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Portrait of a Tribal Leader

Percy Powless: Rebuilding the Oneida Economy

Name: Purcell R. Powless

Born: December 25, 1925 Oneida, WI

Heritage: Full blooded Oneida Indian

Family: Son of Mark Powless and Margaret (Stevens) Powless.
Purcell was the second eldest of nine children (5 sons and 4 daughters).

Married Angeline (Skenandore) Powless in 1946 (Angeline passed away in 2003).

Father of 8 children (5 sons and 3 daughters) plus 30 grandchildren 25 great grandchildren

Education: Purcell attended St. Joseph School in Oneida and Pipestone Indian School and graduated from Flandreau Indian School, South Dakota.

Career history: Purcell worked as an iron worker prior to becoming Oneida Tribal Chairman in 1967. Over the decades, he worked on hundreds of steel construction jobs across the country, including the Mackinaw Bridge in Michigan and the Sears Tower in Chicago. The Oneida Nation elected him as Tribal Chairman in 1967, and kept him at the helm for 23 years. He remains the longest seated chairman in the history of the Oneida Nation.

When Powless was elected, the Oneida Nation had very little money and unemployment on the reservation was more than 60%. The Oneida Head Start project was in its second year and the Tribe was reliant on federal funds. Within the next fifteen years Powless was successful in leading the Tribe to the beginning of an era which would change the quality of life on the Oneida Reservation and raise the standard of living in Oneida above the poverty level. By 1982 the Oneida Nation had expanded it s budget to include private and federal funding for health care, education, housing and provide jobs for approximately 500 employees. The establishment of Oneida Bingo had occurred during this period and was a major financial boost to the Tribe's swelling budget.

Native American gaming success story: In 1976 two initiatives forced the Oneida people to become more resourceful in securing funds to meet the needs of the growing reservation. One initiative was to bring to fruition the dream of a Nursing Home for Oneida elders. The other was to find a way to help subsidize the operation and maintenance of a newly acquired community recreation facility. Through a Community Development Block Grant from HUD, the Oneida had built a recreational building that needed to have a source of funding for the insurance and utility costs to keep the building open.

The solution was found in bingo. Through the efforts of many women who shared a vision for the Oneida people, bingo became the goose that laid the golden egg. Powless credits the dedication and commitment of several women who worked tirelessly to bring bingo from a small time penny ante game to one of the most lucrative economic initiatives ever experienced by any Tribe in Wisconsin. With the full support and endorsement of Powless a team of women who were undaunted by legal obstacles and racist politics moved forward in developing a high stakes bingo operation. Following more than a decade of success from Oneida Bingo, the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 was passed which opened the doors to casino games in the nation. IGRA was passed in October and by the end of that month, Powless contacted former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson to compact for class III in Oneida. Although it took nearly three years to conclude a compact with Wisconsin the Oneida government supported the expansion into Class III gaming in 1990.

Results of Native American Gaming on the Oneida Reservation:
The quality of life on the Oneida Reservation has been improved tremendously. In the 1950s there was a strong desire from the federal government to relocate Indian people from their reservations to the cities. The government paid expenses to relocate and find employment. Purcell took advantage of relocation in 1959 and moved to Chicago with his wife and five children. He left a reservation that had four taverns, two grocery stores and two gas stations, dirt roads, no sewer and water, and virtually no industry.

Children were bussed to five different school districts, law enforcement was nearly non -existent, closest health care was ten miles away. Most community social functions were organized through the local churches. Housing was substandard, tribal lands had dwindled from 65,000 acres to nearly 1,300 acres.

In 1963 Purcell moved his family back to the Oneida Reservation to a home with no plumbing, no sewer, outside toilet, on a dirt road and a wood stove for heat. He commuted weekly from Chicago where he worked on construction of the Sears Tower for five years. In 1967 he ran for Chairman, was elected and served his first tenure until 1981. He was out of office for 18 months, and was returned to office in 1982. He served until he retired from office in 1991. Upon his retirement Purcell had enjoyed the end of his term with the realization that under his leadership the Oneida Nation had achieved tremendous growth towards self sufficiency through bringing together Oneida people who had a vision for their community that included building for the future. Powless had the benefit of retiring at a time when the Oneida Nation was at its peak in economic and social development. The Oneida Nation had a nursing home, clinic police department, extensive social services department, communications department, elementary school, Industrial park, convenience store, tobacco enterprise, hotel, housing, land base of 6000 acres, elderly services, expanded educational programs, daycare, fitness center, Oneida language preservation program, land office, agricultural and farming projects, environmental programs, library, recreational facilities and programs and employment opportunities.

The last word: Purcell Powless is a man of honesty, integrity and commitment. Anyone who knows Purcell will tell you he is a humble man and has always attributed the success of the Oneida Nation to the support and assistance of strong women in the Oneida Nation who were willing to work towards building a community that would provide the children with opportunity for education and employment in a healthy environment.

Purcell led the Oneida Nation with his heart and always accepted every award and recognition by showing his appreciation for the people who supported him and the encouragement and support of his wife and family.

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