by John Stapleton, Contributing Editor
In a time before central air conditioning, before the casino, and when most of the region was farmland instead of tract housing, Robert Miguel of the Ak-Chin Indian Community grew up with many of the homes still being adobe, houses built out of sticks and mud.
Miguel’s mother Janice was a teenager when she had him. His grandparents Jonas and Matilda Miguel were his primary caretakers and main influence in his childhood. His grandfather also was the Chairman of the Tribe.
“He taught me a lot about being a leader,” Miguel says. ”Also, about the culture, the traditional medicine practices and of course, the O’odham language. It was my first real language, before English.”
Miguel remembers long walks with his grandfather when all the grandchildren would listen to their grandfather’s stories while he pointed out the richness of the desert, the different plants, and their purposes — especially after a rain when the desert would come alive.
At night, his grandfather would point out the constellations based on Greek mythology and the different stars.
“It would be pitch dark and all the stars would be out,” Miguel says. “He would tell us the stories, his version — and I never questioned how he knew.”
Mornings were spent gathering eggs off his grandfather’s farm. There was always food, and the kids knew which homes they could go to be fed. When the grandchildren were bored, they would chase lizards or hunt for rabbits. When a family was in need of a home, his grandfather would gather up the Tribe, and together they would build another adobe.
Miguel laughs when thinking of the simplicity of the adobe homes — in winter, a metal stove kept everyone warm and on hot summer days, “all you had to do was spray down your home and it cooled it off.”
“It was so simple and easy back then,” he says.
Baseball builds foundation
At an early age, Miguel picked up a glove. Any space of dirt was good enough to get a game of baseball going or just some catch. Empty beer cases, rocks, even cow chips were used for makeshift bases. His brothers Norbert, David and Cecil pushed Miguel when it came to baseball, not just technique, but also a strong mental attitude to compete.
“Baseball was really what I looked forward to growing up,” Miguel says. “And it kept a lot of us in school. We did whatever we could do to play the sport.”
More than an outlet of fun, it also became a shield for Miguel against drugs and alcohol. Baseball also allowed him to bond with family and other Community members as they traveled to other tribes to compete, giving him the opportunity to see Arizona and to learn how other Native Americans lived.
“Even though we were a small tribe, we wanted to show we were ‘the better tribe’,” Miguel laughs.
He remembers when, in seventh grade, his brother Norbert took him to a game. Miguel hadn’t expected to play but the team needed an extra player. He was stuck in right field, where the team expected the least amount of hits.
“The other team kept hitting it to me, and I kept missing it,” Miguel says. “My brother screamed at me, threatened me, telling me I was going to walk home, and it kept going to the point I cried.”
Miguel says the emotions were not because he lacked confidence in his abilities, but because he was letting his brother down.
“My brother didn’t do it to pick on me,” he says. “He was teaching me to be tough and to really focus on what I am doing at the moment, to be better — all of that is life.”
That needed toughness off the field came the following year — Miguel’s best friend, mentor, and role model, his grandfather, passed away. Baseball with his brothers would carry him past the pain and keep him on the straight path.
Miguel’s work ethic developed. His confidence grew and he learned to develop partnerships with his teammates. Along with a collection of trophies and accolades, Miguel’s talents would shine on behalf of the Tribe — his abilities earned him try-out invites to both the Cincinnati Reds and Chicago Cubs.
Two of the brothers have now passed, Norbert and David. Cecil is head of the Ak-Chin Fire Department. Miguel says he still relies on his brother’s honesty and advice. He also says there isn’t a day when he doesn’t hear the words of his brothers as he carries out his duties, saying that the life lessons of defeat, frustration, patience, and winning learned on the dirt fields are always guiding him.
Everyone is a teacher
Without his grandfather around, Miguel continued to learn the ways of his people and the language that already was beginning to fade from daily life for much of the Tribe. He made it a point to talk to Community elders and one man, in particular, Louis Lewis. Even though Lewis battled alcoholism, Miguel had daily conversations with him.
