Gerald Clarke, Jr.: What I Wish I Knew Before I Took Office

Native Nations Institute

Cahuilla Band of Indians Council Member Gerald Clarke, Jr. shares his thoughts about what he wished he knew before taking office as an elected leader of his nation.

Native Nations
Resource Type

Clarke, Jr., Gerald. "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 20, 2012. Presentation.

"Thank you very much. I just want to start by saying I'm really honored to be here amongst you. At various times you're asked to speak at various events or what have you and this one to me really matters. So I am very honored to be here and to speak with you. How many of you heard your community in the previous presentation? Raise your hand. Yeah, me too. Me too. My tribe went through what's called the GANN [Governance Analysis for Native Nations] with the [Native Nations] Institute back in April and the whole time they're going through this standard approach I'm shaking my head. Sometimes I'm laughing, sometimes I'm crying. But that's us. Right? So one of the things I would stress is you're not alone. There's a lot of us that are in a similar situation.

Just a little bit about me is I was a college professor for about ten years. I left reservation, went to college. I come from a long line of alcoholics and it was very hard for both my sister and I to stay home and to be around that and so we left and went off to college and then we got teaching jobs, both of us, at different colleges. Again, we worked; I was in Oklahoma for about ten years. And we kept our ties back to the reservation, we came home every summer, but it was just really painful for us to live there full-time and that's why we didn't. My dad was an only son and so he ran the family's ranch and when he passed away in 2003 I quit my job and moved home [because] it was always just understood that as the only son that's what I was going to do. And so that's what brought me back to the reservation back in 2003.

And so I'm going to be painfully honest with you this morning. I think there's power in truth, in being honest about the current situation. And so you can, once we get the questions, feel free to ask me just about anything. Okay, so a little bit about my tribe. In the introduction, it was near Palm Springs. It is not Palm Springs. It's 40 miles southeast up in the mountains, even farther economically. Our reservation was set up in 1875 as an agricultural reservation. The Cahuilla people, there's a variety of Cahuilla bands. We're some of the first cowboys in California. As the Spaniards settled, did the missions, they needed someone to work the livestock and that's what we've kind of done for the last couple hundred years. We have approximately 240 adult members and we have monthly general membership meetings of which between 30 and 40 people show up. That's where most of the decisions get made. We are not traditionally democratic. And that was one of the things, when I experienced this session back in April, was does your governing system match your culture? And we were not traditionally democratic. We had an inherent line of leaders called 'the net,' and that actually wouldn't have been my lineage, but what they said went. I'm very culturally involved and I like reading the old records and talking to people. One of the things that I've found that was very striking is that when the net said something, you just did it, you didn't question it or anything like that. Today, if tribal council says something, you get laughter. There's not nearly that respect that there was back in the day and so it makes me wonder. Sonny and I just met this morning, we were talking about how in America we stress that this democratically elected governing system is the system and we criticize all nations in the world who are not democratic, but I can't help but wonder if that system really fits my tribe or not. We may be looking for something different in the future.

So back in the 1910s, actually, what happened was my great grandpa Pio [Lubo] and five other men were involved with the murder of the superintendent of the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] on our reservation and they were all sent to prison. The real issue was the BIA not wanting to recognize the net and wanting to recognize their own person. And it ended up in this murder of the superintendent. They sent these men to prison and really kind of broke the chain really well that way. My great grandpa Pio actually died in prison; he never got to come back. But after that event, they imposed this Roberts Rules of Orders and this IRA [Indian Reorganization Act] kind of system. So we have five tribal council members that are elected -- chairman, vice chairman, secretary and two at-large members. These are non-paid positions. So each one of us has a job where we pay our bills and support our families, which is another hurdle I think that we struggle with. I think sometimes people think being on tribal council 20-30 years ago is the same as it is today, and there's just so much going on. I feel like I'm that guy --remember on the old like Johnny Carson [show] or whatever, spinning the plates and then you have to run back and keep them going? That's how I feel most of the time.

We have no constitution. We are a customs and traditions tribe, and that is something that is being looked at. It seems to me that we have a membership who likes to call on their customs and traditions when it's convenientand not necessarily consistently, and that has been a problem. All major decisions are made in these general membership meetings. The tribal council presents the issue, the grant opportunity, the resolution -- what have you -- and it's the membership who vote on approving that or not. Again, I said, 30 to 40 members actually show up to these meetings. So it's actually a small portion of the total voting membership who make these decisions. And I often talk about a silent majority. Our tribe I think has a silent majority who -- and this is part of the brain drain that was spoken of earlier -- we have a number of educated people within our tribe who, starting like in the 70s and the 80s, they went, got educated, they came back, they did kind of what I'm doing, got fed up and now they're off doing their own things with law firms or what have you. And so there's a silent majority who doesn't come to the meetings who has certain ideas, but it's this core 30 or 40 people who really end up making a lot of the decisions.

