Ronnie Lupe

Longtime White Mountain Apache Tribe Chairman Ronnie Lupe waves goodbye at the inauguration of Chairwoman Gwendena Lee-Gatewood in May 2018.

WHITERIVER — Ronnie Lupe, the longtime chairman of the White Mountain Apache Tribe and catalyst behind Sunrise Park Resort — among many other tribal projects — has died at 89.

He served as a Marine during the Korean War, appeared in the 1950 motion picture “Broken Arrow” and later would serve as a tribal councilman and chairman for nine terms.

Lupe had been involved with the WMAT tribal council since 1966 — give or take a term — and is credited with developing the concepts for Hon-Dah Resort Casino and Sunrise Park Resort — major drivers of the tribe’s and region’s economy — among other things.

As chairman of WMAT, Lupe was well-known among local, state and national elected leaders, especially those in the halls of Congress.

Lupe is credited with helping the tribe retain its sovereignty and rights to its land and resources. He has helped testify for the passage of such legislation as the White Mountain Apache Tribe Water Rights Quantification Act of 2009, which helped establish a reservation-wide system for clean drinking water. He also signed and helped put together the “Statement of Relationship” policy in 1994, between the tribe and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which recognized “the tribe’s aboriginal rights, sovereign authority and institutional capacity to self-manage its lands.”

This event also led to the passage of Joint Secretarial Order 3206, known as the American Indian Tribal Rights, Federal-Tribal Trust Responsibilities and the Endangered Species Act in 1997, which concluded that “the federal government’s responsibilities under the Endangered Species Act recognizes the exercise of tribal rights and ensures that Indian tribes do not bear a disproportionate burden for the conservation of listed species.”

“I was able to meet some of the top leaders in the nation due to the (representation) of my people back home. The joy that I have had, the energy that everybody has. This country has given me a lot,” Lupe said in a 2017 interview with the Independent.

WMAT Chairwoman Gwendena Lee-Gatewood announced Lupe’s passing on Facebook in the early morning hours on Monday. She served as his executive assistant from 2006 to 2018. He endorsed her candidacy for the seat of tribal chair.

“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,” she wrote.

“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. Through his fierce dignity and unbending will to sacrifice his own freedom for the freedom of others, Ronnie Lupe transformed the Tribe and moved all of us,” she added.

“For now, let us pause and give thanks for the fact that Ronnie Lupe lived, a man who took history in his hands and bent the arc of the moral universe towards justice. May God bless his memory and keep him in peace. 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,” she wrote.

Just two years ago, Lupe was honored for his long career in public service by Navajo County. As he announced his intention to retire and not seek a 10th term in office, he told the Navajo County Supervisors, “I am still young yet.”

Navajo County District V Supervisor Dawnafe Whitesinger commented on his military service and accomplishments.

“He was an illustrious leader,” she said. “I know the people love him very much. He served the tribe for 54 years in leadership and served with the 1st Marine Division, 3rd Battalion, Item Company, First Marine Regiment. He was a Korean War veteran and was given special recognition by (Arizona) Governor Jack Williams on the Arizona Commission of Indian Affairs in 1968, and was elected as the first vice president of the National Congress of American Indians in 1969 and 1970,” she said.