Jaime Pinkham: How Do You Hit the Ground Running?: Strategies for Handling the Load and Forging Ahead

Native Nations Institute

Former Nez Perce Tribal Treasurer Jaime Pinkham speaks about his experience as a leader of his nation and what it takes to "hit the ground running" when one assumes a leadership role.

Native Nations
Resource Type

Pinkham, Jaime. "How Do You Hit the Ground Running?: Handling the Load and Forging Ahead." Emerging Leaders Seminar. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. March 26, 2008. Presentation.

"I'm not sure I'm the one who can really give this presentation when you've got such talent in this room like Peterson Zah. I noticed my friends from the north, colleagues on the Native Nations Institute board -- Mike Mitchell and Sophie Pierre --and they're some true leaders who have really carried a lot of weight for all of Indian Country. And I'm always excited to have a chance to come and work with NNI because of the quality of work that they do in providing, taking the lessons, taking your stories and converting them into positive lessons to take back and share with tribal communities to build stronger Native nations. And actually they asked me to talk about 'how you hit the ground running?' And for me that really depends on what kind of tribal leader you want to be. If you're someone that just wants fame and fortune, believe me, you're in the wrong business. And for those of you that may think this is a great job, post-retirement job, well I hope you have charm and good looks in your political survival kit, because it's not a position for retirement and I learned that. But what I found out is if you really want to make a difference in life that there's probably no better job that suits you than to be on tribal council.

Tribal politics to me it embraces a full challenge -- there's no recesses. When I was on tribal council, it's a full-time tribal council, and a recess for us was a chance to go out hunting with my father on a weekend. My constituencies were right there and you live amongst them each and every day. And I think that's what sets us apart from other forms of government, if you look at Congress or state legislatures who work out of Washington, D.C. or state capitols. Tribal politics to me was about where rubber really meets the road. Nowhere else I think you can find where tribal citizens, or any citizens of any government actually, have such direct access to their elected tribal leaders. They're members of your very same community. And so with that blessing of having that direct access and relationship with your constituents, that also to me brings one of the cornerstones of the challenges that we face as tribal leaders, because it becomes a test of your time, of your endurance, your patience, your enthusiasm -- and as I found out -- it's the test of the strength of your family.

When I got out of college I had a forestry degree from Oregon State [University]. And I was out laying out clear-cuts and building logging roads, but something triggered me inside, that it was time to move back home to Indian Country and work for the tribe. And fortunately when I moved home to manage the tribe's natural resource department, that was like political prep school to me because of the things that I learned while I was there. And the reason I ran for council really was because I was watching things rise and fall under the scrutiny of tribal politics. And I realized that if I really wanted to make a difference in a tribal community I could do it from the inside being on tribal council than from the outside. And so I ran and was elected to two terms on the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee. And in all those years I kept the position as the tribal treasurer. So I'm guilty, I did think that once I would run for tribal council after I retired but truly I knew that my time was to do it now. And it was the best job I ever had, but quite honestly it did come with a high price. I was having the time of my life running the Nez Perce Tribe's marathon and we were doing things like bringing wolves home to Idaho, regaining ancestral lands in Oregon -- and I was packing and repacking my suitcase and just racking up the frequent flyer miles -- and then we were building two casinos, we got gaming launched, and we were fighting for salmon, water rights and Native sovereignty and we were doing it all it seemed like. We were financing and investing and buying and selling and building and always expanding and indeed, we were gambling. At the same time we were testifying and negotiating, collaborating and mitigating, commiserating and celebrating and, when it was important to us, we were litigating.

