How did you get started as a legislator?
“I spent my working life in public service. I was in the fire service for about 41 years. And that’s been my mentality is the servant’s life. Wchen the Tribe changed its constitution to form a legislative form of government, I started thinking about it. My dad would have done it had it happened sooner in his life, but he prodded me towards it. Then I decided after the first two-year term when Thom Finks was the Tribal legislator to go ahead and run. There were three of us in that first race, and it whittled down to a two-person runoff. And I was fortunate and lucky enough to win that seat.”
You spent your career with the U.S. Forest Service and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. What drew you to working in forestry and firefighting?
“It was quite intensive work to work on wildland fires, especially in the California climate that we have. It was just something that drew me to it from the age of like 7. My mom would tell me that all I talked about was being a firefighter. … So I pursued the fire career full time and was lucky enough to get the job with Cal Fire, and it was a great career. There’s a lot of heartache that goes with that job, but I wouldn’t change anything. … And being able to help people, I think, is what drew me to it. And you deal with a lot of people on their worst day, and you try to make it better, and that’s what I’ve tried to carry forward in my service as a legislator.”
How have lessons throughout your career helped you as a legislator?
“Being in the fire service here is a job that doesn’t allow you a whole lot of time to think. So critical thinking is something that is very great to possess in your toolbox and to make decisions quickly. … And I can relate to a whole lot of different people because I’ve dealt with a whole lot of different people my entire life going back to when my dad used to take me to powwows out here. … The life experience that I’ve had, I think, has served me well as a legislator. It’s been able to give me a broader view of what all is going on out in Indian Country and certainly shaped the way I think about tribal sovereignty.”
What is your Potawatomi name, and who named you?
“I was named by Chairman Barrett quite a few years ago. My name is Wisk Mtek. It can mean a couple of things depending on the context you use it. It can mean ‘Sweet as a Tree’ or ‘Strong as a Tree.’ And it probably has something to do with the fact that I’m like 6’8” and 250 pounds or so. It’s something that I hold near and dear, and the Creator will definitely know me when he sees me.”
How are you looking forward to contributing as a legislator through your next term?
“When we have people vote in the districts, we have less than 7 percent vote. So there’s a disconnect there that I would like to work on because we want to have people involved in our Tribe, and one of the ways you can do that is by voting. … We need to get back to being a family. We need to lift up those that need help. We need to expand the benefits into the districts as we can, which is something that’s very hard to do with our economic base. But we’re continually chipping away at that. We need to make sure people are taking advantage of those benefits that are available to them. But we need to solidify our heritage. We need to solidify our language so it doesn’t disappear.
“I always want to make sure that I represent the views of my constituents, not just a few of the constituents. I want to represent all the constituents, and I want to hear from all the constituents. That’s a struggle that we’re going to have, I think, going forward, is getting people to get involved with their Tribe and with their heritage. It’s fighting the good fight. We’re going to continue to hold meetings. We’re going to continue to hold fall gatherings out here. I’m going to continue to ask people to come back home to Shawnee and visit the Tribe the last weekend in June.”
What are some of your plans throughout the next few years for interaction and engagement?
“We will continue to have our meetings out here. I’ll be excited to get the Chairman and Vice-Chairman out here. I try to work in conjunction with District 6 Legislator Rande Payne. … There’s an arbitrary line that runs through the middle of California that separates District 6 from District 7, and it also runs through Nevada and Utah. And many of our families are intertwined. So I try to work very closely with Rande Payne when we do our events out here.
“I continue to try to reach out to members through the Hownikan to get people involved and get their attention to different matters. So, I will continue to do that, and I will continue to email the members that I have email addresses for. I have a few hundred of those. I wish I had every one of them. I certainly encourage our Tribal members — since the electronic age is here to stay, and it’s not going anywhere — to reach out to your legislator with your email.”
You retired in December 2021. What are some of your favorite hobbies and activities now?
“I like to spend a lot of time with my cows. They don’t talk back. They don’t give me a hard time. Being out on the land that I own and some land that I lease and run cattle on. That keeps me busy. There’s always a piece of barbed wire fence that needs to be mended or something. I also try to spend some quality time with my wife Rita, catching up on all the times we have missed when I was working those long workweeks. I spend a good amount of time reading what’s going on in Indian Country just so I can be up to date and know what’s going on around that. Some of the Native American gatherings in central California, I’ll find time to attend. And I’ve built some good relationships through my work with the tribal chairmen that are close to me, and I’ve been able to share some of the wisdom of our experience as the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.”
Is there anything else you would like your constituents to know about you or your hopes for the Tribe?
“If I could have our Tribal members do one thing, it’s just be involved. It takes very little time. We do the bulk of the work for you. But if you just reach out, let us know what difficulties you’re having, and we may not be able to solve it today. We may not be able to solve it tomorrow, but we will certainly work on solving it into the future because that’s what we’re here for. I’m here to serve you, the Tribal members. And it just takes a very small amount of time to reach out to me, to let me know that you’re here. Let me know what your thoughts are. Let me know what is important to you and your family, and I will do everything I can to move heaven and earth to get you what you need.”
Read more about Legislator Mark Johnson at cpn.news/legislature. Email him at email@example.com.