A Little Known Aspect of American Indian Life

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PHOTO: Pawnee Nasharo Council (Chiefs Council). Photographer/Date unknown. Author’s grandfather, back row, far left.

March 12, 2015

Most people know about American Indian tribes through books, movies and plays. Children learned about Indian tribes, mainly in the month of November, right before Thanksgiving, saving the pilgrims who came across the ocean in search of religious freedom. Some people know about Indian tribes through their travels across the country, stopping in or near towns and reservations where Indians live, at tourist spots that offer one a chance to take a photo with an Indian, of Indians dancing, next to wooden tipis, or of the scenery. They buy trinkets, such as pottery or jewelry, drums and Indian dolls in buckskin clothes (oftentimes made in China) from Indian vendors and trading posts. Stereotypical images of Indians may come to mind of an Indian on a horse, bent over the horse, in defeated posturing. Nowadays, some people may know about tribes through the flashy casinos that they own.

People see the cultural, physical, the environment, and in some instances, the spiritual aspects of Indian life. Do people ever wonder about the mental, political or emotional side of what it is to be Indian? Do people wonder how tribes operate, keep their cultures alive, keep tribal members employed, govern? To be a member of a tribe, or as tribes are now known, nations? Do they care?

One little known aspect of American Indian life that may be unknown to the unsuspecting public, is that tribes/nations struggle with a concept whose influence usurped that of the chiefs who once led, guided and advised its tribal members. What I am talking about is the tribal council.

Tribal government. Tribal politics. Somewhat oxymoronic terms that are found in tribal groups and “nations” who were once led by chiefs and warrior societies. The federal government, in its wisdom, ordered tribes to fashion their self-governance after their own business model, starting in 1936. The US government was supposedly created after the Iroquois Confederacy, though some do not believe in that genesis. Tribes became corporations, with boards of directors (tribal council) and federal tax ID numbers. It’s more complex than that, and though they consider themselves sovereign governments, in their government-to-government relationship with the federal government, yet, the federal government still holds them as orphaned children, and “wards” of the US government. And following in the fashion of our dominant democratic society, well, the similarities are there. Instead of Democrats and Republicans, we have families, and well, families on opposing sides.

But I digress. Each year, or alternating years as prescribed in their tribal constitutions, tribal groups, aka now called “nations” owing to their “sovereignty” status, prepare to hold tribal “elections”, in which their tribal members run for office. An election commission sets out a timeline and deadlines for candidates to apply, allowing for a protest period, in some instances, and it ends with the election, and allowing time for the “official” results. Some people for a specific office, i.e., chairman, president, governor, treasurer, secretary and then council representatives. Some terms are two years, some three or four years, again, determined by the tribe/nation’s constitution and by-laws. As much as a board of directors runs in a corporation, so does the tribal council run, or is supposed to run. Except that these individuals are not shareholders, i.e., no money crosses their palms – well, in most instances, that is true – but they are in charge of a budget by which the tribe operates.

In a sweep of the internet, I found council elections for the Nooksak (Washington), Cherokees (Oklahoma), Prairie Band Potawatomis (August), Ft. McDowell Yavapai (January), and Omaha Tribe (Nebraska) occuring throughout the year, in springtime, fall, winter and summer. It could be that some hold their elections based on calendar year, or a fiscal year. Some hold special elections to work out situations that occur with candidates, like the recent Navajo Nation election in which a clearly qualified candidate was disallowed because he was not “fluent” in his language, “fluency” being a relative term.

Each person runs on a platform, i.e., what they will do for the tribe once they are elected – a chicken in every pot, or some new program that will bring about employment, or a new program that will teach the tribal members their language – just about anything that will generate votes for a particular candidate. Promises, promises and more promises. They hold dinners. There are candidate forums. They publish their platforms in the tribal newspaper.

What occurs after they get elected, is another story entirely.

We have read about what has happened to many tribes, e.g., with the Cheyenne tribe and its oligarchy which has placed numerous individuals into conflict with each other, over who is a valid elected official and who is not, and which is a recognized council, and which is not. Meanwhile, the tribal members, who were promised many things, suffer. The people who voted for these individuals suffer on the sidelines, marginalized, once their vote has been given. The Cheyenne and Arapaho, at one time two separate tribes, have had their elections monitored in the past by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. For two years, two councils, two factions, two leaders, who once worked together, kept this tribe in limbo, or not, with two separate offices, mailing addresses maintained. Who’s minding the store?

Families get involved. Politics is nothing if not family within tribal groups. The influence of families is strong, so much so that an elder family member, in an open meeting, might often weigh in on decisions about to be made by a younger family member. Or the younger family member might defer to the advice of the elder member. So if the mother or father presents his case, how can the son not take the advice of his father? That influence prevents the son from making a decision on his own, with his experience, knowledge, education and abilities. How are we to learn from decisions we make, if we are not allowed to make them on our own?
I have witnessed many effective councils in my tribe, just as I have ineffective ones. Some people get elected and get led around by the others, becoming part of a “yes” group, and end up doing more harm than good. Not being able to make their own decisions, they become part of a “blockade” against progress, because they fail to learn, fail to understand and end up failing the people.

