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A first for Native Americans

For The Madera Tribune

Female students at the Sherman Institute in Riverside CA, a government school for Native Americans, are shown here in a “Domestic Science” class. Many of Joetta Flores Fleak’s family, including her grandmother, Annie Kinsman Flores, attended this school.


In the last election, voters did something they have never done before. They chose a Native American woman to sit on the school board. Joetta Fleak now represents Area 4 on the Madera Unified Board of Trustees.

I was reminded of this fact by Mary Sholler recently. She also reminded me that I had not commented on this milestone in any of my Tribune columns.

She is right, and I am going to fix that now.

I first learned of Joetta’s Native American heritage when her father, Joe Flores, loaned me the diary of his grandfather, Joe Kinsman. That, coupled with “From Medicine Man to Medic,” a book produced by Emily Wogaman’s class at Madera High, took me back to Joetta’s great-great grandfather, Tu-Ga-Yau (Laughing-at-Night).

Tu-Ga-Yau was a Mono medicine man, and he was the father of a young woman named Mary. As fate would have it, a transplant from Massachusetts named Joe Kinsman joined Tu-Ga-Yau’s camp at Hooker’s Cove and never left. Mary became his wife, and they had three children: Joseph, Mollie, and Annie.

After attending the Sherman Institute for Native Americans in Riverside, Annie returned to the North Fork area, grew up, and married Leonard Flores. Leonard and Annie became the parents of Alexander, Pearl, and Joe and went to great lengths to keep alive the Native American traditions from which they had descended.

In 1946, Annie’s son Joe was united in marriage with Catherine DeLeo, and they had two daughters, Marcella and Joetta. As the Flores sisters grew up, they spent many hours in their Grandmother Annie’s home on South B Street. As they remembered, “When you entered Grandma’s house, you were in another world — the Mono Indian world.” There at the knees of Annie Kinsman Flores, the past was preserved. By word of mouth, the legends and family history were passed down and found root in the hearts and minds of her grandchildren.

While Marcella chose medicine as a profession, Joetta chose education. After graduating from Madera High School, Joetta earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Fresno State. She went on to earn her teaching credential.

Joetta began her teaching career with Madera Unified. She completed her student teaching at Madison Elementary and received her first teaching assignment there. When the new Alpha School opened, Joetta joined the rest of the Madison staff and moved down the street.

After more than 30 years of teaching, Joetta retired and turned to community volunteer work. In addition to her service on the school board, she is a Madera High School Scholarship program participant and a member of the Madera County Historical Society Board of Directors. She is on the tribal council of the North Fork Monos (not a casino tribe) and was treasurer of the California State Tribal Water Summit, 2018. She is a member of the American Indian Education Association and a member of the California Indian Basket Weavers Association.

Joetta is also a member of California Retired Teachers Association, Division 79, a volunteer consultant for the “California Room” of the Madera County Library, and a member of the Park Restoration Committee.

Joetta has two daughters, Elissa and Lynley, both of whom live in Southern California. Elissa is a graduate of UCLA and works in the Los Angeles Coroner’s Office where she is an investigator and coordinates Homeland Security.

Lynley graduated from Boston University and has spent the last 20 years working in the culinary arts. Currently she is the Menu and Recipe Development Coordinator for UCLA. (UCLA recently won the nation’s Best College Dining Hall Award).

During her run for the school board in the last election, Joetta gave the following statement to The Tribune. In it, she gives the essence of what makes her a good board member and representative of her Native American heritage.

“I’m a woman, I was born and raised here, involved in the community. I have a well-rounded knowledge of Madera and MUSD’s education vision. I will share my experiences with the school board members, working together as a team. I’ve worked on finances with several organizations, I can contribute that knowledge. My career in education and the knowledge I have acquired over decades of working with children, will be a positive addition.”

“I’m involved in my California Indian culture, I encourage children to be proud of “who you are,” (their own individual culture). Also I have a deep respect for every other culture, their beliefs and traditions.”

What more could a community ask of its public servants?

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