December 2009 Archives

I am in the middle of writing my third course, Courageous and Honest Governing Boards, and I decided to take a couple of hours break and write a blog about tribal governing boards.

I have served on one tribal board or another for the past 20 plus years, and I have worked for boards for 15 plus years.  I have many friends from other reservations who were board members or worked for boards on their reservations.  I have seen and heard of many types of tribal board members, but the most common type is the one who wants power, who loves power, who uses power without thinking about the consequences, who uses power just because they can, etc.

John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, (1834-1902) who was a historian and moralist, expressed this opinion in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."

Another English politician, William Pitt (also known as the Elder), the Earl of Chatham and British Prime Minister from 1766 to 1778, said something similar in a speech to the UK House of Lords in 1770, "Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it." (Retrieved from the Phrase Finder Web site:

Unless a tribal member has a strong moral foundation or there is a system in place to control tribal members who love power, they will misuse their power while on a governing board. Unfortunately, the societal conditions on the reservations makes it very easy for tribal board members to abuse power. This abuse of power is what stops tribal organizations from reaching their potential.

In 1959 two social psychologists, John French and Bertam Raven, conducted a study of power. They divided the concept of power into five separate and distinct forms that they labeled: Coercive, Reward, Legitimate, Referent, and Expert.

Coercive Power - This is the power to force someone to do something against his or her will. It is the most common type of power used by tribal board members. Tribal board members who rely on this type of power often use threats (firings or demotions) in their leadership style. "It is the power of dictators, despots, and bullies."  This source of power can often create more problems than it resolves.  In many circumstances, it involves abuse (including verbal abuse). states, "Coercive power can cause unhealthy behavior and dissatisfaction in the workplace."

Reward Power -- This power is the ability to give other people what they want, and hence ask them to do things for you in exchange.  "This type of power in based on the idea that we as a society are more prone to do things and to do them well when we are getting something out of it."  Raises, promotions, and trips are often used as rewards.  Unfortunately, tribal boards often give the wrong people rewards.

Legitimate Power -- is power that comes from a position such as a policeman, a manager, or a board position (when they are in session).  Legitimate power often lasts only as long as a person is in the position.  Many tribal members with legitimate power forget that people are obeying the position, not them.  They are often shocked when people treat them differently once they lose this power.  I once knew a board member who bragged to me how a certain administrator would call and ask for advice all the time.  The board member was convinced the administrator was calling because of his knowledge and character.  Knowing that was not the case, I said something to the effect, "_________ is just calling you because you are a board member -- no more, no less."  The board member vehemently disagreed.  The board member did not have to leave the board for the administrator to stop calling.  Due to new members coming on board, the "power" shifted, and this board member found out what happens when a person loses power.  No one calls them.

Referent Power -- This power is often called charisma.  A charismatic tribal board member is well liked by those around him/her.  This type of power is strong enough that the power-holder is often looked up to as a role model (Raven, 1988).  This power is often looked at and admired as a power-holder's charm.  Unfortunately, those tribal members with referent (charismatic) power often use it for coercion by excluding individuals from their "circle."

Expert Power - is having knowledge and skill that someone else requires.  This is the most common form of power and is what makes the world go around.  "Leaders who possess this type of power have high intelligence and rely on their ability to perform various organizational tasks and functions."  Unfortunately, this type of power is a liability in some tribal organizations.  Especially if this power clashes with a board member who has legitimate power but no expert power.


Compare the above concepts of power with our ancestors' concept of power.  Here is an except from Joseph M. Marshall III's book, Walking with Grandfather: the Wisdom of Lakota Elders.

In the Lakota encampments of old, the biggest and tallest lodge stood in the very center of the encampment.  There, the elders met.

The oldest men in the village formed the council of elders.  There was one basic requirement: Obviously, one had to be old.

Try to imagine the number of years of experience represented by the village council.  Depending on the size of the village, this could vary from hundreds to thousands of years.  Yet, the council had no authority.  As a matter of fact, there really is no word for authority in the Lakota language.  So, how did the council of elders fulfill its responsibility?

