July 2009 Archives

Everything Changes Over Time

This past weekend, July 24, 25, & 26, we held our annual powwow, which we call Fort Totten Days.  Tribal members who reside off the reservation often pick this time to come back to the reservation to visit.  Such was the case with my niece.

Actually, my niece who is now 42 years old, was born and raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and has never visited our reservation.  Her mother, my older sister, left the reservation in the mid-sixties, and very seldom came home to visit.  When she did, she came home alone, therefore, my niece had never met all her aunts, uncles, and cousins.  This year, she decided Fort Totten Days would be a good time to meet some of them.

When my sister fell ill several years ago, another sister, her son, her daughter, my son, and I drove down to visit our sick sibling (aunt).  We took two cars.  It was a long drive, and we made it "longer" by driving straight through, a distance of several hundred miles.  When my sister was going to depart to the Spirit World, my older brother and I went to say good-by to her.  Again, we drove straight through (down and back).  When she did go to the Spirit World, I could not make it to her funeral, but my brother and a couple of other family members went.  Although I had only seen her a couple of times since the sixties, when I was a teenager; her death deeply saddened me.

A few years after my sister went to the Spirit World my niece was married.  I drove to Michigan, by myself, to attend her wedding ceremony.  At the party afterwards, when I was talking to one of the new in-laws, I inquired if there was another route back to North Dakota, one that didn't go through Chicago.  As we traced an alternate route on the map, he asked me, "what do you do for sleep?"  Apparently, he heard we drove straight through without stopping to rent a motel room.  

It was a good question.  We certainly had the money to rent a motel room, but we did not.  Why?  The answer brings me to my point of this blog. 

My brothers, sisters, and I are all middle age.  We were raised in a time when family came first.  It did not matter what the circumstances were, you stuck by your family, or you helped them out no matter what.  In addition, when relatives came to visit, it did not matter if you had not seen them in many years or if you were distantly related to them, you still made every effort to visit them and/or feed them.

It was this upbringing that prompted us family members to drive straight though to Grand Rapids, Michigan, when our sister was ill.  It did not matter if we had not seen her for many years.  It did not matter if we had not talked to her for many years.  She was family, and we went to be with her when she needed us most.  And it was this upbringing that brought some family members to the reunion.  We laughed and joked and a couple took pictures.

A couple of weeks prior to my niece coming to visit, I passed out a poster to as many relatives as I could locate.  The poster announced a family reunion with the main purpose of meeting my niece.  Not as many relatives showed up at the "family reunion" as I thought would.  I realized this was partly due to the short notice, or the fact that Fort Totten Days was going on at the same time.  However, I think the majority of them did not show up simply because family connections are not as strong as they once were.

I wish now that I had taken some pictures of the family members who showed up.  I do not think there will be another reunion like the one we had on Sunday.  I would have liked to have a picture of this "last reunion" for a keepsake.  I realize times change...  I know that values in a society change all the time, and I accept that, although in this case, it deeply saddens me.

Maybe I am wrong.  Who knows, in a few years maybe some family members might want to hold another reunion.  I surely hope so.

Do some tribal members not know the difference between right and wrong?  What is ethical or unethical?  My ethics courses are somewhat based on the assumption all tribal members have some basic knowledge about what is right and wrong and what is ethical and what is unethical?  For example, I assume all tribal members know lying is wrong and stealing is wrong, and quite frankly, I think my assumption is correct.

However, there appear to be cases when it may be hard for some tribal members to equate lying and stealing to their actions in job situations, or to their actions on boards and committees.  

The more I run into this phenomena, the more I think I should write and promote a short course titled: Lying and Stealing is Wrong In Any Situation and You Are an Unethical Person if You Do?   

This course, if I ever choose to write it, would not last more than one or two hours.  What I would do is write up as many examples as I could think of where the actions of tribal members are, to put it bluntly, acts of lies and acts of thievery.  Here are some examples of what would be in this very basic ethics course:

  1. It is lying and stealing if you submit hours on a timesheet that you did not work.
  2. It is stealing if you get paid for meetings you never attended.
  3. It is dishonest (dishonesty is also known as lying) to have someone punch you into work if you are not there, or if you punch in another person's time card and that person is not at work.
  4. It is stealing to get a travel advance, and then not attend the meeting/training/conference you were paid to attend, but not pay back the money.
The list could become quite exhaustive but I think you get the gist of what I am saying.   

A creative or an unethical person could write and promote a policy where any of the above actions are legal - not ethical, but legal (However, the act of writing a policy that legalizes stealing and lying is in itself unethical.).  That appears to be what has happened over the past 40 years, since the 60's when President Johnson's War on Poverty started to trickle money into reservations, and corruption and unethical behavior, as we know it today, began.

At the end of the course, I would have tribal members fill out a very simple evaluation "Instrument."  It would look something like this:
  1. Is it lying and stealing if you submit hours on a time sheet that you did not work? Check: Yes or No
  2. Is it stealing if you get paid for meetings you never attended?  Check: Yes or No
  3. Is it dishonest (dishonesty is also know as lying) to have someone punch you in, or for you to punch in another person's time card?  Check: Yes or No
  4. Is it stealing to get a travel advance, and then not attend the meeting/training/conference you were paid to attend, and not pay back the money?  Check Yes or No
Using the answers to these questions, I would be able to determine whether or not tribal members have basic knowledge of right and wrong.

"Among the Dakotas lying and stealing from other tribal members was a capital offense.  A person who was capable of lying was believed to be capable of committing other cowardly crimes against the tribe and was put to death to prevent the evil from doing more harm.  If a person stole from another tribal member he was forever after called Wamanon (thief) and this distinction followed him for the rest of his life."                                              - Charles Eastman, full blooded Dakota, 1858 - 1939

Lying and stealing are interconnected.  A person who steals, lies about it, and a person will lie rather than admit they are stealing.

