Patricia Riggs: The Role of Citizen Engagement in Nation Building: The Ysleta del Sur Pueblo Story

National Congress of American Indians

Patricia Riggs, Director of Economic Development for Ysleta del Sur Pueblo (YDSP), discusses how YDSP has spent the past decade developing and fine-tuning its comprehensive approach to engaging its citizens in order to identify and then achieve its nation-building priorities.

This video resource is featured on the Indigenous Governance Database with the permission of the National Congress of American IndiansThe "Rebuilding the Tigua Nation" film shown in this video resource is featured on the Indigenous Governance Database with the permission of Ysleta del Sur Pueblo.

Native Nations
Resource Type

Riggs, Patricia. "The Role of Citizen Engagement in Nation Building: The Ysleta del Sur Pueblo Story." 70th Annual Convention & Marketplace, National Congress of American Indians. Tulsa, Oklahoma. October 15, 2013. Presentation.

Ian Record:

"So I'll turn the floor over to Patricia Riggs. Again, she's the economic development director with the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo and as she told me today, she's sort of their de facto chief of citizen engagement for their pueblo. Anytime they face a challenge in this arena, they tend to turn to her because she's done so much wonderful work in this area. Did you want to start with the video or with your presentation?"

Patricia Riggs:

"It's a little long. If you want to start it and then kind of go through middle and then restart it again."

Ian Record:

"So again, this is a video that Pat was involved with putting together. It's called 'Rebuilding the Tigua Nation.' Tigua is another name that refers to her nation and this again I think...think of this not just in terms of what it shares with you, but think of this as a viable tool of citizen education and engagement. We're seeing more and more nations do things like this. These videos that instruct not just their own citizens, but outsiders about who the nation is and what they're doing and why."


Patricia Riggs:

"Good afternoon, everyone. Hello. As Ian stated, my name is Pat Riggs and I'm the Director of Economic Development at Ysleta del Sur [Pueblo]. We started community engagement back in 2006. Of course at the Pueblo, there's always been some form of community engagement, but we had a very significant event that took place. If you paid attention closely to the film, we talked about the casino being closed down. In 1987, we were federally restored and there was one little clause in our restoration act that said, ‘The tribe shall not have gaming that is illegal in Texas.' So when the State of Texas started bingo and lottery, we decided that there was gaming in Texas so we opened our casino and they sued us and the courts held that the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act didn't apply to the tribe, that the language in our restoration act superseded that. So we operated gaming from around 1992 to 2002. It was open for about 10 years and it first started as a bingo hall and then later on to Class 2 gaming. So when the casino actually did end up closed, we had invested quite a bit in infrastructure and the tribe had done a lot of good things with our funding or our revenues that we got for the tribe, but we were basically at a...we were in shock. There was this economic turmoil that was taking place that we didn't realize was actually going to take place. We thought that there was no way that we would lose the case, but we ended up losing the case.

So citizen engagement started out of the need to really find out what the community needed. What we started doing is really looking at different groups and seeing what their needs are and really trying to identify with the tribe and what they needed. This is just a picture of what we call ‘listening to our ancestors,' because everything that we do really does come from our history and who we are as a people and where we've been so just the fact that in spite of everything that's happened to us, it seems like...sometimes they call us the 'Bad Luck Tribe' because if something can go wrong, it happens to us. We got left out of the Treaty of Guadalupe in 1861 so we weren't recognized with the other pueblos. We ended up on the Confederate side of the line. Just things throughout history ended up happening.

Really a lot what was happening, too, was our own mindset and the way we thought as a community, so when the casino was closed we kind of stood at a standstill, we didn't know what to do, we were in shock. And I had been working at another location. I'd been working in the City of El Paso and the tribe asked me to come back and I was like, ‘Economic Development, hmm.' So I really didn't know anything about economic development, but I said, ‘I'll give it a try.' But when I came back, one of the things that I started doing is really listening and trying to figure out what was happening in the community. And so I heard in the video that Ian played before from Native Nations Institute, someone said that some of the challenges or the biggest challenges for the tribe come from within. So I'm really about training and trying to figure out what the community wants and so they started asking me to train different departments. And so I started paying attention to what the community was actually saying and to what some of our employees were saying and these are actual...their quotes, their statements that were actually said and they're things like, ‘Tiguas don't want to learn.' Everything was always blamed on tribal council and we all know that there's problems with councils sometimes, but sometimes I think we exaggerate those things because we don't want to move forward or we don't...we try to rationalize what we are or what we're not doing in our departments. So it was always about, ‘We can't do that because tribal council won't allow it,' ‘It doesn't matter.' Some of our non-tribal employees were saying that we couldn't do particular, they wouldn't do particular things because the tribal members would go tell council what they were doing and it was just, it was ridiculous, really. When you really sat down and listened to it and you put all the statements together, it was ridiculous.

