Brian Cladoosby: What I Wish I Knew Before I Took Office

Native Nations Institute

Swinomish Indian Tribal Community Chairman Brian Cladoosby provides insight into his 25-plus years of service as an elected leader of his nation, and offers up-and-coming Native leaders important bits of advice for being an effective leader.

Resource Type

Cladoosby, Brian. "What I Wish I Knew Before I Took Office." Emerging Leaders seminar. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. March 24, 2010. Presentation.

"I thank God for giving me traveling mercies to come down to this part of the country. It's nice to be in the homeland of the nation that has resided here for time immemorial, and I want to thank Stanley for that beautiful prayer this morning. That was really nice to sit there and hear that song, and just to have my eyes closed, and to pray to the Creator, and thank him for the beautiful day outside.

The first question that they asked us to answer was, why is this meeting important? Why are you here? Why should you be here? It's hard to believe I just finished my 25th year on tribal council -- I've got to pinch myself when I say that -- 25 years on tribal council and just finished my 13th year as the Chairman of my tribe. Thirteen years ago, when I became chair, I seen Steve Cornell and the gang had this session put on down here in the southwest somewhere. So I said, ‘I'm going to go down to that meeting.' That was 13 years ago. And that meeting really set the foundation for the way that I manage the Swinomish Tribe. The first presentation was ‘Why nations fail in business across the United States.' They did this report. And so I'm coming full circle now, being able to come back and present at this conference. And so it's important to hear the stories from across the nation, and as leaders we need to have priorities. We need to have priorities. And mine is god, family, community in that order. I have to put god above everything else in my life. My Creator is why I'm here with you today and I have to give him the credit. And when I try to stick my chest out and get bigheaded and say, ‘I did this, I did that,' that's when I'm going to fall and fail. So I have to acknowledge my Creator. My wife traveled down here with me today; we just celebrated our 32nd wedding anniversary last week, 32 years. And I like to joke around and say I've been married 32 years to the same woman. My brother's been married 38 years to three women. He said, ‘I was married, I've got to count it.'

But just a little bit about Swinomish: we have 11 senators; we serve five-year terms. It's very unusual in Indian Country to hear five-year terms. We have over 150 years of council experience at that table. My elder, World War II veteran, the eldest male member of our tribe is starting his 27th year; I am starting my 26th year on the council. So we have a lot of continuity at Swinomish. We have 900 members. We have 10,000 acres, mostly forestry land. We live on the largest river between the Frasier and the Columbia. It produces all five species of wild salmon. It's the only river in the lower 48 [states] that has all five species of wild salmon still spawning in its tributaries, the only one in the lower 48. We managed our -- in the '60s and '70s when everybody went to hatcheries -- we managed our stocks; we wanted wild forever. It's funny -- Manley [Begay] was talking about the safest place to live. A report just came out here at Skagit Valley Herald, it's our local paper. There's over 100,000 people in Skagit County and the first sentence was, 'The safest place to live in Skagit County is on the Swinomish Indian Reservation.'

One of the questions they asked was, ‘What I wish I knew before I got on the council?' And I have a hard time remembering 25 years ago, what I wish I knew back then. But at Swinomish everybody knows you. And I remember when I got on the council I told my best friend that one day I'm going to be the chairman. And he laughed at me. It was kind of funny -- 12 years later I became chairman and he was right there to congratulate me. We both remembered that day. And so you have to have goals when you get on the council. And you need to realize that changes need to happen. Back in the day at Swinomish, we made some major changes, too. How many of you have absentee voting in your elections? How many do not have absentee voting in your elections? We got rid of it. We just got rid of it. It was one of the big changes that needed to be made. We had the same ones running the elections every year. And we put this gentleman on there and as he sat there and he watched the absentee ballots come in, they put the envelope right here that you sent in. They put the inside envelope right here that your absentee ballot was in. Then they put your absentee ballot right here next to that. And so they seen your name, your secret ballot, and how you voted. Wow! It was like, ‘Well, that's the way we've always done it.' And so we changed that and we tightened that up. And we continued to have absentee balloting, but now we changed the process. But the year we changed it, where you had to come in and request one, a person came in and says, ‘I need ten absentee ballots.' And the council secretary says, ‘Well, I'm sorry, you only get one.' And she says, ‘Well, that's the way we've always done it.' So change, don't be afraid to make change when you're a leader. Change is good. And it's amazing, we did not get any kickbacks from any of the community members when we finally went from there to just getting rid of it. If you want to come home and vote, you come home and vote. And we didn't have any problems. It was just amazing.

