Indian Country Mourns the Passing of Ernie Stevens Sr., a Pillar of Strength and Visionary Leader

Special Statement on Father’s Day

Washington, D.C. (June 16, 2024) – Ernie Stevens, Jr., Chairman of the Indian Gaming Association, announced the peaceful passing of his father, Ernie Stevens, Sr. Ernie Stevens, Sr. transitioned on June 1 at the Anna John Resident-Centered Care Community in Oneida, Wisconsin, and was laid to rest on June 5. He was buried alongside his late wife and mother.

The loss of Ernie Stevens Sr., a respected figure in Indian Country and the father of Indian Gaming Association Chairman Ernie Stevens, Jr, saddens the Indian Gaming Association and tribal communities nationwide. He leaves a profound legacy of advocacy and leadership that has transcended generations.

Today, on Father’s Day, Chairman Stevens released the following special Father’s Day Message:

On this Father’s Day, I share this message with Indian country to honor fathers here and commemorate Ernie Stevens, Sr.’s first Father’s Day in heaven.

Today, I pay tribute to the legacy of Ernie Stevens, Sr., a remarkable individual whose love and wisdom continue to inspire us from above. Although he may not be physically present among us now, his spirit and teachings endure in our hearts and minds.

My father, Ernie Stevens, Sr., embodied more than just a paternal figure to me. He stood as a hero, a guiding light, and a symbol of resilience for many individuals. His profound wisdom provided solace and direction, while his deeds ignited motivation among those in his circles.

His unwavering commitment to hard work continues to propel my own leadership journey. Most significantly, his unwavering devotion was to the service of Indian country, even in a time devoid of the modern conveniences we enjoy today. Dad exemplified one of the most distinguished warriors in Indian Country. His influence not only shaped my career choices but also steered me towards the leadership path I walk today.

As I celebrate his inaugural Father’s Day in heaven, I reflect on the countless ways his presence enriched many lives. His legacy of honesty continues to light our way, reminding us of the values he cherished.

Although my father may no longer be among us in physical form, we feel his influence in every cherished memory, every lesson learned, and every shared moment of love. His legacy of wisdom remains a guiding beacon, illuminating our journey and reinforcing the values he held dear.

Today, I honor him not with tears of sorrow but with smiles of appreciation for the privilege of his life and the enduring influence he has had on each of us.

After the traditional burial rites of Oneida, Chairman Stevens tenderly expressed heartfelt gratitude for the overwhelming flood of support, love, cherished memories, and solidarity that poured in from near and far to honor his father. “Our hearts overflow with thankfulness for the deep sense of community and the outpouring of compassion for Dad. As a beacon of guidance, warmth, and friendship to many as a father, uncle, granddad, neighbor, and friend, his boundless impact has left an indelible mark on the lives of countless people whose existence was forever enriched by his guidance.”

Chairman Stevens added, “Dad was one of Indian Country’s finest warriors. He was a very prominent force in not only my desire to do the work I do but also in my path in leadership today.

Ernest Stevens, Sr., born in 1932, was a dedicated advocate for sovereignty, self-determination, self-governance, and Native rights, and remembered as a prominent figure in the Indian political activism during the 1960s and 1970s.

A U.S. Marine Corps combat veteran of the Korean War, serving four years and earned the rank of Staff Sergeant at 19 years of age. Stevens was recognized for his service and dedication, receiving accolades such as the Korean Unit citation and the Korean Service medal with three battle stars. While in Korea, he was part of the well-known conflict, the Frozen Chosen. The Marines who fought there are known as “the chosen few,” where nearly 2,500 of the US forces died, and some froze to death. The wounded totaled 5,000, and 8,000 suffered frostbite.

Stevens’s distinguished and impactful career includes numerous leadership positions, including executive director of the Los Angeles Indian Center, the Institute for Community Anti-Poverty Corporation, the Inter-Tribal Council of California, the Indian Action Project in Arizona, and the LA Human Rights Commission.