So what we determined that we needed to do is really engage our community in education and try to really figure out who the community was because we know who we are as a people, we know our culture, we knew traditions, but we don't really know the community in terms of what needs do they...are out there, what are the poverty levels, what are the education levels, who's employed, who's not employed, what kind of skills do they have? And as far as doing a needs assessment we needed that, but we also needed to take an inventory of what we have or had in order to move forward. So we started doing different things to try and get the community engaged. And so this is what it looks like if you do the 'flyer method' and it just doesn't work. You send all these beautiful flyers out there and just get ready for everybody to come and they don't show up. So it was like, ‘Well, what am I doing wrong here?' And we were actually, at one point we even brought Native Nations Institute and we had a very small crowd there. So we thought about what we could actually do to get the community more involved.

So what we found is actually working with groups and even within the reservation there are special interest groups. We all have little things that...or subjects that we're interested in and what we found is to look for those core champions in your communities. And there's people who are really just very traditional and that's what they want to discuss and that's what they want to do in terms of who they are so we asked them, ‘Okay, how do you think that we can infuse tradition into the things that we're doing?' We also started working with youth. The thing about youth is if you work with youth and you train them and you honor them and you show their parents what they're doing, then the parents come, too. So we started figuring out how to get parents engaged as well. And then we did different things with leadership, with elders. One of the things that we did learn is that we really need to figure out how to work with each group and how to...and so through the little groups we got the whole.

The big thing here is you can't expect people to just come to you. As I showed the meetings with the flyers, it just didn't work. We had to find different ways to actually go out into community and to seek input. So we went to the elders. And I mentioned earlier that our casino had closed, but it's actually operating now as a sweepstakes center. So it's kind of we have... they look like terminals, but they're actually all hooked up into one network. So there are signs all over the place that say you're donating to the tribe and you're donating to our health, to our education. So we just got creative on ways to do things. It's not quite as revenue generating as it was before, but there's still funding coming in. One of the times I went to the elders and I wanted to do a survey with them and so they said, ‘Oh, no, we don't have time for your survey.' And I'm like, ‘But I have 'Free Play'.' And they, ‘Oh, Free Play, okay. Sit down.' So we started talking to them and then they found out some of the things that we're doing and they were engaged in that, actually came to where they actually wanted to participate in some of the events that we were having. And so they started making the food and sometimes we could pay them and sometimes we couldn't, but they were okay with that and they started assisting us in our events.

So then we also, one of the things that we did is in order to engage the community...there is no greater engagement than actually serving the community, so we started an AmeriCorp program and the AmeriCorp program, they work with the elders, they work in the cultural center, they work in emergency management, in environmental. So they're kind of our ambassadors for community engagement in different areas. The other thing is we do a lot of data collection and we do a lot of surveys, but when we do it we work with focus groups or we work with all the other little core groups and we educate them about why we're trying to collect the information. So we educate them first and then they are kind of our core champions or leaders so they go out into their groups and they tell either the other elders or youth or whoever it is that we're working with why it is important. So we educate them on how to educate the community on getting that information and we've been very successful in gathering information for our tribe in order to determine what it is that we're going to focus on, whether it's health or whether it's economic development. I'll show you a little bit more in a minute about the successes with data collection and also the projects that we're working on.

I know that one of the first times that Joe Kalt went to Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, I had been working in writing grants not just for the tribe, but also for the City of El Paso and I wanted a model, I wanted a matrix and I was like, ‘Well, do you have a matrix?' and it's like, ‘No.' So I realized, I think I really like to visualize what it is that we're trying to accomplish, but I kind of think very methodical. So I have to figure out what exactly it is that we're going to tackle, but I also realize that those kind of models and theories, they're for other communities, they're not really for us. We can't take somebody's methodology and use it at our tribe. So I started to look back and thinking like what is it exactly that we're doing, and this is what I came up with.

