Honoring Nations: Hepsi Barnett, Tony Fish and Joyce Wells: Reclaiming Native Nations (Q&A)

Producer
Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development
Year

Native leaders Hepsi Barnett, Tony Fish, and Joyce Wells share a deeper level of detail about the roots and impacts of their nations' Honoring Nations award-winning programs.

Resource Type
Citation

Barnett, Hepsi. "Reclaiming Native Nations (Q&A)." Honoring Nations symposium. Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Cambridge, Massachusetts. September 16-18, 2009. Presentation.

Fish, Tony. "Reclaiming Native Nations (Q&A)." Honoring Nations symposium. Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Cambridge, Massachusetts. September 16-18, 2009. Presentation.

Wells, Joyce. "Reclaiming Native Nations (Q&A)." Honoring Nations symposium. Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Cambridge, Massachusetts. September 16-18, 2009. Presentation.

Michael Lipsky:

"I'd like to ask the first question of Tony Fish. You said...you were very eloquent on the importance of restoration of community members. But I wonder if there was any conflict within the community as you began to do this work, and how you interacted with the community in order to help people understand what you were trying to do?"

Tony Fish:

"Initially, there was some conflict within the community. A lot of people [were] not buying into the idea that we should try and bring these people back into our communities, or give them a second chance in society at that. A lot of the initial response was, "˜Well, it must really pay to be bad then. Should we go out and be bad so we can get this?' And my response to them was, "˜No, it doesn't pay to be bad, but what good is it going to be to continue to downtrodden our citizens like this.' And then at that time, that's when I brought in to the scope of things about our culture and what we did early on as far as a Nation and a tribe on how we handled the people who committed crimes. And through that and through constant fostering of ideas to create the safer communities and going out into the communities and just talking with them and bringing people with me who had been incarcerated. A lot of times you cannot tell them from the next person you're sitting beside, so it was an eye-opener for them."

Michael Lipsky:

"So do you have questions for our panelists? Yes. We have a microphone. Would you tell us your name and where you're from as well as ask the question?"

Mary Lee Johns:

"My name is Mary Lee Johns. I'm from the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation. I'm the senior advisor for Rio Tinto Mining Company; it's an international mining company. My question is for Tony. Since the reservations have incredibly high amounts of problems with violence and a lot of problems with drugs and all that stuff -- that's not my question -- but being that that's kind of the setting right now, I was just wondering on your reservation or your area, when these individuals come back from being incarcerated -- actually I have two questions -- one is how do you, do you do some kind of like ceremony to bring them home so that, like a sage ceremony or anything to cleanse them or anything like that? That's one question. And then the second question is how do you keep them from getting back involved with their old buddies and continuing the crazy life?"

Tony Fish:

"To answer your first question, at each of the facilities they have a Native American group. And in that Native American group, there's a spiritual advisor. And what we do is we provide the sacraments -- the sage, the cedar, the sweet grass -- we provide that to them. They have somebody come in and they bless those sacraments and before they are released. They have their own ceremony where they do exactly what you're talking about, the purification and to bring good honor back upon them. And the...could you repeat your second question?"

Michael Lipsky:

"How do you prevent them from going back to their old buddies?"

Tony Fish:

"It's basically, it's an incentive approach. We try as hard as we can to deter them. If we feel it's going to be a bad situation for them, then we may not be able to help them with that. So we kind of...we don't hold services back, but we may halt services in order to try and maybe change their mind a little bit. Sometimes they want to go out and try it on their own and see for their self. And then they come to us and say, "˜You know what, you're right, it's not working. I'm clay: mold me.' So that's basically what we try to do."

Michael Lipsky:

"Questions? Please introduce yourself."

James R. Gray:

"My name's Jim Gray, I'm Principal Chief of the Osage Nation. I have a question for Joyce. In Oklahoma, as you well know, there's a lot of slash in the makeup of our citizens in our communities -- Choctaw slash Chickasaws, Choctaw slash Cherokee -- and so if you have a lot of citizens that may be of mixed Indian blood in the public school systems, do you broaden that out to include those or is it primarily just focused on the Choctaw students that are enrolled?"

Joyce Wells:

"We go into the classroom as a whole. So we have a very diverse group of students that we visit with. And that was one of the things that I think Clair thought about when she started this program and then we tried to follow up with as well. That our Assistant Chief Gary Batten, what his comment was to me was that, 'We are of the community, so if we can help our neighbors then that's the way to do it, is in those second-grade classrooms.' So everyone is involved in that second-grade program and it works out really well."

Michael Lipsky:

"Thank you. Question. And you are?"

Audience member:

"Just a quick question: why'd you pick the second grade?"

