Humility is not a trait routinely associated with being a rich 30-year-old gay guy. But Runningbear Ramirez defies stereotypes, exuding a kind of humility born of ancient spiritual strength and sense of responsibility for a culture and community too long ignored and too often violated – while also representing the tribe best known for the popular San Manuel Band of Mission Indians casinos.
Runningbear Ramirez in Milan at Fashion Week. (Photo courtesy Runningbear)
His name, Runningbear, “means that I’ve been able to incorporate animal instinct and courage for myself to take care of things that need to be taken care of. Whether it be family or business, I’ve always had that personality to take charge,” Runningbear tells the Los Angeles Blade.
“The name was given to me as a child, but I decided to incorporate it into my normal day-to-day when I started to take on more responsibilities for the tribe,” he says. “That was when I actually changed my name to Runningbear so that way I’ll be able to live my life as who I was meant to be.”
Everywhere symbols and signs reflect the culture and deep history of his tribe. “The people of the San Manuel reservation are the indigenous people of the San Bernardino highlands, passes, valleys, and mountains who the Spaniards collectively called the Serrano, a term meaning highlander,” according to the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians website.
“Our people are the Yuhaaviatam people. The arrowhead (on the tribe logo) is actually on our mountain, our historical land. Where our reservation is,” Runningbear says, “there is a granite arrowhead in the mountainside that’s over 1,400 feet tall. Our family believes that was a spiritual territory and that’s what that arrowhead represents on the side of the mountain….It’s very personal to us.”
Runningbear uses fashion and body art to display his culture, as well, including a huge tattoo on his chest.
“This is just me being able to portray my artistic side a little bit differently,” he says with a slight chuckle. “It’s a chief on the front of my chest with a female warrior. It’s still not finished, yet. It hurt too much to finish at the time. It’s supposed to show a whole family of different people to represent the past and the present, as well as the future — to know that it took your ancestors to get where you are today.”
Runningbear’s childhood also helped get him to where he is today. A child of divorce who stayed with his non-Native mother as a boy, he experienced poverty and discrimination.
“We didn’t have much. Growing up with my mom, we were extremely poor. I can remember times when I’d have bugs crawling on me when I’m sleeping, because there was no window,” he says.
But in the 1990s, the no-frills 24-hour San Manuel Indian Bingo and Casino was “an economic miracle for the tiny San Manuel tribe, which once scratched out an income raising apricots and lived in shacks and trailers on a dusty 648-acre reservation. Now, 40 landscaped houses dot the hillsides behind the casino’s walls, and security officers on bicycles patrol newly paved roads,” the New York Times reported in October 1998, noting the casino was part of California’s $1.4 billion Indian gambling industry.
“Growing up, it was a little hard because I had cousins that would discriminate against me because I didn’t grow up fully on the reservation,” Runningbear says. “I didn’t get some of the perks that they did. They grew up with money.”
But in 1998, after San Manuel and about 40 other tribes installed slot machines, intense opposition from a coalition of Nevada casinos, unions and anti-gambling church groups claimed they violated the 1988 Federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and Gov. Pete Wilson threatened to shut down the casinos.
Runningbear’s father, Ken Ramirez, then the 38-year-old vice-chair of the San Manuel tribe, led the fight for Proposition 5, the Tribal-State Gaming Compacts Initiative on the Nov. 3, 1998 ballot.
Among the opposition was Christian fundamentalist lobbying group Traditional Values Coalition, whose anti-LGBTQ leader Rev. Lou Sheldon objected to California tribes asserting they are sovereign nations. “I hate Las Vegas but am thrilled that they’re helping us,” Sheldon told the Washington Post in September 1998.
The opposition got ugly. “Lil’ Petey Wilson,” OC Weekly reported, “told a group of reporters on Oct. 22 that the lawyer who advised Indian tribes to put Proposition 5 on the November ballot ‘ought to lose his scalp.’….We obtained a copy of da gov’s next speech, where he warned tribal leaders to keep firewater out of their casinos, quit spending big wampum on Prop. 5, and remove slot machines or face having their tepees burned and squaws raped.”