We could spend all day on this: ‘What I wish I knew before I became a tribal leader.' Accounting: it's important to rely on -- and I made this presentation specifically for the emerging tribal leaders -- you have to rely on your experts, your professionals trained in your field. We have a CFO [chief financial officer] and they are in charge of doing...bring an outside audit firm come in annually. They're in charge of overseeing the monthly financials. I wish I knew more about accounting, because just because they say something doesn't mean it's true. And when I got in office I found out that we were like four years behind on our annual audits and this is something that wasn't really relayed. They were saying, ‘Oh, yeah, it's going, it's in the works,' and just kind of pacified the membership, but it wasn't happening. So I wish I knew more about accounting.

Law. Tribal law. What a mess, huh? Nothing is black and white; everything is gray. It will be applied in some cases where it's convenient. And I'm not talking tribally; I'm talking the state or the feds even. And then if it's going to get kind of messy for them, they don't want to deal with it, they don't have the resources, they just don't apply it. There's no consistency at all.

Public safety. One of the things my sister and I -- whose also on council -- we tried to bring in our own tribal police and tried to get some grants to get that going, because I'm a firm believer that stability, safety, those things are core things that need to be done. In a way it's economic development, too. Who wants to come and invest in your tribe if there's no stability, if there's no safety?

ICWA [Indian Child Welfare Act]. I heard an ICWA person earlier, I forget who it was. Okay, over here. Wow! ICWA is kind of its own entity. My sister, in addition to be on council, she's our domestic violence advocate for a consortium of four tribes in our area. And when we first got in that, my belief -- okay, so you have a husband and spouse or boyfriend/girlfriend, they're beating each other up. We'll split them up, that sounds good to me. There's kids in every one of these cases, just about. What do you do with the kids? And so this ICWA thing is very, is going to be, for those of you who are just now getting on council, this is going to be something you're going to have to deal with. Hopefully some of you have your own social services programs. We don't. So the tribe really has to educate itself. We have a five-council team, so my sister has kind of picked up that ball and said, ‘Okay, I'm going to do what I can to study up and learn all about ICWA.' [Audience question] Indian Child Welfare Act, it has to do with custody, traditional tribal adoptions, all these kinds of things. It's very complicated. And the other thing -- and some of you in this room know this -- you're going to spend a lot of time educating other people about these things. The county, the state social workers, half of them don't even know what ICWA is either, and so you having to educate them.

I'm a rancher and I recently got involved with the National Conservation Resource Service about trying to get some grants for range improvements and things like that. And so I met with their tribal liaison and apparently I guess his credentials were he watched Dances With Wolves once or something, I don't know. He had no clue about tribes at all. He's the tribal liaison, so here I am teaching the tribal liaison. I went through a two-year process of trying to get my ranch registered and in the end he said, ‘Okay, all we've got to do is get a copy of your deed and we'll send it in.' And I'm like, ‘Wait a minute.' I said, ‘We don't have deeds. We're assigned on the reservation, not even allotments, assignments.' And he didn't even know anything about that, what to do. So that caused me another two years of going through all these systems, going to national conventions, and meeting with the USDA. And so a lot of time is spent educating other people.

IGRA [Indian Gaming Regulatory Act], gaming is big. I'm not a fan of gaming at all and so I allow another member of our tribal council to be more up on those things. But it's good to know. It's good to know your rights if you are thinking about gaming or getting into gaming.

Environmental protection. The important things to know... these are the things that I just brainstormed all the things that I deal with.

Taxation. Recently the Board of Equalization in California notified our tribe and asked us to give them a list of all the businesses on the rez so they could tax them. Pretty alarming when you think about sovereignty and such. And so we didn't participate. But it's good to know what your rights are in tax law.

Budgeting, making budgets. It's a constant thing that you have to deal with. Emergency management is something that is becoming more and hear it more and more within tribal governments. Working with FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Administration] is a complete headache as well. You see on the news, oh, they're helping this community and that community and it's not nearly as streamlined as they try to make it. It's not nearly as, really as helpful. They're coming from a national office, coming to your community trying to tell you what your community needs or what have you and it doesn't work.