Joyce Wells:

"I believe that when Clair was doing these studies on this, they thought that that would be a good age group to help mold them in some of the activities that they were starting to act out upon. With the Choctaw Nation, we are very blessed to have a really good Head Start program. So we know that they're getting targeted in that age group. So we moved on to the second grade and she kind of looked in that area. With that said, numerous schools have contacted us wanting us to do follow up programs for the third, the fourth and fifth grade. That's something else that we would love to get going as well. Like I said, it's a long process. I don't know, someone was talking earlier today that everything, they want it just to happen, and I'm one of those individuals. So it's [taken] me to have the patience to realize it will all come about in due time."

Michael Lipsky:

"Joyce, is Clair still in the room?"

Joyce Wells:

"Yes."

Michael Lipsky:

"Would it be okay with you if we asked her to say something?"

Joyce Wells:

"Yes, yes, yes."

Clair Richards:

"Initially when I approached the Choctaw Nation -- to answer both questions -- the tribal leaders, I said, "˜Do we want this to be only for the Choctaw students?' And they said, "˜Absolutely not. This is for everybody. If this is good for our kids, it's good for everybody. And it's good for the entire town, it's good for the entire community.' So that's the first answer. And the second answer is when I came in again to that same meeting, I had this grand idea of being in every elementary classroom, first through fifth grade, and following up every year so that the kids have it from the very beginning. But that was completely not possible. So second grade was early enough that the kids would still be very impressionable. I'm the youngest of three. I thought my brother and sister were pretty much as close to God as humans could be. So it's a very impressionable age. And the teachers in the classrooms were very easy to work with and very welcoming of the project."

Michael Lipsky:

"Thank you very much. Any questions? You are?"

JoAnn Chase:

"Hi, I'm JoAnn Chase. I have the good privilege of being on this Honoring Nations Board of Directors. I just want to say thank you, first to all, of the panelists. This is one of the most enjoyable experiences I look forward to. The participation and the depth of the dialogue and the inspiration that we leave with is just a real blessing. So thank you to all of you. I have, however, a specific question for Hepsi. And I was really intrigued by the legislative approach. And you made some reference to that obviously over a legal remedy, but I was hoping maybe you might just talk a little bit more about some of the challenges and the risks that were involved in that approach and how you overcame them. I have also the privilege of knowing the Principal Chief, and know that he's a very powerful and forceful and tenacious and well-respected advocate. So I can appreciate his role very much in that. But if you would talk just a little bit more, I think it would be helpful to the group, and I'd certainly be interested in hearing a little bit more about, why that approach over a legal remedy?"

Hepsi Barnett:

"Well, I think obviously we had tried to work through the courts and we had really exhausted that remedy. And I think for a lot of people, they were ready to give up at that point. And what really started it was when the new tribal council came in, the 31st Tribal Council. They really came in because the Osage people wanted to see that change. They had had a taste of when...during that three years when that government was, really it was almost imposed as well through the court system, but there at least was some Osage citizen input into that process.

So they had taken a few individuals who had brought the case, the Fletcher case, and they had had them work with folks on the federal side to create a constitution, our constitutional form of government. Again, it was semi-imposed, but some great progress occurred during those three years. And so I think that for the Osage people they saw that change was possible even though that remedy had been exhausted. And so they really looked to that tribal council; that newly elected tribal council. There was a complete turnover in the tribal leadership and everybody that came in with the new tribal council came in on sort of that campaign promise of bringing membership to all Osages.

Well, then they actually were elected. I think it was a bit of an upset. And they were elected and then they were really faced with the challenge of, how are we going to do this? And so they really began to analyze what the options were. And fortunately for us we had some very good contacts in Washington. An Osage was in Washington, Wilson Pipestem, a lot of you may be familiar with him. They really looked to Wilson to help provide them some expertise that he had as a lobbyist and a lawyer in Washington. If we wanted to do this, if we wanted to go back to the United States Congress, what are the steps that we need to put in place to do that? And so I think the advice from Wilson is, you have to create allies at the state-government level, in terms of the representatives from Oklahoma.

And so at that point, the tribal leaders began to work with the state leaders. And I think they created some very good relationships at that time with the state senators and with the representatives from Oklahoma. And they really, at that level, led the charge. The implications -- I mean, I don't really know how things work at the federal level -- but I know enough at our own level to know one of the first questions asked: 'Is it going to cost us anything? What are we going to have to give up at the federal level?' And I think once there was a recognition that we weren't asking for a settlement, we weren't asking for money, we were just asking them to reaffirm our inherent sovereign right that every other tribe in the United States under the policy of self-governance had.