One thing I didn't really have a grasp on when I came on the council was how important it was to protect my treaty right. As a 24-25 year old young man, it didn't really sink in yet on how important that treaty right was. My father's still alive; he'll be 77 years old this year. He still cuts four to six cords of wood every year by himself, he goes out on the river and still picks up his gill net by hand on his 18-foot Boston whaler. And he's the great-grandfather of my daughter; I'm a grandfather now finally. And his great-grandfather signed the treaty for our tribe. My dad's great-grandfather -- that wasn't that long ago, my dad's a great-grandfather -- his great-grandfather signed our treaty in 1855, the Point Elliott Treaty. My great-great-grandfather was called Kelkahltsoot; that's the name that my dad carries now. So I didn't really grasp how important it was to protect that treaty right back 25 years ago. Now I just realize how important it is to fight for that water, to fight for that fish, to fight for that air, and it's something that we can never, ever give up on. We're in a big water fight back home and one of our sister tribes up there, one of the leaders says, 'Why should I fight for the water? Why should I fight for the fish? We hardly have any fish anymore. We don't get any price for it.' I was so sad. They were putting economic development ahead of their treaty rights. They were looking to get land into trust so they can develop more businesses around their casino. They were more worried about sucking up to the county commissioners who we're fighting over this huge water right, sucking up to them, than protecting their treaty rights. It really saddened me and my prayer was, ‘Lord, let the elders haunt this person for the statement that they just made,' because we can never put economic development ahead of our treaty rights. We have a Treaty Day Powwow every year and my message to all the visitors that come to Swinomish is, ‘Tell your council members never put economic development in front of your treaty rights.' That is so important.

Another thing that I didn't really have a good understanding of was being an asset manager. Swinomish is a small tribe, small community. They give out more per capita per year than we make in our whole year at our casino, but we're an asset manager. And when I got on the council we were debt managers to the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs]. It was funny; he was talking about the BIA back in the '80s. I went to those BIA meetings where they gave us a piece of paper and said, ‘Okay, here's how you're going to spend your money this year,' and that's the way it was. And we were just like, ‘Oh, boy, we're just so happy.' But we went from debt managers to asset managers over that time that I've been on council and it's very important that you have a good understanding of being an asset manager.

Now decisions are going to be a part of your life every day. Every day we make hundreds if not thousands of decisions. From the time we wake up ‘til the time we go to bed we make decisions. And there's only two outcomes that are going to occur when you make a decision. That decision's either going to bring you pain or it's going to bring you pleasure, nothing else; there's no gray area. That decision you make is going to bring you pain or it's going to bring you pleasure. Now when I've got to make a decision and I make many, many decisions in my position, I look back to the hardest decision I had to make as chairman. We're a small community. One of the most well-respected elders in my community worked in our organization and some things happened and we had to fire him. Now the director that he was working under could not do it so he called me up and says, ‘Can you give him the news?' So I had to bring that elder into my office, set him down. Now he's like my role model, like my teacher from the cultural side of our community, and I had to sit this elder right there in front of me and I had to tell him that either he had to resign or I was going to fire him. Now did that bring me pain or did that bring me pleasure? I still hold that against my director that couldn't do that himself. ‘Fire the director,' he said. So when I have to make a decision, I tell myself I will never have to make a more harder decision than that one I made in my office that day. Always look back to the hardest decision you had to make and then the next one you have to make it won't be as hard.