At noon today, as I was checking my mail, I received a call from a fellow board member.  This board member is working with the summer youth program.  The summer youth program hires a certain number of high school kids every summer.  They do different jobs all over the reservation.

In addition to having high school students do work, the program has them attend training sessions.  Different professionals are brought in to present information about their profession.  Apparently, there was a mix up in the training schedule today, because there wasn't anyone available to present at two o'clock, so the board member called me.

Although it was short notice, I agreed to speak to the students for about twenty minutes or so.  When I arrived at the location where the training was taking place, the first thing I noticed was how many students were there.  "How am I going to keep their attention for 20 minutes?" I worried.  The reason why I was worried was because I know I have little or no patience with teenagers.  This is why I was an elementary education teacher instead of a secondary education teacher.

Sure enough, I had barely begun speaking when several of the students began to talk and whisper among themselves.  I immediately became irritated.  To keep their attention, I decided to "shock" them.  I mentioned when I was in the Marine Corp boot camp, the drill instructor (DI) had told us to, "look to your right and look to your left.  Take a good look," the DI went on to say, "because one of them will not be finishing boot camp with you."  I followed with statistics on high school drop out rates that say, "One-third of young people your age will not finish high school, will not find job, and will not own your own home."  I went on to quote more distressing statistics.  By then, I had all their attention, but I was running out of things to say.  

Fortunately, the room I was speaking in had a board, and posted on that board were the traditional Native American values, the values on which I base my online ethics courses: courage, honesty, perseverance, and generosity.

Walking over to where the board was, I pointed to each word in turn and explained how practicing the values those words represent would help them avoid becoming one of those dismal statistics.  All was going well except for one student who kept turning around and saying something that would cause the students behind him to giggle.  By then, I had described all the words on my list of traditional Native American values, but I had not talked about respect.  Losing patience with the student who continued to "disrespect" me, I told a story about respect and my sons.  I finished my story by saying, "I taught my sons to respect their elders.  To pay attention to them when they are speaking.  I don't care if the elder is wrong, intoxicated, or belligerent, you respect them."  Indicating the young student who talked through my entire speech, I told the rest of the students, "apparently this _______ does not respect his elders..."  I went on to thank them for listening to me, and I wished them luck.  My worry that I was a little too harsh on the student who talked throughout my entire speech was immediately dispelled by the rousing applause they gave me.

This experience validated my decision not to become a high school teacher.

The other day at our annual board meeting, three "new" board members were sworn in.  One of the new board members had never sat on a board before.  Naturally, the new board member had a lot of questions.  One of the areas we discussed was this:  What is a "conflict of interest"?  I explained to the new board member that when there is a conflict of interest involving a board member to keep in mind we are a state board, not a tribal board.  As a state board, we have to follow the North Dakota Century Code (NDCC).  If I remember correctly, regarding a conflict of interest, the NDCC states something to the effect that when there is a perceived conflict of interest with one of the board members, the remaining board members have to agree to let that member vote.  If the rest of the board members do not agree to let that board member vote, then that member does not vote.

Conflict of interest is a real big problem in Indian Country; however, the solution to the problem (conflict of interest) does not lie with the Century Code and/or the code of conflict for board members - although those help.  The solution lies within each person - every individual has potential to approach a conflict of interest in an ethical and courageous manner.

When it comes to a conflict of interest, board members fall into one of three categories.

Ethical Board Member - when there is a conflict of interest, an ethical board member will do what is right (ethical) and not take part in any of the discussion, and will not vote on the issue.  Some individuals will get up and leave the room.

Ignorant Board Member - Tribal board members with no experience on boards and committees and with no knowledge of how boards and committees are run, may unknowingly get involved in issues where they have a conflict of interest.  Once they learn what a conflict of interest is, the majority of them will do what is ethical and remove themselves from the issue.

Unethical Board Member - Tribal members who know what a conflict of interest is, but due to their weaknesses and lack of character, they will participate in discussions and vote on the issue, even though they have a conflict of interest in the issue.

I am sure many of you know instances when a board member ignored a conflict of interest and voted anyway.  I am sure they are similar to the one I will tell you about.  I recall when the brother of one board member applied for a job.  The board member indicated due to a conflict of interest, he would leave the room.  Then, he changed his mind.  He said he would stay in the room, but would not vote.  No problem, right?  Wrong!  This school board member was an extremely aggressive and vocal board member.  He intimidated other board members and administrators alike.  His very presence in the room where he could hear and see what was being done was enough to influence the administration's recommendation, and also the vote of some of the board members.  His presence influenced the outcome of the discussion and the vote!

These types of unethical members will go to great lengths to get around a conflict of interest.  Often, they will conspire with other board members who are just as unethical as they are, in advance of a vote, to figure out how they will thwart the conflict of interest rule.

Little do tribal members realize how they are hurting themselves and the tribe when they conduct an official act, in spite of their conflict of interest.  ... or maybe they do realize what they are doing, but don't care as long as they get their own way.  This is also known as selfishness, but that is another blog.

Tribes have reached a point in their development where their success rests solely on their tribal members.  Unfortunately, tribal members who ignore conflicts of interest hold the rest of the tribe back in all areas.  These unethical tribal members are bad role models for other tribal members.  Other tribal members, usually younger tribal members, observe a corrupt board member hiring relatives and friends, and/or giving huge raises to employees they are related to, and they think to themselves, "Just wait until I get on the board.  I will hire...," and the problem continues on to another generation.

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