A Conversation with Deron Marquez

June 18, 2024

NNI Co-founder Stephen Cornell sat down with Former Tribal Chairman of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians Deron Marquez in January 2024 to discuss hot topics in Indian Country..


A Conversation with Deron Marquez: Transcript Below

Stephen Cornell: Good afternoon. My name’s Stephen Cornell. I’m with the Native Nations Institute at the University of Arizona. And my guest today is Deron Marquez. Deron was chairman of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians from 1999 to 2006, I think six and a half years. 

He has also been a professor teaching politics and policy, holds a PhD in those topics from Claremont Graduate University, and Deron has been involved in Indigenous affairs in the United States for a long time. Continues to work in those affairs today, and we're delighted to have him with us for a little while this afternoon to talk about some of the issues that Indigenous nations in the US and other parts of the world are facing and dealing with.

So with that, Deron, I wonder if it's been. Let's see. It's been quite a while since you were chair at San Manuel. I know you've been active in other things, but tell us just a little bit about what you're up to these days and what some of the issues are that you find yourself spending time on.

Deron Marquez: Well, today I actually find myself more involved with Claremont Graduate University than I ever wanted to be. I was in the classroom, now I’m actually on the board of trustees. I chair a couple committees there, and like any other university, we are dealing with the issue of higher education being something that is not as fluid as it used to be.

So that is my big lift right now. And then on the Tribal side, I'm still engaged with the tribe on various committees, one of them being the palms endeavor in Las Vegas is I help or see that project. And what a fun one that is. But for the most part, most of my time on the Tribal side is dealing with governance issues.

Stephen Cornell: Tell us a little bit more about that. I think one of the striking things about your career is you arrived in Tribal government as a newly elected chair in 1999, and as I've heard you say to others, you faced a system which was not very well articulated. 

And you spent much of your time as Tribal chair trying to, in a sense, bring the tribe along into a more structured system that would be more capable of serving the nation's own interests and concerns.

Can you tell us just a little bit about what that challenge looked like for you?

Deron Marquez: Yeah, I mean, the the oddity, the oddity of me coming into that seat. I never grew up on the reservation. I had a mother who was emphatic about not getting involved in Tribal politics. And then I found myself, at the helm and when I came into the office, it was very clear that there was a lot of positive attitude, a lot of positiveness within the community.

But no one knew what it is they wanted to do or what they wanted from their government. So very early on, we simply asked a question, what do you want your government to look like? What laws do you want on the books? What are the things you want to tackle first? And obviously, the very beginning, what it was to create some type of educational system, create some type of health and welfare system, down to having running water on the reservation for all the homes.

So there were some very simple things that we had to tackle. But then the more complex things like the judiciary, what what do you want that to like? What do you want your business environment to look like? That took a lot of work and a lot of figuring out trial and error. And when I came in, those are the things we took on first in in six after six and a half years, I was like, okay, I'm done.

I'm tired. I've done it all that I could do it, you know? And you just we were very fortunate that when we came into office and I say we because it wasn't just me. There was five of us on the committee who was doing all this. We had a blank canvas. We were able to do things and try things, and if it didn't work, we were able to pivot away from that and then switch to something that was more attainable or at least more agreeable to the governing structure, which is our Tribal council.

Stephen Cornell
What, what how did you help bring the community along with that? It must have been long conversations and engaging the community. I, I know from other things you've said that it's not a it's not a dictator situation. You come in and somehow you have to bring the community along with what you feel needs to happen and what they want to see happen.

How did you... how did you do that?

Deron Marquez: I mean, for me, having the background from this university with Doctor Wilkins and reading Vine Deloria, it really provided a nice blueprint of how to be a leader and by being a leader, it means you have to listen and then you had to listen more. 

You just can't dictate, as you said. You have to get as much feedback from the depths of your community before you can start to formulate and then move forward with their blessing.

You can't just run in there and say, we're going to do this, and if they don't have buy-in, you're never going to get it done. So a lot of listening, a lot of dialog.

