On August 14, 1945, Anthony Russell Pico was the first Viejas Indian to be born in a hospital. At 21, he was drafted into the Vietnam War and served in two of the bloodiest years in the nineteen-year conflict. When Pico returned to the United States, he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and struggled to adapt to civilian life in Santa Barbara. After traveling through eleven western states, Anthony returned to the reservation in the early ‘80s and spoke to his Uncle Tom Hyde about what to do next in his life. Unknowingly, this was the moment Hyde began to groom Pico to enter politics. He recalls:
And then, one day… It must have been 1982. Yeah. Some elders came to me, there was Raymond Cuero, there was Delia Pico Millard, Tom Hyde, his wife, and they came and talked to me about running for chairman. And I always knew that the people wanted to establish an economic base. I was part of that movement before I was elected to the secretary position… They wanted me to establish an economic base and I think I've always been positive or can-do attitude. I felt I could do anything, and I figured, “well, I can do that!” But I didn't know it was gonna take me 20 years. (laughs)
In 1982, Anthony served his first stint as tribal secretary and would go on to serve as chairman of Viejas for over 24 years. His main objective was to establish an economic base and his administration would accomplish this goal with revenue generated from Indian gaming. Something I was not aware of until our interview was Viejas bypassed bingo games altogether and was introduced to gaming in ‘80s with a card room and off-track betting. Later, Pico was chairman when the Viejas Casino opened in 1991 and stood side-by-side Governor Grey Davis on September 10, 1999, known as “economic Independence Day.” On this momentous day, 54 of 109 California tribes signed tribal state gaming compacts and Indian gaming became official in the Golden State. There are currently 74 Indian gaming compacts.
As professor of Kumeyaay history for three years, I have been trying to answer several burning questions. One question pertained to the evolution of Kumeyaay leadership and why we are in the current political situation. When I asked Anthony the question of how leadership evolved from kwaypaay, to captain, to spokesman, to chairman. He responded:
Yeah. Well, first of all, why it changed was, again, the dominance of the State of California. In my opinion, because of the genocide. Because of the dominant culture wanting to be in charge, and certainly not allowing our own people to be in charge. When I say allowing, if we didn't go along with the program, we were murdered. I mean, it's plain and simple as that. Even though that is a complex issue. So that had a major impact on our own leadership, when our… I think is when our own citizens were encouraged to not follow our ancient leaders in that leadership style, which was, you are your brother's keeper…
In addition to the California genocide that happened from 1846 to 1873, Anthony states colonialism is another problem facing tribal governments:
Whenever we see elements in modern leadership about somebody, a chairman or a council person doing something for their own family, that's colonialism. Whenever we see them having self-interest in the office that they carry, for any reason, that's colonialism. And that's what we, modern Native Americans, who will become a people of understanding what colonialism is, what it has done to us, and where it's taking us, then we're gonna be able to teach the younger generation what not to indulge in.
Although Kumeyaay political structures have changed, there are still elements of traditional leadership in Kumeyaay politics. For instance, in the case of Joe Welch, Thorpe Romero, Sister Romero, Anthony Pico, Joh
n Christman, Gwendolyn Parada and Paul Cuero, all have ancestors with leadership roles, which is consistent with clan leadership before colonization. In the case of Pico and John Christman, they can trace their leadership back to Ventura Paipa.
Ventura Paipa was captain of Los Conejos and first chairman of Viejas. He was a supporter of the Mission Indian Federation and adversary of the United States government in the early 1900s. The people of Viejas remember him as a strong leader that opposed the creation of the Capitan Dam and disturbance of graves in the flood zone. In addition, Paipa lobbied successfully to purchase the Baron Long Ranch. Paipa mentored his nephew, Tom Hyde, to become a leader and passed away when Hyde was 16 years old. Hyde served on tribal council for over 50 consecutive years and passed on the legacy of leadership from Los Conejos to Chairman Anthony Pico and Chairman John Christman.
What I appreciate most about Anthony’s contribution to Kumeyaay history is his work with historical trauma and childhood trauma in Native nations. In particular, I appreciate his average age of death study. After returning from another tragic funeral in Barona, Pico collected the DOB and DOD on every gravestone in the Viejas cemetery. He found the average age of death to be 40.7 years old. Last year, I encouraged my students to find the average age of death on their respective reservations and so far, the data on other Kumeyaay reservations is consistent with Viejas. Santa Ysabel’s average age of death is 55.5 (study by Scott Nunes) and Barona’s average age of death is 48.25 (study by Huumaay Banegas). Pico brought awareness about the impact of historical trauma in our community and started a very important conversation. I hope more studies like this are conducted in the future and more data is needed.
Another burning question I have been trying to answer during the course of this project was the history of bird songs and other styles. In the 1970s, George Hyde was one of the last bird singers and the Kumeyaay People were at risk of losing their songs forever. With funding from the Kumeyaay Education Center, Pico was able to get Hyde into a music studio and record bird songs for future generations. It would be with these recorded tapes and contributions from Anthony Pico, Leroy Elliot, Ron Christman, John Christman, Ral Christman, Fred Largo, and Paul Junior Cuero, the Renaissance in singing began. Now, there are more than 100 singers in our community because of the efforts of these dedicated individuals.
-Ethan Banegas 2020