Cynthia Manuel: What I Wish I Knew Before I Took Office

Native Nations Institute

Tohono O'odham Nation Legislative Council Member Cynthia Manuel discusses some of the challenges she has faced as an elected leader of her nation, and stresses the importance of leaders taking care of themselves physically, emotionally and spiritually.

Native Nations
Resource Type

Manuel, Cynthia. "What I Wish I Knew Before I Took Office." Emerging Leaders seminar. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. March 20, 2012. Presentation.

"Good morning. My name is Cynthia Manuel and I'm from the Tohono O'odham Nation. I live in Santa Rosa, which is the Gu Achi District and that's who I represent on the Legislative Council. Our tribe has a three-branch government: the legislative, the executive and the judicial. The executive has the tribal chairman and the executive department. And we're legislative and we have 22 members. We have 11 districts within the nation and we have 22 members, two representatives from each district. And we serve four years when we get elected and then every two years we have an election. So every two years -- it's staggered. And that's really good for me because we learn from the ones that were there before. And I want to recognize two of our members that are here, is Edward Manuel who is Vice Chair of our Legislative Council and he's sitting over here. He represents the Pisinemo District. And we also have Pamela Anghill over here, who represents Gu Vo District. And as I said, I represent Gu Achi and this is my second term. I've been there six years now and it seems like forever. I'm okay with it. This is our full-time position so we're paid to be on council. We have a salary, an annual salary, and this is what we do daily. Within the legislative branch, we have our staff and our chairman who wasn't able to be here. That's why I'm here [because] he couldn't make it and so he asked me and I said, ‘Yeah, I will do that.' His name is Timothy Joaquin and he comes from the same district I come from. He's taught me a lot.

Next May, we'll have our elections and my term will be up but he'll keep going, my colleague. And then two years after that his term will be up. So we have staggered terms and we each represent our own, we get elected by own people within our district. I ran in 2005. Before that I worked at the health department for 15 years. I did everything. I started what is our HOP program now, the Healthy O'odham Prevention program, which is a diabetes program. Me and my brother Isidro, he just got out of the service then, and he took the exercise portion of it and I took the diet portion of it. We started the program; now it's growing. We have a site almost in every district to work on our diabetes rates. Our diabetes rates are really high in the nation. So we started that and [I'm] glad it's still going. When we started it was just us two, the staff and now we have probably a staff of about 50 people.

Then I went to work at our nursing home. It was mentioned on the screen that we do have our skilled nursing facility. We have...long ago, we always talked about as far as I can remember that our elders want to come home and recuperate on the reservation. So when they started the nursing facility we do our own traditional foods, we do our own activities, whether it be our traditional dancing or just the modern exercise. And a lot of the staff that are there, I believe 95 percent, are tribal members and then they serve the elders there. So they speak the language and can communicate. They like to sit outside and outside the backyard is the desert, so they really like it there. We have, I believe, it's 63 beds and right now we're starting to build housing for those that can be on their own and they just need a little help. The groundbreaking was last Sunday to start that [because] we would like to take a lot more elders in that are in the hospitals here in Tucson and in Phoenix, because a lot of times they don't, some of the care facilities here, they don't understand our O'odham when they speak [because] some don't speak no English. So it's really good that we do have it. But they also take others that are younger that need help in whatever they're going through.

I worked there as the activities manager and then I decided to run for council in '05 and I won my seat. I won my opponent by 65 percent. It was really good and before then I looked at the constitution and what a legislative department and what our jobs will be and I liked what it said and that's what I recommend. If you have a constitution or whatever your job description is [because] that's our job description, what it says on there, that's what we do. But I first talked to my family. I have a family of eight brothers and sisters, my mom and my dad and my aunts. I always say that I was raised by a village or by a community, because that's how it was within my own community, my aunts and my uncles, my grandparents. So I talked with them and I think that's the most important [thing] because you have to have the family support in that, whether it be your sister, your brother, your uncles. You have to have that support. My own family, my husband, my son -- I have one child, my son. He's 18. Well, he just turned 19 and I have a grandson who is two years old. I talked to them and what I think this job will mean, a lot of time away from home. And because when I worked with the health department, I also went to a lot of the diabetes workshops all over and I remember I used to call home and my son would say, ‘Mom, just come through the phone, come home.' So I had to tell him this is how it's going to be, but by then he was older so he was okay with it. So I had to talk to them and my mom and my brothers and my sister and tell them what I was going to do and they supported me. So I did that and I won my seat then.