Stephen Cornell: Yeah. Another thing I've heard you talk about, I think, San Manuel was already involved in gaming since, what, 1985 or so. By the time you came in, it was a casino operation. and I know I've heard you say that one of your first agenda items was to somehow diversify the economy and reduce that dependance on gaming income as your primary source, tell us a little bit about how you managed to move that forward.

Deron Marquez: When I first came into office, we actually had, the bingo hall and a card room, and we just started doing what was called VLT video Lottery terminals at that time. we weren't yet a full casino. That didn't happen until 2000 when we had, had another building. In my time as chair, we actually built two casinos.

I don't recommend that ever, because that's a whole lot of lifting and a whole lot of work. but you're right. When we first took over in 2000, our goal was to have a diverse economy. And and that meant many things, from hotels and office space to warehouse space. we wanted to basically not get away from gaming, but be less reliant on gaming.

And we were very successful in creating that model and moving it forward. Today we have, you know, businesses from coast to coast, Las Vegas, we have really become a very solid non gaming engine for our Tribal community. And bringing those dollars back to the reservation for longevity because gaming, it's shifting. In fact, the California region last year lost money in gaming.

Stephen Cornell: You know, when when all that money comes back, I know other nations have often had a lot of pressure from their own citizens to distribute that money in per capita distributions. I've heard you speak about that before. Could you tell us a little bit about not only your views of that issue, but your experience with it at San Manuel?

Deron Marquez: Per capita is... it's.... I understand why Tribal people feel that there should be a system by which they can participate in this type, in some type of revenue sharing, profit sharing. I get it. 

There just has to be a way that it's done in a fashion that doesn't become a sole dependent welfare program. I don't care how much money is going out, it's still a welfare program.

And when you have this 100% reliance on the government to provide, you're creating this hollow sense of security. If it ever shifts and goes away, those communities, like our community, is going to be in dire straits of how to become whole in a system that they have no ability to participate in. And that system being finding a meaningful job.

You're not going to find a job that's going to equal the per capita checks you're getting from any operation, any tribe. You have to have, a system that doesn't become the sole breadwinner in the household when it comes to per capita. My ideas behind per capita were the elders would be the ones who would be the group taken care of by these programs, by these operations, they're the ones who suffer the most.

They're the ones who basically survived so that we can be here. they are the ones who I always felt deserved it more than anyone else. The rest of us we’re able bodies. We can go get work, we can go do jobs. We can work in our own government system or our own businesses. But we created a system now that there is no demand, there's no desire. There's really frankly, there's just not the ability for people, to get a job. They don't have that expertise. They don't have that knowledge base anymore.

Stephen Cornell: Do you see a way to pull back from once, once a nation makes a decision to do per capita, people get pretty attached to it. Do you see a way to pull back from that?

Deron Marquez: The only way to pull back from it is from failure. Meaning, if in California you have competition come in and you see your monthly income basically on the operations side start to shrink. It's percentage based, you know, that percentage has to become smaller. That's the only pullback that I can imagine ever occurring. To take it away now, you're asking for just a bunch of headaches and a bunch of trouble.

Stephen Cornell: I want to ask you another question related to this, to per caps, but mainly to the the money coming in. We've seen a lot of nations, I think, where government takes over various functions within the community, some of which used to be culturally based. And I'm thinking I had one Tribal leader say, you know, “Our young people used to be told by their parents that lady down the road who lost her husband, you need to take her dinner.” 

Now, we've got meals on wheels paid by government, so we aren't telling our young people you need to take care of it. She was saying, you know, I think sometimes we have because we now have resources, we've got our governments doing things maybe they shouldn't be doing and and trying to do everything, rather than being very careful about what government should or shouldn't do.

Do you have any thoughts on that or any reactions to that?

Deron Marquez: It's interesting because we, we have these gatherings and at one time these gatherings were catered. Why not? You have a full fledged casino kitchen and five star restaurants. Why not cater that event, right? 

Over the last few years, that's actually shifted back to the old potluck -- families bringing in dishes to share. And that's the way it used to be.

