Thursday, I received a phone call informing me I was to be the graduation speaker today (Sunday). "Wow! This is short notice," I said to the person who called me with the news. "I'm sure you will think of something," she replied. Well, I had a busy weekend, so I never really had time to sit down and type up a speech. Yesterday, I told a couple of individuals, one who was my ex-wife, Leona, "I am going to have to wing it." "Well you like to talk, so you shouldn't have any trouble," Leona told me, and they all had a good laugh.
This morning (Sunday), I still had not started my speech because I had not yet decided on what to say. As I was getting ready to jump in the shower for my "monthly" shower, my son, Marshall, was leaving to go to his mother's house to put up a tent for one of the graduates who happened to be his half-brother. He was gone for a couple of seconds when he came back in cussing, "I left my car door [unlocked] and someone ripped off my stereo, again," he said. This is the second time he had his stereo stolen from his car, and I wanted to remind him about all the times I told him to lock his car, but I bit my tongue. After all, he was the victim, and it made no sense to blame him.
The fact that someone came into our yard and stole a stereo from my son's car reminded me about the research I have been conducting on the customs of our ancestors and how they would never steal from a fellow tribal member. Truth is, I was amazed how ethical they were. George Catlin, a world famous artist who lived among forty-eight Native American tribes in the mid-1800s, said this about our ancestors.
George Catlin was not the only European who was impressed by ethical behavior of our ancestors. The majority of the first white men who encountered our ancestors had nothing but good words to say to describe their character.
- I love a people who have always made me feel welcome to the best they had.
- I love a people who are honest without laws, who have no jails and no poorhouses.
- I love a people who keep the commandments without ever having read them or heard them preached from the pulpit.
- I love a people who never swear, who never take the name of God in vain.
- I love a people who love their neighbor as they love themselves.
- I love a people who worship God without a bible, for I believe that God loves them also.
- I love a people whose religion is all the same, and who are free from religious animosity.
- I love a people who have never raised a hand against me, or stole my property, where there was no law to punish them for either.
- I love a people who have never fought a battle with white men, except on their own ground.
- I love and don't fear mankind where God has made and left them, for there they are children.
- I love a people who live and keep what is their own without locks and keys.
- I love a people who do the best they can.
- And oh, how I love a people who don't live for the love of money.
Why were our ancestors such virtuous people? I can't speak for other tribes, but I do know our Dakota ancestors religiously followed the traditional values of courage, honesty, perseverance, and generosity throughout every aspect of their lives. Living in a society with no written laws, with no locks, where everyone depended on each other, they had to develop a society that followed ethical values very closely. As a result, our ancestors were very courageous, they were extremely honest, they persevered in the face of enormous hardships, and yet they were extremely generous. Due to religiously following these values, the society they lived in did not need any written laws, did not need policemen, as we know them today, or punishments as we have today.
What happened to us that we no longer practice these four values? Here's what happened... When a free-roaming freedom-loving people such as our ancestors are defeated militarily, and placed in the confines of a small space like a reservation, they lose much of who they are. We lost our customs and culture that kept peace and harmony in tribal villages. Alcoholism and other social ills have created a dysfunctional atmosphere that plagues us to this day. Sadly, our ancestors' values of courage, honesty, perseverance, and generosity have been forgotten.
I will be the first to admit, I did not follow these values throughout most of my life. During the course of my life, I have committed many cowardly and unethical acts. However, for the past several years, I have put a lot of time into studying how our ancestors lived. The more I learn about our traditional Dakota values of courage, honesty, perseverance, and generosity, the more I strive to follow them. By trying to follow these four values, I find that I am a much happier, more contented, person.
I want to close with this message to our graduates; should you [2009 graduates] decide to incorporate our Dakota values of courage, honesty, perseverance, and generosity into your daily lives, you will become much more responsible adults. For without these values, you will be a mediocre worker, a mediocre supervisor or administrator, or a mediocre leader. If do not have the courage to speak up and do what is right, you will always be frustrated and unhappy. You will be known as a cowardly person who never keeps your word and people will know they cannot depend upon you. If you are known as a dishonest person, people will not trust you; even your families and relatives will be cautious around you. They will not give you any major responsibilities that may require good character. If you do not have the perseverance to find and keep a job, you will have a hard time supporting your family. Our ancestors believed so strongly in honesty that liars were put to death, and people who stole from others were ostracized for the rest of their lives. By incorporating our traditional values: courage, honesty, perseverance, and generosity, into your daily life, you will live happy contented successful respected lives.