Then when I started there it was kind of scary [because] you're just getting into like this whole world of, like it's a different, you're going to be representing the nation here. And when I first got on...we have in our legislative department we have 11 committees that we each serve on three of those committees except the chairman and the vice chair. So when I first got in, they put me on the Rules Committee, which oversees like the constitution and things that happen within; and the Domestic Affairs Committee, which is the law enforcement and the border issues; and the Health and Human Services Committee, which is health and human services. Those are some of the biggest committees and then they asked me, then they elected me to be chair on two of them and vice chair and I was like, ‘I don't know if I can do that. I just now got here. I don't even know what I'm supposed to do.' Then my brother, he was on council before and he was saying, ‘Don't say that, act like you know what you're doing.' I said, ‘Okay.' But I was real fortunate. I have an older brother who served in council for four years and he was the vice chair of council and then he became, right after he left his term there, he became the chairman of our district. Then I have another brother who is three years younger than me who also served after my oldest brother's four years; he served his four years but he had moved to another district so he was serving for that district. Then when he ended, a year later he became my vice chair of our nation. So I had those, they taught me a lot. I said, ‘Okay, I'll accept the chair's position and the vice chair.'

And it was really a lot, because at that time with domestic affairs we were going through the SORNA [Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act], it was a whole different change with the Adam Walsh [Act]. And we were going with the sex offender notification registry, the SORNA. And also the cards, I can't remember. I was trying to think of the cards, the tribal cards that we need to use like to cross over because, as our vice chair mentioned, we have membership on the Mexican side of the border and we have from what I understand last two years ago we had 11 communities that still have our membership in Mexico. And our land actually extended all the way to Mexico City and then this way to the ocean. And so we still have membership on that side. And so at the time that's what we were working on because we also have a big celebration on October 4th in Magdalena, Mexico and so we needed to make sure that our members were able to cross over and back. And so we were working on that at that time and so I knew that it was going to be a big challenge to be on the committee.

And then on the other committee that I served on at the time, the same time, was the Health and Human Services Committee and at that time we were working on the Indian Health Care Improvement Act and even that was a big issue. So I was really overwhelmed by so much but I just did my best. Also asking for like direct funding, that's what we pushed for instead of our funding going to the state and then down to the tribal level and then it ends up with us and it's nothing, hardly anything. And so we were working on direct funding.

So I was on those committees and it opened my eyes to a lot of things. I think I really learned fast. I remember when we were working on the Indian Health Care Improvement Act because when I got on health I was also selected by our tribe to sit on the National Indian Health Board. And then at the National Indian Health Board I was elected to serve as the secretary. So it was really an eye-opening [experience]. I remember when we were working on the Indian Health Care Improvement Act we were at the NIHB, National Indian Health Board office, and they called it the war room. And we were, as they were talking on the floor and trying to pass the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, we were sitting in this room and I think we sat in there for two days and as whatever was going to be passed. And if somebody spoke that we knew that we could reach the representatives, when they spoke and then we would call them and try to change their mind so they could vote for it or not change or add amendments that they were doing at the time. I remember they said, ‘Arizona, Arizona, Kyl and McCain, call them, call them and tell them why they should vote for that amendment.' And I was just like, ‘Wow, me?' ‘Yeah, call.' And so I did and then they, then Kyl wanted to meet -- I don't think he knew we were in D.C. -- and he wanted to meet face to face with me and ask me questions why he should vote for these amendments. And so at the time there was a youth group meeting at the Indian Museum, Native American Museum. And so one of the people there, anyway, she works part with NIHB. They were saying, we should go down there and get the youth and get to Kyl's office before he goes back on the floor. And so we walked. And at that time taxi cabs were on strike so we were walking. I had comfortable shoes, she had to take off her shoes, and we went and got the youth and within that time when we got there we had to educate them why, what we were going to talk to Senator Kyl about. And so we walked over there and we did what we needed to do and went back. And I was so happy that those youth were there and it really changed his mind I guess, Senator Kyl and how he was going to vote. So that was really an experience and I then I thought at the time, this is probably about three months into my, when I first got on council and I thought, ‘Wow, I think I'm going to like this after everything that just happened.' And I always tell my family, [because] they used to ask me, ‘How do you know all this?' -- my son. And I said, ‘Oh, I just wing it, I just wing it, I just get up there.' But I told him, ‘I pray about it, I pray every time, I'm always in prayer and whatever happens that's what is supposed to happen and I don't go back and say, 'Oh, I should have done this because you're going to be stuck back there.'' I always tell him that.

