For Native nations, establishing and sustaining the good governance necessary to determine and then achieve their strategic priorities hinges on citizen engagement: the ability of a nation and its government to consult and educate its citizens about the major decisions it makes and implements in order to move the nation forward. This panel session explores examples of successful, innovative approaches to citizen engagement, and discusses the transferrable lessons other Native nations can learn from as they work to enhance their ability to effectively engage their citizens.
This video resource is featured on the Indigenous Governance Database with the permission of the National Congress of American Indians.
Record, Ian. "Citizen Engagement: The Key to Establishing and Sustaining Good Governance." 70th Annual Convention & Marketplace. National Congress of American Indians. Tulsa, Oklahoma. October 15, 2013. Presentation.
“As some of you may know, the Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management and Policy at the University of Arizona is the partner organization with the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development. So for instance, my boss Steven Cornell is also the co-founder of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development. We share a lot of staff, we work on a lot of projects together, and we both continue this research that began in the mid to late 1980s that’s come to be called 'nation building.' How many of you are familiar with that term 'nation building' in the context of Native nations and sovereignty? Okay, some of you. So basically just to give you a quick nutshell before I sort of dive into the content of this particular session, what began this research was Drs. Cornell and Joseph Kalt -- who were joined shortly thereafter by a Navajo educator named Dr. Manley Begay -- were looking at data that was coming out of Indian Country -- socioeconomic data, a lot of the data that all of you are probably well familiar with: poverty, social ills, employment, unemployment, things like that. And what they were finding was that if you took the whole picture, Indian Country was pretty poor, but when you look reservation to reservation, there was great variety in terms of economic performance and in some of those indicators that I referred to and they wanted to figure out why. So that began this long line of ongoing research into, what is it that tribes are doing that determines whether or not they are successful, and not just with their economic development priorities, but with any of their priorities, be those culture, political, social, etc.?
And so what I wanted to do today was focus on what we are encountering as we continue our on-the-ground work, working directly with Native nations. And I wanted to acknowledge a couple of my colleagues here in the audience today. We have Herminia Frias who is also with the Native Nations Institute. She’s a former chairwoman of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, and I’m going to put her on the spot during the second half of our session today because she can speak firsthand to the great challenges that come into play when you think about citizen engagement. And then also RenÃ©e Goldtooth, who is the Manager of Leadership & Management Programs. And for those of you who are interested in the...are looking through these brochures that I’ve circulated, Rebuilding Native Nations online course series, RenÃ©e is the course guide. So if you really like RenÃ©e, if you think she’s got a great personality and you want to see more of her, I encourage you to check out those courses. Sherry [Salway Black] mentioned that in the back of the room we have a videographer and it has been our practice at the Native Nations Institute for the past several years is to always get tape. It’s one thing for all of you, all of you are very fortunate in respect that you can afford to come to this sort of session and learn what you’re going to learn from these esteemed panelists, but not all the folks from your nations have such an opportunity. And so what we’ve been working to do over the past several years is to make the perspectives about nation building, make the knowledge about nation building, the success stories that you heard about this morning more widely accessible to all of those that need to have a voice in the nation-building work of your nation moving forward. And so what we’re doing today is we’re going to be videotaping this session and at some point in the very near future this video will be featured...a video of this session will be featured on this Indigenous Governance Database. So you can go there and you can learn...if you say, ‘Wow, this Jim Gray was really saying some interesting stuff,' or 'I love what Ysleta del Sur Pueblo is doing around citizen engagement,’ you can share that link with your friends, your colleagues, your elected leadership and they can learn what you’ve learned today.
So just to give you a quick idea of what we’re going to do today over the next two hours or so, I’m going to go through a very quick framing piece to kind of get you guys thinking about some of the issues around citizen engagement and then I’m going to turn it over to our two panelists and I’ll do very short introductions of them right now. We’re going to ask that you hold your questions until after they’re done presenting and then we’ll engage in a lively question and answer and discussion. Does that sound good to everyone? Okay.
Well, first I’d like to introduce Jim Gray. Many of you know him or know the name at least. Jim is the former principal chief of the Osage Nation and served in that capacity until about four or five years ago. He was instrumental in the Osage Nation’s government reform process and basically what they did was they overhauled their entire constitution and system of government from the ground up and he’ll talk a lot about that during his presentation, in particular the citizen engagement challenges inherent in that process, and then what they did after that process was over, and how what they learned in terms of citizen engagement through the government reform process has benefited them in the years since.
