September 2008 Archives


I always wondered how my ancestors must have felt surrounded on all sides by a cruel and relentless enemy.  Faced with overwhelming odds and outnumbered, they fought as long as they could before surrendering.  Confined to a reservation, they struggled to survive as the US government broke promise after promise they had made in the treaties. 

Unable to eke out a living from the land, many of them joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West show to earn a few dollars.  As they traveled the world with the Wild West show, they would dress in their tribal regalia and ride into huge arenas in front of thousands of screaming spectators.  They were stars for a year or two, and then returned to the reservation and back to the life of poverty to be forgotten by Bill Cody and the rest of society.  That was the late 1800's and early 1900s.  Last week, I overheard a tribal member talking about a flag-raising ceremony where Native Americans were marched into a huge arena and put in front of thousands of screaming spectators, and some gave speeches on how much they loved being called the Fighting Sioux.  Imagine my surprise when I realized he was not talking about Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, but an event held at the Engelstad Arena just recently.  This led me to ask myself,  "What century is this anyway?"

Because of treaties signed with the US government, our ancestors gave up millions of acres to live in extreme poverty on reservations consisting of a fraction of the land they gave up.  Still, the thousands of immigrants who settled on what was recently tribal land wanted more.  They lobbied Congress to pass the 1887 Dawes Act, and our ancestors lost more of what little land they had left.
Within the past decade, all the tribes of the Great Sioux Nation (with the exception of Spirit Lake) passed resolutions against the use of the Fighting Sioux logo by the Ralph Engelstad Arena.  Now the North Dakota Board of Higher Education (NDBHE) is going to appoint a committee to meet with the tribal governments.  The message is this, "just wait until our governor, the attorney general, and North Dakota's Congressional delegation march onto their reservations.  We'll take what we want regardless of what you Indians do!"  What century is this?

Our ancestors did not forget their "old ways".  Time and time again, they were warned against practicing their customs.  In spite of the warnings, our ancestors did not give up, and some of them were massacred in 1890 at Wounded Knee as a result.  What will happen if Spirit Lake and Standing Rock do not kowtow to the might of North Dakota?  Will the governor send in the National Guard?  Probably not.  More likely, the Governor will hold the gambling compacts over our heads, or funding for our roads.  The attorney general might vigorously pursue legal cases that will weaken our tribal sovereignty.  All the progress we fought so hard for to make us self-sufficient is in jeopardy because the Ralph Engelstad people want to keep an out-dated logo.  What century is this anyway?

The NDBHE started this whole moral morass for the state by caving in to Ralph Engelstad's unreasonable demands.  Now they hope the state's highest official will step in and use might, as oppose to right, and rescue them from their untenable position.  Their one-sided plan reflects the arrogance of the pro logo supporters on the board.  The plan states, "A quick decision should not be reached even if the first couple of meetings do not yield a positive reaction."  Quick decision?  How long has this controversy been going on?  How many times have the tribes already told them no?  In addition, suggested delegates include the governor, the attorney general, and North Dakota's Congressional delegation.  There!  That should take care of those pesky Indians!

In closing, the NDBHE has the opportunity to demonstrate real ethical and courageous leadership.  Just as history will judge poorly the original board members who caved in to Ralph Engelstad's demand, history will judge the current board members highly if they step up and do what is right - give up something that is not theirs to own.

According to one tribal elder I talked to, it doesn't.  "They only go to school to learn how to steal more," she said.  I admit my pride was hurt when she said this. After all, I spent considerable time and money obtaining my three degrees, and to hear that it didn't make me any more qualified was disappointing.  However, after thinking about it, I could see her point. 

An education does not make a person more courageous, more honest, or help them preserve their dignity in the face of adversity.  Education does not make a person more generous.  Moreover, I know several educated tribal members who are either cowardly, dishonest, fold in the face of adversity, and/or are greedy.  So I conceded the elderly person was right - to a point.

If college educated tribal members are no more ethical then tribal members who do not have a college education does that mean the tribe should place non-college educated tribal members and college educated tribal members on the same level when it comes to hiring?

This led to another question, is it also unethical to assume a leadership position that you are not qualified for, especially when the livelihood of thousands of tribal members rest on your decisions?

Most tribes today are worth millions of dollars, even hundreds of millions of dollars.  They have assets ranging from casinos, industries, to huge amounts of valuable land.  It takes an astute person to understand the complexities of such large organizations.  Making the wrong decision, or making no decision due to not understanding the issues, could cost a tribe thousands of dollars.