“He had to cross my home every day to the Vekol market,” Miguel says. “He didn’t know how to speak English and every day he would stop by and we just talked in the native language — that would keep me going, connecting me to the past.”
After his high school years, Miguel began working in the different departments of the Tribe. When he took on a job as a photojournalist at the Tribe’s publication, The Ak-Chin O’odham Runner, he says he would absorb the encounters from everyone in the Community.
He would listen to their stories, their daily tribulations. Miguel says it was a blessing to be able to talk Community members every day, and when it was time for newspaper delivery, he would go out into the community dropping off the Runner and chatting to everyone along the way.
“Basically all of the members, even today, have taught me and continue to teach me different things in life and to remember different things,” Miguel says. “That’s why I always feel I am blessed. I feel blessed to be the person I am because I feel it is a reflection of all those individuals who have gone on or who are still here today giving me vision and direction.”
Even with his duties as Chairman, Miguel drops off the Runner to the community members. While it should only take an hour, Miguel laughs, saying it usually takes him three or four because it is more important than ever he says, to take a moment to talk and learn from everyone.
Learning from a missing father
At 17, Miguel met his real father — Robert Villarreal, who is of Mexican descent. Miguel had never missed his father growing up — after all, his grandfather filled that void and later his brothers. The relationship with his father was slow to build but became more important for the elder Robert as Miguel’s children came into the picture.
“He wanted to be a part of my life because of the kids,” Miguel says. “He said, ‘I know I was never there for you but want to be there for the grandkids.’”
Miguel’s father lived in Texas. Miguel says even after meeting it was difficult to maintain a relationship. An absence from Miguel’s childhood was a lingering dark cloud over the two. He did meet his Villarreal family; he learned he had two other sisters and another brother sharing his name, Robert.
He made the trip to Texas and says the first time meeting with each other always brings a smile because of what they thought Native life was like.
“They had all the stereotypical misconceptions,” Miguel laughs. “They asked if we all lived in teepees still or go around hunting our food.”
Miguel says it made him realize how little the general public, even his own family, knew about Native Americans.
They began a weekly Sunday conversation by phone. Miguel knew his father wanted closure to their relationship before he passed. But, the word “dad” had always been awkward for Miguel.
“In the hospital room, I said, ‘Dad, I recognize you and accept you as my father, and I want you to know I love you and thank you for my life — you made me and without you, I wouldn’t be here today, and I think your son is doing OK’,” Miguel says.
Miguel asked his father to look at the absence as a blessing. Miguel believes it gave him the opportunity to learn about the O’odham culture from his grandfather and to develop unbreakable bonds with his brothers. It also made him realize what his most important role in life would be.
“I explained to him what happened to us happened, we didn’t have a life together but I accept it — it was meant to be the way that it was,” Miguel says. “God works in wonders, and, because of it, I told him I wanted to give my kids something I never had — a father.”
Miguel says he saw relief in his father’s eyes.
“It was the closure he wanted,” Miguel says.
Miguel’s father would hold for a few more months. A few days before he passed, Miguel’s sister called from Texas with the message the end had come. The earliest available flight would be in three days. Miguel says by chance, his wife Connie happened to look again and found a ticket, a next day departure. Miguel made it to Texas and to his father’s home, giving them a chance to see each for the last time.
Two hours later, Robert Villarreal would pass away.
Miguel says his grandfather planted the first seeds in him on his journey to Chairman. After high school, he began working for the Tribe, learning the different departments, sitting on different boards, seeing how all the departments functioned and worked together. The time at the Runner gave him the chance to connect to all members of the community, especially on delivery day.
“I was already campaigning without me knowing it,” Miguel says. “People would talk to me, and I would just listen, like a counselor — giving them advice or help when I could — to just be a part of their lives. I wasn’t doing it to campaign because I didn’t have the thought at the time.”