A number of years back, a group of five council members, of the eight elected, formed a bloc which prevented the council from doing any real work, creating any real progress, and it was during that time that the tribe/nation incurred a number of tax problems. The chairperson only votes in the case of tie votes. Fast forward a few years, and again, a group of five council members, some related to the original “secret five”, created a bloc that again prevented the council from doing its work. It seems that the individuals in each case had their own agenda, individually and collectively, and this, then, prevented the tribe/nation from progress.

The chiefs of the tribe, hereditary, peace, council of elders, whatever it might be, really hold no major responsibilities with tribal councils, who are the federally recognized leaders of the tribes/nations. For example, the Pawnee Nasharo Council, once responsible for the tribe/nation, was charged with maintaining the cultural aspects of the tribe and had duties spelled out in the constitution and by-laws for anything related to the membership and claims and treaties of the Pawnee tribe/nation; however, realistically, those claims and treaties, having been dealt with in early councils and chiefs and cannot really be changed without ramification. The Pawnee Business Council is the “supreme ruling body”, responsible for the economic, educational, health and welfare of the tribe. They are responsible for the business aspects of the Pawnee tribe/nation. The chiefs no longer have the responsibilities they once had.

The Cheyenne chiefs and headsman, the Council of 44, originally were selected to serve because of their integrity, wisdom, honesty and their ability to maintain their composure and not become angered. These chiefs went through a renewal ceremony, quite complex, and which is conducted to this day. These chiefs are not involved in any tribal politics and maintian involvement in the traditional side of the Cheyenne people. The warrior societies of the Cheyenne were charged with control of the tribe and taking care of the people. The Cheyenne tribe/nation has had its share of elections, recalls and disagreements which have caused outside entities to judge the fitness and legality of councils and council people. Two separate councils claimed to win elections, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs was called to mediate and determine winners.
You would think that education, experience, and a person’s ability would serve them well in being a part of the business council. That’s not always the case. Often, a person cannot figure out what career skills they have that might apply to being on the business council. If you were a social worker, construction worker, in law enforcement, owned a business, what skills do you have that would apply to being a council member? Granted, council people are able to get some kind of training, but the US government is complex, its the rules, regulations that govern what a tribe can actually do can be intimidating. What would a social worker know of Indian gaming pacts with the state? What would a construction worker know about Indian Health service regulations? You have to read and understand, comprehend and base decisions on what you’ve read.
I thought about running for council at one time, but I changed my mind. Because it’s like the Godfather, the I-Ching of business…lol! “It’s business, not personal.” And tribal members make it personal. They can’t let the council do it’s work without getting all emotional, and it doesn’t matter which tribe/nation it is. Pick one, and I’m sure you’ll find disagreements that include family members and shouting matches. Hurtful words said that can’t be taken back. Family members sitting there watching their family member being attacked.

If the PEOPLE could separate the familial and the personal from the business, then it might work. But people at the Tribe tend to leak things out, and the issue gets all twisted, and their families get all emotional, hysterical, and by the time it gets back to the council, it’s 180 degrees from what the issue really was. Some of the individuals who are elected tend to become emotional when they encounter disagreement. Add to that the emotional outbursts of individuals attending meetings, and you wonder how anything gets done. Just remember: “It’s business, not personal”. This tends to happen in the months and weeks leading up to the tribal council election. Name calling, insinuations, calls for removal build momentum, in sort of a crescendo leading up to the election. And afterwards, nothing. People sit back and say nothing. Or they grumble. If they vote, I’m all for grumbling. If they don’t vote, well, they have nothing to say that interests me. You don’t vote? You cannot complain.

I would have every employee sign a confidentiality agreement, that they could NOT say a thing about what is going on. I don’t know if that would be allowed, but those employees should certainly be loyal to their employer and NOT broadcast what goes on. Violate that and you are subject to the three-tiered progressive discipline action. Indian people cannot do that, though. They have to tell someone…”don’t say anything, but…”, “don’t repeat this, but…”. And that’s where the problem is. Then, that person can’t keep it in, and so they go to the next person, and it goes to the next person, and finally, the whole tribe knows. Except for those of us in the hinterlands. And the person being talked about, or complained about.

If those individuals were so interested, then why not run for council yourself? Why continue to bad mouth people, drag their names through the mud, incite the people, over nothing. Why not try to be part of the solution, rather than being part of the problem? Or being the problem?

