Honoring Nations: Michael Thomas: Sovereignty Today

Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development

Former Mashantucket Pequot Chairman Michael Thomas provides his definition of what tribal sovereignty means in the 21st century, and stresses the importance of Native nations examining and reconnecting with their traditional governance principles as they work to exercise sovereignty effectively.

Resource Type

Thomas, Michael. "Sovereignty Today." Honoring Nations symposium. The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development. John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Cambridge, Massachusetts. September 27-28, 2007. Presentation.

Megan Hill:

"So I'd like to introduce our next speaker, Chairman Michael Thomas. He's the Chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation. And he's representing our New England region. Thank you."

Michael Thomas:

"Thank you, and thank you for allowing me the opportunity to speak to the folks at Harvard [University and] to the elders in the room. When we think about what sovereignty today means, rather than focusing upon a definition, which many will do, and frankly, given how often it is tortured and twisted, they probably should do, I want to talk you today about some of what sovereignty means in a connective sense. Not the definition of sovereignty, but what does sovereignty mean in terms of what it creates for us. And from the standpoint of a tribal leader, sovereignty, first of all, means equal parts of authority and responsibility. And we are, as tribal governments, becoming more responsible as time goes on with the authority that sovereignty affords us. There have always been places where -- although we don't talk about these things publicly very often -- sovereignty has been used against the very people in the tribal community from whom it originates. And we have to, increasingly, examine our own tribal government systems so that we can provide for our people all of the things that we would have provided in traditional governmental forms, but provide them through these modern mechanisms, often forced upon us by Relocation-Era policy or other eras of policy that you all in this room are as familiar with as I am. And for us, at Mashantucket Pequot, it has meant government transparency and accountability. And I want to talk about those things, and talk about how important those things are, and talk about how traditional those things are. These are not modern, democratic, American things that are creeping their way into tribal governance. These are things that are traditional, values-based, Indian things that are creeping their way back into tribal governments, if you approach it from the right perspective.

And so, for us, it's meant basic government accountability mechanisms. Financial transparency. I am extremely proud of having been a part of achieving financial transparency in our tribal community. Ten years ago or 15 years ago, a tribal citizen at Mashantucket had no right to any financial information that was produced from any of the tribal enterprises that we've been fortunate enough to build or acquire. Today, any person in our tribal community goes to the clerk's office and can see the last ten years of audited financials; can see last year's spending, up to and including all of mine; can see the next 10 years of cash flow forecasts, so that they even have a good idea of what might be coming, although clearly all of those things have disclaimers on them. You don't want people in our tribal community assuming that pro formas are reality, but they should see the pro formas, they should understand what they are. They should understand 10- and 15- and, frankly, for tribes, 50-year cash-flow projections. These are things that in a normal business sense, people even here at Harvard [University], would tell you are just unrealistic. You can't do a 50-year cash flow forecast. To which my question is, why not? We're going to be here in 100 years, and 100 years after that, and 100 years after that. I don't think it's ridiculous to wonder about sustainability of tribal government, sustainability of community service delivery, over that 50-year window. From a tribal perspective, it's actually a snapshot in time.

And so we've begun to blend the traditional values that grandma taught us -- and speaking of grandma, I have to give credit where credit is due. I am a third-generation tribal leader, and proud to walk in the moccasins of my mom, who helped to establish Foxwoods way back in the day, and walk in the moccasins of my grandma, who was on the tribal council in the 1970s, before we were federally recognized. And so, I have huge moccasins to fill that I probably never can fill, but I have a whole lot of fun trying to fill. And if we remember our community roots, we always come back to the same traditional values. Sometimes, being governments and seeing ourselves as modern governments, actually pulls us away from the traditional values that make us who we are. And so, the reality is that most of what we need to succeed in life as tribes, as people, as human beings, our grandma taught us when we were three, or four, or five [years old]. I spend the vast majority of my time in this de facto CEO role that you see many tribal chairmen assuming in this modern era, teaching business executives five times as smart as I am the basics that their grandma taught them when they were five [years old]. And when we get through those, then I begin to teach them the ones my grandma taught me when I was five [years old]. And that's the layer they need to finish their perspective and serve a tribal community fully.

And so, I think increasingly, one of the things that sovereignty today should mean is an examination of the separation of powers in tribal governance. The reality is that yesterday's model, where, well, I'll say it to you all the way I say it to the folks in the family at home -- yesterday's model, where the next nut in my position has to be a de facto CEO, and the chief of an Indian community, and the mayor of a small place where you want an economy and you want community activities -- it's just becoming increasingly unrealistic that any individual leader or even group of seven leaders -- seven is our traditional tribal council number, we went away from that for awhile at the behest of the state government, and in the last 15 years or so we've been back to the traditional number of seven -- but for seven people who only must achieve popularity in the tribal community in order to be where we are, this presents challenges for us as tribal people. And I do believe in the principle that -- given the time and the resources -- frankly, we are as creative at adapting and overcoming what is in front of us as any group of people on the face of the Earth. And so, too, can we examine our own government structures with that same set of glasses on.

So, I think tribal sovereignty today means, frankly, the continuing defensive effort that our parents, and our grandparents, and their grandparents, fought before our time. But, just as excitingly, the new opportunity for us to examine ourselves in the mirror and reconnect ourselves with the values that we were all given by our grandma. To reconnect ourselves with the true meaning of representation as tribal leaders, not just leadership as tribal leaders, is what I hope sovereignty is beginning to mean today. Thank you all very much."

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