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Tribal Governance & Leadership Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow

At the time of the founding of the U. S. Government, traditional Native governments looked very different from European forms in several ways:

  • The leader was not the “tyrant” or “king” but the “servant” of the people.
  • Liberty and equality were valued. There were methods for all people to have a “voice” in the government. Respect for the individual was strong as was concern for the general welfare of the entire community.
  • There were oral governmental traditions or “constitutions.” Everyone was to know his or her “constitution” by heart.
  • There were procedures for electing and/or appointing leaders based on merit, skill, capability, and often military experience.
  • Local government (bands, towns, etc.) was considered the most effective way of meeting the everyday needs of the people.

There were formal, ceremonial methods for making sure that the various local governments within a tribe agreed (formed a consensus) about how to handle “national” issues dealing with such things as trade, alliance and warfare. Everyone worked together for the "common good," which was felt to be more important than individual wants or rights. Strength as a nation came from being part of the people—the community. President Kennedy’s challenge to the United States in his inaugural address in 1961 echoed these sentiments, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what YOU can do for your country.”

Over the years for historical, political, socioeconomic and technological reasons, life has gotten a great deal more complicated both within Indian communities and in society generally. As tribes have struggled with years of oppression and poverty, much of the strength of traditional ways has been over-shadowed by just trying to survive.

The good news is that tribal governments have always been dynamic and able to adapt to new conditions. Those that are most successful combine new ways with old, culturally appropriate ways to solve classic human problems.

Purpose of Government
While the looks and traditions associated with government have changed over the years, the essential purpose should not change. It has always been to:

  • Protect the public interest
  • Serve the public welfare
  • …by meeting the needs of the people and ensuring that the tribe or community has…
  • A vision and a plan for the future.
  • Systems and procedures for managing and governing.
  • Adequate resources (human, physical and financial) to accomplish the rest.

A Desire for the Future
Effective governance must include a vision of the future. Why is it that some tribes are effective and others are not? This was a question posed to Andrew Lee, Seneca, Director of Harvard University’s Honoring Nations program and speaker at the National UNITY Conference in Denver in 1999. His response was: “Only tribes themselves can create a desire for the future.”

What is the future that your tribal government is creating? Andrew Lee went on to say that the future should be aimed at:

  • Breaking the cycles of dependency that U.S. policy has encouraged. In other words, governing ourselves.
  • Electing and developing capable leaders.
  • Seeking stability through effective governments and sustainable economies.

Based Chapters 1 & 4 of Youth for Tribal Government, by Kirke Kickingbird and Lynn Shelby Kickingbird.
©Kickingbird Associates, Edmond, OK 2001

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