The council of elders fulfilled its responsibility through the power of the influence of their wisdom.

Various matters of concern and importance were brought to the council - from everyday life issues to matters of war.  Every issue was discussed at length, sometimes for several days and nights.  At the end, the council didn't issue ultimatums or edicts.  They simply informed the people what they thought.  That opinion, or opinions, was the basis for action because of the depth of the council's wisdom.

The Lakota consider fortitude, generosity, bravery, and wisdom to be the four greatest virtues.  In any discussion or mention of these virtues, wisdom is invariably the last to be named.  However intentional or unintentional that may be, it is entirely appropriate because wisdom is not only the greatest of the four greatest, it is also the most difficult to achieve.

Furthermore, wisdom is associated with old age, and that, too, is entirely appropriate because wisdom cannot be had in ten easy lessons.  One has to live a long life to gain wisdom, and it is regarded as life's gift by some who finally achieve it.  It is, many also realize, a gift they cannot keep to themselves.  It must be given back to life.


The dilemma facing tribal governing boards today is how do tribal board members acquire the necessary wisdom to make decisions that will impact administration, teachers, students, and the community without becoming an elder?


French, J. P. R. Jr., and Raven, B. (1960). The bases of social power. In D. Cartwright and A. Zander (eds.), Group dynamics (pp. 607-623).  New York: Harper and Row.

Raven, B. H.  (1988).  Social power and compliance in health care.  In S. Maes, C. D. Spielberger, P. B. Defares, & I. G. Sarason (Eds.), Topics in health care.  London/New York: Wiley.

History Repeats Itself

In 1876, Sitting Bull (Hunkpapa Lakota), along with many other bands of the Great Sioux Nation and their Cheyenne Indian allies, defeated Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.  Many descendents of Sitting Bull and the Sioux bands who fought at the Little Bighorn still live on the Standing Rock Reservation.  Now they are finding themselves in a fight to protect and defend their culture - only this time the battle is being played out on the reservations, the State Board of Higher Education, and the state court.  

Just as their ancestors before them won a great victory at the Battle of The Little Big Horn, the Standing Rock tribal members opposed to the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo used by the University of North Dakota have been victorious.  In spite of overwhelming odds, these men and women have stood fast and stopped an outside organization from overthrowing the Standing Rock Tribal Constitution and replacing it with one more favorable to their interests. 

These courageous efforts have brought the movement to have the Standing Rock Nation endorse the Fighting Sioux nickname to a standstill.  Motivated by pride in their heritage, people spent their own money and went door-to-door in almost every community on the reservation to explain to their neighbors why use of the Fighting Sioux logo and nickname should cease.  They argued that this commercial caricature of our culture is hostile and abusive to Indian students at the University of North Dakota and Indian people in general.  The majority of these tribal members, after listening and reading the documentation they were presented with, apparently agreed.  Had they felt otherwise, Standing Rock's tribal constitution would have been changed to accommodate outside interests.

Following their victory at the Little Big Horn, Sitting Bull and his people eventually surrendered and were forced to live on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.  However, Sitting Bull did not lose any of his influence with his people as the non-Indians had hoped he would.  Instead, he fought to preserve his way of life, which endeared him to many of his people.  His continued influence frightened the non-Indians in charge of the reservation and their attempts to silence him and discredit him eventually caused his death, a death that came not at the hands of a white man, but by his own people.

Similarly, the greatest enemy of tribal members who oppose the nickname has turned out to be some of their own people.  Non-Indians supplied tribal police who were responsible for Sitting Bull's death with guns and ammunition.  Today, the Ralph Engelstad Foundation supports tribal members who are in favor of the Sioux nickname and logo.