Take "per cap" (per capita) payments, for example.  Here on Spirit Lake, we were first exposed to per cap payments years ago when the government paid tribal members for land it "bought" many, many years ago.  Then, when our casino became profitable, tribal members were given a small per cap payment every year at Christmas.  When Sioux Manufacturing Corporation began to make a profit, it (the profit) was given to tribal members at Christmas.  A few years ago, the tribe sold its share in a company and after considerable controversy; the profits from this sale were divided and distributed as a per capita payment to tribal members. 

Now I hear the tribe has come into another huge sum of money.  Of course, after years of getting per cap payments, tribal members expect another one from this money.  But some people are beginning to wonder of per cap payments are the best way to use these large one-time windfalls of money.  One way to avoid a controversy every time the tribe comes into a huge sum of money is to develop a strategic plan.

When I told a friend from another reservation that the people wanted another per cap, she said something to the effect, "I thought about the book, Rebuilding Native Nations: Strategies for Governance and Development, when you told me your tribe had come into lots of money.  It says that one of the down falls of our tribes is that they don't have strategic plans in place.  They grab at money when it comes, and they don't use it in a positive way.  When a council does strategic planning and has clear goals that are created with the help of the tribe, they do not have to tell the people they can't have a per capita payment because there is a strategic plan in place.  The tribal membership would have been already told how any additional money would be spent.  For example, if the people told the council that they want recreation for the kids and at the top of that list is a swimming pool, they would not complain when the tribe applied the additional funds to building a swimming pool.  Without a plan, the people will continue to demand money for their pockets and reservation development will be nonexistent."

My friend makes a very good point.  But, how many of our tribal leaders have the know how to develop a strategic plan?  So back to my question, is it also unethical to assume a leadership that you are not qualified for?  I think it is.  As I pointed out, tribes are very complex organizations worth millions of dollars, and an individual serving the tribe should at least have knowledge of how such an organization works, of how to develop strategic plans, of how to implement them.  After all, the well being of the entire tribe will rest on their decisions.  A person with a college degree, preferably a degree in business, will have a better chance to understand such an organization.

So, we have established that a college degree does not make a person more ethical, but also, that it is not ethical to assume a position of leadership you are not qualified for, so having an education helps individuals be more qualified to run our tribal affairs.

The final questions in this debate follow naturally, "How can we help our educated leaders to become more ethical, to have courage and persevere in the face of adversity?  How do we help our current leaders become more ethical and more knowledgeable about the complexities of running our tribal governments?"

First off, let me say, it does not take a college degree to learn to understand how a multi-million dollar organization operates, but it helps.  Even more important is a willingness to learn on the job, taking time to study all aspects of the organization and attend training on leadership and business.  Even individuals with college degrees can benefit from continuing education (workshops, seminars, etc.).  Then, when the time comes to make decisions, make them as honestly as you can and have the courage to stick to them.

Ethics Work in Los Angeles

This week, we are in Los Angeles working on the technical aspects of the Tribal Leaders with Character course. We are designing a wiki, case studies, a new look for the web pages and working on the electronic filing cabinet. When finished, this should be a real resource for tribal leaders.

Self-Honesty / Self-Awareness

Almost every single tribal worker I meet admits ethical training is sorely needed and would like very much to see it happen and implemented.  However, it is frustrating to hear the same tribal workers talk about ethical violations in the workplace, yet not once hear any of them admit maybe they could be more ethical.  None of them says, "I would like to attend a work ethics class to see how I can improve my work habits."


I am convinced the majority of tribal workers know the difference between ethical and unethical workplace behavior because, during my Phase I presentations, I could actually see the embarrassment on the faces of many tribal workers when I mentioned some of the more common ethical violations (chronic tardiness/absenteeism, two-hour lunches, falsifying time sheets, etc.), and related it to one of our core values (courage, honesty, perseverance/fortitude and generosity).  For example, I talked about how showing up for work late and leaving early, yet still claiming 40 hours of work, is, in reality, stealing and lying.  "Are you comfortable being a liar and a thief?" I would say, and I would see the shame on some faces.  However, I am willing to bet none of them changed their work habits.


Here is the big mystery, if most tribal workers know the difference between ethical and unethical workforce behavior and are at times ashamed of their behavior, why do they go back and commit the same ethical violations day after day?


Personally, I think most tribal workers start work as good, honest, and ethical individuals. Still, over time, having observed unethical workers enjoying the fruits of their unethical behavior, they eventually succumb to the temptation and start practicing unethical behavior.


