January 2009 Archives

Who is Indian?

When I was a kid, I often heard my mother say, "Big Indian," when describing someone's behavior and/or appearance that she disapproved of.   From what I gather, she was describing a person who exhibited some of the following characteristics; no manners, uncouth appearance, loud and boisterous, dumb, and/or greedy.  Mom never did tell me who wasn't a Big Indian and why; however, I would say it would be those Indians who practiced the traditional values of courage, honesty, perseverance, and generosity.
Way back then, there were the Indians who "acted white."  These individuals usually worked for the BIA or held some other permanent job.  They possessed all the material items we didn't.  They sort of looked down their noses on the rest of us Indians who had to subsist on AFDC (now known to you younger people as TANF).  Most of them would not be caught dead speaking the language (many people conversed in Dakota back then) or attending a pow-wow.  In the late sixties and early seventies, these individuals became known as "Apples" (red on the outside, white on the inside).
When I was a teenager, our cousins, who were born and raised in Oakland, California, came to visit.  They had no knowledge of language and culture, yet they were our first cousins, so we knew they were Indian.  They soon became "Indian," drinking all night and into the next day, womanizing, fighting, and adopting our sense of humor.   
Indians have a good sense of humor.  As I grew older, in my late teens and throughout my twenties, I began to spend more and more of my time boozing.  I remember during those boozing days how much we teased and played tricks on each other.  We exaggerated one another's mistakes to the point of foolishness, and we used humor to deal with everything, from DUIs, to divorce, to losing a game - everything was turned into a joke.  In our minds, we were the "real" Indians those dummies who were straight were "trying to make white."
Many years later, after sobering up, I went with a female friend to play pool at a bar where I used to hang out in my boozing days.  I had a good time, visiting and joking with old friends.  When we left the bar, I noticed my friend was unhappy.  "What is wrong?" I asked her.  After keeping silent for a while, she said something to the effect, "you became a different person when you went into the bar.  I do not know the person you became," she said.  Recalling my antics in the bar, joking, hollering around, laughing, and teasing, I could tell she did not like that person, so I said to her, "Those are guys I grew up with.  When I hang out with them, I'm Hobo Joe (my nickname from infancy).  That is the real (Indian) me."
I could tell she did not like my answer.  Sure enough, a couple of weeks later, she said to me, "You are really two persons; one is who you call Hobo Joe, the other is the educated Indian man I met who is the Academic Dean at the college, and the single parent of three boys."

Thinking carefully, I answered, "you're right.  I am two people.  You have to be if you are educated and live on the reservation."

"But you can't be two people in one," she insisted.  "You have to be one or another."

Not wanting to concede but not wanting to continue in the direction the conversation was taking, I compromised.  I said, "You are right [again].  Eventually, Hobo Joe and the person you know will merge into one."
That was fifteen years ago.  Have my two personalities merged into one?  Did I even have two personalities back then?  Regardless, I still consider myself a real Indian, even if some other tribal members do not.
Nowadays, everyone claims to be a "real Indian," and they accuse other Indians of not being Indian.  Those few who know the Dakota language often claim they are more Indian than those of us who don't.  We respond by saying, "Hey, I was born and raised on Spirit Lake.  My father and mother are enrolled in the Spirit Lake Tribe.  Just because we don't speak Dakota doesn't mean we are not Indian."
Then there are those tribal members who participate in or conduct ceremonies such as Sweats, Sundances, Name-Giving Ceremonies, and other traditional activities.  Most of these individuals try very hard to live by our traditional values.  Are they real Indians?
Despite their participation in sacred ceremonies, a few traditionalists still fall victim to their own character flaws.  They accuse each other of not conducting the ceremonies the right way.  Some of them indulge in alcohol and marijuana, a few commit adultery, and others use foul language at athletics events. Are they real Indians?

Who is a real Indian?  Who honestly claims to perpetrate Dakota culture or other tribal cultures and customs?  This is the question I will try to answer in my next blog.

There is something to be said about a manager who follows a set routine day in and day out.  Every day they arrive at work, take breaks, and leave work at the same time.  Their predictability and dependability projects a sense of security to their employees.  This type of rigid, structured behavior is usually good for an organization.  However, there are times when managers have to be willing to change their behavior, think outside the box, when situations call for it.

Change is inevitable.  Whether you are handling constituents in an organization setting, dealing with parents in an education setting, or visiting with clients in a business setting; you, as a manager, will experience change.  

Let us look at one example of change on a macro level and one example of change on a micro level that managers in Indian Country have to face, and how the traditional values of courage, honesty, perseverance, and generosity will help weather these changes.

1.  Change on a macro level - Probably the most significant change happens when, after an election, new tribal council members are sworn in.  A manager will worry about changes the new council implements.  This is where the courage and honesty is important.  A manager should not be frightened about what changes might be made.  Instead, a manager should continue to manage the way he/she always has been.  Do not make changes to the way you run your program just to please a new council.  Especially, if you are doing a good job in the first place.  