But then I lost my balance and I had learned that if you want to play blind ambition on a political treadmill your membership dues come at a pretty high cost. And so my greatest losses I learned were not the political or professional ones. My greatest losses were personal ones. Those are the ones that sting the most. And unfortunately after a divorce I learned that tribal politics was too expensive of a hobby for me to carry on and so I decided it was time to take a break. But it was as I said earlier, it was the best job that I ever had as I said because that's where tribal communities, we understand that tribal politics is where the rubber does meet the road. You look at state and federal governments and they may take months and even years to pass some sort of an action -- then after that you have to worry about rule-making processes and different tiers of government to get those actions implemented -- but in tribal governments it can be altogether different. Tribal governments have the unique role of being more responsive to their constituents and to their citizens. But this is I think where we do meet the challenge is that we must remain leaders of an entire tribal, an entire Native nation, but at the same time we're conscious of those people who put us into those positions. And it can become very difficult and time consuming if we spend our time trying to be a leader one voter at a time.

Like I said, I had what I thought was the good fortune, my political prep school, to be a tribal departmental manager for about six years before I ran for tribal council. And what that allowed me to determine was just to observe the tribal government, the infrastructure and the capacity of the tribe. And I learned who were really the go-to people when you were in a pinch to get something done in a tribal bureaucracy. I also learned who those employees were that weren't afraid to lift any additional weight. And also I learned who were the people who could make the organization functional as well as dysfunctional. And those were all lessons that served me well, but one of the most important lessons I felt I learned as a tribal manager, before coming onto council is, I learned just what tribal councils do to make the staff mad.

There were many things that I saw when I was a tribal departmental manager that was really kind of frustrating at times. It seems like there were times that I'd always have to...I'd be instructed by a tribal council member to write a report or do an analysis or conduct some kind of an interview or set up a meeting for them or write their remarks for some kind of a public presentation. And then sometimes they didn't use it or they failed to show up for the meeting. And so at times I used to think, 'Well, maybe they're just asking me to do that just because they have the simple power to make me do that. But I remembered each and every one of those people who sent me on a wild goose chase. And so I promised myself that if I ever became an elected tribal leader, I'd never send the staff on wild goose chases because I know that they would remember who I was. And my background was in natural resources, but when I was elected to tribal council what I wanted to focus on was the tribal budget and that's why I became the treasurer, which meant it was budgets and audits, government operations, tribal enterprises.

When you're elected, your IQ level doesn't automatically just go up. So there's a lot of learning that I needed to do. And so I formed a personal core team, which for me as tribal treasurer meant the finance manager, the tribal executive director as well as the enterprise manager. And for me, it was important for us to develop this common understanding and a deep sense of trust. I knew that my operation, really my survival as a treasurer, really depended on their ability to get the job done. And I made certain that that feeling was mutual, that their survival was dependent on me as well. And over time we became trusted confidantes who I could just bounce ideas off of, or when you needed that private confidential discussion and someone to vent on, they were the people to go to. And it was pretty important for me I think to maintain a sense of sanity to have people like that that I knew I could trust.

On tribal council when we ran -- as natural resource manager, I was watching that we were very heavily dependent on our natural resources to fund tribal governmental programs. And it was predominantly timber revenues and agriculture revenues plus some mining revenues. And we had this very limited natural resource funding base, but at the same time we watched the tribal programs growing and expanding and more needs being pressed against our community. And for sure we were destined to outgrow our capacity to rely on our natural resource base to fund the growing tribal programs. And that was one of the things that compelled me to run is we needed to diversify the tribal revenue base. And right after I was elected we opened up two casinos back to back on the reservation. And at the same time we found ourselves in negotiation over some damage claims to our fisheries caused by two utilities within the reservation. And part of the settlement of the damage claims brought in additional money; it was a financial settlement in part. And all of a sudden we had gaming revenues and two financial settlements and all this money started pouring into the tribe.