So there is a return to some of that, community, that sense of community, that ability to feed each other and being in each other's space, in a more traditional cultural setting than the the white linen table tops. And the fine China that's kind of... it's still practiced. I can't say it's not practiced anymore, but it's... there has been a reintroduction of kind of the way it used to be.

Stephen Cornell: Interesting.

Deron Marquez: I remember going to Tribal council meetings with my mother when we were like little, and there would be a potluck in the back room where people would just bring you food. There's paper plates, plastic forks, and, you know, having that return, I think is healthy.

Stephen Cornell: Yeah. Yeah. Let's let's take up another topic that is very much on the minds of a number of Tribal leaders these days, and that's what's come to be known as disenrollment and the effort by some nations to exclude current citizens, some of their relatives, from the nation itself. And I, I know that, I have no idea whether San Manuel has been involved in that, but I, I know it can be a complex topic and I wondered if you could speak to that at all. 

It's something we're seeing, we've seen growing among some tribes. It tends to be nations that have a good deal of owned-source revenue, but not exclusively nations that have that. Any thoughts on the disenrollment issue that's plaguing some nations these days?

Deron Marquez: It's a sad event in Indian Country. Let's just start with that. 

The good news is we at San Manuel have never had a conversation about performing that. It’s not even on our radar. But the reality is those tribes who are engaged in this activity, who rely on the Santa Clara case and say they have the right under that law or that court case, I should say, to decide who is and who is not.

No one's debating that. The question comes, why now? You know why now are tribes disenrolling people who have been living on the reservation, who have been believed to be part of that reservation for many, many, many years, who have homes, who grew up there, who went to school there. And now you're being told, “Well, you're not one of us.”

That is hard. And then when you dig a little deeper and you talk to some of these individuals and you ask about due process, and they basically say there is no due process, you send a letter saying, basically, “I contest this.” And they send a letter back saying, “So what? You know, you're still disenrolled.” And then you know, that to me is the hardest part.

The inability of someone who has been part of a community to not be able to have a conversation with the same community you’ve been part of, to get an understanding of why you're disenrolling me that's the first problem. The second problem that I see is you're creating a traumatic event amongst a new population of Indians, regardless if they're enrolled or not enrolled, they're still Tribal, they're still Indians, and they are creating this, this event that's just going to be so traumatizing.

We don't know yet, and hopefully nothing terribly negative comes about it. But there there's going to be some negative atmosphere behind that. And these individuals may find themselves more prone to substance abuse, suicide, and they can't get any help from the IHS. They're no longer enrolled in a tribe. So that to me is more problematic than anything else.

And then the third part of that is under ICWA you have kids who were once part of a reservation who were protected under the Indian Child Welfare Act and now they're not. So we have a third category by which we have to be very mindful of and very concerned about those children who, again, are Indians for all practical purposes, they are Tribal kids.

Now they're excluded from that same act that was meant to protect them. That's what... that's what worries me the most when we have this conversation about disenrollment.

Stephen Cornell: And these are relatives, after all.

Deron Marquez: And, I mean, you know, they're people we know, you know, we've had conversations. We've gone to fiestas or powwows or cultural events with these individuals. And now they're being told they're not Indian anymore. It's like, why? How did this happen?

Stephen Cornell: One of the issues that’s something you talked about in an earlier conversation today, you talked about building a school at San Manuel. What is it that you all are hoping to do and getting in doing your own school on your rez?

Deron Marquez: It's very exciting. It really, really is. It's going to be K through five to start off with, and it's going to be basically a school that we're going to create, obviously be accredited, and it's going to be what it is we want our youth to learn. In this day and age as we all... we're very familiar with the things that are going on in schools.

I'm not saying they're bad, but there's a way to teach it, and we want to be in more control of how it's taught to our to our younger kids. And, maybe someday that'll grow into a K through 12. We don't know yet, but right now it's K through five. 

We do have a very robust tutorial pro... tutorial program, I guess you can say, that engages that same age group. And even college kids can get tutoring from this... our program to help them get through whatever courses they are taking. Now we're just going to make it more formal. We're going to have a school with teachers, with principals. A whole system is going to be in place and it’s set to open in 2025.

