Jamie Fullmer, Rebecca Miles and Darrin Old Coyote: Our Leadership Experiences, Challenges, and Advice

Archibald Bush Foundation and the Native Nations Institute

Jamie Fullmer (former Chairman of the Yavapai-Apache Nation), Rebecca Miles (Executive Director and former Chairwoman of the Nez Perce Tribe) and Darrin Old Coyote (Chairman of the Crow Tribe) share what they wished they knew before they took office, the greatest leadership challenges they have faced, and their advice for newly elected and aspiring tribal leaders.

This video resource is featured on the Indigenous Governance Database with the permission of the Bush Foundation.

Resource Type

Fullmer, Jamie, Rebecca Miles and Darrin Old Coyote. "Our Leadership Experiences, Challenges, and Advice." Nation-Building Strategies: A Seminar for Newly Elected Tribal Leaders. Archibald Bush Foundation and the Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Mystic Lake, Minnesota. January 31, 2013. Presentation.

June Noronha:

"So we have a very, very, very prestigious group here. Two of them former Chairs, one a current Chair. So what we're going to do is when we invited them to come we asked them to respond to three questions and these are the questions. We said, ‘We want you to tell everybody what you wish you had known before you took office.' So they will all answer that question. Then we're going to ask them to say, ‘What was the most interesting or the toughest situation you found yourself in as tribal Chair.' And the third question is, ‘What advice do you have for new tribal council members.' So what I'm going to do is I'm going to take each question and have them respond to it as opposed to have you talk through all of it. Is that all right with everybody? So the first thing I'm going to ask is, ‘What do you wish you had known before you took office?' So I'm going to have Chairman Old Coyote first speak."

Darrin Old Coyote:

"Thank you, June. First off, thanks to the Bush Foundation and the Native Nations Institute for inviting me. The first question if I had known that it was going to be this tough I don't think I'd be chairman. No, just kidding.

One thing, the amount of work that goes into the hours you put in as the tribal chairman. You're on the clock 24 hours and that's one area because a lot of my...I used to like to sing, I used to like to run racehorses and now I can't even do both so my kids are doing that. But that's one of the toughest. One thing I've...when I took office, one of the areas that if I had known that are basically the life we had before now belongs to the Crow people. That's one area that's been king of hard for me but at the same time it's been rewarding because a lot of people have enjoyed some of the things we've done so far.

I was first elected in 2004, I was 31 at the time. The late Chairman Van was the one that asked me to join his team. I was teaching high school and they took me out of teaching high school and brought me over as the cultural director in 2000. And 2000 to 2004 I was the cultural director; one of the advisors to the chairman from 2002 to 2004 and then from there they more or less groomed me to be part of the government. And prior to all of this I was...in 1997 just two hours from here, Moorhead, Minnesota, I was going to school there and the best view of my home was from far way. I saw all the problems. When I was back home, I didn't know that our language was being lost, our culture was being lost. I didn't know that there was a problem with drugs and alcohol, there was...I didn't see all that until basically...it was day in, day out I saw the same things and I thought it was normal until I moved away from there and from Moorhead, Minnesota, I viewed back home and I saw the best view of home was from far away and I seen all the problems. I was lonesome, I couldn't speak Crow, I couldn't practice the traditions, the culture so from that it kind of made me...from then I understood what I was to do, to come back and preserve and perpetuate the Apsalooke way of life, the Crow way of life to start changing things in our community.