And then second, I’d like to introduce Patricia Riggs. Patricia Riggs is Director of Economic Development with Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, a nation that also experienced some significant change over the past decade plus and really focused on educating and engaging their citizens as the way to move their nation forward and they’re doing a lot of amazing things. And what you’re going to hear from her is how they’ve taken citizen engagement as sort of the pivot upon which all of the foundational change and the achievement of their priorities is going to be determined moving forward. And so for instance, we’ve been working, the Native Nations Institute has been working with Ysleta del Sur on an ongoing basis and it’s really interesting to see how they continually fine-tune their approaches to citizen engagement and how they really focus on the particular audience they’re trying to reach. So for instance, if it’s youth that they’re trying to reach, they make sure that the messaging that they use and the way, the methods by which they inform those people is determined by the audience, that particular audience. The same thing with elders and so forth, and we’ll touch on that later.
But what I wanted to do right now is take about 10 to 15 minutes and talk about this issue of citizen engagement as we see it from our research lens and as we see it in terms of our on-the-ground work, working with tribes to strengthen their governments, to engage in some of this foundational reform that Jim and Pat are going to talk about and then talk about some of the challenges inherent to the citizen engagement question and then talk about what we’re seeing as some of the strategies that were working. And I’m sure Jim and Pat will pick up on some of this as we move forward.
As I mentioned, what we’re about is -- at the Native Nations Institute and the Harvard Project -- is nation building, or as Chief Oren Lyons always likes to remind us, ‘Nation rebuilding,’ because, as he says, ‘Tribes were once very powerful, vibrant, sophisticated native nations who had developed over centuries and millennia their own very complex and very thoughtful systems of government,’ and the question is, ‘how do we reclaim those and rebuild those?’ And really what it’s about, it’s about foundational change. It’s about foundational change. It’s about changing the status quo that has existed in some communities for entire people’s lifetimes, people’s entire lifetimes, right? If you think about the Indian Reorganization Act, most of those were instituted in the 1930s. There’s not many people in your communities -- if you have an IRA government -- that remember how you governed prior to that, what sort of system you had in place. And so really when you think about this, it’s foundational change that talks about completely recasting how the government serves the nation, how citizens interface with the government and so forth. And so it requires that everyone, leaders, leaders of that nation, employees, people that work for the government -- whether you’re a senior manager, a department head or just an entry-level employee -- and those citizens, where are they in the nation-building process? And my colleagues and I, we’ve seen this time and again: the leadership gets a great idea and they just run with it and they run out the door and they get that train moving down the tracks and they forgot that the people are still at the station. And so it’s critical that all of these folks are onboard that nation-building train before it leaves the station.
If you’re thinking about, 'How do we get this train moving and how do we keep it on course,' what we’ve seen in terms of nations much like these two that are represented here today, what we’ve seen that works is when nations take a thoughtful, multi-faceted -- that’s critical, multi-faceted -- approach to citizen engagement. Really it’s about the ability of a nation and its government to elicit their citizens’ participation, active participation in the decisions both big and small that the nation makes and then educating them about those decisions and why they were made. And so if you think about it as this ongoing cycle of listening, deliberating and educating -- and this is an ongoing process, it continues on, continues on -- and really this is the first and foremost job of leaders, if you think about it. And I think what we’ve witnessed in our work with so many tribes across Indian Country is the mindset and I think thankfully we’re seeing it less and less where the leader’s sort of tunnel vision is, ‘I’m a decision maker. I was elected to make decisions,’ when we’ve had many very wise leaders tell us, ‘My job is as much to be an educator as it is to be a decision maker. I’ve got to make sure our people understand what it is we’re doing and why, and not only that, but that I’m consulting them to get guidance on what decisions to make.’ Because that’s how Indigenous societies worked traditionally. And the question is, 'How do you get back to that if you don’t have it right now?' So there’s that ongoing cycle of listening, deliberating and educating that really needs to take place and I would remind folks that this may look very different from one nation to the next. It’s really up to you to determine what this looks like and what this involves and what sort of processes you need to put in place, what sort of mechanisms do you have to have that work? What sort of individuals need to be delegated certain responsibilities to make sure that this process continues to function, not just today, not just tomorrow, but permanently? I wanted to share a clip from our 'Leadership' online course. This is one of our video assignments that appears in our 'Leadership' course about the role of leaders as educators."
"Leadership goes beyond just having an active role in making things happen. It also requires the ability to inspire others to take action."
Joseph P. Kalt:
"There's one more thing, and it's leadership. When we say that, we don't mean necessarily leadership as decision-maker, we mean leader as educator. Someone carries into any community the ideas, the ways of doing things, the new ways of doing things, the old ways of doing things. And it's leaders that do that. Not just elected and appointed officials, but all the dimensions of leadership. And the challenge that you face -- you all are leaders. You got out of bed this morning, or yesterday you flew here. You're not here because you're crawling under a rock and hiding. You're here [because] you're leaders, and the challenge is to carry these messages of effective nation building into communities. And the more you do that, what we find, the more successful the leadership of a community is in getting on the same page and talking about the fundamental nature of these needs for running things ourselves, founding them on our own institutions that are culturally legitimate. Then suddenly, the community starts to stand behind you and then you get stability and then you build a community and then the kids stay home instead of moving away and you've rebuilt a nation."