Well, one of the things is we have a purpose. No matter what it is that we're trying to tackle, whether it's constitutional reform or building entrepreneurs, there's a purpose there. So you find that purpose and there's also...but with that purpose, there's always passion and I'm so passionate about what I do. That's all I do. I have to have people drag me away from it sometimes, but there's other people in your communities with that passion. So look for the passionate people and then harvest the information. You really do have to harvest information and gather that input from your community, because that's who you're working for and that's who really is driving you to do what it is that you do.

The other thing you visualize and then you assess and you plan. And I know it's kind of theory-like, but when it comes to your community, what is it that you're visualizing? Like for us, one of the things that we're working on is a land use plan and land acquisition. So when we're visualizing, I'm not doing this theory of visualizing, we're actually looking at the community and thinking about the things that we lost and the things that we need for ceremony and where...the places that it's going to come from, from the land and how are we going to be able to redevelop our lands and preserve our lands as they once were and then also rebuild our community as a village because we're used to living as a village and that was taken away from us. So when we're visualizing, that's...we're visualizing how we want to live. It's about how the entire...what the entire community sees. So then of course we can work, work, work, work, but at the end of the day we really do have to have something to show for it. So you do have to measure those impacts and the outcomes of what it is that you're doing because...and then you take it back to the community and show your successes and so you report the results.

And then here's basically the same thing with a little bigger snapshot, but in the end it really is about community, whether you're trying to figure out what the community wants, you start at the community; whether you're trying to figure out the data, you're getting it from community, you're trying to draw a picture of what your community really is, and then in the end you report those results back to the community and then you also try to determine what is driving the community and those are things such as the ceremonies and traditions and culture and just living together as a Tigua society for us. So we look at the core values and we reaffirm them by asking different people in the community and also about what is the best way to apply the things in a manner that...that will work in a manner that is fair to the entire tribe and to every sector of the tribal population.

So this is a little bit of our timeline and as far as our economy is really what was happening to us, we had basically lost all our lands. We were living in a small part of El Paso in a little, basically it was a neighborhood. It really wasn't a reservation and we had, there were small adobe houses, most of them were one room. It was during the termination policy, so we really didn't have any hope of having a better life. We were just happy to be able to still be there and still be living as a community and still, even though we weren't federally recognized, we still held tribal elections, we still had our ceremonies every year, we still had people in charge of dong the things that...the doings that needed to be done for us to continue to survive as a Pueblo the best that we could. So of course the civil rights movement took place later and that's when people started to gain more confidence and to start asserting their rights.

So what happened in the 1960s is we were basically losing our few homes that we had left to tax foreclosure because it was the City of El Paso now and throughout there's a couple pictures that you'll see the entire, what our Pueblo used to look like, and because we weren't on federal trust land. And one of the important reasons that we start that film where we're crossing the highway and the tribal police are directing traffic for us is because that one spot is where our Pueblo used to be and we had stacked adobe homes. And the City of El Paso -- because we weren't federally recognized or had trust status -- they decided to have condemnation proceedings against our Pueblo because they needed that one spot that's a highway and they needed it to extend the highway. So they had condemnation proceedings and they condemned the Pueblo basically. So that is the center of our tribe and that's why we decided to start the film there.

So land acquisition and development and regaining and putting land into trust is very important for us so basically there was a lawyer by the name of Tom Diamond that helped us to get federally restored or federally recognized in 1969, but we were basically terminated on the same day because the State of Texas had a Texas Indian Commission, so they turned over the trust responsibility to the Texas Indian Commission. Well, there were some good things that happened out of that. We did get some new housing out of it and there was a few more jobs and some economic development took place. So in the ‘60s, basically our unemployment rate was 75 percent. By the ‘70s it went to about 50 percent and we went from a fifth-grade education to about a 10th-grade education. So then in '87 we were federally restored and the casino was thriving and our unemployment rate basically went down to three percent. We went from 68 acres of land that were transferred over during the time of restoration to 75,000 acres of land that we invested in with our casino revenues and then we also built a lot more housing. I think you saw in the film where the housing was. And then we...but then the casino closed because we were sued. So basically, we were really at odds, we didn't know what we were going to do.