And so they really took up the cause and that reaching out intergovernmentally was really key to making that possible. So I know that that sounds -- I may be simplistic the way that I'm presenting it -- but I think, and as I'm sure, I think there's a panel here on intergovernmental relations. That for tribes today, in order to make the progress that we need to make so that our people prosper, reaching out intergovernmentally -- both locally in your own communities and then at the state level and then at the federal level -- we have a lot of things to manage besides our own people, but that is just really a cornerstone I think in terms of today's, the realities of tribal governments today."

Michael Lipsky:

"Yeah. Let's take one more question and then...yes."

Susan Jenkins:

"I'm Susan Jenkins with the Cherokee Preservation Foundation. [I] was really interested, Hepsi, in your comment about the citizens-led 25-year strategic plan. Could you explain that a little bit more please?"

Unknown:

"Good question."

Hepsi Barnett:

"Well, again, we were just coming at the tail of the government reform process. I had the privilege of working with that government reform commission as a staffer. And like I said, there was a lot of pressure on us. There was obviously, like I said, with that level of change, there's a lot of conflict to manage. We were trying to do that in a collaborative fashion. In other words, we wanted it to be a win-win. We wanted this new government coming in to be a win-win. We didn't want to compromise, we didn't want to accommodate. We wanted to really collaborate. And what that meant was, we had to get out and we had to do a lot of listening to what the people had to say. I feel like that effort was successful because of that reaching out and engaging the people and it had been a long time since that had happened. Like I said, for most of us as Osages, we weren't really involved in the government. There were no, virtually no young people involved in tribal government. And so going out into the communities, telling people that, "˜You matter as an Osage. We want to hear from you,' that went a long way.

And so when Chief Gray came in, was re-elected into the new government, his first charge really to me was...I think he came in one morning, our Congress was meeting and he said, "˜You have two hours to create a plan for strategic planning, a 25-year strategic plan, an outline.' And I said, "˜You've got to be kidding me?' And he said, "˜No. I want to go to Congress and I want to get them to fund this.' He had pitched it to them and they said, "˜Well, we want to see an outline of the process.' And so for me, like I said, it was fortunate that I had just came in from government reform. So [it] really took the elements of that that were most effective and sort of embedded that into the outline or the process for strategic planning. And really what it entailed was, usually you hire these consultants. They come in, they write up your strategic plan, it looks real pretty and it's great. And then they hand it back to the tribe to implement. Well, when it's a citizen-led effort, it doesn't look nearly that pretty, but I think what we found was that it meant something to the people. So they thought of things that a consultant or even myself or a tribal leader would never think of in terms of what their priorities were. And again, they had the opportunity to say, "˜Yeah, now we have this new government, what are we going to do? And what do we want it to look like for our grandchildren?' And so creating that vision for the Osage people during that time was really critical. And I think going out, having those public meetings, we used a lot of techniques similar to, yes, that she was using. Not so much the moose thing, but engaging people in terms of using exercises that really provided the structure for them to get up and talk about what they wanted.

We had a very short amount of time in each of these community meetings, and so we structured it so that it was experiential and people had to get up. And we started really with the history. The very first thing we did was we put up a great big -- have you seen those big sticky boards? We put up a great big sticky board and we gave them however much time to talk about something that they knew about Osage history. And so we first rooted it in, who are we as Osage people? Because what people tended to write about when they talked about what something that they personally knew about in terms of our Osage history was we had them first, sort of create who are we, what are our principles, what are our values, what's most important to us, by having those people write down what they knew about history. So we created this timeline with individual family stories. Once we had it tied to who are we, then we could start to talk about where we're going. Because it's very difficult to determine where you're going if you don't know where you've been as a people.

From that point forward, we then started to talk about the future and I think that that was a, that little exercise in and of itself really set the tone for us to engage in a real conversation about what we wanted. And so what came out of that was sort of six focus areas that we looked at in terms of creating a vision for -- and Chief Gray help me out here if I forget one of them -- but it was education, health and wellness, culture and language, economic development, governance and justice -- and I've left one out, yes -- minerals and natural resources, which is just a given at the Osage Nation. Not a shareholder. It's not quite as important for me yet. So we looked at those six target areas as we began to focus on creating a vision for each. And another interesting thing that I think, that I hope will be a takeaway here is that we didn't have those six focus areas compete with each other when we prioritized. In other words, we felt like each of those areas was important enough to stand on its own. So that when we were creating priorities we created priorities for each of those areas versus having those areas compete against each other. Thank you."

Michael Lipsky:

"Well, now you know one of the things you do when the dog catches the car. I hope you'll join me in thanking our speakers for starting us off so well. Thank you so much."

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