Education is important, being able to read and comprehend a document and then be able to articulate that information in an intelligible manner to individuals who might ask questions. Education should be a must for anyone running for council. It should be a qualification for running. Or exchange experience for education. Some work that provides experiential qualifications is good, too. If the Tribe is to develop and grow as it should, then there needs to be minimum qualifications in order for these folks to 1) understand Business English; 2) understand Business, i.e., contracts, grants, the basics; 3) have public speaking ability; 4) leadership skills; 5) know something about fundraising and development – in this instance, “friend raising”; 6) understand what planning is; and finally, and most importantly, 7) understand budgets and have had developed and controlled a budget, and, 8) understand the cultural aspects of what it is to be the tribe that you are, i.e., have some semblance and recognition of why you are the tribe you are, what makes you the tribe that you are.

Education and experience is just as important, and in some cases, though, common sense and the ability to make decisions is just as important as experience and education.

Instead of saying: “I am running for council because I want to help the Pawnee Tribe and the Pawnee People, blah blah blah…”, candidates should be stating upfront, in a concise way: “I have an MBA from XYZ University. For the last 26 years, I have worked my way from finance clerk to corporate business manager in the Widget Division. Our division of 200 people in 20 departments outperformed the other divisions for the last ten years, bringing in $500 million in the last quarter. I was personally reponsible for raising half of that $500 million. I believe that with these skills and knowledge, I can lead the Pawnee Tribe to become one of the top ten thriving tribes in the US by applying these abilities and successful planning to the work that needs to be done.”

Or, “My experience as a cultural leader in our tribe has provided me an understanding of what our tribe needs to do regarding employment, education and cultural development. In my last five years as the cultural coordinator, we provided a summer program over 6 weeks to 40 youth ages 8 through 15, which resulted in the students learning about our history, culture and language. We gained 10 elementary speakers of our language. We also monitored our budget of $28,000 in the first year, with additional grants of $10,000 added each year, for a final budget of $68,000 which allowed us to develop a language application in conjunction with XYA University and provided each participant with an iPad with the language application loaded to continue the students’ learning during the year. Periodic follow-up allowed us to monitor the language use of the children, which for 80% of the participants was retained.”

Results-oriented. Evidence based.

In the first example, then, you see the education is there, years of experience, “responsible for”, outcomes, skills, advancement, looking to future, goal setting, positivity in approach to the job ahead. Then you look at that person and think, hmmmm…this person might be someone who could do this job. Instead, you get some people who, even with the education and experience, have no earthly idea what they are doing there. And on the other hand, you have those who might not have all that education and experience but have the smarts to get the job done.

In the second example, you see the experience with youth, the future, in a specific-focused program, gaining experience in monitoring a budget, which also requires planning skills, cooperation with an outside entity to generate a product that will be of help to the youth, and providing the youth with the technology to continue their learning process.

Personally, that is what I would like to see, rather than the standard, “I retired after 30 years of being a social worker.” or “I own a business. I know how to operate a computer.” or “I was in the Army for 20 years.” or “I was in law enforcement for 30 years.” or “I want to help better things for the tribal people.” or “I want to get the tribal members a per capita payment every year.” or “I can grow blue corn.” Give us something solid to review and consider.

There needs to be transparency in tribal councils, information communicated. For example, publish the minutes for the people to read, to see who is really working. Councilpeople need to report on the trips that they take, conferences they attend. Let the people know that they are learning something and how they see that learning will benefit the tribe’s operations. Create action plans to integrate an aspect of their learning for an immediate impact on the tribe’s operations.

Tribal government. Tribal politics. A necessary evil, or an entity that needs a reconfiguration, i.e., a constitutional overhaul? I just wanted to write this since I know of a few tribes that are about to elect new councils. This is what the Great White Father created for us, another way of killing us off, along with that blood quantum issue which allows us to dwindle away into nothing. But, we are card-carrying Indians, proof provided by that enrollment card that we carry, which states we are who we say we are, in some cases, 3/4 Indian 1/4 white, or 3/256, or that endangered species, the full-blood.

Just thought non-Indian people might like to know that all is not hunky dory in the land of the American Indian. We don’t all get a per capita payment, some of us only receive $8 a year. Some of our tribes don’t have fancy casinos.

So thank you, US federal government. We appreciate your providing us with the means of tearing at each other, calling each other names, making things up and broadcasting this across all forms of social media and via the moccasin telegraph. Along with that blood quantum thing, well, we just aren’t tribal without it.

Frankly, I think it’s time for the chiefs to return. Return to traditional rule.


Irene Edwards received a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the College of Santa Fe in May, 2010 and is in the process of completing admission requirements for a Master’s degree in American Studies/Native American Studies at UNM. She was raised in a household that included her great-grandmother and her grandparents. Her grandfather received a degree from Bacone College in 1926, the first of her family to receive a college degree. He also attended the Chicago Art Institute. Her mother received a degree in nursing from Kiowa Nursing School and was a professional nurse all her life.

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