On November 6, Jamul Indian Village Chairwoman Erica M. Pinto was awarded the highest honor of the American Indian Chamber of Commerce of California. She was given the Warrior Award at the Chamber’s 2020 Native American Heritage Month Luncheon at the Agua Caliente Resort in Rancho Mirage.
In an exclusive interview with GGB News, the chairwoman talked about her career and how her values helped shape her as she first led her tribe to build an Indian Casino on a tiny “postage stamp” sized reservation and to operate Jamul Casino under the tribe’s own brand.
Pinto has served on the tribal council since 1997 and has been chairwoman since 2015. She was the first woman elected to the post. Groundbreaking for the casino was in 2014 and two years later the casino opened.
Chairwoman Pinto also co-founded the Acorns to Oaks tribal program, which organizes activities for youths that help prevent drug and alcohol use and teen pregnancy.
She spoke with GGB News reporter David Ross from her offices on the reservation.
The Warrior Award recognizes tribal leaders whose work has benefited tribal enterprises and people. What have you done in this area that you are the most proud of, that you think the award recognizes?
The most proud moment has to be the fact that we had our casino open after a 20-year struggle. There were many challenges that led to breaking ground in 2014. The opening was another proud moment. Another proud thing was co-founding of Acorns to Oaks, because the acorns are my kids—30 tribal kids. Every month we do a lot of things that are related to our culture, that promote healthy living and family. Acorn picking, financial literacy classes. It entails culture, technology and healthy living. It’s especially great during Covid. To be able to hug each other. Also the fact that our tribe is self-managing. We started with someone else managing our casino and now we are running it. I love our brand of a water droplet with a J. This recognizes that “Jamul” means “Sweet water.”
What were some of the challenges you faced to build a casino?
We hear the myth sometimes that tribes are wealthy. But that is not the case. The biggest challenge was building the facility. We have six acres—a postage stamp sized reservation. The challenge was to build a facility on four acres. We use the other two acres for tribal administration and a cemetery. It’s like building in downtown San Diego where buildings are stacked up on top of each other.
Isn’t part of the casino underground?
The majority of the parking is underground. Of the eight levels, five are underground. The casino goes about 45 feet above the grade. “The Rooftop” we just installed gives a beautiful 360 degree view of the valley and mountains.
What other challenges did you face?
We faced a lot of opposition, a lot of it from the wealthy residents and a member of the Board of Supervisors. Now that supervisor has been termed out. We look forward to working with a new set of county supervisors who want to collaborate.
How long have you been tribal chairwoman and what was your path for reaching that point in your career?
I was on tribal council since 1997 and was appointed as vice chair because the former vice chair had lost his life. I then ran in 2015 for chair and I won. My mother, who is my role model, used to take me to tribal meetings since as long as I can remember. I heard even when I was too little to understand. Then it was only a handful of people. Now we have seventy-two members. I have always been fascinated by the politics of it all. I wanted to follow I my mother, Carlene Chamberlain, who was the backbone of the community.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I feel that I really lead with my heart but there are seven of us on the council. I want to hear from everybody. I include everybody, because seven people have seven different opinions. I probably over communicate; I encourage everyone to speak. There is no such thing as a dumb question. I encourage dialogue in a respectful manner.
What advice would you give to young women who want to follow your example and lead their tribes?
A book I read, The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom (By Don Miguel Ruiz) is something I strive to live by. The first thing that comes to mind is don’t take things personally. It’s a thankless position. I do things for the good of the people. I would tell young women to be patient, not take things personally. Work hard. Things don’t happen overnight and don’t be disappointed. Just do it! I know that sounds like the Nike ad, but it’s true!
What facet of your personality has proven to be most useful to you in achieving your goals and your tribe’s goals?
First of all, I work 24 hours a day 7 days a week. I feel like I’m pretty ambitious. I’m very driven. I feel like I’m a charismatic leader.
As I said, I lead with my heart. I’m respectful. You get more bees with honey than vinegar. If you conduct your meetings, whether tribal or state or with Caltrans (the California Department of Transportation), there is always this level of respect that you give to people. I pride myself on the face I put out for us, and I get a lot of respect back. Being charming, kind and ambitious, all have helped to get us where we are today, all with the support the tribe and my mother too! Also, I’ve got a pretty good sense of humor.
What experience earlier in your career has helped you the most in your current job?
When I first came to work for the tribe in 1994, three years before running for the council. Between 1994 and 2015 I had the privilege of working for four tribal chairs. Two were my uncles and two my cousins. They all had different styles and I was able to pick and choose what was good. It was a learning experience and I had the privilege of working with many tribal leaders in the state-—for example, tribal chairman Bo Mazzetti from Rincon. I work closely with him on the Southern California Tribal Chairs Association. He’s always giving good advice, telling me you are only as sovereign as you act. I take that to heart and I exercise it. They are my mentors.
How has your tribe used casino profits to benefit its members?
We have various programs, some educational, some for elders, some for Acorns to Oaks. We had health care in the beginning when we started, for many who never had it. We improved Highway 94, which is now a much safer road. I just presented a $10,000 check to the American Cancer Society. Out peoples’ lives have improved and changed dramatically.
It goes beyond our borders. Besides members being able to purchase homes and take care of their families. Before we opened we used to be recipient of revenue sharing trust fund from the other tribes. That became very beneficial for us. Now that we are in the position to give back, we do it as much as we can. Our members are comfortable.
How has your tribe dealt with the Covid-19 pandemic?
We’ve kept them healthy. In March we cancelled our meetings and we got a Zoom account. Occasionally we will see each other face to face but for the most part everyone has been health and living safely. I’m glad no one has been impacted by this.
How much have you needed to learn about gaming in order to be an effective leader of a tribe that operates a casino?
I’m constantly learning. I work with one of the best attorneys, Terry Patterson. I have a group of women, who are intelligent educated and meet with our board. We are still learning. To have a group of solid, excellent people. I have learned a lot and I will continue to learn. I wish I knew it all. I act like I know it all but I’m still learning. We’ve been talking in a business sense but when I go into the casino I see joy and happiness and people having a good time. I can’t overstate how important it is to provide that environment. People love games of chance and they love being with other people.