Now the second-hardest decision I had to make when Dad called me up; Dad called me up and says, ‘Brian, your sister's applying for that reception job at housing. Call the housing director and tell him to hire your sister.' I'm like, 'Oh, Mylanta!'  I said, ‘Dad, I can't do that. If I told my director who to hire and who to fire, especially my family, our relationship wouldn't be the same. If I told him, you have to hire my sister, and my sister did a crappy job, he couldn't fire her because he'd be worried about the repercussions.' So when I have to make a decision, I look back at those two decisions, telling an elder he had to resign and telling my Dad 'no.' Those are the two toughest decisions I've ever had to make in the 13 years in my position. And so now when I have to make a decision, it's nothing compared to those. I still have to make tough decisions, but I always look back at those two decisions I had to make and say that I will not have to make a tougher decision than those two right there.

As an effective leader, leaders need to acknowledge god -- acknowledge your Creator -- they need to be a good role model and they need to be humble. I've had the opportunity over 25 years to see the most arrogant leaders and it just turned my stomach to see the way they acted. They were just so, there was no humbleness in them the way that they portrayed themselves. And so an effective leader has to be humble. When I came to this meeting 13 years ago, one of the things that really stuck out in my mind that I use today is don't micromanage. Surround yourself with people smarter than you. You hire these people to do a job -- let them do their job. When your staff does a good job, they make you as the chair look good. And when they screw up, just blame them. But I like to tell people that I've got two PhDs; they both work in my planning department. Surround yourself with people smarter than you, don't be a prima donna, don't think you need to know everything because you can't; it's impossible. Just because you're on council doesn't mean that you're given this responsibility and you have to know everything. Rely on the smart people that you hire and let them do their job. I've got my fisheries manager, 35 years with me; my social services director -- and I can tell you he's the one that couldn't fire that guy -- he's been with me 30 years; my housing director, 30 years; my police chief, 20 years; my planning director right here in front of me, Charlie O'Hara, 10 years; my dentist, 10 years. And I can keep going down the line. I've got about seven employees that have 165 years of Swinomish tribal experience. And we like to get people to come to Swinomish and stay at Swinomish.

It's really tough at general council time because this year one of the candidates says, ‘When I get elected I'm going to get rid of all the farmers in charge. I'm going to get rid of all those white people.' How many of you have heard that in Indian Country, huh? 'I'm going to get rid of those White people.' It's so funny; one of those white people he thought was white, his great-grandmother was full-blooded Squaxin Island Indian. But at Swinomish we like to not have a revolving door. We like to bring them in -- and it's the same scenario I think across Indian Country, where we don't quite yet have the skilled workforce, and it is important that we do not set our tribal members up for failure. Just because they get a bachelor's degree doesn't mean that they can come back and do a job of somebody that's been there 10 or 20 years. Don't set them up for failure. And it's classic in Indian Country. We want our tribal members to work, but we need to put them in the roles where they will succeed and not fail. We need to be consistent in our positions as leaders. I just won my sixth election Sunday. We have 900 members. We had 300 voters show up and I got 200 of those voters. And so when I got up and I thanked god for being re-elected, I told those that were at the meeting that I was going to work hard for those that voted for me and I was going to work harder for those that didn't vote for me and maybe next time you will vote for me. And so it's important, and I tell this to politicians outside at the state and the federal level, ‘Who do you work for or who do you support or who are your constituents? It's not the ones that voted for you, it's your whole community.' And that's the way...