And one would think that would make your job easier, but as a treasurer it doesn't make your job easier. Actually it complicates your job even more, because with this new resource coming in and this new source of revenue and this feeling that we had the riches, comes with it is the pressures of what to do with that money and also who should get a piece of it and just how much. And so we were embroiled in a lot of debates over how the investments like Manley and Peterson Zah shared with you earlier and how to sock money away and where we needed to focus in on the future. And those were very difficult decisions to make, but at times we also found that even the best-laid plans can hit a bump in the road, an obstacle and when you have very...our tribal community at the time, there were segments of our community that were still living on the front lines of human despair and their needs were immediate. And how do you provide for their needs while trying to also set money aside for the long-term future? And I had this saying on my office when we had all this money coming in and it said, 'No one is more on trial than in moments of good fortune,' and that is so true.

As tribal leaders what I learned is that we have the power to make a difference and the decisions that we take and make at the tribal council table not only characterize what our communities are going to be like in the future but also it helps define the character of our neighbors. We can try to reinvigorate the world, we can try to help the world act on its own behalf, but we can also bring it harm with the best and the worst of intentions. I found that some people like to measure political decisions. The best political decisions are those that make you popular with over 50 percent of the registered voters, but regardless the best political decisions can be the tough-love decisions that really show you how the natural world works or how the economic world works. And those are the kind of decisions you make that are based on substance and not solely based on your image. And during debates I learned that some people like to come in and they like to bloat issues with guilt and melodrama. They like to personalize them and moralize them. And granted this can be pretty seductive, but our job as tribal leaders is to take those issues, to clarify them and to act fairly and firmly. And our communities continue to demand that we continue to gather the right information free of prejudice and have us weigh those diverse perspectives carefully. We also must be willing to answer to the critical public debate and the scrutiny that goes on within our community. I learned in reading a book by Colin Powell that one must learn never to put their ego on the table along with your position because in a vote if your position goes down, your ego goes with it.

The other thing I want to stress is as a former manager who turned into a tribal politician is be kind to the staff, make them feel appreciated and respected. And kindness, believe me, kindness accomplishes a lot more than brutal strength and anger and it makes the staff be more responsive and actually it's more encouraging for them to come back to the tribal council chambers time and again. And as I learned, well a couple of my colleagues learned this the hard way is that tribal staff have extended families and make for pretty damn big voting blocks. So a couple of my colleagues learned that when they were up for re-election and lost their bid. And so we need to promote that understanding and that appreciation of the people who support us, the tribal staff.

I also want to make particular note of our non-Indian staff. At Nez Perce, we don't have all the expertise to fill all the critical positions within our tribal government and so we are heavily dependent on outside expertise within our...attorneys, some of our biologists, some of our financial managers. And at times, I know it seems like they get singled out and I often thought of why would these people want to come and work for an Indian tribe because quite honestly, sometimes they're put under the spotlight that has this racial tilt to it where they get scrutinized because they are non-Indians. I came to understand working with some of them is why would they work for a low paying job out in a rural community. Well, I think in some cases where else can they go and apply their trade where they can work with a heart. The kind of things that they encounter day in and day out takes a lot of heart and patience to get those things accomplished. So I think they're inspired by the ability to work with Indian tribes.

And don't be shy about offering the emails or the thank you notes when somebody does a job well done. Actually when I was a manager I kept those notes and I remembered those people that sent them to me. And I was never shy to put in a little extra effort to lend them a hand if they ever called upon me. There was great mileage that I even got when I started sending out those kind of notes. And I also learned from a supervisor of mine years ago the value in, I could call it, the 'how's life?' walk. There were times on council when I just felt I needed to get up and decompress, unwind and just get out of my office and wander down the halls. And I'd walk down to the different program departments and walk in and just walk up to one of the staff people and say, 'How's life?' It's amazing what they'll share with you. They'll share about the latest project that's going on or they'll share with you something about their family. I think what they really enjoyed was the fact that somebody was willing to listen and somebody cared. It wasn't about becoming popular with them. It was not a popularity contest, but really it's the fact that they do want to be heard, they do want to know that their tribal leadership cares about them because really what popularity is, if you really want to be popular by both your allies and your adversaries, this is how you become popular: you be fair, you be honest, and you be consistent. That's what really wins popularity contests I feel on tribal council.

