Ken Smith was born in The Dalles, Wasco County Oregon, on March 30, 1935, into a poor Warm Springs Reservation community. He would grow up to be one of the most important leaders the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs ever had. Ken had a charisma that attracted others to him throughout his life. He was raised by his grandparents, Wesley and Annie Smith, on their Dry Hollow Ranch, south of Warm Springs. Ken recalled, “I learned what self-reliance was growing up on the ranch with my grandparents. They taught me good work habits . . . to always show up 15 minutes early; and they taught me the value of an education.” Ken grew up without electricity, running water, or paved roads. In winter months, the Smiths would travel to Warm Springs on horseback or by buggy. “As a kid, Grandma, Aunt Zelma, and I went to the valley every summer and picked strawberries, raspberries, and such. In the fall, we worked in the potato fields.” Ken remembered fishing at Celilo Falls with his grandfather when he was in high school. Ken attended boarding school in Warm Springs from the first through sixth grades. He attended junior high and graduated from high school in Madras. He was the junior class president in high school, where he excelled as running back in football and was a 100-yard sprinter for the track team, as well as participating in the long jump. In 1959, he graduated from the University of Oregon with a BS in Business. Ken was the second Native American to ever graduate from the University of Oregon. Ken and Sybil Cowapoo married in 1959, and would later welcome a son, Greg, and daughter, Michele, into the world. After graduation, Ken went to work for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. With the passing of General Manager Vernon Jackson, Ken became the Tribe’s General Manager in 1969. In Ken’s first tenure as General Manager, much was accomplished. Kahneetah Lodge was constructed and Warm Springs Power Enterprise was built, the first federally licensed hydro project on an Indian
reservation. This historic event occurred when the McQuinn Strip was officially returned to the Tribe in 1972, ending 100 years of litigation. In the 1970’s, Ken was named one of the five outstanding young men of Oregon by the Oregon Jaycees. He was named to the Board of Directors of the Portland Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and was a member of the Oregon Board of Education. In January, 1981, he married Jeanie Thompson, a lady he initially met when the Tribe hired her travel agency. Jeanies’s daughters, Debra and Becky, joined the family. In 1981, the newly elected president of the United States, Ronald Reagan, asked Ken to serve as the Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs. As Assistant Secretary, Ken controlled a budget of one billion dollars, oversaw a workforce of 16,000, dealt with 300 tribes in the lower 48 states, and provided services to 190 Alaskan Native Organizations. He administered 52,000,000 acres of trust land for tribes and Indian people. A few years after Smith left office, Tim Giago, President and publisher of Indian Country Today, wrote, “Ken Smith was the best Assistant Secretary Indian tribes have ever had.” In February of 1989, at the urging of Confederated Tribes Secretary Treasurer Larry Calica, Ken returned to Warm Springs to pick up the reins of Tribal government. In preparing to step down, Larry Calica devised a plan for reorganizing the Tribal organization. An important consideration in Smith’s strategy was attracting new business to Warm Springs. He joined with Tribal Council in implementing a drug and alcohol program for all employees, which included random testing. He also initiated a smoke-free work place policy. By the end of 1994, the face of the Warm Springs community had changed forever. First came the 5 million dollar Early Childhood Education Center, followed by the 7.6 million dollar Museum at Warm Springs, and the 5 million dollar Health and Wellness Center. Each facility embraced a vital need for the Warm Springs community. Another momentous
change, during the second tenure of Ken Smith, was the turnaround at Warm Springs Forest Products. In January of 1993, the Tribe and a company called Structural Technology, Inc., entered into a joint venture. The joint venture is a result of diatomaceous earth technology generated by the Tribe and STI. Warm Springs Composite Products is now a 100% tribally owned company that manufactures diatomaceous products developed by the joint venture. Other income-producing ventures are the Warm Springs Plaza shopping center and Indian Head Casino. In 1984, Ken received the Jay Silverheels Achievement Award for “Leadership in Managing Indian Resources and Steadfast Commitment to the Economic and Social Betterment of American Indian Communities”. Ken served on numerous boards, including US West Communications, US Bank, World Forestry Council, and Futures for Children. He served on the Boards of three distinguished museums: The High Desert Museum in Bend, the Museum in Warm Springs, and the Smithsonian in Washington DC. Ken also served on the Board of Trustees for the Oregon State University Foundation, the Oregon Historical Society and the Oregon Heart Association. In 2017, he was honored by Madras Union High School as one of its Distinguished Alumni. In 2019 U of O included him in their “Top 100 Ducks Who Made a Difference” from 1919 to present. Saying that Ken Smith has made an impact on the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs is an understatement. Like Vernon Jackson before him, Ken Smith leaves a legacy that future Tribal leaders will find challenging to match. In retirement, Ken and wife, Jeanie, and dog, Bennie, traveled extensively, spent winters in Palm Springs, and maintained homes in Portland and Warm Springs.
Ken Smith passed away peacefully, surrounded by family, on May 13, 2020 at his home in Warm Springs. He is survived by his daughter, Michele Hensel (Kendal); and daughters, Becky Rae Olson Schroeder (David), and Debra Olson Daniels; and eight siblings. He was preceded in death by his wife, Jeanie, and son, Greg. In lieu of flowers, we request contributions be made to the Warm Springs Museum, P.O. Box 909, Warm Springs, Oregon 97761
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