NIGA Honors Former President of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) Mel Tonasket with the 2019 Tim Wapato Sovereign Warrior Award

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April 2, 2019

San Diego, CA – April 02, 2019 – The Cultural event highlighted the Tuesday evening of Indian Gaming 2019 last week with the traditional dances that took to the stage at the San Diego Convention Center in San Diego, California.

The traditional dances led up the presentation of the 9th Annual Tim Wapato Sovereign Warrior Award to former Chairman of the Coleville Business Council and President of the National Congress of American Indians Mel Tonasket.

“One of the greatest leaders of our time. Tim dedicated his time to working hard. He and Gay took me under their wings, as a young leader and showed me the way. He never hesitated to take a strong position with me when needed, but he was always there to stand by me when I needed fatherly support, and most importantly when we needed to fight the fight. He was ready to go to work, prepared to defend Indian Country. Tim Wapato was one of the finest modern day warriors. Tonight, we are honoring Mel Tonasket in his memory.” Chairman Stevens said.

Gay Kingman-Wapato, the wife and family members of the late Tim Wapato joined NIGA Chairman Ernie Stevens, Jr., on stage to present the coveted award to Tonasket.

Gay Kingman said, “We talk a lot about sovereignty, but we must recognize those people who practice it and who believe that we need to educate others. Tim devoted his life to sovereignty. Not only in his career, but in his life.”

She added, “I want to recognize Mel because one of the things he says is the tribes are only as strong as the weakest tribe, so we all connect. His whole life has been devoted to protecting our tribal rights and sovereignty.” She thanked Tonasket for all of the work he has done for Indian country.

Accepting the award, Tonasket said, “I am honored by this recognition. I came into the business when termination was a big deal in Indian country. My tribe was on the list to be terminated, and we had six bills in Congress, and that’s what I started walking into as a new councilman and ultimately became President of NCAI. That is where I got to meet so many great leaders. No one leader does excellent all by themselves. It takes a team and people that are willing to go out and fight, to walk the halls of Congress every day on behalf of those we serve.”

Tonasket has served as an elected official for the Colville Tribes at various times since 1970 and has served as the Colville Tribes’ Chairman and other leadership positions during his years as an elected official.

From 1973-1976, Tonasket served as President of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). Mr. Tonasket led the Colville Tribes’ fight against termination and as President of NCAI mobilized national support for major tribal legislation, including the Indian Health Care Improvement Act and the Indian Child Welfare Act. He was a member of the American Indian Policy Review Commission for two years and has represented United States tribal governments at the World Council of Indigenous Peoples and the Inter-American Indigenous Conference in Brazil.

Wapato’s wife A. Gaye Kingman said, “Mel Tonasket exemplifies the meaning of real leadership. As an advocate for Indian country, he always stands strong protecting tribal sovereignty with the best interest of his community first and foremost.”

Tim Wapato, who passed on in April 2009, was a citizen of the Wenatchee Band of the Colville Confederated Tribes in Washington State. He retired from the Los Angeles Police Department in 1979 and went on to be the executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, and in 1989 he was appointed Commissioner of the Administration for Native Americans. Following his federal service, he served as the first Executive Director of the National Indian Gaming Association.

The Tim Wapato Sovereign Warrior Award was established by NIGA and Wapato’s family and is presented to a member of our tribal community who shares the passion and drive that Tim Wapato had for Tribal Sovereignty and all people throughout Indian country.