Now you might say, I will never become as unethical as "they" are.  Be careful that you do not speak too soon.  Unethical workforce behavior is hard to resist.  Why?  Plenty of reasons . . . you might have a hard time getting to work on time in the mornings.  As you look around and see fellow workers coming in late but still getting eight hours of pay, it will not be hard for you to start doing the very same thing.  In addition, you might have a variety of personal business issues that you just can't seem to find the time to do.  The half-hour or hour you have for lunch is not enough time for you to do them and still get something to eat and gossip with your friends.  Eventually, you will do what you observe unethical workers always do.  Take time off during the day, or take two-hour lunch breaks to attend to your personal business.  After all, everyone is doing it, and/or the supervisors/tribal council members don't seem to care. So, you see how easy it will be to slip into unethical behavior if you haven't already?


In a work atmosphere where unethical violations are ignored, tolerated, laughed at, and joked about, the only defense you have to not commit to them, yourself, is self-honesty, also known as self-awareness.  When people with good self-awareness recognize their own strengths and weaknesses, and when they see the need to change, and they do, others with poor self-awareness consider any criticism a threat, and they immediately go on the offense attacking anyone who points out their unethical behavior.  Admitting one's weak points isn't a sign of weakness but of self-honesty.  If you can take a realistic view of yourself, you are probably also able to take a realistic view of the organization you work for and not succumb to the temptations of unethical behavior.

My friend and I were talking about a book she was reading titled, Rebuilding Native Nations: Strategies for Governance and Development, by Miriam Jorgensen with the Forward by Oren Lyons.  Because she knew about my Tribal Leadership Institute project, she highly recommended I read the book.  "It talked about every thing you are doing," she told me.  Apparently, the book, which I plan to go out and buy this week, ties the majority of the problems on the reservations back to the tribal constitutions.  Most tribal constitutions do not have a separation of power clause in them, and according to the author of the book, this is why tribal councils as well as tribal organizations are always operating in crisis mode.  My friend went on to tell me what the author recommendations were, long-range planning, separation of powers, etc. 

So why don't we Indians implement the author's recommendations?  After all, most of us want positive change on our reservations.  In my opinion, the reason we don't is because of our character or lack of character.  It will take a person or persons with strong character to stand up and change a system that most tribal members think is unchangeable.  By strong character, I mean a person who lives by our ancestral values of courage, honesty, perseverance/fortitude, and generosity.  Here is an example when these values/virtues come into play. 

First, if we are going to change the reservation we have to start somewhere and that somewhere could be you!  Let's say you are a supervisor and one of your workers is chronically late, falsifies timesheets, has a big mouth, and always threatens to run to the tribal council at any hint of you disciplining her.  When you finally work up enough COURAGE to take action against this individual, I can guarantee you that the worker's bark is far worse then his/her bite.  First, the tribal council or board member he/she runs to will have to get the rest of the tribal council to support his/her actions.  Second, other workers will see your courageous behavior, and will behave accordingly.  Lastly, you will feel so much better about your self. 

Let's assume you, the supervisor, are initially unsuccessful because no one has the courage to help back you up.  Besides, they all know the worker as a big mouth troublemaker.  The worker will then try to make you look bad.  He/she may start rumors like you don't do your work, you come in late, you leave early and you take two hour lunch breaks.  He/she will probably recruit like-minded individuals to harass you.  This is where the virtue PERSEVERANCE/FORTITUDE comes in.  Moreover, this tactic will only work if what he/she says is true.  This brings me to the next virtue, honesty.

If you go to work on time every day, actually do work while you are there, and don't go over the allowed time for coffee and lunch breaks, and you punch out after quitting time, your HONESTY will be noticed and not only protect you from false accusations, but you will be a role model for your workers to follow.  You will be surprised at the correlation between a supervisor's work habits and the workers work habits.

Finally, let's say the troublesome worker could not get anyone to support him/her so realizes if he/she wants to keep his/her job he/she better settle down and become a good worker, and he/she does.  You now have a chance to call upon the virtue of GENEROSITY and praise him/her for doing a good job.  Even going as far as generously letting him/her leave early on a Friday or take an extra half-an-hour off for lunch some day.  

A dysfunctional workplace can become a healthier, happier place to work by simply following the virtues of courage, honesty, perseverance/fortitude, and generosity.

Now think what would happen if several more tribal supervisors started to follow your example?

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This page is an archive of entries from September 2008 listed from newest to oldest.

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