White Mountain Apaches lose Ronnie Lupe 'one of its greatest leaders'

Chairman Ronnie Lupe at the Interior Department. (Interior photo)

Chairwoman Lee-Gatewood: “He no longer belongs to us, he belongs to the ages”

One of the most influential and long-time fixtures in White Mountain Apache tribal leadership died Monday. Former Chairman Ronnie Lupe was 89 years old.

Lupe was first elected to the tribal council in 1964 and became the youngest chairman ever elected two years later at the age of 36. He ultimately won nine non-consecutive terms. In total, he served the White Mountain Apache people in a leadership capacity for more than 50 years.

Lupe retired in 2018 and passed the leadership torch to Gwendena Lee-Gatewood, the tribe’s first female elected to its highest office.

In a press release, she had high praises for Lupe and spoke of his everlasting impact on the tribe.

“The White Mountain Apache Tribe has lost one of its greatest leaders this morning. Former Chairman Ronnie Lupe had an illustrious career in the development of the tribe and Indian Country. Today he’s gone home and we’ve lost one of the most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this earth. He no longer belongs to us, he belongs to the ages,” Lee-Gatewood said. “Through his fierce dignity and unbending will to sacrifice his own freedom for the freedom of others, Ronnie Lupe, transformed the tribe and moved us all. It has been an honor and privilege to work for him. I remain forever grateful for his teachings, vision and philosophy. He will be missed.”

Lupe was born in a traditional Apache shelter known as a wickiup on January 1, 1930, in Cibecue, Arizona, amid celebratory gunfire. He would go on to serve in the Korean War in 1951 in the United States Marine Corps.

As chairman, Lupe was well respected and known throughout Indian Country as well as at the local, state and federal levels of politics. He helped with the tribe’s water rights legislation, laying the groundwork for a reservation-wide clean drinking water system. He is also credited for establishing the Sunrise Ski Park and the Hon-dah Casino and Resort. 

Lupe was a strong advocate for tribal sovereignty and for maintaining traditional values. He worked hard to strengthen tribal institutions. Speaking before the Indian Affairs Committee in 1992, Lupe spoke of laying the foundation for the future of the tribe without sacrificing the Apache culture.

“As Apaches, we will continue to seek new adventures through the development of new technologies and skills,” Lupe said. “The challenge we face today is to move forth into the 21st century possessing the skills and the tools of modern science with our cultural values and language intact. We feel this true sovereignty.”

Peterson Zah, former president of the Navajo Nation, said he had a great admiration for Lupe and that he was one of his heroes and mentors.

“I will always remember and cherish our friendship,” Zah said. “Chairman Lupe was a great leader of the White Mountain Apache Tribe, especially in legal cases brought before the judiciary. He won major cases and established precedent for Indian Country.”

Chairwoman Lee-Gatewood moved to have all flags on the reservation be flown at half-staff in honor of Lupe until after his burial.

Any donations can be sent to the Office of the Chairwoman through the Chief of Staff Jerry Gloshay at jgloshay@wmat.us.

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Kolby KickingWoman is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today. He is Blackfeet/Gros Ventre from the great state of Montana and currently reports and lives in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter - @KDKW_406. Email - kkickingwoman@indiancountrytoday.com

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