Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians Chairman Vincent Armenta announced this week he is stepping down to attend the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). At the helm since 1999, Armenta has expanded the tribe from little more than a bingo hall to a spectacularly successfully enterprise.
Armenta, 53, had no experience in tribal government when he was first elected 17 years ago. He was a self-employed welder who brought construction skills at a time when the tribe was on the brink of development. In 2000, state voters approved Proposition 1A, which allowed federally recognized tribes to operate slot machines, lotteries, and card games. In 2003, the Chumash opened its expanded casino; the next year, they opened a 106-room hotel.
And at the end of May — just when Armenta starts culinary school in New York — the tribe will unveil its 12-story hotel expansion project that triples the size of its existing hotel. (They also operate Hotel Corque, two hotels, two gas stations, and a winery.) Asked about his creative decision to go to school, Armenta said he did not think his work with the tribe was done until now. “I’ve been thinking about it for a long time,” he said.
Nine years ago, he said he was intrigued watching his son attend the Culinary Institute of America. “I just love it,” he said of cooking. “When I was about 14 or 15, I took home ec in high school,” Armenta said. “I have always had a passion for it.” At his house, he does the majority of the cooking, he said. His son now manages the tribe’s food and beverage department.
In person, Armenta is confident, straightforward, and speaks boldly; his Number 2, Vice Chairman Kenny Kahn, is often thought of as the “good cop.” In the past half-year, the two have met seven times to negotiate with county supervisors Doreen Farr and Peter Adam for public meetings packed with a group of valley residents who fervently object to the tribe expanding its reservation. The meetings convened late last summer after members of Congress threatened to move forward a federal bill — known as HR 1157 — that would allow the tribe to annex the 1,400-acre property known as Camp 4. The application is currently tied up in an appeal filed by the county and several valley groups. Armenta expressed confidence the feds will eventually approve their application.
At best, the meetings have been rocky. Last week, Armenta lamented the county supervisors’ 3-2 vote in closed session to appeal their BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) application to annex — via what is called “fee-to-trust” — the two-acre Mooney and Escobar property. Armenta likened the county’s tactic to “invit[ing] us to the watering hole, and if we don’t drink the poisoned water, shoot us in the back of the head when we leave.” He charged, “It’s happened 100 times.”
Armenta said the dealings with the county are “quite honestly” one of the tribe’s “more minor projects” considering what they have taken on in recent years. “It’s going to be what it’s going to be.” He added, “The decision on how negotiations go really depends on the county understanding the tribe is a country. Once they do, things will go relatively smoothly.”
To the extent Armenta’s departure will have a significant impact on the tribe remains to be seen; observers note members of the business committee — Gary Pace, Maxine Littlejohn, Mike Lopez, and Kahn — will remain in place. Armenta would not speculate who the next chairman would be, but he stressed he and the business committee makes decisions on behalf of the entire tribe. As for this year’s 3rd District supervisor race, Armenta said it’s the last thing on his mind. “I know whoever is the winner in that race, tribal leadership will reach out to see if we can develop a relationship.”
Armenta added he would stay in the picture, returning home often to see his family. “Although I am pursuing a dream of mine, that doesn’t mean I won’t [still] be involved,” he said.