Ernie Stensgar was born and raised on the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation. He has served as Chairman of the since 1986 and as President of the , representing 55 Tribes, since 1996. He has been Chairman of the Alliance of Idaho Tribes and is the Portland Area vice President for the .
Ernie’s leadership qualities-his honesty, good judgment and courage have made him a trusted leader in Indian Country. He also is well known and well respected among federal and state elected officials, who seek his counsel and advice on important issues to Tribe. The Idaho Governor’s Office maintains regular and direct communication with Ernie on matters as varied as gaming, the Tribe’s stewardship of its lands and waters, and taxation.
Ernie has been a strong and effective advocate for Tribal issues in the state Legislature and the halls of Congress. He was in the forefront of Idaho Tribes’ efforts-ultimately successful in 2002-to maintain their gamin operations, and has been a tireless fighter against state taxation of Tribal businesses in Idaho, battles the tribe also has won. He understands the importance of Tribal unity on issues that affect all Tribes, and has been a leader who can unite and inspire Tribes to reach common goals.
When the Department of Interior announced the creation of the “Bureau of Trust Assets Management: of BITAM in November of 2001, Ernie, along with other Tribal leaders, rejected the Department’s move, insisting that Tribes have meaningful involvement in any reform of the BIA. Ernie was selected by other Northwest Tribal leaders to represent them on the “Tribal Leaders Task Force” organized to advise the Interior on trust reform.
He was a dedicated and tireless member of the Task Force. Interior disbanded the group, disregarding Tribal leaders’ plans, and embarked upon a forced reorganization of the BIA. Ernie has since been a leader of Tribal opposition to the reorganization, and continues to speak out against this attempt to dismantle the Bureau and limit the federal government’s trust responsibilities to Tribes.
Ernie is the first tribal leader to be listed among Idaho’s 100 most influential people. He is the first tribal leader to be named to the Idaho Hall of Fame. He is the first tribal leader to be honored with the prestigious Bayard Rustin Award, given to individuals who make a dramatic impact on the advancement of Human Rights. He is also the first tribal leader to be awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws Degree from Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.
In 1986, when Ernie was elected Chairman of the Tribal Council, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe employed fewer than 75 people. Today, it provides jobs to some 1,400 people and is the second largest employer in north Idaho and one of the largest in the Inland Northwest.
The tribe’s economic impact on the region approaches $100 million annually. Under Chairman Stensgar’s direction, the tribe invests its dollars directly back into the region; creating new industry, new jobs, contributing millions of dollars to tribal and public education and increasing funding for vital tribal programs.
The recent opening of the Tribe’s Circling Raven Golf Club has transformed the Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort Hotel from a tiny bingo hall to a full destination resort, one of the finest in the Northwest.
The tribe’s Benewah Medical Center, opening in 1990, has grown to become a national model for both Indian and rural health care. It represents the first time in U.S. history that an Indian tribe became a health care provider for the non-Indian public. The BMC now serves over 10,000 patients in the region.
In his own words, Ernie Stensgar is a “Reservation Indian, born and raised.” He first left the reservation to attend Chilocco Indian School in Oklahoma, graduating in 1965. Ernie joined the United States Marine Corps immediately after Chilocco, serving in Vietnam. He was seriously wounded in combat in 1967 and was awarded the Purple Heart.
Ernie has also served as a member of the Tribal School Board, Co-Chairman of the Idaho Centennial Committee and in many other public service positions. He is the Commander of the Joseph R. Garry American Legion Post #5 in Plummer, Idaho and also the District Commander. He created the Coeur d’Alene Warrior Society, made up of veterans on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation.
He has five adult children: Carol, Laura, Matt, Shirley and Reno. He also has 10 grandchildren.