Of course, if you are an unethical manager, and the new council is intent on cleaning up unethical behavior, you have something to worry about.  If that is the case, then honesty is the best option.  Once a manager admits, at least to himself or herself, to unethical conduct, and stops those practices, the new council might take notice and the manager should not have anything to worry about.

2.  Change on a micro level - What does a manager do when a long time employee, who holds a key position, quits suddenly, and the program can't deliver a vital service to the community?  Once again honesty is critical.  A manager in this position should be honest with their constituents and announce if and when the services will be continued.  ... or, they can immediately appoint or hire someone to the vacant position temporarily.  This will take courage as a temporary hire will have to be approved by the CEO or the governing board.   Finally, a manager needs to persevere.  He/she should not stop taking calls, or receiving visitors who are annoyed when the change in services occurs, and they definitely should not call in sick and stay home.

Do you have the courage and honesty to accept that (some) change is inevitable?  Will you embrace change?  Are you flexible enough to change? Will you role model how to embrace and accept change to your workers?  Will you stay focused on what changes need to be made?  Finally, will you recognize and reward those employees who embrace change?

How do managers in Indian Country handle change?  Under most circumstances, managers who cannot change are doomed; however, some tribal members will argue, in Indian Country if they are well connected politically nothing can dislodge them from their position.  

What I have written here is but a small fraction of the knowledge a manager needs to know to deal with change.  If you want to learn more enroll in my course, Courageous and Ethical Managers, which is scheduled to be completed in a couple of months.

Ethical and Courageous Managers

Yesterday I wrote a blog titled, Who Is Ultimately Responsible for Unethical Behavior in the Work Place?  The blog was intended as a preview for our next course titled, Ethical and Courageous Managers.  After reviewing my outline for the course, I decided to back up and start (write a blog) at the beginning.  

In an ideal situation, a person who is hired as a manager would already know how to carry out the basic functions of a manager, which are: planning, organizing, leading, and controlling.  ... and they would know how to energize their employees, empower their employees.  They would know how to support their employees, and know how to effectively communicate with their employees.

However, a person who processes this knowledge does not automatically become a successful manager.  They will also need to practice the values of courage, honesty, perseverance and generosity.  A manager who does not practice these values will be a total failure, often keeping their position only because of political influence.

An ethical and courageous manager is one that enables you, leads (manages) you by example.   They are punctual, always at work.  They are motivated, constantly communicating with their staff.  They respect their staff and have the honesty and courage to make the right decisions in pressure situations.

On the other hand, unethical work habits usually compromises a managers integrity and effectiveness.  Who wants to listen to or follow directions from a person who is always late or constantly missing work?  Unethical work habits usually lead to dishonesty and cowardice in pressure situations.  Finally, a manager with these unethical work habits is basically disrespecting the staff and the staff has no respect for them.

What kind of manager are you?

There are several answers to this question depending on your point of view.  Some individuals would say the responsibility lies with the governing entity (School Board, College Board, Tribal Council, TERO Commission, etc.).  Others would say the CEO (Presidents, Superintendents, or General Managers).  Still others would say the supervisor and/or mid-management.  Finally, others would contend that the workers themselves were responsible for their own behavior.  Actually, the easy simple answer would be to say "all of them" but the issue is much more complicated then that.

In this blog, I am going to briefly cover the actions of the governing board and the CEO (Presidents, Superintendents, or General Managers) and how their unethical and unprofessional actions complicate the process of governing an organization.  Later blogs will cover the supervisors/mid-management, staff, and the public, and how their unethical and unprofessional actions harm an organization.

Those who say the governing entity is ultimately legally responsible for every thing that happens in an organization would be correct.   However, governing boards meet only once a month, so it is unrealistic to expect them to hold staff accountable on a daily basis. This is where a CEO (Presidents, Superintendents, or General Managers) come in.  The governing board hires them to hold the employee accountable for unethical behavior.  This appears to be a simple concept that most people can understand - and most people do.  However, you would be surprised at how many governing board members either do not know this concept or choose to ignore it.

It becomes complicated when the following occur:
•    A member of the governing board, usually acting on a "inside tip," brings up an employee's complaint, or a complaint about an employee, at a board meeting.  This circumvents the chain-of-command and/or due process and depending on how the rest of the board and CEO respond to this board member's action, the issue usually goes from bad to worse.
•     Board members are not always the cause of problems within an organization.  In fact, many board members feel they have to take action when the CEO either tries to cover up an issue, does not have the courage to take actions, or practices favoritism.  Therefore, the board starts taking over the responsibility of the CEO.  When this happens, watch out because there is no telling what will happen. When Individuals with no education or experience are running the day-to-day operation of an organization (among other things), the meetings become very, very long. 

These are just two examples of the complex interaction between a governing board and a CEO.  My next blog will talk about the interaction between the supervisor, the CEO, and the board, and how unethical and or unprofessional behavior can turn those interactions dysfunctional.  To learn more about governing and decision making within an organization enroll in our next course, "Ethical Decision Making" which will be available in a couple of months.