When the decision to run for Council was made, all of Miguel’s experience working for the Tribe and those newspaper deliveries came into play.
“The members already knew I was going to be a servant to the people,” Miguel says. “That I would be there to listen, not to give them everything they want, but to try to help out the best I can.”
Once elected to Council, Miguel was surrounded by four former chairs. He says his first year was spent absorbing the knowledge of Luis Manuel Jr., Delia Carlyle, Terry Enos, and William Antone.
“I was nervous,” he says. “This was like a who’s who of Ak-Chin leaders. I said to myself I am going shut up, be quiet, be like a sponge and soak everything up, and I learned from each one of them and then tried intertwining the way each one of them thinks as I became Chairman.”
He also spent time with Leona Kakar, one of Ak-Chin’s most instrumental leaders in establishing water rights for the Tribe, and served on the Farm Board since 1965.
“I’m truly blessed to have had Leona Kakar still in the office as a member of the Farm Board,” says Miguel. “I spent time with her and embraced all the knowledge she shared—she is the greatest.”
The Council is responsible for the well-being of 1,100 Tribal members. It oversees 32 departments and marketing ventures throughout the state. Agriculture is still the Tribe’s primary mainstay as the reservation sits on 22,000 acres. Major enterprises include Harrah’s Ak-Chin Casino, Southern Dunes Golf Club, and the Ak-Chin Circle Entertainment Center.
Miguel says on behalf of the Tribe he wants to continue pushing for opportunities for the members, improving on education and health care. He says most of the Council’s work probably won’t show for another 10 to15 years but they will continue to make advancements with their economic growth and development while looking to expand their land base.
On the marketing side, Miguel says the Tribe will stay aggressive and competitive as members see the impact being made with the casino and gaming industry.
“It’s not just about bettering the lives of our people, but all of Arizona,” Miguel says, referencing economic effects, job creations, and the draw to the state for the biggest events like Super Bowls and the Phoenix Open.
Miguel says it is important for the Tribe to “have a seat at the table,” not just with industry but also with regional infrastructure and Indian affairs. He says he makes it a point to talk to congressional and state representatives on the growing needs of the Ak-Chin Community and the City of Maricopa, saying they are “one.”
“We grew up together. We were there together when it was hard times and nothing out here, but we did what we could together, I want to continue and maintain that,” he says.
2020 came at Miguel and the Community like a 100-mile-an-hour curveball. The COVID-19 pandemic began to ravage not just the world, but Indian Country in particular — with higher numbers that came with fatal consequences. Like other tribes, the Ak-Chin Community began to take measures including a shutdown of all its non-essential departments and ventures, which included the Harrah’s Ak-Chin Casino and the Ak-Chin Circle Entertainment Center.
Miguel worked with his fellow councilmembers to keep the Tribe members informed, engaged, and spirits lifted.
Without being able to gather as they normally would, one of the memorable events for Miguel during this time was when the Tribe brought in a popular band to play for the members. The band was placed on a trailer and went to designated locations so everyone could listen from their front porches.
“This was beautiful because listening live to our traditional and cultural music gave us a sense of peace, comfort, and thought that everything will be OK,” Miguel says.
“Despite all the ugliness of the pandemic, I am so proud of my membership, employees, and those associated with the Community for understanding the rules, regulations, and guidelines put in place for the health and safety for all.”
Miguel’s leadership style continues to be respected outside of the reservation’s boundaries and where it matters most to him — among his Native American peers.
He sits as vice president of the Inter-Tribal Council of Arizona and chairman of the Arizona Tribal Governments for Gaming. He also sits on the board of the Native American Rights Fund, a national organization advocating on behalf of tribes; he is the only board member from Arizona’s 22 federally recognized tribes. In November, he was one of five leaders selected to represent North America for ICE London in 2022, one of the world’s largest business expos for the gaming industry.