And one thing I took on just about four of us, we wanted to change the constitution because we saw all the infighting, the things that happen and for a long time. I've worked with Nation Building and one of the areas that we wanted to do was bring in Nation Building to teach the Crow people and a lot of them didn't want to, they didn't want to change things but we brought in...about four of us started in 2000 to try to change the constitution and we had to go to the elders and have them buy into the idea. They also saw the problems that this constitution created with the infighting and the turmoil and so from there we...they did...the majority ruled to change the constitution. So in 2001 we changed our constitution where there was more stability, more continuity and now we have a three branch government, whereas before the chairman was...he controlled the tribal courts, he controlled...and it was... Our old constitution, they had councils every three months and anybody 18 and over could be part of this council. They would literally walk through the line and the chairman would be standing there. If you were a director of some program or if you were a tribal employee, if you went against the agenda that the chairman set up, then you were basically thrown out of there and they'd go through the line right in front of the tribal chairman and that system was in place. And the first month when the decision was made they'd gather numbers for the next council and they would do away with whatever was proposed three months ago. And every three months things were changing and there was no progress, there was no continuity, there was no stability and so from then we changed the constitution. And if we were still in the old constitution I wouldn't be sitting here as chairman because today we have a system that gives us more continuity, more stability and even the people that are...things that were passed in 2001, they're still going and business has continued and we're starting to...it's a new constitution but there's...we're changing things and we're moving forward so that's...I'd like to share that before we go any further."

Rebecca Miles:

Well, it's certainly an honor to be here with all of you and congratulations if you are a newly elected leader. Jamie and I are recovering tribal leaders so we're here to relive it all. So it certainly is an honor to speak before all of you.

A couple of things that I think I wish I would have known prior to deciding to run is I wasn't prepared for the fighting, the infighting of our people. I was raised on the Nez Perce Indian Reservation my entire life. My parents...I don't know if they ever even voted in the tribal election. We never attended general council. My parents were not politically active. We led a very strict life growing up and my parents were alcohol, drug and alcohol free. And [I] grew up of course in very bad poverty but to me it was a very great life. And so I wasn't raised to talk to people that way.

And so the very first meeting that I had we had a person come in and just chew us all out. That's the...it's almost like you're walking through like a doorway and no matter where you know your heart is you become them now. You become the beast so to speak and you're part of the problem. Tribal council leaders are always scratching their own backs and they're doing favors for their family and friends. And every decision you ever make will be scrutinized by somebody; every single decision. And so I was young, I wasn't prepared for that. I was a young mom at the time and I was not necessarily prepared for that. A seminar like this is fantastic because...I wish we had something like that when I was first starting as a leader.

The other thing that I recognize that I wish I had known as well being a woman and being a young woman for a tribe that predominantly has male leadership, there are always a few women on council, but prepared for the way that women treated women and it was absolutely terrible. So I made it a really personal passion of my own. I serve on a national organization called Vision 20/20 that works to...will work to have equality for women by the year 2020. I was nominated by the governor, the former Governor Kulongoski of Oregon, the State of Oregon, and that organization really works not just for equality in pay for women but it really works on women who become leaders and how other women treat women. We study a lot, one of my idols, is Hillary Clinton and what has happened to her in her leadership. She's criticized for the way she looks, for whatever she's wearing or for her hair and that's very irrelevant to...but it's an entirely different standard to what male tribal leaders go through on tribal council. I was not prepared for that, I can tell you that.

And as a young woman I certainly...you certainly all of a sudden feel alone, you got elected by a lot of people, everybody's excited and I remember my family threw a big party for me and just right out of the gate, we all have family whether they drink or they're on drugs, every one of us have them. And I remember the very first...the Saturday night I was elected my family threw this big party. Well, of course I have some drunk cousins and uncles that came over and they wanted to congratulate and it was just a very good time. And it was at my mother's home. My mother doesn't drink and she's never allowed alcohol in her home and she made this really...it was a Mother's Day cake because Mother's Day was the next day. Well, it ended up being a celebration for me. Well, it turned out that I had this keg, not cake and it just...you're just not prepared for that. And so knowing that kind of going in give you the armor...you kind of have the armor that it's going to come and you don't know where it's going to come, but to not let that shake you from what's inside and why you chose to run and why you chose to be a leader for your tribe. Because very, very important decisions are yet to be made and there are very difficult things that are going to come your way and so you have to be strong. You can't let those things sway you because you have to be prepared for the real important things, the real battles. And I wish I had known that prior to."

Jamie Fullmer:

"Thank you. As Rebecca had pointed out, as a recovering...I think I'm in complete recovery now from tribal leadership. As the former chairman of Yavapai Apache Nation... by the way, [Apache Language] to you leaders here.