Employee Commitment

This week, while in Washington, D. C., attending a USDA mandated conference for SBIR recipients, I had a discussion with my "Principal Advisor" (PA).  The PA is a marketing expert who was assigned to me by USDA to help me develop a marketing plan for my USDA funded Tribal Leaders Institute project.  The PA made some observations about Indian culture based on what he read about the Lewis and Clark expedition. Among other things, we had a discussion about employee commitment.  Here is what I told him:

On an average, Indians do not stay with the same organization as long as non-Indians do.  It is not uncommon to go into an organization off the reservation and see plaques on the wall commemorating 10, 20, 30, and even 40 years of service.  This is rare in Indian Country, although I know some tribal council members and college presidents who have been in their position for at least 20 years.

The difference between Indians and non-Indians in the length of employment at an organization may be due to how each group feels about "ownership" in their place of work.   In my view, non-Indians feel ownership in their place of employment more acutely than Indians do.  I often hear them express this ownership when talking about their job.  They will use phases like, "I don't have the stock on hand;"  "I am going to renovate the room..."  Their choice of words, interpreted literally, will indicate they own the place, instead of just working there.  On the other hand, Indians rarely use "ownership" types of phrases when describing their work or work place.

Another difference is the way they respond to "orders" from their supervisor.  Non-Indians appear to be more obedient and/or expect more obedience.  I noticed ... when a non-Indian supervisor gives directions, they do not expect any questions and the non-Indian worker usually obeys and carries out the direction to the letter.  Indian supervisors appear to "ask" their employees to do something and often the Indian worker will have questions or do it the way they think it should be done.  This may be one of the reasons why Indians, who having worked the majority of their life on a reservation, have a difficult time holding onto a job off the reservation.

There may be a historical reason for this.  Historically, non-Indians never questioned their "superior" and non-Indian leaders never tolerated any questions to their authority.  However, historically Indians never followed a leader unless that leader earned their trust and respect first.  When a leader lost that trust and respect, his followers left him to follow another leader.  It would be as simple as that.

On another note, having been in some kind of supervisory position during the last twenty years, I noticed a lot of non-Indians who come and work for us are usually very "independent workers."  They like the "relaxed" atmosphere on Indian Reservations.  Under our relaxed atmosphere, most of them really shine.  However, I would venture to guess some of them, due to their unwillingness to take and follow orders, would have a hard time finding suitable employment should they ever decide to work for a non-Indian organization again.    

What would happen if Indian people today applied the same criteria to leaders that our ancestors did 150 years ago?  How would the reservation change if our leaders today had to earn respect and trust from our people before they assumed a leadership position, the way our ancestors did, by practicing the four virtues of courage, honesty, perseverance, and generosity?

Generosity Can Heal The Spirit

This past Friday, January 9, 2009, was my last radiation treatment for my prostate cancer.  I had been receiving treatment for the past two months, 37 days to be exact. Every day, as I would walk into the entrance to the Altru Cancer Center, which is part of the Altru Health System located in Grand Forks, North Dakota, I would see these words on the wall:

"Life is measured in years, but when you live with cancer it's divided into moments."

At first I did not see the wisdom in these words, however, by the third - fourth week of treatment, when the side effects from the radiation began to rack my body, when I became tired of receiving treatments every day, when I lost my appetite and had to force myself to eat, when my constant diarrhea and bladder issues slowed me from doing work, when I saw many other cancer patients much worse then me, then the cruel reality of having cancer began to sink in, and the wisdom in these words slowly became apparent.

I began to really appreciate the good life I had, which I realized was the result of Wakan Tanka's generosity.  This realization led me to focus on whatever particular activities I was doing and to enjoy those activities without letting myself become distracted by other issues. Whether it was playing pool, visiting with friends, shopping, eating, sleeping, working, or the weekends I spent with my children and grandchildren, each activity was special.  

I began not to "sweat the small stuff."  "Why didn't I have this attitude before?" I asked myself.  Why does a person have to suffer a calamity before he/she appreciates how good a life he/she is living, I thought somewhat bitterly?

Then I attended the North Dakota State Pool Tournament is Minot, ND this weekend, and experienced generosity from people I least expected it from.  Their generosity changed my bitterness into thankfulness.  

The pool tournament was a nice break after two months of radiation treatment.  What was especially enjoyable was I could attend it without having to worry about returning to Grand Forks for more radiation treatments.

Pool players are the biggest liars of all.  They are bigger liars then poker players, fishermen; you name them, pool players could out fib any of them.  Pool players are also notoriously self-centered.  They only pretend to listen to someone, and then they talk about themselves as long as someone is in the vicinity.  In spite of these character flaws, several pool players made it a point to come sit by me for many minutes and listen to my story, ask questions, and offer me encouragement.

I was humbled by their generosity with their time, and their willingness to set aside their own egos and come and give me support.   The conversations I had with them lifted my spirit.

I also cannot say enough about the generosity of the staff at the Cancer Center.  They were extremely flexible with my schedule allowing me to select the times of my treatments.  They were generous with their knowledge, answering my many questions to the best of their ability.  Finally, they were generous with their considerateness; not once did they make me feel I was a burden.

Generosity, as a virtue, is often underrated.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from January 2009 listed from newest to oldest.

December 2008 is the previous archive.

February 2009 is the next archive.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.