State legislature and federal legislature. I'd never been to the state capitol until I got on tribal council; we've gone and met with representatives, been to Washington D.C. as well. I will say that one of the battles we have within our tribe is that some people want to get all tied up in the little local family disputes that are happening on the reservation and don't really understand you've got to go to your state legislature if you want to promote certain laws or you want to get certain help getting certain projects accomplished. You've got to've got to get to know these people. In California, we have term limits which means every two years we get to re-educate all the new people and so that again is another...I remember, ‘Get these career politicians out of there.' At the time I was like, ‘Okay, that sounds okay.' But now that I'm in politics myself, I see it's just a constant having to go back and teach them about sovereignty, about taxation issues, about gaming issues or what have you.

When I first got on council or before I got on council, I just saw, I would sit in these general membership meetings and I was like, 'Man, is anybody doing anything?' It just didn't seem like anybody was really doing anything. Once I got in office, I realized everybody's trying to do everything, and we've lost a lot of good personnel in our accounting department, tribal administrator, because you've got too many people trying to tell the employees what to do and it's really been a nightmare. And as far as a tribal leader goes, I think you have to have strength to say, ‘No, I'm not going to get involved with that. That's not my duty.' Recently, in the past year, we developed an economic development corporation, an LLC [limited liability corporation], and they elected a board of tribal members. And they're the ones that are involved with overseeing the management of the tribal business enterprises. So this is new just within the last year, and I can tell you that we have tribal council members who don't like it and who are constantly wanting to interfere with those enterprises. We do have a small gaming facility and the tribe has benefited almost nothing from that gaming facility, because when that passed and gaming came into California, a lot of unscrupulous backers swooped into Indian Country and a lot of tribes were taken advantage of and I feel like our tribe was one of those. And so this gaming facility is still open. I'm surprised with the downturn it's even still open because we are in a very rural area. It stands on this hill right where everybody can see it. It's almost a beacon of our failure. And Steve talked about [it], it's bad enough when outside people think you're incompetent, but it's when your own people think you're incompetent that it's really sad. We hope to turn that around.

And part of, I think, the turnaround is to get away from micromanagement. Let the businesses run themselves, allow your professionals to do their job. We had a tribal member who was doing a mulching project and there was some trash mixed in with the mulch and so tribal members were concerned, and they should be. We have an environmental program. We have our director who's a highly educated and trained professional. He went over there, he did a site visit, he did tests, he sent off samples for testing and he brought it back and he said that it was even cleaner than what they were claiming to begin with. The membership didn't like that answer so they...and it's like, if you have professionals, let them do their job and trust that they're doing their job. This micromanagement, it becomes very politicized. And Steve was talking about that earlier where, ‘Let's get rid of this person and let's get one of my cousins in there,' what have you. It takes strength as a tribal leader to tell your cousin, ‘No, you're not qualified. Maybe go to school and then we'll put you in there.'

It's not just a job, it's an adventure. Before I took office, I knew I'd have to go to meetings and I do think I've put on the 20 pounds, the tribal council 20 pounds, [because] I'm sitting all day in these meetings. But what I didn't know is I would be woke up at three in the morning with a car flipped over in the middle of the road or a domestic violence incident or a shooting or what have you. You can be a council member, but I think there's a difference between a council member and a tribal leader and it's all encompassing. You have to walk the walk to try to get these things done. But it's a lot more than simply going to these meetings.

Self-determination. I just put it down exactly how I believe. I should say my dad was full blood and my mom was a redhead from Texas and their marriage lasted about three years -- long enough for me and my sister -- but everything that could go wrong, miscommunication culturally or whatever. And my mom would say, ‘Those Indians,' which is a bad way to start. ‘They have all this land and they're just letting it lay and doing nothing with it.' I don't think she ever understood it's kind of nice that way, too. But one of the things...I heard all of that -- that we were lazy, that we never did anything for ourselves, we're waiting for the handout. But I've read Cahuilla people are very self-determined people or at least we used to be and when the reservation was formed, the only thing that the Cahuilla people wanted from the federal government was a paper defining the four corners of the reservation. We didn't want free housing, we didn't want any of that stuff. And my dad was the chairman in 1970 and he was trying to bring these free houses in through HUD [Department of Housing and Urban Development], or whatever program it was back then, and it got voted down. And his mom -- my grandma -- voted against it. And he was all mad [because] he was trying to help his people. But I don't think, I think the older people understood that you help yourself. And that's been a really tough struggle for me, is when is it helping your people and when is it enabling your people? That's a very hard thing to deal with. And so I heard that a lot, that we wouldn't do things for ourselves. Now that I'm in there and I'm trying to get some things going, the BIA, other federal agencies, the state, they don't want you to do any of this stuff for yourself, they really don't. This is my perspective.