Coming from humble beginnings, Stevens, Sr. began a profound rise to national recognition at a time of significant change in Indian Country. He remained a charismatic figure to many tribes, Indian leaders, and Indian people, particularly in Arizona, where his early professional years left a significant imprint. He held a bachelor’s degree in Business Economics and a Community Fellows Program certification from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

In the mid-1950s, Ernie moved to Los Angeles, where he found great struggles and challenges as a young man fresh out of military service in his country. He would meet Joe Vasquez, a man who would become one of his closest friends in the professional and political world. Joe picked up Ernie and got him back on his feet. Together, they would work throughout Los Angeles and Indian Country, helping people, promoting Indian business, and moving Indian Country forward.

In the mid-1960, Ernie Stevens Sr. moved to Tempe, Arizona, and work as the Executive Director for the Indian Action Project and with Tribes in the economic and community development arena. While in Arizona, he was invited by the Ford Foundation to participate in an exchange program that sent him to New Zealand, along with nine other Indian men, to tour Maori native communities and exchange ideas and develop recommendations concerning health, education, housing, socio-economic; economic development; and governance and language issues. This exchange program brought ten Maori men to Indian Country, and upon completion of their assignment, they all met in New Zealand to debrief and deliver their joint report. Their work would be considered a model and standard for Indian Country and the Indigenous People of New Zealand. His accomplishments and unwavering commitment to Indian Country did not go unnoticed, as evidenced by the Leon Grant Spirit of the Community Award bestowed upon him by the Phoenix Indian Center in 2017.

In 1969, Ernie Stevens Sr. accepted the position of Executive Director for the Inter-Tribal Council of California, where he is still well-known and revered among California elders for his work. Here, he was recruited by the late Louis Bruce, former Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and he became an integral part of a team of eleven Indian men who would change the course of policy. While at the Bureau, Ernie Stevens Sr. would serve as Development Director, Community Development Director, and Acting Commissioner. Several key issues initiated and implemented at that time were the concepts of contracting and Indian Preference. He played a pivotal role in shaping Indian policy, advocating for tribal self-determination, and significantly contributing to the advancement of Indian Country.

In an illustrious Washington, D.C. career, Stevens was elected and ascended to the prestigious position of First Vice President of the National Congress of American Indians. Furthermore, he assumed pivotal duties as the Executive Director of the American Indian Policy Review Commission. While serving as Executive Director for the American Indian Policy Review Commission, Ernie Stevens Sr. would lead a staff of over 200, primarily young and educated Indians, to research, compile, and deliver the most comprehensive study regarding Indian Country since the Meriam Report in 1928, which culminated in his historic appointment as the pioneering Staff Director of the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs.

Ernie Stevens Sr. would later work as the economic development director for the Navajo Nation. Upon returning home to Oneida, he would fulfill his duties as an elected Councilman on the Oneida Business Committee and later as the Senior Manager of the Development Division for the Oneida Nation. Ernie was then recruited to participate in a 1-year Community Fellows program in Boston at MIT. Upon his return and while serving as a consultant for Oneida, Ernie suffered a debilitating aneurysm that left him unable to continue his work.

He left a lasting imprint on those he encountered. Whether through his leadership roles in various organizations or his involvement in policymaking at the national level, Ernie Stevens, Sr., was a driving force for change and progress in Indian Country.

He was a visionary leader, a devoted advocate, and a beloved community member. Ernie Stevens, Sr.’s indelible mark on Indian Country, will forever be remembered and cherished by all whose lives he touched.

Ernie is survived by his children, Kelly (Shelly) Stevens of Oneida; Ernie (Cheryl) Stevens, Jr. of Oneida; Mike (Tommi) Stevens of New Town, ND; Toni (Doug) House of Oneida; David Stevens of Appleton; Pamela Stevens of Milwaukee; Jennifer Stevens of Milwaukee. Twenty-four grandchildren and 36 great-grandchildren also survived him. He is preceded in death by the love of his life, his wife Patricia, his mother Maria Hinton, a community icon, and his son Coleman.

Stevens shared, “Today, on behalf of my family, I humbly pay gratitude to the Anna John Resident Centered Care Community staff for their compassionate care and extended heartfelt appreciation to the Oneida community for their unwavering support during this difficult time. He emphasized the importance of carrying forward Ernie Stevens Sr.’s dream for economic diversity, tribal heritage preservation, and education for all, underscoring the collective responsibility to honor and uphold his enduring legacy.”