”This is our livelihood,” Ramirez told the New York Times, which noted that he “grew up on the reservation when it held only a few families, with water too fetid to drink.”
Ken Ramirez in a Nov. 2019 KTLA “visionary tribute” to him
“Today, we are proud people. We’re not living in Third World conditions on our reservations,” Ramirez told the Washington Post. “It was our option to take it to a vote of the people. We have faith they’ll stand behind us.”
”Frankly, I think it’s an incredible con game,” Frank Schubert, leader of the ”No on 5” campaign, told the New York Times. ”We’ve had millions and millions in TV ads bombarding the state for months now about reservations getting electricity and being able to have linoleum on a dirt floor, when in fact it’s a handful of tribes spending a fortune to keep a special deal.”
The Prop 5 campaign cost over $68 million but won with 62.4% of voters.
Runningbear remembers the victory, “having dinner with governors and attending a lavish party at the Beverly Hills Hotel on the night of the vote. That was definitely the start of my own journey in influencing politics. My dad, to this day, is a big inspiration to me.”
An incredible irony of the Prop 5 fight is that Frank Schubert — who would manage the anti-gay marriage Prop 8 in 2008 — lost to Ken Ramirez, an openly gay man in a same-sex relationship. Now Runningbear is married, too, to Frank Romano. They’ve been together for six years.
“I didn’t have to really come out. They already knew about me,” Runningbear says. “My parents never made me choose a man or a woman. I had grown up my whole life seeing my father with another man and my mother with a man. I had a stepfather for my mom and a stepfather for my dad. They all came together and raised us together, which they’re still doing now. We still have very modern family views. We still hang out together. My family was always very open and appreciative of whatever, as long as I was happy.”
A few years after the Prop 5 fight, at 13, Runningbear started his long activism with and commitment to the tribe. But he never forgot walking between the two worlds of poverty and money.
“For me, going through that really opened up my eyes to say, between the haves and the have-nots, I’d much rather be able to help people than to just sit back and collect a check,” Runningbear says. “You have to be able to spread your wealth and your love. I think that growing up in that way, it really showed me a way to do that.”
Now, he says, “I’m able to walk in both worlds, to speak with people and understand certain issues based on my perspective within the tribe, within the reservation.” Even his cousins “appreciate that I am two-spirited,” which he defines as “being able to walk in both worlds of feminine and masculine.”
But it was serving on the Board of Indian Health Services at 23 when Runningbear had his “ah, ha” moment.
“I was able to see the plight of Native Americans — that really opened up my eyes,” he says. “Wanting to get more into philanthropy was seeing other reservations and how they were doing, outside of the gaming industries. That really got me to think about starting this five-year pilot program I did with Project Angel Food to help the diabetic community in Los Angeles counties, providing healthy meals for Native Americans.”
A friend introduced Runningbear to Project Angel Food a couple of years ago and he subsequently joined the board, inspired by a family member with HIV and a sister who last year recovered from cancer.
“I really wanted to learn more,” Runningbear says. “I felt that if I could philanthropically get to know the way that the disease runs its course and how it affects people, and if I could help in that way, that’s how I wanted to learn.”
Runningbear Ramirez (Photo by Daniel Sliwa for the Los Angeles Blade)
Project Angel Food clients, he learned, were getting healthier on meals that are based on their personal needs. “I thought that would be a perfect opportunity to utilize my wealth and my knowledge of being on Indian Health Services to bring a pilot program to the forefront for Native Americans in our area,” he says.
“I know that cancer is on the rise and being able to access healthy meals is a big problem on reservation. That’s why we’re trying to make sure that the research is done and recorded right, so we can hopefully take it bigger or national.”
Runningbear Ramirez seems to smile broadly over the phone, humbly grateful for the recognition as the Los Angeles Blade’s Local Hero honoree enabling him to share his story. “I feel like just because being gay and Native, we are a class of people who are sometimes looked down upon,” Runningbear says. “You can still do good for other people and yourself.”