Stephen Cornell: That's great. It seems to me this one of the most interesting things happening in Indian Country these days is the effort to reclaim control of education so that it serves the purposes that you have for your people.

Deron Marquez: And we all know the horrible stories of boarding schools, you know, kids who are going to school in public schools. I remember when I was going to school, as a high school student, they kept putting me in shop classes. I am the last person you want to give power tools to. But under my file, being a American Indian student, for some reason, they felt that woodshop was...

Stephen Cornell: Was the appropriate... Right.

Deron Marquez:  my area. It’s like, I’m the last person you want next to a lathe. Just trust me on this one.

Stephen Cornell: I once had a leader of a First Nation in Canada to say to me, “Reclaiming education is our ultimate succession plan, because right now we're depending on coming generations and we don't have any influence over what their education is on. And that's what we've got to get back.”

Deron Marquez: Yeah. I mean, and hopefully that grows into higher ed, but yeah, small steps, initially.

Stephen Cornell: Sure. you do a lot of lecturing and talking around the country about some of these issues and have been, have done that for years, particularly after you stepped down as Tribal chair. But as you look across the current situation in the United States, at least, and the issues that Indigenous nations are facing, are there 2 or 3 that really strike you as particularly urgent or particularly concerning right now?

And that... what are the things that, if you're ever kept awake at night, these are the things you find yourself worrying about.

Deron Marquez: It'll be the encroachment by states at the request of tribes. I think there's a lot of movement, and it's basically on the gaming side of things where we see tribes wanting to get into like sports betting or online gambling which is now more state driven. We're seeing this in Florida with what they're doing there, and I think it's a dangerous, unchartered court-not-tested-yet as far as where how does the 14th Amendment now apply to tribes and that side of due process? 

If you're a non-Tribal entity in a state that allows tribes to engage in some operation, there has to be a question there of prejudice. Because how come this group, under state law, can engage in an activity that no one else can? Unlike federal Indian gaming where that's a federal relationship, this is becoming a state-to-tribe relationship. 

And I think that there is a a land mine there that we're not talking about yet. And I know myself and in the legal counsel back home, we've had this conversation and we're thinking about how this would, or could play out, I should say. But we don't know yet.It's too soon. 

And that's what keeps me awake more than anything else, because as we talked about earlier, this, this, these sovereignty bubbles where tribes are more sovereign in their sphere. But when we start to lean... lean into and let states lean back into a state-Tribal relationship. It may work today, but who is coming down the road?

The next governor, the next Assembly or House or Senate who wants more and wants more? And I just don't know where that's going yet.

Stephen Cornell: Right. And I suppose you could see eventually coalitions of states that then are appealing to the federal government for a further encroachment.

Deron Marquez: Just like we saw with the creation of IGRA. So, I mean, that's what has me awake and really watching what's going on more than anything. I mean, along with ICWA and those always ongoing concerns. That's what really has me worried the most.

Stephen Cornell: Well, I hope you'll be willing to come talk with us again about some of these things as they unfold. 

These are critical issues. you're one of the people who's out there dealing with these issues from time to time and having to talk about them and make things happen. we really appreciate your coming here and telling us a little bit about what's on your mind now, but also about what you've already done at San Manuel. It's a great story and I appreciate you telling it, because I think a lot of people can learn from that story.

Deron Marquez: And as we talked about on our way over to this, interview, is the more we can share with each other, the more or I should say, the easier it is for Tribal nations to do things and see things and have conversations about what they want to do, and talk to someone who's done it.

Stephen Cornell: Right, and who may have made mistakes and is willing to acknowledge that and say, "And then we figured it out and here's what worked."

Deron Marquez: Everyone makes mistakes so just learn from it and move on.

Stephen Cornell: Well, a lot of stuff has worked at San Manuel, so it's a great story. Thanks for taking the time with us Deron. I really appreciate it. And thanks to you for watching this encounter with Deron Marquez.


Get the latest

Sign up for NNI News