And even with our elders, whoever, I always feel that whoever voted you in, whether they voted for you or not but they're from your community, your district, that you listen to their needs. I know when I first got on council, one of my aunts came and she said, ‘I listened,' [because] we have a radio station too, KOHN 91.9 FM, the Voice of the Tohono O'odham Nation, that's the radio station. And she said, ‘I listen to you guys on the radio, but I don't even know what you guys are talking about.' And she didn't speak any English and so she said, ‘It would be really good if you guys talk in O'odham, our language.' And I said, ‘Okay.' So when we had session again the next time I spoke in O'odham [because] I am fluent and I spoke my language. And so now a lot of the elders will say, will ask me questions, ‘What was that about or what were you guys talking about?' And my aunt told me, she said, ‘Now I know what you guys are talking about and I'm really happy that you speak in O'odham when you sit there because then we can understand what you guys are talking about.' And so I try to listen in that way so they can understand them and get at their level, whoever it is, whether it's the youth or whomever, get at their level and speak their language. I know, there was a job announcement out for a youth advisor and so I put my name in it and I got an interview from our youth council and I got selected to be a youth advisor for our youth council. So I'm trying to teach them a lot on that, too, because they're upcoming leaders. We have two of our youth that are ambassadors at the national level and they go to meet with national leaders and so I'm trying to help them out.

But it's been, it's really been good. I learned from a lot of people. I think it was an eye-opening [experience] when I got on. But even though I knew, kind of knew before what it was all about. I had two of my grandparents who sat on council and kind of taught me back then, too. And I was like 18 when I was our tribal queen and I traveled and had to travel with a lot of the legislators; they were my chaperones. And then I thought, ‘Oh, some day I want to do this,' and so that was one of my goals. So I'm here. But one thing that I wanted to mention is be you, be yourself and also rest and relax [because] I know when you're a tribal leader everybody wants you here, there, even if it's at a dinner or a function, they always say to us, ‘Well, you weren't there. We had this and that and we didn't even see no tribal leaders there.' So you're just pulled every which way at the national level and in your own community. Even just at Head Start graduation they want you there, they want to see tribal leadership there, just everywhere, at elder's gathering, youth gathering. But it's okay to say ‘no' or ‘not yet' or ‘not today,' because sometimes it's really a lot to be everywhere. And I know that firsthand because you need to relax and rest.