Sadly, in spite of this recent victory, the fight over the Fighting Sioux logo is far from over.  Tribal members have chosen to collaborate with their non-Indian handlers in their misguided attempts to keep the disgraceful image and have went as far as to misinterpret the Standing Rock Tribal Constitution - giving more power to the state of North Dakota in tribal affairs.  And, I truly believe such efforts are misguided.  Only a non-Indian would truly believe that retiring the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo would, as supporters maintain, "cause isolation and a diminishing of public interest, knowledge and respect for Sioux history and culture and will be detrimental and not in the best interest of their [Sioux] people."  The rest of us Sioux - us freedom-loving, equality-seeking, high-self-esteem, fried-bread-eating, commodity cheese-loving Indians - know we do not need to depend on a controversial, racist nickname and logo to survive.

Our future is not dependent on such frivolity.  We are among the most well known of all tribal nations.  Books are written about us, movies are made about us, people from all nationalities embrace our culture.  We are one of the fastest growing populations in the country.  If anything, the nickname hurts our perception of the world.  In fact, arguably the most recognized North Dakotan, Phil Jackson, has spoken out against the name.

If retained, the nickname will continue to pit tribal members against tribal members, North Dakotans against North Dakotans, and North Dakotans against Native Americans.  How can a positive state and tribal relationship flourish under such a hostile and abusive environment?


            In my courses, my blogs, and my newsletters, I usually focus on what I deem are the two most important virtues a person should possess - courage and honesty.  I am not the the only one who admires these two qualities.  Courage and honesty meant everything to our ancestors.  You were despised by everyone in the tribe if you were a coward; and if you were a liar, you were put to death.  Two highly respected researchers, a husband and wife team (Gus Lee and Diane Elliott-Lee) viewed courage so essential to leadership that they wrote a book entitled, Courage: The Backbone of Leadership.  They point out that without the quality of courage, you will do more harm than good in whatever position you hold.  (Sound familiar?) They go on to say something to the effect that courageous leaders inspire ethical behavior from their workers because they first require it from themselves.  (Is that why we do not have courageous and honest workers?)  Great leaders from Aristotle to Sir Winston Churchill deemed courage as "the first of all human qualities."

            However, after a year and a half of researching and writing about unethical behavior on Indian Reservations, I am beginning to realize that to become a courageous and honest tribal worker (as opposed to a cowardly and dishonest tribal worker), you first have to want to make a decision to listen to your conscience.  And, I am beginning to think most people do not have a conscience to listen to anymore.

            How can entry-level workers keep coming to work late or not show up at all and not have some remorse?  How can administrators lie, cheat, etc. to cover up their own incompetence?  How can CEOs continue to ignore problem employees or other problems that result in the mistreatment of some employees and the rewarding of undeserving employees?  And, how can tribal council members continue to make decisions that are best for their political futures instead of making decisions that are best for the entire tribe.  (Sounds selfish doesn't it?)

            It is because they do not listen to their conscience.  (Some people say they don't have one.)  So, if you are a tribal worker who steals from your employer, who comes in late all the time and/or misses work regularly, who falsifies your timesheets, who uses your political connections to keep you out of trouble, etc., then you are not listening to your conscience.

            So how do you get tribal workers to listen to their conscience?  The best way is for YOU to listen to your conscience and change YOUR character first.  Whether you are an entry level worker, a lower level or upper level supervisor, a CEO, a governing board member or a tribal council member, once you start listening to your conscience, you will find amazing good things happening.  You will become a role model for other workers.  If you are a higher level administrator, a CEO, or a tribal council member, you won't have to wonder if people are just kissing your butt when they say nice things about or to you.  If you truly start listening and making decisions based on your conscience, when people say nice things to you or about you, it will be true, and they will really mean them.  And, you will not have to lie or commit some other unethical acts to keep your job or to win the next election.

            The negative impact of tribal workers who do not listen to their conscience increases as they move up the chain-of-command.  An unethical entry-level worker will not have near the harmful impact that an unethical CEO or Tribal Council member has.  For example, an unethical entry-level worker does not have to make decisions that will affect hundreds of tribal members.  They do not make decisions that will determine whether on not a person is hired or fired.  Higher level tribal workers have an enormous impact on many, many people's lives.  You would think they of all people would listen their conscience.  Unfortunately, that is not always the case.

