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Tribal Chairman Focuses on Education
by The Press-Enterprise
credits:William Wilson Lewis III - The Press-Enterprise
James Ramos is a busy man these days.

He is in his second two-year term as chairman of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, leading the tribe as it works to expand its businesses and develop its reservation.

He is chairman of the California Native American Heritage Commission and owns two restaurants in San Bernardino and Highland.

In November, voters elected him to his second term on the San Bernardino Community College District board.

This year, Gov. Jerry Brown named Ramos to the state Board of Education, the first American Indian to hold a seat on the panel.

"I move around so much, hit so many issues that I really don't have that time to sit back and fully understand what it means," Ramos said.

"Now, that time will come. ... I have to do the best I can while the opportunity is in front of me."

The state board sets K-12 education policy in areas such as standards, assessments and accountability and adopts textbooks for K-8 students.

The governor appoints the 11 members, and Ramos was one of seven Brown picked for the board soon after he took office in January.

Ramos, who often refers to himself as "we," is passionate about education. He finds a way to weave it into most conversations -- whether it's about the state board, the community college district or growing up on the San Manuel reservation in the foothills northeast of San Bernardino.

"He's someone who has a wonderful, genuine zeal for his people's history and for educating the public about the importance of that history," said Jerry Levine, who as the San Manuel tribe's attorney since the early 1980s, has known Ramos since he was a teenager.

"He is infectious when it comes to that."

Ramos said he had applied for a position on the state Board of Education in the past and did so again when Brown was elected governor last year.

Brown spoke with him about the appointment, he said, and the governor's staff soon followed with a call saying they were announcing the news.

"I was like, 'Wow, really?'" Ramos said during a recent interview from tribe's community center. "I didn't know at that time we were the first California Indian person to be appointed to that state Board of Education. It turned out to be true."

Ramos' goals on the state board include finding ways to better prepare K-12 students for the transition to college and studying how to overcome an education gap for American Indian children.

"If the students in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten and moving forward really aren't having their issues addressed there, then they are going to play catch-up at the community college level or the four-year university," Ramos said.

Issues related to American Indian children came up in January at his first state board meeting, Ramos said.

The Board of Education stepped in and appointed a trustee to oversee the remote Round Valley Unified School District in Mendocino County. Ramos said a majority of the district's students are American Indian.

"Right off the bat, American Indian issues were at the forefront," he said. "The educational gap between the American Indian population and the rest of the nation and the rest of the state of California is so dramatic that we have to really start to understand why it is."

He said he wants to establish an advisory committee to study the issue.

John Longville, a former state assemblyman who serves with Ramos on the community college board, said having a local representative on the state panel will prove valuable for the Inland region.

"Every time we get someone particularly skilled who develops statewide recognition, I am pleased to see it," Longville said.

He said Ramos has the skills.

"Tribal politics and government is a very challenging area. It is every bit as involved as general local government," Longville said. "He is one of the most astute political people I know in the valley right now."

Ramos grew up in a mobile home on the San Manuel reservation, then an impoverished, rural community.

"We were surviving. You'd get a good used car, and that was like the talk of the town," he said. "You would run that car until the gears that went forward stopped. Then you would drive it in reverse."

Twenty-five years ago this summer, San Manuel opened its first bingo hall.

It was the start of what turned into a multimillion-dollar business for the tribe. The mobile home where Ramos grew up was located near what is now the San Manuel casino's massive parking garage off Victoria Avenue.

Ramos said he never thought Indian gaming would last this long or be as transformative as it has been for the tribe, allowing him to become the first in his family to go to college.

Ramos became tribal chairman in 2008 after stints as head of its gaming commission and treasurer of the business committee, among other roles.

The tribe has not been without controversy, though. Before he became chairman, Ramos took out a restraining order against the father of two young tribal members charged -- and later convicted -- in a Mexican Mafia murder-for-hire plot.

As a result, he helped convince the tribal general council to increase security with cameras, gates and logs of visitors.

In gaming, the tribe does not see eye to eye with other Indian nations in California. San Manuel is one of the leading tribes in the California Online Poker Association, the sponsor of legislation introduced in December to allow Internet poker.

Other tribes, including the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians near Temecula, oppose the plan.

When asked if the tribe could have handled anything differently in the 25 years since San Manuel's first bingo hall, Ramos said the tribe could have done more early on to invest in the reservation's infrastructure.

Ramos said he believes "things last for an era."

"Every day I wake up and think, if this era of gaming went down today, how will we still survive, not only as a nation but as individuals?" Ramos said.

"You have to have a plan, an education, to market yourself, to make sure you're able to get those good-paying jobs. These are the things not just for Indian people. These are the things for everyone."

Ramos first entered local politics when he ran for the San Bernardino Unified School District board in 2003. It was a six-person race for three seats. Ramos finished fifth.

"Education is what has allowed me to move forward in my life's dreams. I believe in education," he said.

"That isn't enough for these political campaigns. No. 1, you have to be able to raise money."

After the defeat, he turned his eyes on the community college district. In 2005, Ramos was one of four candidates seeking three seats on the community college board.

He came in third, winning 26.5 percent or 62,905 votes.

By the time it came to re-election in 2010, Ramos was the lead vote-getter with 31 percent or 71,557 votes.

If a February meeting is any indication, Ramos is well liked by students and faculty.

He offered to meet with a faculty member over lunch to discuss an issue, and a group of students sang happy birthday to him. He had just turned 44.

So what's next for Ramos? Would he run for the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, a rumor that has surfaced on local political blogs? Ramos did not directly answer.

"We are part of the community. Run for the local school boards. Run for the community college boards. Run for the state assembly. Run for the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, if that is what you want to do," he said.

"I encourage Native Americans to move forward in that realm, to be a part of that. But you have to have the passion and the understanding of what really needs to be done to make the community a better place."

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The San Manuel Band of Serrano Mission Indians
The San Manuel Band of Serrano Mission Indians is a federally recognized American Indian tribe located near the city of Highland, Calif. The Serrano Indians are the indigenous people of the San Bernardino highlands, passes, valleys and mountains who share a common language and culture.

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