Believe me, those of you out there know this better than I do, that it's not easy and there's more that we need to do. Half the challenge is just winning at something. The other half of the challenge is protecting it once we win it. And still today I worry about the fate of our communities. I was at Portland State University -- I sit on the NNI Board and Portland State University has the Institute for Tribal Government, a similar board to what NNI does -- and I was asked to talk about the work that NNI is doing. And I was sharing with them -- and if you've ever read Charles Wilkinson's book, Blood Struggle, some of the people that Charles highlights in his book sits around the Portland State table -- and we were talking about some of the research work that NNI is doing about per capita distributions, about constitutional reform and blood quantum levels and enrollment policies and so forth. And as the discussion unfolded, we began to talk about how these are becoming wedge issues within our very own tribal communities. If you remember in our past, our struggles were against the colonials, the cavalry, the states and the provinces. But in the coming generations, the blood struggles that Charles Wilkinson once wrote about might be the ones we fight in our very own communities as these wedge issues become very divisive if we don't get control of them.

The other thing I learned is just how we go about measuring our success as tribal leaders. When I was a forester, my success was board feet and stumpage values and that was the language of the trade that I spoke. But when I look back on the things that we accomplished at Nez Perce, they meant more than that. Everything we accomplished didn't have a purpose you could find on a spreadsheet. Building casinos wasn't just about gaming revenues, it was also about a clear expression of tribal sovereignty and to engage our tribal members so they could have jobs to safeguard their families. When we brought wolves back to Idaho, that had nothing to do with wildlife biology. That was all about restoring a tribal voice to the land. And when we regained those lands in northeast Oregon, that wasn't just about wildlife mitigation. That was about rebuilding a Native homeland. And just recently we've gone back to hunting bison in Wyoming and in Montana. And doing that wasn't just about the exercise of a treaty right but it was about renewing, for our youth to renew an allegiance to the future. And for me today in the salmon restoration work I do, that has nothing to do with science. Well, it has some to do with science but really it's about a strong will to preserve a culture. So everything that we did, if you look back, everything we did on tribal council was about saving a homeland and building strong Native nations.

And among the challenges that will face you as tribal leaders, remember there's also the joy of life. My divorce taught me that I was probably doing more to help other people's families than I was spending trying to help my own. So I ask you that you take care of your families and take care of yourselves and taking care of yourselves means that we take care of ourselves physically and spiritually. The Nez Perce homeland covers a portion of Idaho. And Idaho is the most Republican state in the union. And life in Idaho is tough if you're an Indian, life is tough if you're salmon, but life is really tough for people like me who are salmon-eating Indian Democrats. But there is a lesson to that; there is a lesson to that. Because what I learned by trying to work with these very conservative state and federally elected leaders was that political relationships, the best political relationships were human relationships. So at any political scale, it was best never to burn a bridge over a single issue because someday, somewhere, you're going to find agreement and you're going to need one another.

I also learned as a tribal leader that people in the outside community also looked at me to be a leader of a larger community. They expected leadership qualities of me that extended beyond, outside the tribal community, especially when we got into debates and arguments over sovereignty. Also when we had some incidences of our youth and violence and dealing of drugs, those are community problems that we all share. So sometimes we need to look at ourselves as being leaders beyond just the tribal boundaries. We can't always go it alone.

And another lesson from Idaho, I found that it was important for us to try to build bridges and to mend those that had weakened because for our communities, our tribal communities to be strong, sometimes we need to look at our neighboring communities and insure that they are strong and they are surviving and thriving. It's what Daniel Kemmis called the 'politics of place.' And we all agree that, hopefully our neighbors agree that, tribes are able partners because we're in this game for the long haul.

