June 2010 Archives

Elder Behaving Badly

I grew up in the 50's, 60's and early 70's (Hey, it took me a long time to mature), and I remember there were certain elders that you just automatically respected. It didn't matter what gender they were or their physical statue, or how much material items they possessed. These things didn't matter at all -- everyone respected them because they had character.

I am a 57-year-old Dakota man, and I suppose I am considered an elder, at least in Indian Country. Lately, I have noticed that I am asked to say the prayer before meetings begin more frequently -- an honor usually reserved for the elderly. So, I guess I am an elder.

During a conversation with an acquaintance a few years back, he asked me what was really important to me. After thinking about it for a while, I answered him something to the effect of, "I would like to be known as a person who has acquired a considerable amount of knowledge and wisdom in my fifty-some years here on this earth. I would like to be known as a person who treats everyone fairly. I would like to be known as a person who has the courage and honesty to stand by my principles. I would like to be known as a person people could come to for advice when they wanted or needed it..." I was thinking about the elders I had known as a child when I answered his question.

He appeared surprised and asked, "What about having an important high profile job or getting elected to the tribal council?"

I replied, "Yes, I would certainly like to have a high paying important job and/or get elected to the tribal council; but if you are in one of those positions, you have to confront someone nose-to-nose every now and then. I've been there and done that, and although I am still capable of doing that, I think that type of behavior is best left to people who are younger than me."

His question reminded me of a similar conversation I had with my advisor when I was in my doctoral program at UND. I was around 45 years of age when I entered into my doctoral program. One day I jokingly told my advisor when I got my doctorate, I was going to kick back and take it easy. My advisor looked shocked and said, "Erich, in our world (non-Indian), we are barely getting started at 50.

Another time, I was explaining to a non-Indian why a war-chief gave up his position at a "young" age" and assumed the role of an advisor. "A war chief is supposed to do everything that the warriors following him do," I said. "How do you think a man who is over 30 is going to match up with young men who are in their late teens and early twenties? Not very well, especially in hand-to-hand combat," I said. I went on to say, "if they lived long enough, they turned their responsibility over to someone younger than them."

I also attended a workshop at which an older person was explaining the stages of life we Dakota's go through. He made a lot of sense. One of the more profound concepts I got out of his teaching was this: "You can't turn the clock back. Once you've passed from one stage to the next, you are there because it is natural for you to be there." My point in regards to this blog is, "if you are an elder, than you behave like an elder."

Anyway, back to the point of this blog; as I was saying, the elders I knew as a child are so different than some of the elders I know today. As a child I was taught, mainly by example, that elders were dignified, were patient, were honest, and were fair.

Today, most of the elderly I know are also this way, but what about the one or two that don't follow our ways? I am thinking about one elder in particular. This elder uses fouls language at basketball games, lies about the hours worked, lies about other people, is obnoxious and rude in public, etc.

Here's my answer; treat them as you would any other elder. For example, a few times I caught my grown children and their friends making fun of this elder, so I reminded them, "_________ is an elder to you, and you should not be saying those bad things about _____."

Once, one of them replied, "but Dad, ________ lies so much..."

"It doesn't make a difference," I interrupted him, "________ is still an elder, so don't make fun of _______."

Because they respect me, they listened to me. But what about the many other young men and women out there who do not have a parent to admonish them when they make fun of an elder who is not behaving like an elder?

It has been awhile since my last blog, the reason being we are almost finished with the Tribal Leaders Institute Project (TLI). The initial development phase of the TLI will come to an end at the end of August, and I have been working hard to make sure we meet the deadline. Beginning in September, our website will be somewhat different. I will eliminate some features, but I will continue to write blogs.

Right now, I am writing the fifth and final course, which I titled, Ethical Decision-Making for our Tribal Leaders. The goal of this course is to encourage tribal members who are in leadership positions to approach decision-making using the same ethics: courage, honesty, perseverance, and generosity, as our ancestors did 150 years ago. This blog is a sneak preview of the course:

The Tale of Two Tribal Leaders

(Disclaimer - the case studies below are not describing an actual event.
They are the product of my imagination.)

Tribal Leader #1

On the last day of high school, Tribal Leader #1 received a phone call from a parent of a senior who had an unusual request. Apparently, the parent's child did not complete all the requirements needed to graduate. His request was to let his child walk across the stage with the other graduates and he would make sure the student completed all the work the week following graduation, so the student would receive her graduation diploma.

A month earlier, Tribal Leader #1 attended a board meeting in which the subject of students who might not graduate came up. Tribal Leader #1 and other tribal leaders present directed the principal to make sure he notified every parent a month in advance of graduation if their child was in danger of not meeting graduation requirements. And parents notified were to do everything possible to ensure their child graduated.