"But I do believe that an essential part of leadership is -- besides all the things like making sure you're working on legislative issues and legal issues and health and education and jobs and all that sort of thing -- is to try to help people understand their own history and understand where we are within the context of that history and to believe in ourselves; to look at our past and see what we've done as a people and to remind people that if they want to see our future they just simply need to look at our past to believe in ourselves, to believe in our intellectual ability, to believe in our skills, to believe in our ability to think up solutions to our own problems. I think that is critical to our survival."
"I think nation-building leaders need to first just start talking nation building and getting people to think about it a lot and trying to win other people over to get other people to understand what it's all about because what I've seen is you'll get one leader in and they'll understand some of these things but one leader it's hard to make a system change. I've seen it in like the Bureau of Indian Affairs, they pull in some good people to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs thinking that they can make a change but there's a very strong system that exists there and they just can't change it."
"When you look at the issues facing tribal communities, issues about per capita distribution, blood quantum, constitutional reform and others, those are very difficult issues that are communities are facing and quite honestly they could be wedge issues that would eventually fractionate communities and so doing education within the community must come first to talk about nation building, to overcome these challenges. I think when there was a time when tribes looked at the greatest threats were from the Colonials and from the Cavalry, then it was from the states but really my fear is that the greatest threats because of these wedge issues that are really pressing on our communities, the greatest threats may come from the inside. And so if we don't do a good job of developing the sense of nationhood within our communities through education and empowerment that the challenges are going to come from the inside not from the outside."
"Engagement, getting engaged with your people frequently. A lot of times you see tribal council that the first time that they're chewed out they just, it's just now we're in this hole and we're not coming out. And that happens and it's really at no fault of a tribal leader because you can only get chewed out so many times, but instead you do have to have the courage, you chose to run, face your people, get them involved to the extent of, no, they're not micromanaging you as the government, but you've got to inform them and know what it is you need to inform them about. There's just some things that are not...you're wasting everybody's time. That's just not something you inform people about. There's other things that you want to hear from them about. If you want to change enrollment, you better talk to your people. If you're going to make a big decision like our water settlement, go out and get your input from your people and if they have the wrong perception, then whose job is it to change that or work to change it? It's yours, and a lot of times tribal leaders do not think it's their job to do, to be that public person and it very much is your job. You've got to get out there and talk to people and you have to be able to tell them things that they don't want to hear."
"I do believe that at first you are an educator. You are educating your other general council members, well your other council members, especially if it's an idea that you're proposing, or if it's an issue or a concern that you have, you're educating them. But you're also educating your tribal members. Like I said before, in order to make, have a strong government and to have a government that's going to last and to have focus and change, you're going to need the support of the members. And I think if you have any opportunity that you can educate, I think you should, especially on the issue. However, I think the flip side of that is being the student. And there's a lot of times that it's the general council that can educate you, it can be your elders, it can be the youth, that can educate you as a tribal leader to say, 'This is the issue impacting us.' If it's youth it's usually drugs, alcohol, or social media issues, or bullying. And if it's the elders, it's like, 'How can you provide a sustainable, in our last years, how can you make these [years] a little bit better for us?' But also, let's tell you about why this didn't work in the past. So I think they're both valuable tools. I mean you have to be an educator, you have to be a student, but I think there's always being just willing to listen."
Ned Norris, Jr.:
"'You can accomplish anything in life provided that you do not mind who gets the credit.' As leaders -- and that quote is attributed to Harry Truman -- as leaders I like to think of myself in that way. That what I have to do -- the people have entrusted in me their trust to lead them and to guide them for the term that I have been elected. As a leader, I should not ever take advantage of that trust that the people have placed in me. I should never take the position that, 'That was my idea, not yours.' I should not take the position that, 'It's my way or the highway.' As a leader, that should not -- that's not something that we should be doing as tribal leaders. The [Tohono O'odham Nation] vice chairman and I -- Isidro Lopez -- when we ran for these offices, we ran on a campaign that we say in O'odham, it says [O'odham language], and [O'odham language] translates to 'All of us together.' And what we wanted to be able to do was to bring the people together, to bring our people together, to give our people the opportunity to actively participate in the decision-making process. Too many times, we get tribal leadership that think they are going to impose those decisions on the people. We can't accomplish that, we can't accomplish what we need to accomplish if we are going to dictate to our people. That's not our purpose. Our purpose is to lead, our purpose is to work together, and our purpose is to bring our people to the table so that we can hear what they have to say."