To new First Nations Development Institute Board Chairman Benny Shendo, Jr., the work of First Nations speaks for itself.
“It’s not about us. It’s about the people we invest in,” he says. “We believe in them, so they can believe in themselves.”
This core philosophy is what attracted Shendo to First Nations and to his leadership role on the board. And, he says, it’s been a key driver in promoting independence and self-determination throughout Indian Country.
“At one time, we had the full exercise of our sovereignty, with tremendous resources and a rich culture that made us powerful,” he says. “By believing in our people – through First Nations – we can get that power back.”
(Shendo, a longtime First Nations board member, was elevated to chairman in June 2016 when former Board Chair Thomas Vigil retired from both the chairmanship and the board. Besides Shendo’s numerous contributions as a board member, he also helped lead the First Nations Southwest Tour in New Mexico in 2015.)
The mission of First Nations is personal for Shendo. He says many Indians face two worlds: One of family, Native culture, traditions and values. Then there’s the world outside, where the realities of Native American history are often ignored, and where stereotypes of today can steer our people off course.
“When you grow up and encounter this other world, sometimes you want to give up the fight,” Shendo says. “But having a strong foundation, a sense of who you are and where you come from, can give you strength to challenge this new world.”
Shendo says that growing up on the Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico – the “center of the universe” he jokes – he found that strength. He says, for him, there has been only one world: His world as an Indian. And he credits this to his family, culture and heritage.
“I was raised in a very healthy community,” he says. “My parents were together, and we had a very strong family. There were high ethical standards and high expectations of us. And we were very connected to our culture and spirituality.
“When you have that level of footing and connection to who you are as a people, you don’t see two worlds,” he says. “Without that, people can wander.”
Doing the Work
Throughout his life, Shendo has drawn strength from his heritage, which has helped him pursue opportunities outside his Native world.
One of those opportunities came at only 18 years of age when he was accepted to a summer academic program at Colorado College, exclusively offered to Native American students. Already planning to run cross-country for Adams State College in the fall, he spent his summer at Colorado College and continued his training on the streets of Colorado Springs.
On his regular runs, he would always pass the same lawns-keeper on campus, and would yell “hello” in greeting. One day, the lawns-keeper stopped Shendo mid-run, and asked if he was a student. “Only for the summer,” Shendo responded. But what resulted set a course for Shendo’s future.
As the two got to know each other, Shendo learned that the lawns-keeper was also a part-time cross-country and track coach at Colorado College and a former All-American at the University of Colorado Boulder. Doing the “work” of running, Shendo was discovered, and offered a scholarship starting in the fall. But ironically, Shendo laughed, the scholarship wasn’t for athletics, which he had worked so hard for throughout high school. Instead, it was for academics.
Recognition and Opportunity
The scholarship at Colorado College led to fulfilling a childhood dream of running for the University of Colorado Boulder. After graduating, Shendo began working for a nonprofit called the American Indian Science and Engineering Society. That job catapulted a career in a series of student affairs positions, including at Stanford University and the University of New Mexico.
In the spring of 2003, the Office of Indian Affairs in New Mexico was elevated to a state cabinet-level position, and then-Gov. Bill Richardson appointed Shendo to be the first cabinet secretary for the Department of Indian Affairs. His appointment led to running for office and, ultimately, to being elected to the New Mexico Senate.
“I just did the hard work,” he says. True to the values he was raised on, he says, “You do the best you can and others will recognize it.”
A pinnacle of this recognition came when Shendo was selected as one of 40 fellows of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s National Leadership Program. Chosen from more than 2,000 applicants, Shendo took part in this three-year program, studying political and socioeconomic issues throughout the world, including in China, South Africa, Africa and New Zealand. Shendo said it was an honor that changed his life and framed his perspective. “In America, we complain about small things. But we are so rich,” he says.
Framing the Future
Today Shendo is a state senator for District 22 in New Mexico and the Tribe Administrator of the Pueblo of Jemez. He is the recipient of the Council of Energy Resource Tribes’ Mary G. Ross Award for professional achievement, and the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development’s First American Public Advocate Award for outstanding leadership and contributions to American Indian economic and business development.
He continues to see his service and leadership to be a direct result of his Indian heritage.
“I call on our culture, our traditions. These are the things that have made us powerful,” he says. “We have to cut through the clutter to teach our children and grandchildren what’s important. We can remind everyone that – as Indians – we do have the answers. We can control our own assets and our own decision-making.”
Throughout his education and career, Shendo says he’s been fortunate. “I didn’t know what I planned to be, or what would happen. But I always did my best.”
In this he again feels an affinity with First Nations, which he says seeks out the best in people. “We invest in communities, and we raise expectations of living up to the core values of our world. From there, we get out of the way and let good things happen.”
Among the good work is economic development, food sustainability, community strengthening, and youth development – all things inherent in the Indian way of life.
“It’s never about changing people – it’s about empowering people,” he says. “It’s about how you invest in our people and how they can take their communities another step forward. It’s how they can create that foundation of values for the next generation. And how they can build on the world we are from to take back the power we once had.
“If our small role as a foundation can see that potential and support it,” he says. “Then I think we’ve done our job. “
By Amy Jakober