recall the monthly trips that they used to take to Capitol Hill, visiting members of Congress and their aides, testifying before committees, introducing themselves each time.
"Educating them on what it's really like here it's an eye-opener for them," Green said of the Washington, D.C., crowd that always seems to expect rich gaming tribe representatives.
Agreed Tripp, "It's always education."
Tripp and Green first served terms on the council in the early 1990s, when the new government body focused on crafting the 5,000-member tribe's constitution that Green carries a copy of in her purse.
Since then, the tribe's staff has grown from five to 200, a new tribal office stands in Klamath and the big issue at the start of the new three-year council terms focuses on removing a power company's dams from the Klamath River.
Green, though, still sees her role as one of service.
"I think of myself as a worker," she said.
Tripp takes a similar view of her Chairperson seat.
"People who can, should. It's your civic responsibility," Tripp said. "What did you accomplish today? What did you do to help someone?"
One tribe, one people'
Tripp and Green ran again for the posts partly to complete a project that they started securing an $86 million account from the Hoopa-Yurok Settlement Act that passed in 1988.
Tripp expects to use the money to expand programs for housing, education and elders' needs, while planning its investment so that the fund will sustain itself.
The two also want to hear members' ideas.
"That's the main goal, is that we listen," Green said. "That's why it's important to get the information out."
That's another reason why Tripp and Green sought the top seats on the nine-member council that includes seven districts.
Tripp points to members' perception of an ineffective bureaucracy and a need for open government. She wants to hear tribal members' ideas, host discussions on issues that concern them, invite them to participate, keep her office door open, broadcast more information in the tribe's newsletter.
"The Yurok Tribe has always tried to work by consensus," Tripp said. "We are one tribe, we are one people."
The tribe faces challenges.
"There is so much of a need out there," Green said. "There's a lot that needs to be done."
Many homes lack electricity, phone service, washing machines. Much of the areas along the upper river lack the infrastructure for those services and for computer connections.
"What everybody else takes for granted, we don't have," Green said.
The effects of the 1964 flood that wiped out stores, homes and businesses and hastened the end of the logging and fishing industries still linger in Klamath. Responses and repairs bypassed the region, leaving poor roads, an unhealthy river and a lack of jobs.
A 59-year-old Del Norte County native who represented the South District, Green sought to serve her fourth council term as the Vice-Chairperson in order to represent more people, gain access to a wider network and communicate more often with more officials.
"I feel I can just do a little bit more as a vice-chair now," said Green, who unseated incumbent Thomas O'Rourke.
Tripp, 56, won the lead office from Howard McConnell. She sought it partly to gather input from the tribe's members what would lure back Yuroks who have moved away?
Over the past decade, the tribe has focused on sending its young people to school. Now, the goal has morphed into keeping them in the area as business people, leaders and medical providers.
"That's the big challenge, not just for tribes, but for any community," said Tripp.
The tribe faces other hurdles familiar to rural communities across the nation a large, aging baby boomer generation and a small pool of doctors, along with a lack of jobs, recreation and affordable housing.
"And lack of any support system for mental health," Tripp added.
A member of the United Indian Health Services Board of Directors, Tripp aims to promote health efforts in the tribe including programs to block methamphetamine use and diabetes and boost exercise and healthy eating habits.
The women aim to build the tribe's housing program, as well.
"Just the high demand and slow progress has been really frustrating," Tripp said of members' responses to a tribal housing program's long waiting list.
She wants the tribe to buy homes and rent them out, with lower rates for college students, and improve the housing program's slow application process by adding an online system.
Tripp also wants to encourage others especially young people to take part on committees, learn the tribe's Constitution and plan to serve on its council. She finds hope in a recent public meeting, where tribal members organized protests and spoke out against plans from the Portland, Ore.-based power company PacifiCorp to continue operating dams on the Klamath River.
"I encourage people to join in and be counted," Tripp said.
Green wants to continue reviving the Yurok language one that her own mother, forced to attend a white-run boarding school, was not allowed to speak.
Both women want to boost cultural teachings to show children the tribe's history, how the Yuroks have adapted to survive, how ancestors worked and lived.
"Of who we are, how we came to be," Tripp said.
The effort will likely include compiling video footage of interviews with elders and drafting a book.
"You change with time, but you still have your past," Green said.
Who is Maria Tripp?
Elected Yurok Tribal Council Chairperson in November
The 56-year-old Klamath native lives in Blue Lake
Studied sociology at Humboldt State University and graduated from College of the Redwoods
Served on the Yurok tribal council in the early 1990s, as the group's first elected Vice Chairperson
Served as chairwoman of the California Rural Indian Health Board, as a California delegate to the National Indian Health Board and as a member of the United Indian Health Services Board of Directors
Who is Bonnie Green?
The South District representative begins her fourth term on the council in the Vice Chairperson seat, overseeing the whole territory
59-year-old Del Norte County native and Eureka resident
Retired from a phone company after 22 years and has served on the United Indian Health Board for about 15 years
Stayed active in social and tribal causes her entire life, taking part in marches and as the Yuroks became the first tribe to picket the state capital in Sacramento