Therefore, the first thing Tribal Leader #1 did was ask the parent, "Did the principal call you about a month ago and notify you your child was in danger of not graduating?"

"Yes," the parent replied, "but they told my child yesterday that [the child] only needs to finish a couple of tests to graduate."

Tribal Leader #1 wanted to make sure he heard both sides of the story before he or she replied to the parent. "Let me make a phone call, and I will get back to you," Tribal Leader #1 told the parent. He then called the superintendent (not the principal) and relayed the parent's request. As a responsible board member, Tribal Leader #1 knew all communication with the school staff should go through the CEO; in this case, that was the superintendent. When he called the superintendent, the superintendent responded by assuring Tribal Leader #1 that everything was done to help the student in question. In fact, the superintendent said one of the parents acknowledged it was the student who shirks responsibility, not the school.

Tribal Leader #1 called the parent back and informed the parent there was nothing he could do. The parent became irate, so Tribal Leader #1 explained to the parent that a prior board had stopped the practice of letting students walk on the stage when they were close, but did not meet all graduation requirements. And Tribal Leader #1 added, "it sends a wrong message to other students that they do not have to finish all the graduation requirements to take part in graduation and all its pageantry." The parent kept insisting on having his way until Tribal Leader #1 said, "I was one of the members of the previous board who decided not to let seniors walk across the stage if they did not meet all the graduation requirements." The parent became more irate, but knew Tribal Leader #1's reputation for standing by his principles, so after informing Tribal Leader #1 that he was going to talk to the rest of the board members, he hung up.

What makes this case study interesting is that Tribal Leader #1 was facing a tough re-election fight in a couple of weeks. The outcome would be decided by a few votes, and the parent in question had promised Tribal Leader #1 his support a couple of weeks earlier. "My whole family will vote for you," he told Tribal Leader #1.


Homework assignment: Identify which traditional values (courage, honesty, perseverance, and generosity) did Tribal Leader #1 exhibit in his decision-making process when dealing with the parent's request.

Homework assignment: What is your opinion of Tribal Leader #1 as a tribal leader?


Tribal Leader #2

Tribal Leader #2 looked over the crowd of angry tribal members. As usual, they were before the council because most of them had no respect for the chain-of-command. Tribal Leader #2 almost said, "You guys need to follow the damn chain-of-command," but thought better of it due to a number of his important supporters being with the group. And it was getting close to election time, so Tribal Leader #2 did not say anything. "Even if I told them to go back and follow the chain-of-command, they [tribal members] would ignore me anyway," Tribal Leader #2 thought. After all, it always has been done this way.

So, Tribal Leader #2 prepared for the humiliation that he would have to endure and for the blatant disrespect for council authority he knew would surely come. Especially since most of the accusations thrown back and forth were mainly to distract council members from the truth, and therefore prevent them from making a decision based in fact. Tribal Leader #2 thought, "I wish someone would try to control the shouting and mean spirited behavior that will come," never once realizing that he, himself, as a tribal leader, should try and control the behavior.

Sure enough, it didn't take long for the meeting to get out of control. Tribal Leader #2's conscience bothered him briefly, because a tribal member who had the courage and honesty to stand by his convictions was getting verbally abused and attacked from all sides. "But what the heck," Tribal Leader #2 thought, "that is how tribal politics works sometimes."

Tribal Leader #2 breathed a sigh of relief when the meeting was finally over and due to keeping quiet during most of the meeting, Tribal Leader #2 felt he did not alienate too many voters. Tribal Leader #2 knew tribal members would interpret his or her action as cowardice for letting the meeting get out of control and not standing up to the bullies in the crowd, but that would not matter. Tribal Leader #2's supporters would still vote for Tribal Leader #2, anyway. After all, Tribal Leader #2 supporters did not want Tribal Leader #2 to show any courage or honesty at these types of meetings. In fact, they did not vote for Tribal Leader #2 because of Tribal Leader #2's courage and honesty. Instead, they voted for Tribal Leader #2 for exactly the opposite reasons. They wanted a leader who could be counted on to let their group get away with their unethical cowardly behavior.


Homework assignment: Identify which traditional values (courage, honesty, perseverance, and generosity) Tribal Leader #2 exhibited in his decision-making process when he decided how to approach the meeting.

Homework assignment: What is your opinion of Tribal Leader #2 as a tribal leader?


I expect to be finished with this course in three weeks and will start on the final report to our funding agency then. After two years of writing courses about ethics, or lack of, on Indian reservations, I am convinced these courses are needed. The biggest question mark is, will tribal organizations be willing to hire Spirit Lake Consulting to train their employees in ethical behavior in the work place?

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This page is an archive of entries from June 2010 listed from newest to oldest.

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