Miguel says he always feels humbled and honored to be selected and represent; it is never about himself but the Ak-Chin Community and Native American country. He says the relationships and the support the Tribe is gaining on both the state and national level will have a “building bridges effect” for the next generation.
“Twenty, 30 years from now, when our future leaders travel to D.C. to speak and they hear Ak-Chin — they’ll already know about us,” he says. “I’m just part of the wheel to keep the train rolling.”
Even though Miguel and the Ak-Chin Community are becoming nationally recognized for their economic progress and influence on Native American affairs, the greatest compliment in regards to his personal leadership style is being told by the elders of the community that he reminds them of his grandfather.
Daily motivation comes from an instilled attitude of “doing what you can to help your community.”
Miguel reflects on his grandfather, one of the last individual landowners and farmers in the Community, always using a portion of his crop to feed the Tribe.
“I remember as a kid, watering the fields, the crops; my grandfather would take the harvest to Maricopa to sell,” he says. “But there was a certain part of the field that he would not harvest for any profit. He would take those fruits and vegetables to each home in the Community to help them with their needs — that was one of the things my grandfather taught me — just to help others as much as you can.”
The key to success
Miguel says he knows it’s a cliché to say it, but that it is also true in his case — Miguel’s wife Connie is the great woman behind him, giving him support so he can do his work on behalf of the Tribe.
Together they have five girls and two boys. It has been eight years since he started his career in leadership and 11 years when Miguel is finished with his current term. While he says it has been a blessing to be able to serve the Tribe in his capacity, the couple looks forward to a time when they can spend more time together — “to catch up on life.”
With the travel and duties of Chairman, Connie has focused on the well-being of the household, making sure everyone’s needs are met. Miguel says a difficult aspect of their relationship and roles stems from being in the spotlight, without normal privacy, not being able to respond to negativity and criticisms that inherently come with a leadership position. His wife has handled it all with grace, he says.
“She is a reflection of who I am,” Miguel says. “She’s giving, does what she can. She helps with the churches and the Community and that makes us both happy, more than anything.”
Miguel says they are so complimentary of each other’s personalities and traits that when the time came to get married by the church they scored 99 out of 100 on the compatibility test.
“Our thoughts are the same on everything from how we are raising our family to living life. It really was a match made in heaven,” he says. “For our kids, we want to teach them to be productive people, to practice our ways of giving back and helping as much as they can.”
Miguel says he knows his children carry an added weight because of his chairmanship or having once been a star on the baseball field, but they have handled it. Out of all the children, Miguel says his youngest Stella, 11, is the one most likely to be on Tribal Council but tells each of them to find their own path in life, to find their own talents —that’s what makes him proud as a father.
“They don’t have to follow in my footsteps to make me happy,” he says. “If it happens, it happens; I am going to love them no matter what. Connie and the kids have been my greatest blessing, I thank God for them every day. Sometimes it is indescribable the feeling, even more so with everything that has happened in my life.”
The unknown future
When Miguel’s term is up, it is mandatory by Tribal law to sit out for at least two years before running again for Council. In the political world, Miguel is still very young. He says he is not looking beyond his term and that he is just going to concentrate on his duties as Chairman.
He believes other opportunities in leadership and/or politics will exist, but “today is not the time to think about them.” When that time comes, he will sit down with his wife and decide.
Miguel says the competitive nature that came out of playing baseball is “still there” as he works with his teammates on Council, pushing on behalf of Ak-Chin.
The traits his grandfather instilled in him will not ever “just go away” — he loves his people, Arizona, and knows there is a lot of work that can be accomplished for the betterment of everyone.
The horizon is as wide open as the desert he was born into, but the Chairman can say with certainty, no matter the next part of the journey, he will always be connected to the land from where he walked the fields with his grandfather after it rained, under the same stars his ancestors looked up to, telling stories, passing on the traditions and language of his people.
Chairman Miguel’s photo by Victor Moreno