Ken Smith, influential leader of Warm Springs tribes, dies
One of most important leaders in the 145-year history of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, Ken Smith has died at the age of 85.
Smith's impact extended far beyond the reservation borders. He was one of Central Oregon's most important 20th century figures.
Raised by his grandparents on a ranch south of Warm Springs, in a home without electricity or running water, Smith would become the second Native American to graduate from the University of Oregon, serve as the general manager of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs twice, and would serve as the assistant secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs during the Reagan Administration.
Smith started working for the tribes upon graduating from college. In 1969, he was became the tribes' general manager after the death of Vernon Jackson, who had led the Warm Springs Nation through an era which saw the construction of Pelton and Round Butte dams and the construction of the Kah-Nee-Ta Village.
Under Smith, progress on the reservation continued at a strong pace, including the construction of Kah-Nee-Ta Lodge and Warm Springs Power Enterprise downriver from Pelton Dam, the first federally licensed hyrdo project on an American Indian reservation.
Smith was the tribal manager when, in 1972, the McQuinn Strip was added to the reservation, ending a century-long battle between the tribes and the federal government, and adding 61,000 acres to the north and west of what had been the existing reservation boundary.
As the assistant secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs, Smith administered services to 300 tribes and the Lower 48 and 190 Alaskan Native organizations, covering more than 52 million acres of trust land for tribes and Native Americans.
According to Smith's obituary (page 11), "Indian Country Today" magazine recognized Smith as "... the best Assistant Secretary Indian tribes have ever had."
Smith returned as secretary-treasurer for the Confederated Tribes in 1989. During his second run in the position, Smith focused on attracting and growing business for the tribes. In the 1990s, the Early Childhood Education Center was built, followed by the Museum at Warm Springs, and then the Health and Wellness Center. The tribes also entered the gaming industry by opening Indian Head Casino, and they built the Warm Springs Shopping Plaza.
Smith received the Jay Silverheels Achievement Award in 1984 for "leadership in managing Indian resources and steadfast commitment to the economic and social betterment of American Indian communities."
Smith had served on numerous boards, including US West Communications, US Bank, and for three museums: the High Desert Museum south of Bend, the Museum in Warm Springs and the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.
In 2019, the University of Oregon included Smith in its "Top 100 Ducks Who Made A Difference" from 1919 to 2019.
Smith had homes in Warm Springs, Portland and Palm Springs, California. He died Wednesday, May 13, surrounded by family at his home in Warm Springs.
A public service has been delayed due to the coronavirus. For more on Smith, please read his obituary on page 11.
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