Daune Cardenas honors her Pascua Yaqui heritage by driving its development

Business News | 13 Oct |

Daune Cardenas’ life began in a Flagstaff fraternity house.

“I realize that sounds odd on multiple levels,” laughs Cardenas. “First, I am a female. And second, I was a baby.”

When she was born in 1968, both her parents were in the midst of their studies at Northern Arizona University, and her father lived in a fraternity house.

“Can you imagine the Instagram photos if that happened today?” says Cardenas, whose parents soon moved her from said fraternity house to the south side of Tucson.

Growing up, her father, who was a member of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe and heavily into community activism, eventually became an art teacher. Her mother, more of a jack of all trades, was primarily in administrative work. Cardenas, however, didn’t lean toward either profession. Instead, she fancied herself an entrepreneur.

“In elementary school, I used to make up this sideshow game, the kind you might see at the circus, by fashioning a labyrinth out of old crates and sticking my cat in it. I would charge the neighborhood kids 10 cents to climb through it,” says Cardenas. “I also collected empty bottles by the dozen, because back then you could take them to the store and trade them for money.” 

Daune Cardenas

By 15, Cardenas moved onto a more traditional job, serving at a local restaurant while attending high school.

“The ‘traditional’ part didn’t last long.  I soon found that our chef liked to disappear for hours, leaving me alone with guests,” says Cardenas. “What else could I do but jump into the kitchen and teach myself to cook?”

Cardenas would work a few restaurant jobs like this throughout high school, playing varsity basketball and competing in both cross country and track and field. Upon her graduation in 1986, she earned a scholarship to the University of Arizona, but by then she was ready for a break.

“I loved the social side of college; maybe because I was born into that fraternity house,” chuckled Cardenas, who continued dating her high school sweetheart while at University of Arizona. They married in 1989, and started a family that same year, at age 20.

Also, that year she started a business called Southwest ATV. And while she still took classes, the rigors of owning a business while running a household took their toll, so she began taking time off or opting for one class at a time. She would eventually close the shop while pregnant with her second child and move onto the Pascua Yaqui reservation, just outside of Tucson. Cardenas also took a job with the Tribe at its casino, all the while still working toward her higher education.

“I worked nearly every job at the casino, learning something from each role,” says Cardenas, who counts dealing poker and marketing, where she learned to write advertising copy and got an introduction to graphic design, as her favorite roles.

While working there, the Tribe also began to support her education, helping with college tuition.

And though she loved the work, Cardenas could not deny her entrepreneurial spirit for long. By 1998, she was remarried and raising five children yet somehow managed to open a restaurant, Baby Beluga Seafood and Oyster Bar, which she would grow over the years to multiple locations.

“We moved the business up to St. John’s in 2003,” says Cardenas, explaining the move as a means to seek out the “Andy Griffith” lifestyle following an act of violence against her and three of her children. “I was robbed at knife point, with my kids in the car with me. There are no words to describe that kind of fear.” 

Sadly, while visiting family in Tucson in 2006, the St. John’s restaurant caught fire and burned to the ground.

“We were in the process of selling it, and set to make a tidy profit from our original investment, which was more or less all of my savings,” says Cardenas.

Undeterred, Cardenas, who by this time had her associate’s degree and had her sights set on earning a bachelor’s degree, took a new position with the casino and dedicated herself to her family, work and school, earning a degree from the NAU campus in Tucson in Business Administration in 2014. 

As her relationship with her husband soured, Cardenas made a plan to move her children from their home. and relocate back to the reservation, even though it meant initially sleeping on storage boxes with pillows and living on food stamps to get by. 

It was at this time she saw a post on the Pascua Yaqui social media page that was advertising that they were recruiting tribal members to go to law school. While she never considered that route, she met with the lawyer that was overseeing that effort.

“That lawyer was Alfred Urbina, an enrolled member of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe and prosecutor for them at the time,” says Cardenas. “Through my businesses, I had to understand legalities on a daily basis, so though I’d never considered the law as a career path, I found I already had a strong foundation.”

She was accepted into the law school at University of Arizona, where she acquired in-depth knowledge on the Indian Child Welfare Act. She also made it her mission to outwork everyone, including herself. This dedication led to several scholarships, including the Williams Achievement Scholarship; AIGC Fellowship and Scholarship; George C. Dix Scholarship, NABA-AZ Seven Generations Scholarship recipient, Pascua Yaqui Tribe Higher Education Scholarship, AMBA Scholarship and the NABA Scholarship.

By the summer 2017, she was selected from a national pool of law students for an internship at Procopio Cory Hargreaves & Savitch LLP, the largest law firm in San Diego. During that time, she also volunteered at a camp for Native American children and joined the San Diego County Native American Lawyers Association (NALA-SD) and ended the summer with a surprise proposal from her soul mate while watching the waves with him on romantic Pacific Beach, California.

“Then two of the greatest highlights of my life – other than being a mother – came when in my second year of law school I was elected as the Social Director of the University of Arizona Native American Law Students Association and then later elected to the National Native American Law Students Association Board,” says Cardenas.

In 2018, she was selected as National NALSA Board Member of the Year and throughout law school she had been working as a legal intern for Urbina, who by then was the Attorney General for the Pascua Yaqui Tribe. Upon graduation she landed a full-time position at the Office of the Attorney General, she helped form a Section 17 corporation for the Tribe, which provides a framework by which the Tribe can segregate tribal business assets and liabilities from tribal government assets and liability. 

As a result, the Pascua Yaqui Development Corporation was formed in 2018. She also helped to form the Pascua Yaqui Tribe Charitable Organization (PYTCO), a nonprofit organized to perform and carry out certain charitable and educational purposes and activities, including: charitable, cultural and educational programs, assistance and support to underprivileged and disadvantaged members of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, their families and general members of the public in need.

By 2019, the opportunity arose for her to take on the role of CEO of the Pascua Yaqui Development Corporation. In the 17 months since assuming the position, and amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Corporation has launched a property management division as well as Sonoran Pueblo Contracting, which has already completed more than $5 million in project work across Southern Arizona. 

“I feel as though my entrepreneurial background, passion for my people and love for the law came together to allow me to serve in this role,” says Cardenas. “And because law as it relates to tribal members can sometimes feel like a labyrinth, I’m also glad I had my little side-show as a kid.”

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