A Simple Life
Today, Anita Uqualla Helps Run
A Multimillion Dollar Enterprise, But Her Roots Keep Her Grounded
Anita Uqualla isn’t big on riding horses but she has taken her job by the reins.
Uqualla, Tribal Council treasurer for the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, has steered the East County tribe’s treasury department to success.
A position she has held since 1995, Uqualla is responsible for overseeing tribal finances, as well as coordinating tribal business and government budgets, income and expenses. The tribe’s businesses include the Viejas Casino & Turf Club, a bank and an outlet shopping center. The tribe also plans to build a golf course and resort hotel.
Uqualla, who didn’t have any experience handling millions of dollars, has taken her challenge head on and has developed her own business style and financing system.
“We grew faster than anybody could have imagined,” she says. “It was exciting to get more into the banking and business side of it. I had to learn a lot about business. I attended a lot of workshops.”
That’s pretty much how Uqualla has handled her professional and personal travels. Whether hiking up and down the Grand Canyon or running a day-care center, she has always made the best of every situation and learned from each experience.
Her multifaceted career began on the Havasupai reservation, located upstream of the Grand Canyon in Supai, Ariz. Uqualla, originally from Viejas, moved to Arizona in the 1970s with her husband, a member of the Havasupai tribe.
Enjoys Working With Numbers
Shortly after moving to the Havasupai reservation in northern Arizona, Uqualla became a substitute teacher’s aide for the tribe’s Head Start program. She also worked as the tribe’s bookkeeper.
Uqualla also wrote policies and procedures for the 275-member Havasupai Tribe. As director and creator of the Native American program, she helped the tribe learn new ways of planting, cultivating and irrigating. The program created 12 new jobs on the reservation.
College courses were offered on the Havasupai reservation, so Uqualla enrolled in every class she could. She went on to study early childhood education and business finance at Central Arizona College.
Using her education, Uqualla taught preschool through college level classes on the Havasupai reservation, using a bilingual curriculum.
“My philosophy was if you can learn something, share it.”
Uqualla continued her teaching when she and her husband moved their family , which included three teen-age sons , back to Viejas in 1989. With teaching credential in hand, Uqualla got a job as an Indian aide for the Alpine School District.
She also taught and directed education programs for the Campo Tribe and served as director of the Gingerbread Daycare Center in San Diego.
In 1992, the Southern Indian Health Council asked Uqualla to start a day-care program at Viejas.
“It was a cut in pay, but it was challenging for me to start something from scratch,” she says.
A year-and-a-half later, Uqualla launched her own day-care center from her home.
She often gave parenting advice to young parents. She also advised them on gathering information and getting things done on the reservation.
“They said, ‘Why don’t you run for tribal council?'” Uqualla says.
It was a question she took to heart.
“I felt I had a lot to offer the tribe. I felt I was trustworthy. Luckily, I got voted in.”
On her first day as treasurer, Uqualla walked into an unorganized office full of boxes. She didn’t let that discourage her.
“I thought, ‘This is it. I can do this.'”
Uqualla not only organized her office, but she also organized the tribe’s finances and built a solid finance department, which now has eight employees.
‘The Greatest Feeling’
“It’s the greatest feeling I could have,” Uqualla says about building a department from scratch.
Uqualla’s feat didn’t come without cultural challenges.
“Because I was an Indian woman, I had to communicate with the men more,” she explains. “We have to speak a little bit louder to be heard, but it’s getting better.”
Viejas tribal Chairman Anthony Pico credits Uqualla with helping build a strong tribal government infrastructure.
“It’s been very rewarding that she has been able to step up and take the responsibility and take us to a new level,” Pico says. “I think that in a couple years from now, they will be looking at what Anita Uqualla has done in Indian country throughout the United States.”
Uqualla, along with the rest of the Tribal Council members, works with the Viejas’ Future Tribal Business Leaders group in order to instill some business know-how into the tribe’s youth.
“Our future is going to be business and diversity so we need to educate our young people so they can take over and start their own businesses,” she says.
Setting An Example
Uqualla’s passion can be seen in her children. She talks fondly of her eldest son, Nijel Dark Cloud Uqualla, who died in a car accident in 1997.
“He always stuck up for the underdog,” Uqualla says of her late son. “I felt so good knowing he was like that.
“My youngest son is more like me,” she continues. “Sometimes when he talks, he sounds just like me.”
Uqualla calls her middle son the business-minded one.
“I hope I have set a good example,” she says. “I’d like for them to have a good head and remember their ancestors and traditions, and use that as their strength when they have to deal with obstacles they’ll have when they go out into the community.”
Uqualla knows all about overcoming obstacles.
During her freshman year at El Capitan High School, Uqualla, the youngest of four children, had her first brush with prejudice. Uqualla, a straight-A student in junior high, was placed in remedial classes at El Capitan, along with her Native American peers.
The following year, Uqualla went to Sherman Indian High School, a free boarding school in Riverside that was run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Uqualla felt discouraged at the Sherman school too, since the high school students were taught on a seventh- and eighth-grade level.
“I was a troublemaker in boarding school,” she says. “I was always saying, ‘Why are you teaching us that?'”
The curriculum changed and Uqualla was even able to take college prep courses during her junior year. School work came easy to Uqualla, who also served on the student council and wrote for the school newspaper.
Despite that, she doubted herself.
“I thought maybe I wasn’t going to have a future,” she says. “There was no challenge. They did not give us many opportunities. The only jobs they would give the students on the weekends was cleaning somebody’s house or ironing somebody’s clothes.”
It was when Uqualla married her high school sweetheart and moved to the Havasupai reservation that she realized her potential.
“I love the tribe because they respected me,” Uqualla says. “They actually thought I was somebody.”
Although Uqualla now manages the finances of a multimillion-dollar enterprise, she is reminded of the simplicities of life. She reverts back to her years spent on the Havasupai reservation.
“The reservation had no vehicles. The only way to get to it was walk, ride a horse or a mule,” she says about the 8-mile hike to the reservation. “I wasn’t very big on riding a horse. You go down the switchbacks and it’s real narrow and I’m scared of heights. So we backpacked everything in.”
Uqualla says tribal members used wood-burning stoves since the electricity often went out. Tribal members used buckets to haul water from the nearby creek. Outhouses were also common.
“Nobody got caught up in material things,” Uqualla says. “Everybody just shared. Everybody had hand-me-downs, which we called hand-me-arounds. It’s just a very simple life. There was no rushing and not much complication.”
Simplicity is also a practice of the Viejas Tribe, despite the fact the tribe has experienced prosperity from Indian gaming, Uqualla says.
“That’s one thing I really like here. Nobody has done these extravagant things, like going out and building big homes. Everybody tries to stay humble and simple. We don’t wear all kinds of gold and have big mansions.”
A simple life has suited Uqualla just fine, she says. Although her family didn’t have much money, her parents supplied Uqualla and her three siblings with everything they needed.
“When I think back, it was such a beautiful, simple life,” she says.