So we started off by doing projections on our funding and what we had in reserves and we determined was that if we continued to operate in the same manner we would run out of money in seven years. So we had to decide what it is that we were going to do, so that's when we started this nation-building process and we started investing money in a development corporation, which is now doing federal contracting and we're located in probably at least five places throughout the country: Washington D.C., Virginia, California, Colorado Springs. And that also took forming a board and separation of business and politics and having a committee that turned into...later to the board. And so this education process, we're educating different people in the community.

One of the things we did is we educated the board on how to operate as a board, which started as an economic development committee and then they ended up the board. So now this... we reassigned the economic development committee and now they're being trained as how to operate as a nonprofit board so then we're going to replace them and they're going to become probably another board. So we just keep getting small groups and keep educating so that they can build the capacity to do other things. But in order to do this we really, really needed to know what our state was as far as a community is concerned. So we were able to really determine what our... who we were, where our people were located at, what the rates of unemployment were and poverty levels, household levels, individual household levels.

The other thing that happened to us in our restoration act is that the language in there said that the tribe shall consist of membership that is on the base roll and people descending from that base roll up to one-eighth blood quantum. They said that in 1987. So we quickly realized that in a few years we'd no longer exist as a tribe because we would lose that blood quantum. So the tribe decided that they were going...we went to Congress and it took us 10 years of introducing different bills, but we ended up just recently having the blood quantum bill passed. So in order to do this, we really needed to figure out who we were as a people because we needed to take that information to Congress. So this is what our community looks like now and we also studied the people that live outside the service area, our tribal members that live outside the service area as well, and what we're finding is really they left before economic opportunity because they're a little bit better off in terms of education and household income.

I talked a little bit about cooperative education and so what we're also doing in order to engage our citizens and get this information -- because we collect that information every single year from tribal members and we've been successful as far as getting the information -- but we also make sure that we give it back to them and that when we compile any sort of information that we give them the reports back, like whether it's health and if there's a diabetes report or whatever it is. But the other thing is we all come to these conferences because we work as professionals, but your average tribal citizen doesn't have that opportunity to learn the things like we're learning today, what's happening in the federal courts and what's happening as far as policy is concerned and even what happened with the Indian Child Welfare Act, and so we take that education to them. We make sure that there's money in the budget to educate our tribal members and we do everything from Indian law to nation building to...we have other people even come and do community engagement to let them know how important it is. We have financial literacy training, but we also do like board training. And so if there's a subject that we think is important for us to learn and what's on the agenda here and at other conferences, we make sure that we find a way to take it back to the community and to be able to train them so that they know. And even when we work with our departments who of course...there has to be some professional training there, a lot of times some of our tribal members don't have the capacity to be in those higher positions of directors, so we tell our directors, ‘We're going to put this training out for you, but you need to pick a tribal member and it doesn't matter if it's a secretary or a maintenance person or whatever it is, you need to bring them to this training also and you need to figure out how you're going to get that information back to your department as well.'

As far as community engagement and what it's done for us as far as impacts are concerned, these are some of the projects that we've worked on that have really made an impact in our community. One of the things is we did this huge comprehensive strategy and that's where we determined that we were going to do things like the Tigua, Inc. Development Corporation, we were going to do workforce development, land use plan, land acquisition plan. All those things were outlined in this strategy and there was focus groups and surveys that were on our website. And if you actually look at our website all the reports are on there as far as the information that the community provided to us and what we compiled and gave back to the community. So this comprehensive strategy, a lot of strategies and plans just end up on the bookshelf, but as you can see it didn't. We like to say that you need to plan your work and you need to work your plan.

The other thing is Tigua, Inc., the tribe provided the seed money for that and now they have really just taken off over the last couple years and getting significant contracts and they're doing a lot of building maintenance all over the country. They just recently got awarded the Wyler Building in California, which is the second largest government facility in the country to do maintenance. This is the Tigua Business Center that we just recently moved into about a year and a half ago and it also incubates Tigua, Inc., but it also serves as headquarters for our department, Economic Development, and we're also just now building another extension to it, which is going to be to incubate tribal member businesses, and we also have, because we really truly believe in educating the tribe and we're not quite there yet as far as having a college. We're building the Tigua Technology Center there, which is also going to help to provide the software that some of our tribal members need to get their business done like the costing and pricing for construction companies and for auto mechanics and CAD and those things that are really expensive that they can't afford as far as software is concerned.