My sister and I wanted to have our own tribal law enforcement and we have got nothing but criticism and friction from our county sheriff who has that coverage area. A tribal member, who is actually a cousin of mine, pulled a gun on me and my uncle in front of my house and I was able to diffuse the situation but my wife called the sheriff. Anyway, I went to bed by the time a thousand lights pull up, and I had to get up and he said, ‘Okay, we had a call about a gun.' I was just like, really? I could have been out there dead. We don't get service. We wanted to serve ourselves. And think, with the state budget crises throughout the nation, the more the tribes do for themselves the less the state, the less the federal government has to do. But they don't want it. It's easier to keep the status quo. I'm also in the process of starting our own fire department and again through Cal Fire, again in California, nothing but hurdles thrown at me to start this up because if we start answering our own fire calls on our reservation then Cal Fire can't answer them. So their call volume goes down, guess what, they get less money from the state for that station. So I go to these meetings and they're talking about reimbursements and budgets and things and I'm like what about health and safety? So keep that in mind that just because you want to do it doesn't necessarily mean that other people want you to do it.

It really has...I don't want to present myself as I have all the answers. Really, it's been a struggle and the age thing I think is also...I see some younger people in here. It's strange -- I just turned 45 years old and it's strange to call myself a tribal leader. I was always raised to respect the people older than me, the elders, and it even is spelled out in our creation beliefs. But at the same time, and this is part of that truth element, I've seen some older people who are making decisions not based on the benefit of the tribe or the whole, the community. And I'm ashamed to say that and I feel guilty for saying that -- again for how I was raised -- but I see that and I want to put that out there because it's a conflict for me in these meetings to have to go against people that are older than me. But it's something that as a tribal leader you have to deal with. Again, my dad passed away, he was my go-to guy and then another elder who was my go-to person passed away a couple years ago. So right now I'm kind of looking for that guidance a little bit. And if it's not there, you've just got to go with your gut instinct of what you feel is right I think.

Another issue is tribal time is not the same as state legislative time; it's not the same as county budget time. Our creation story tells us about the creation and nothing happens overnight, everything takes time. And when I got on council, ‘Ah, I'm gung ho, I want to get this done and get that done.' And now I see I've got to slow down and really think about things and plan and try to do what I can while I'm in there. And what I found, another thing I found is it's all about, what is it about? It's all about communication. I've sat in general membership meetings where there's like two factions fighting, but it's obvious that they both agree, they're both on the same page. Yeah, okay. But neither side kind of understands that they're both agreeing and I'm just like, wow, this is... Communication. What a rare skill, to really be able to get your point across and to have other people understand. Our meetings are horribly long and a lot of it is just lack of communication. I think it could be cut in half if it was a little more efficient and people had that ability. And it's tough; it's definitely an art. Keep it simple. Keep it concise. That sounds funny, to rehearse, but I rehearse a lot before I go into my meetings so I can present it in a way that's understandable. Because you're in the mix, you're the expert in that issue because you're the one fighting with the county or working with the BIA or whatever. And then these people come in once a month so you've got to be able to relay that.

So there's that tribal time, you've got to have patience even if you don't get something accomplished. And like the police [force] that my sister and I were trying to do, it was voted down I think [because] some people thought we were trying to be Big Brother or something as opposed to just public safety. But maybe you introduce the idea first. Maybe it gets shot down. Maybe next year, okay, let's relook at that or what have you. And if you can kind of get the current going maybe eventually it'll happen.

This was some advice that was given to me back when I was teaching in Oklahoma from a man who I respect a lot. ‘Do not expect the same of others that you would expect of yourself.' I'm not a very good delegator because I don't trust anybody to do as good of a job as I could do. But what ends up happening is I get overwhelmed and overloaded and then it doesn't get done very well or at the last minute. So trust the people around you. If you expect the same out of them as you expect out of yourself, you're going to be disappointed for the rest of your life I think. So you've just got to check your expectations a little bit, do your best, absolutely but don't expect that out of others. I think that's all I've got. I appreciate the time and I guess we'll have questions later, so I'll be happy to answer anything."

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