I've got a good story where...I'm a Sabbath keeper. So Saturday is my day of worship. And so we always had our meetings on Saturday. And when I became chairman, it says I've got to give the State of the Rez report every year on Saturday. So my religion and my job were put at a loggerhead. And so that first year, my people knew where I was; I was at church. And so this person got a resolution together to have me impeached because I wasn't going to be at the meeting to give my State of the Rez report like the constitution says I have to. There's no other way about it, the constitution says the chairman must give [it]. It doesn't say 'State of the Rez' in the constitution. I like to call it the 'State of the Rez report.' And so like, oh, man, this is going to be a very short job for me; it's not going to last too long. It was unfortunate that an elder died that week. The family had the funeral on Saturday, the day we're supposed to have our general council, and it was moved to President's Day the next Monday. And that person that was going to do that, the steam was taken out of their sail, and the constitution says that it's going to be the second Saturday of February or when the council determines. And so after that, with no pressure from me -- I didn't put any pressure on anybody -- they moved the meetings to Sunday. So we have our general council meetings on Sunday now.

And so that person that did that, it just so happened not long after that she needed to come into my office and ask for help. Now I had a decision to make. It was fresh in my mind that she wanted me out of office, but I also knew that she was a member of my tribe that needed help. So what did I do? I killed her with kindness. I helped her. And now we're good friends again. So you have to be consistent with all those that you work with. And I'm a firm believer that as a leader, you need to plan, plan, plan. I'm not sure who said it but I use it all the time, ‘Failure to plan is planning for failure.' As a leader you need to always have a plan. You always have a plan. You can't be stumbling forward. And you need to be challenged. You don't, you cannot have a staff who will just suck up to you and say 'okay' if you say something. You need to have people around you that will challenge you, that will say, 'Well, you know, you can't do that or you cannot say that or this isn't going to work.' And so it's important that you have the confidence and your staff has the confidence in you that they can challenge you. And that is very, very important and that's how you build trust within your staff to let them know that they're not there just to say ‘okay, okay, okay' to you, that you have to be challenged. And what is very, very, very important as a leader, very important.

If there's one thing you remember as a leader, remember this. Hear both sides of the story. I had John call me up just complaining about Jim, just ripping him, just saying all kinds of bad things about him. And it got me worked up to where I was so mad at [Jim], I was going to just like go out and just rip him a new one. But I called him up and I heard his side of the story, totally different. It's important, important that you hear two sides of the story. When somebody tells you a rumor about somebody else, confront them and say, ‘Look, somebody said this. I need to know.' You cannot hear one side of the story and go off half-cocked. As a leader, you need to hear both sides of the story. And how many of you as leaders have heard those stories from your tribal members? All the time, every week you hear those stories. I just heard one the other day. My TERO director never gets a job for anybody. My TERO director has never hired anybody on the rez. This was coming out of a person's mouth. And if I was to believe that I would say, ‘Okay, we need to fire the TERO director,' but that's further from the truth. And so as a good, effective leader, it's important that you hear both sides of the story.

And so, I think, in closing, after being on the council 25 years and after being the Chairman for 13 years, the Lord has also allowed me to be the President of the Washington State Tribal Chairs Association for 10 years. This is my second year as the President of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, which represents 57 tribes in seven western states and also put on the Executive Committee of the National Congress of American Indians. That's real easy to get bigheaded when you throw out all those kinds of titles, but you have to be humble, man, and say, ‘It wasn't nothing I did, it was everything that god did for me. Nothing I did.' And you know what is really, what can really, really make you bigheaded as a leader, when a number of elders from across the nation sit you down before the NCAI election and say, ‘We've got a steering committee of elders from across the nation who are going to get you elected as NCAI president,' this last year. And I'm like, ‘How...who me? Oh, okay.' I said, 'No. No, no, no, no, no, not ready for that step yet. I just was elected as President of ATNI.' I don't know what the Lord has in store for me in the future, but maybe that'll come, who knows. I just thank god that he's allowed me to do the work that I do for my people. I tell people I have the greatest job in the world. I love going to work. I have 11 council members who are consensus. There's no cliques, there's no groups, there's no divisions; we are all consensus. And if I had more time I would tell the story of how I achieved consensus from 11 council members on my senate, but maybe next time. Thank you, thank you, thank you; I really appreciate it."


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