The Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians announced on Friday Kenneth Kahn was elected chairman in a recent special election. Last month, former chairman Vincent Armenta stepped down after 17 years to pursue a degree at the Culinary Institute of America.
Kahn, 39, who was born and raised on the reservation, was elected to the council at age 25 — the youngest member to ever be elected. As a child, Kahn saw the tribe completely impoverished — no running water or electricity. They subsisted on USDA truckloads of block cheese, canned pork, and powdered milk, he said. “I got to see a lot of challenges we had early on,” he said. “From the outside looking in, it was ‘the poor Indians,’” he said. “On the inside, we had a community.”
Kahn’s grandparents have been part of the tribe’s leadership, and he has lived on the reservation for most of his life, attending schools in the valley. He graduated from Santa Ynez Valley High School.
Kahn, who recently served as vice chairman, had been involved in a series of monthly talks with former chairman Armenta and county supervisors Doreen Farr and Peter Adam in the past half-year. The first of their kind in a decade, the talks were convened to negotiate a deal in which the tribe would make payments in lieu of property taxes. (The tribe submitted applications to the Bureau of Indian Affairs to expand its existing reservation, including the 1,400-acre property known as Camp 4.)
In these meetings, Kahn was often viewed as the “good cop,” while Armenta was seen as bold and blunt. Asked if he agreed with that synopsis and if his demeanor would change now, Kahn said, “bottom line is I am a communicator…I am the ‘good cop’ on issues that fit the tribe. I’m going to be tough. My colleagues stand in the same position. We’re very focused on fairness. A lot of times it’s challenging to communicate that when you have an array of personalities.” Asked about his take on the success of the monthly meetings, Kahn said, “We’re hopeful. We wouldn’t be sitting down if we weren’t.”
As for his goals, Kahn said he hopes to enhance community on and off the reservation. “I really think that, whether we agree or not on many different issues, the ability to come together and talk about issues is extremely important,” he said. “If we don’t do that, we’re just going to stay the same course. The tribe is progressive.”