            I think it is time for each one of us to examine ourselves to see if we have a conscience, and if we do, then let us start listening to it.


In my writings and in my courses, there are two sources that I repeatedly refer to.  The first one is written by Charles Eastman, a Dakota Indian who lived from 1858 to 1939The other source is by Dr. Scott Peck who in 1983 wrote a book titled, People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil.  Although the two individuals lived 100 years apart, they both came to the same conclusion, which is, lying is evil, and it causes most of the problems in our society.


Charles Eastman put it this way: "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."


Dr. Peck, who studied "human evil" said, "People who are evil (liars) attack others instead of facing their own failures" (Now doesn't this sound familiar.).  His study on humankind's age-old problem (evil/lying) makes for fascinating reading.  What Peck studied and what Eastman believed in are basically the same - that lying and evil are synonymous, and when people do not have the courage to stand up to a liar/evil, untold harm could come to a person, an organization, and a society.  Furthermore, when Peck and Eastman talk about lying, they mean much more than telling a fib now and then.  They mean "living a life of a lie," which includes: making promises you have no intention of keeping to get yourself hired for a job you are not qualified for, falsifying your time sheets, stealing from your program, showing up for work and not working once you get there, or getting yourself appointed/elected to a board or committee so you can abuse the authority that will come with that position.  It also means cheating - doing whatever you need to do to win at all costs.


A good example of how cheating/lying is evil, and how it can hurt a community on several different levels, happened at our school a couple of weeks ago.  A person involved in our athletics programs stepped forward and admitted he falsified documents in an attempt to cover up for an ineligible student who played sports.  Here is its impact on our students, our school, and our community.

  1. First and foremost, this individual's desire to win at all costs, which led him to lie/cheat, ended up hurting our students most of all.  Students are children, and children trust adults to make the right decisions for them.  In education, this trust is sacred; you do not violate it under any circumstances.  Unfortunately, in this situation, our students are the ones who will bear the brunt of the consequences of the cheating/lying.  Indeed, several people have approached me already, "demanding" to know why our students are the ones being punished, and why the person responsible is not being punished more severely.  To be honest, I do not have a good answer to tell them.
  2. Our school's reputation and to some extent our community reputation has been severely damaged throughout the state.  Some would say, more importantly, throughout Indian Country.
  3. It has destroyed the reputation of the individual primarily responsible for cheating/lying.  No one can do more harm to him than what he has done to himself.  His reputation, his successes, his victories are all tarnished with the brand of a cheater.
  4. While the person responsible for lying and cheating did not publicly blame anyone else for his actions, he has not stepped forward and stopped surrogates from doing it for him.  In essence, he is attacking others through his surrogates instead of facing his own failures.
  5. Finally, and this is what concerns me most, I know that his surrogates know that cheating/lying is evil, and they know who cheated and who lied, yet they attempt to place the blame on everyone but the individual responsible.  This doesn't bode well for our community.  It basically says, "A person who cheats and lies is more admired than a person who doesn't cheat or lie."

We all make mistakes, and we all know nobody is perfect.  When a person makes a mistake, no matter how atrocious, people will forgive and forget about the incident if the person responsible takes responsibility for his/her actions, and doesn't blame other people.  The kicker to being forgiven is to apologize and say you are sorry.  Once this is done, the healing can begin, both for the people who have been wronged, and for the person who has committed the wrong.

When a person refuses to take responsibility and continues to blame other people, when they refuse to apologize and say they are sorry, then the evil will continue to infect the community for a long, long time.

In my opinion, in this situation I have written about in this blog, the individual responsible needs to "MAN UP" and publicly accept responsibility for his action and apologize to the students, school, parents, and community for the great harm he has done to them all.  Only then can the healing begin, and only then can we move on and put this sordid event behind us.

About this Archive

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

November 2009 is the previous archive.

January 2010 is the next archive.

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