By CHRIS AADLAND
MISSION, Ore. — Leslie “Les” Minthorn, the longtime tribal leader and dedicated advocate for tribal sovereignty who played a prominent role in spearheading many efforts, like bringing gaming to the reservation, that have transformed the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, died on September 21. He was 89.
A prosperous tribal gaming enterprise. A powerful tribal court system with jurisdiction rarely seen in Indian Country. Protected treaty rights. Revitalized religious and ceremonial practices.
Those are just some of the accomplishments that those who worked with Minthorn – who served stints on the Board of Trustees stretching from the early 1970s to 2014 – said he played a central role during his decades as a tribal political leader, prominent figure and elder that have had a lasting positive effect on the tribal community.
“A lot of the stuff that’s happening on the rez now, he led the charge for,” CTUIR Tribal Court Chief Judge William Johnson said.
Minthorn was born on Oct. 1, 1933 on the Umatilla Indian Reservation. He graduated from Pilot Rock High School, where he won a state championship as a member of the football team, in 1952.
After graduating, he enlisted in the army the same year and married Patrica Magee in 1954. They had four children, adopted two and fostered many others.
Minthorn – who was also known as Kite – then moved around, living in places like California and Portland, before he returned home in 1973 and was elected to his first of many terms as a Board of Trustees member.
Minthorn would end up serving on the BOT through the rest of the 1970s, most of the time as Chairman, during a time when members were unpaid volunteers, and when the tribal government was seeking to assert more of its inherent sovereignty, develop its economy and exercise treaty rights.
Minthorn would also spend much of his later years on the board, serving as Treasurer from 2000 to 2009 and Chairman again from late 2011 to 2014.
While he wasn’t the only influential and important tribal leader of his generation, Johnson, who counted Minthorn as a mentor and friend, said Minthorn played an outsized role or – was the most outspoken advocate in favor for – many of the developments and accomplishments that benefited the tribe.
For example, Johnson said Minthorn pushed to use settlement money on economic development initiatives instead of splitting the money up between tribal members early on in his career. Wildhorse Resort & Casino owes its existence to Minthorn, who was among the first to propose and endorse the idea of building a casino on tribal land, he added.
Despite the many high-profile politicians and officials he interacted with, and gained the respect of, and the continued policy successes he played pivotal role in, Johnson said his motivation for doing the work – for the good of the tribe as a whole – never shifted.
“I don’t think he knew how great he was, but he was,” he said.
Another one of Minthorn’s passions that has had a lasting positive effect was the retrocession of Public Law 280 in the early 1980s, which severely limits tribal jurisdiction and authority in matters like criminal justice in favor of the state, on the reservation and had resulted in poor public safety services for the tribe. To this day, the CTUIR is one of three Oregon tribes that are not subject to that law.
He also envisioned a strong and independent court system for the tribe and convinced Johnson in the 1970s, then a young and promising law student and tribal member who hadn’t considered coming back to the reservation for his career, to develop the court. Though he was from the community and eventually saw himself returning, Minthorn convinced him to do so much earlier than anticipated.
The court, under Johnson – wielding jurisdictional power, thanks to Minthorn, that few other tribes have – has become one of the most respected tribal courts across Indian Country, even prosecuting non-Indians in domestic violence cases.
“I always give him credit for getting me back here,” he said. “I went to law school thinking I wasn’t coming back home.”
His advocacy and influence has continued to produce results, too.
One of Minthorn’s passions was honoring the memory of the Cayuse Five and repatriating their remains. He helped lead a push starting in the 1990s to memorialize the men, who were unjustly hanged, in the city they died in.
A proposed memorial to the men was recently approved by an Oregon City government committee on Sept. 26, just hours after his funeral service.
While it may be less visible to many, one of Minthorn’s most lasting works, CTUIR Board of Trustees Chair Kat Brigham said, was implementing “retro budgeting,” which uses actual government revenue instead of estimates to establish budgets and pay for government services and dividend obligations.
That strategy, she said, allows for certainty for the tribe and insulates it from cuts to services or layoffs during a federal government shutdown.
“He was definitely a planner,” she said, who was always working to “try and move things forward” for the tribe.
But the list of projects, accomplishments, and other changes he spearheaded doesn’t end there. The list of issues or projects he was a vital part of is long and diverse and includes prioritizing developing other tribal businesses, like the grain elevator, beyond gaming, becoming an expert on energy development projects, being involved in forming the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and ensuring hunting, fishing, gathering and other treaty rights are respected, those who knew and worked with him told the CUJ.
“We’re still doing things that he put in place,” Brigham said. “He just did a lot of things that will be around for quite a while.”
Minthorn’s impact stretches beyond political and government matters, too.
In the 1970s, he was among a group who sought to revitalize the “Washat” way of life and restore it prominence role in tribal life more than 100 years after tribal ceremonial and religious practices were driven underground due to contempt of the practices from Christian missionaries and government officials.
Minthorn, who was known as a passionate drum maker, traditional song singer and dancer, also prioritized ensuring the longhouse was well taken care of and that veterans were honored, said Fred Hill, a former BOT member first elected in 2009 who served with Minthorn. He said Minthorn was instrumental in starting a Monday morning prayer tradition in the rotunda of the Nixyaawii Governance Center
“He taught us as a people that we can be self-sustaining, hand-in-hand with the cultural aspects,” said Hill, who often sang and drummed with Minthorn.
Often, Hill said Minthorn asked him for language lessons. Hill, who is a Umatilla language instructor, found the request one he “was more than willing” to grant given all that Minthorn had given him over the years.
Though Hill said he remembers first getting to know Minthorn in the mid-70s during an elk hunt, they became closest years later after Minthorn encouraged Hill to run for office after he had moved back to the reservation and to take on leadership roles within the tribe, as well as serving as a mentor to the younger Hill.
Brigham, Hill and Johnson said Minthorn was a great teacher who helped them and other younger tribal members, including current ones, become better leaders. They said he was a diplomatic leader who could be serious and comfortable expressing his opinions, but he also knew how – and when – to have a good time. His attention to detail, thoroughness and accounting skills also served the tribe well, they agreed.
“I was just so proud and humbled that I was serving with him,” Hill said. “He was the greatest man I’ve ever known.”
He loved that tribal members and other Native people were the ones responsible for managing and maintaining the tribe’s success as it and its business entities grew, which was another one of his goals, Johnson said.
Johnson said he loved and respected Minthorn, who was instrumental in his own growth and career. There are undoubtedly many more who can say they gained something from Minthorn sharing experiences or knowledge with them, too, he added.
“He’s still in me,” Johnson said. “And he’s still in a lot of people.”