And then also our tax code, this was one of the things that also came out of the comprehensive economic development strategy. For some reason, the tribe had decided that it was going to adopt the State of Texas tax code, which made no sense whatsoever. It was 200 pages long and we couldn't enforce it. And so what we did is we took a look at what would best serve our needs and we went from 200 pages to 20 pages and in less than a year we went from $58,000 a year to $1.2 million in tax collections. The allocation also is divided up for different programming. But I'm able to support our department because we get 30 percent of tax allocation and that's how I am able to turn that into some of the programming that we're doing.

Here's the feedback and it's really a snapshot of the feedback that we got back from the community and the things that they were concerned with in land use. So they were, the community of course was concerned with things like cultural preservation and being able to maintain our traditional practices, having land for residential use, commercial needs and agriculture, as well as transportation. So we determined what the best use of lands would be and through community engagement we also took an inventory of our lands and created a database that had all the criteria of our lands, as well as GIS mapping, whatever, if there were environmental assessments. And so we have a really defined database of all our lands and then we created a master plan and an acquisition plan. The acquisition plan isn't quite finished yet, but this timeline that we looked at started with the need to preserve our lands and we have these milestones where we want to have our master plan and do energy development and make sure that everybody has housing and those things. But then at the end it ends with cultural preservation, too, because it demonstrates 100 years from now that we're still here and our land is preserved.

And then also on one side we have all the modern and things we need to survive today, but we also have all the things that are important to us historically and culturally. When we started writing a master plan through community engagement, we had these and we had these maps of the land...of our land in big sheets and we had the community write what certain places of what they wanted the land to look like.

And also they put places like by the river, like for example, that is still important to us today but that...we have ceremonies at the river that we can't just go to the river anymore. We border Mexico, so everybody knows about the big fence at the river. So we actually have to go ask the Border Patrol to let us go to the river to do our ceremonies. So part of our master planning is to take over the acequias or the irrigation system or the canal system that we actually created 300 years ago. So we created this cultural life cycle that we would incorporate into our land use and master plan and it talks about where we are at birth and how we're being nurtured and the lessons we're learning and how we learn about our culture and then how as elders our roles change and that then we become teachers and we pass on this tradition and culture. So in our land use plan we...that bar that intersects across there talks about the different places that we're going to create to make sure those things happen. So we have things like a nation-building hub and also an elder center and places for teens to meet as well.

So these are...see those are pictures of maps that we used where the community actually drew what they wanted the community to look like, and these are statements that the community provided back. And then we also had different criteria as far as what the community wanted to see and graphed and charted what the community best wanted for our lands. So these are also places that we don't own yet, but they're what we used to own. And so in our land acquisition process, we want to buy these locations back and this is what we could do with them as far as economic development is concerned. And it seems like way out there, but in reality it really isn't. When you think about we just had 68 acres in 1987 and we have 75,000 acres now, it's attainable. And then so this is what our acquisition process is going to look like and how we mapped it. Everything that is in yellow is what we own and what's in the darker colors is our long-term acquisition. We know that we can't buy everything, but we do...those are the gaps that we want to fill in. I talked a little bit about our enrollment ordinance. Well, we're working on an enrollment ordinance, a new citizen engagement [process] because of the blood quantum bill that just passed last year. So I had thought that that was going to go to somebody else, but I just was told last week that that citizen engagement process would actually come to our department so that's something that we're working on now. This was just a little conversation that the team had last week and these are questions that we're really thinking about what we need to ask the community. It'll be much more comprehensive, but just basic things like what does citizenship mean to you and how did you learn how to be a good citizen from your parents and your community, and so that's the way we usually start with just the basic questions and then we move into real comprehensive model.

These are just a couple, I guess, pointers to just make sure that you try to identify what your tribe needs and also...and then as far as when you're working within your community just know that everything that you're doing is either going to impact your tribe either positively or negatively. And what the work [is] that you're doing, how is that going to actually help your tribe or not help your tribe because sometimes we're afraid to move forward and to change, but in order to change you really need to know what it is that your community wants and to respect what their thoughts are and what they want for the future. Thank you."

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