On May 28 -- I remember this day -- I was the vice chair for the Budget and Finance Committee. We see over 136 budgets yearly that we go through. And so the chair, she wasn't going to be there so she asked me if I would do the meeting and I said, ‘Okay.' And I always try to do my homework ahead of time. I go through all that stuff so I know what questions to ask if I don't understand it. I start adding it to make sure everything comes out okay. So she said she wasn't going to be there and I said, ‘Okay, I can do it.' So I was really anxious. I got up early, I got up for like the last two days before I was reading my stuff and so I got up early that morning at four. I told my husband, 'I'm going to be there early, set everything out and be ready for our meeting.' I got up at four. So I jumped out of bed when the alarm rang [because] I didn't want to be late. I jumped out and our meetings are not until nine but I wanted to be early. So I jumped out of bed, my side of the bed, the window's right there. So I stood up and I had my fingers there and I held on and then all of a sudden this side just gave in and I fell. And so my husband got out of bed and he got me and he set me on the bed and I laid down for awhile. And then I told him, ‘I'm going to get in the shower.' So I sat up and I fell again when I stood up and I was like... and he said, ‘Are you okay?' And I said, ‘I think so. I think I'm just nervous or anxious or something.' And so he said, ‘I'm going to call the ambulance.' And I said, ‘Wait, wait, wait, I'm going to go in the shower first.' So I went in the shower and I came back out and I was okay. And I sat on the bed and he said, ‘I already called the ambulance.' And I said, ‘Okay.' And so the ambulance came and they asked me, ‘Can you walk...' [because] we have steps. They said, ‘Can you walk out? Then, we'll put you on the stretcher.' And I said, ‘Okay.'

So I went out and they got me on the stretcher and went to Casa Grande Regional, which is about 45 miles. I got there and then we were in there and the doctor was talking to my husband. And then he came in and he said, ‘They're going to send you to Phoenix Heart Hospital.' And I was like, ‘Why?' And he said, ‘I don't know, they'll tell you and he's going to be in here to tell you.' And I said, ‘Okay.' And so I was laying there and then he came and he said, ‘We're going to send you to the Heart Hospital, they're going to need to do more tests.' And I said, ‘Okay.' And I said, ‘Was there something wrong with me ‘cause I don't feel any way right now?' And they said, ‘Well, they'll talk to you over there.' So I said, ‘Okay.' So when I got to the Heart Hospital, one of the doctors came in and he said, ‘Oh...' and I said, ‘What happened?' And he said, ‘Oh, did you know you had a stroke?' And I said, ‘No.' And he said, ‘It's all this...what do you do?' So he sat down and I went over my schedule, ‘I go in at five to work ‘cause I get like a stack this high of paper every day. I think we use like so many reams.' And so I said, ‘And I go through all my stuff, I get like over hundreds of emails. I sit down, I go through all them, delete and save what I need to. And then at  nine o'clock is our meeting and depends on how long it lasts and I stay there till like six, seven, eight, nine just to go through all that and fix everything and be ready for the next time ‘cause I'm not one to just not know the issue.' And so he said, ‘Well, that's what it is. You're too stressed out. You're really stressed out.' So he said, ‘I want you to slow down.' He said, ‘You have a clot in the back of your ear and...but we can't do anything right now. It's too hard to get into there so what we're going to do is try to flush it out, give you all these fluids and try to flush it out for it to move or go out.' And I said, ‘Okay.' And so I stayed there for like I think a month and they said it wouldn't move, it wouldn't do nothing, so they were going to let me go home but I had to promise them that I won't go into work at five, that I would wait till my meeting time, which is nine. And he said, ‘You can do stuff at your house. You can print it and bring it home so you can rest when you need to.' So I said, ‘Okay.'

And so since then, it's been, it's been kind of slow for me but I've learned to adjust. We have, I'm glad in our office we have, each of us have individual offices. I can close the door and now I lay down at noon and I rest. If I go in at five I take an hour break before my meeting at nine and I lay down. I have my blankets there, I have my cot there and I rest. And in the evening I rest before I go home because I have my grandson too and I play with him when I get home. So I think that it's really important that you rest. I know it's hard to do because you have so many, a tough schedule daily but I think you really need to rest because it's hard being in a position like that [because] having a stroke just slows you down. I'm still weak on my left side but I manage to do...I texted my husband this morning and I put, ‘I sure miss you,' [because] he helps me out in the morning. But it's okay. I get by. But it's just rest, rest and if you feel like you...only you know your body and what your body can take, nobody else knows your body, so when your body's telling you to rest, you rest. I try to use like the handicap door button because I can't...I don't like want to really push, push, push. And people look at me. And when I go shopping I use one of those carts [because] I know my body, only I know my body and how I feel. If I want to do that that day, then I will do that and it's okay because nobody else knows your story but you. That's okay to do that. Thank you."

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