May 2009 Archives
I have served on various boards and committees over the past 20 years or so. I remember attending my first meeting as a tribal college board of regents' member back in 1987. I didn't have a clue what to do or what was expected from me. I asked a long time board member if there was "anything" which would help me understand my role better. His reply was something to the effect, "Experience! The more meetings you attend, the more you will learn what to do."
Governing boards and committees are still fairly "new" to Indian Country. Our tribal college was founded in 1974, and by the time I was appointed to its board in 1987, board members' roles and responsibilities were still largely a mystery. I ran for the public school board in 1990, and although that board had been in existence since the mid-eighties, looking back, I realize that board member roles and responsibilities were still not clearly defined. The tribal school board was founded in 1987, which makes that board only 22 years old.
As a result of this inexperience, tribal boards have taken unethical and in some cases comical action such as, hiring relatives, excessive travel, ignoring due process, meeting in the morning, adjourning, and meeting again in the afternoon so as to receive two stipends... etc., etc. These antics have given tribal boards their shady and sometimes comical reputation.
Having served on boards for over 20 years, I have seen many board members come and go. While a few of them are outright crooks, the majority of them are sincere in their desire to help whatever particular organization whose board they are serving. Many new board members are committed to "change the way things are done." While their intentions may be noble, many new board members do not understand their roles and responsibilities. As a result of their "commitment" to "change the way thing are done," they often cause more harm then good.
Some examples of a new board member's commitment to make things better are: get rid of "incompetent" employees, change job descriptions of key employees, require more reporting, stop or reduce travel, and stop or reduce board stipends, to name a few.
Let's use a new board member's commitment to reduce or eliminate board travel as one example of good intentions gone badly. Is their intention to reduce travel and eliminate board travel truly commitment? Is it ignorance? ... or is it politics?
We all know tribal boards are notorious for taking too many trips and paying themselves excessively. This has given new board members the impression that all board travel and any amount of travel is unethical. Is it?
Over the year, mainly due to the training I have attended, I have come to realize there is much more in being a good board member then not traveling or refusing stipends. First, I believe it is fair to compensate good board members with a stipend and not all board members abuse travel. Let me explain: Not all board members abuse travel. When I travel for a board, I make sure I attend the training because I find board training very useful, unlike some board members who travel but never attend the training; or, if they do attend the training they do not pay attention to the information being presented. I agree these board members should not travel. But punish them, not me, for their behavior. In addition, because I actually attend the training and pay attention to what is being presented, the training helps me become a better board member, mainly by helping me understand my role as board member. Therefore, when a new board member proposes to eliminate all travel, I feel I am unfairly grouped with those board members who abuse travel.
Second, I believe compensation for my time attending board meetings is also fair. Why? Because, I spend time preparing for the meetings. I read my packet thoroughly. I call the administration if I have any questions not related to items on the agenda; and I pay attention at the meetings, thereby becoming a better board member. Due to my knowledge of what a board member's roles and responsibilities are (mainly because of the trainings I have attended over the years), I do not waste time by asking questions that are not related to any item on the agenda. Because I learned Robert's Rules of Order, I know when to speak and how long to speak. My knowledge is valuable to the school and to the community that elected me. Hence I have no problem receiving a stipend.
Let me close with this: a board member's most valuable tool is trust. They should trust their administrators and fellow board members unless they are given a valid (not gossip) reason to do otherwise. If they do not trust the administration and other board members, then they need to discuss the reasons for this mistrust with them, the board. Trust is similar to (self) honesty. When board members come to a meeting with an ulterior motive (mistrust), they are basically being dishonest with other board members. This dishonesty usually leads to disrespectful treatment of employees and fellow board members, and unfounded accusations. We have lost many good competent employees and good board members have quit or resigned because of this dishonest behavior. It is no wonder our schools are in the shape they are in.