Never let a fight become more important than the issue. In a debate, in a fight don't you like a person who's always smiling when you're fighting? I think that shows quite a bit of character on their part. And so in a debate it's always best to seek out the friend or foe with the characteristics of leadership who's willing maybe to debate you today, but tomorrow maybe to stand up with you and help you in collectively solving your problems. The other thing is some people I think they get, they like the D.C. delegations. And Sophie, I guess for you it would be going on the big provincial, or beyond the provincial to the national delegations, and we think that's a very glamorous trip and that's where we should be investing our time. But I also would ask you to make sure that you invest your time at the local level. The school board member, the county commissioner, the mayor is going to be tomorrow's state legislator, who's going to be tomorrow's congressman, who's going to be tomorrow's governor, and with good strong relationships at the local level, those relationships should last as these individuals move along in their political travels.

And the outcome of good decisions do fade if we do make those hasty, comfortable political decisions for the present. I remember we used to get requests to fund a variety of things from a basketball tournament to registration fees. And at the time it was not the highest priority for the expenditures of tribal revenues, but there'd be pretty strong voting blocks coming in asking for these funds. And usually when they would be outside the guidelines of what we should fund, there was always somebody willing to make a motion to make an exception to the rule. That happens quite often I'm afraid. And I remember when he would make the motion to give somebody a $1,000 for example for a basketball tournament, they'd add on to the end of the motion and the treasurer to find the funds. Well, that's me. Where am I going to find the funds? After a while, I got so frustrated I started taking the funds out where I knew it was going to hurt the tribal council the most, take it out of the travel line item. And let's face it: we can't hide from our history. I became a grandfather a couple of years ago and I'm thinking about my granddaughter who someday she's going to have her grandchildren who will be students of my history and I wonder what they're going to learn. Are they going to learn about how we failed to act or how poorly we acted? Or are they going to learn about how we came together as tribal communities to be cohesive with honor and trust and respect to meet the challenges that we faced in our day?

I made three findings when I was on tribal council. One of the first was I found inner strength in prayer and I found myself praying more than ever before. And truly, it helped me cope with some of the issues that we were facing in those days. And second, believe it or not, I found that I gained more patience. I think some people would think you'd lose patience on tribal council, but I think I gained more. And truly, it was a characteristic that I really needed to work on because the easy decisions, they go off to somebody else. The tough decisions come to the tribal council table. And making a difference is rarely accomplished by those people who sit up in the cheap seats, who have never played the game, or who have an obscured view of the playing field. Yet as leaders we cannot...we need a high level of patience to deal with our critics because we cannot cast them aside. Our critics deserve the same kind of leadership that we give to the people who are unable to act on their own behalf or speak on their own behalf. So we need to be leaders of our critics as well. I've been involved in a lot of spirited debates and lengthy deliberations and at times honestly my vote was cast on the losing side, but I learned that you need to accept the loss with the same dignity you accept victory. Pouting over a loss was no different than taunting the defeated when you won. And third, I learned that power alone doesn't make a difference. Political power alone does not make a difference, because if compassion and courage are absent, then our decisions have high likelihood to become reckless and that power becomes useless and our actions become hollow. We can't let politics just be about gaining more power, because power sometimes is possessed by those who have least earned it and is seen as such a supreme value, but if you watch, sometimes power shifts back and forth. You'll have one group of political leadership, a new group come in, and you'll see that political pendulum swinging back and forth. What happens is we see our tribal communities caught in the middle of that. So let's remember that power is not what makes the difference.

And I guess to just kind of wrap things up here is I've learned that we can't do it all in our lifetime, but certainly we give it our best and with age and time I think I've come to learn when the best time of my life is going to be. It's yet to come, because if we truly make a difference and we truly make that lasting difference, the best time of our life is going to come long after we're gone. I think about my granddaughter when she grows up and maybe someday she'll run for tribal council. And I hope the examples that we set for her today are things that she can follow to protect that very sacred place, that sacred place that we call home. Thank you." 

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