At home, when I first became chairman, it was definitely not on my list of what am I going to do. I went back home to work for the tribe and contribute to the community as the Health and Human Services Director. I have a master's degree in social work but I also have a bachelor's degree in business. And the idea behind that was that we needed some help in building an infrastructure for our social services. We had just built a brand new building, a health center building, and it was empty and so I had come home. I told the chairman at the time, I said, ‘I can get that running if you would like me to.' It wasn't a boastful thing, it's just I had a background. I did administration and had just come from running a major mental health intensive outpatient treatment center in Salt Lake City, Utah, where I'd gotten my master's degree. And so I went home to contribute back to my community. My family all lives there, my mom and my brothers and my aunts and uncles and so it was, for me it was wanting to be around family but also just to contribute back to the community. And honestly it was also because the tribe had paid for my education to get my master's degree and I felt like it was a give back.

And so that was my whole purpose for going home but lo and behold, fast forward from that position a few years into it, my grandfather who was the former chairman and he's passed away since but he was a great leader in our community. He had said, ‘I think we're going to get you in as chairman.' I said, ‘Well, it's a great honor and I don't know if I'm ready.' He said, ‘I think we're going to get you in as chairman.' ‘It's a great honor but I don't know if I'm ready.' He said, ‘I don't think you heard me. I think we're going to get you in as chairman.' So the elders had already met about it and had decided that I was going to be chairman. So lo and behold I was elected as chairman. What I did not know then, and like Rebecca, seeing the community, I saw a lot of the challenges in the community but wasn't real involved in the politics. Unless they called me into council, I didn't go up there. If you get called into council chambers, something good or something bad is going to happen and so you try to avoid that whole, as an employee try to avoid that process altogether. At least that was the way we did it at home.

So what I wish I would have known before I took office was, a lot has been mentioned already by the leaders at this table, but what I wish I would have known is not to personalize the politics of the day because it is just business. And it's so hard because it's the business of our life, it's the business of our sovereignty, it's the business of our future, it's the business of respecting the ancestors and the predecessors. But it is at the end of the day just business and if you carry it home, it will eat you up. And I say that with the idea that you as tribal leaders, either new or reinvigorated new into office that we always says 24/7, 24/7. I used to always hear the leaders at home say that, ‘I'm here for my people 24/7.' Within that 24/7 one of those people has to be you and so that balancing act of taking time for yourself to find a balance in your own life and lifestyle and respecting and protecting your family is an important part of that process.

With that said, the great Windell Chino, Apache leader, a legend in our world said, ‘You can tell a true Indian leader because they have bullets in the front and arrows in the back,' and I took that to heart because as Rebecca said, you go in and you don't really...you know you're going to get it from the outside world but you don't expect it that you're going to get it from the inside world and you definitely don't expect you're going to get it from your blood tied inside world but sometimes that's the worst battles. I remember one of my aunties had done a recall on me for...at least once, one of the recall tries, one of the recall attempts. And then later on after I'd gotten out of office a couple years ago she goes, ‘Well it made you stronger, didn't it?' I said, ‘Yeah, but I didn't need you to even make the effort in the first place.'

So I guess to that point is that another point that I wanted to make is that I think that it's so important to respect as leaders...I had my own vision and mission and direction from prayer and from commitment and felt like that was the right way and I was young at the time when I was elected. I was 30. And one of the things that I wish I would have known beforehand is to respect and listen and learn what other peoples' ideas of sovereignty was because I had my own image of what sovereignty was and what I was willing to stand for on behalf of the people, what I was willing to fight for. And I didn't at that time, as I look back historically, I didn't necessarily take the time to listen to what was the elder's perspective of sovereignty, what was the younger generation's perspective of sovereignty, what were my colleagues at the tables perspective of sovereignty because I knew what my image was in standing as a sovereign nation. And yet you have to thread those altogether as a leader.

So I think hindsight, seven years ago, six years ago, hindsight that I wish I would have known at the beginning was not to personalize it because I did personalize a lot of it and you know what happens when you personalize things, you're ready to fight. And sometimes those are fights you can't win. It was brought up earlier by the leader over there, she brought up the idea of how and when to be a diplomat. Learning that diplomacy comes from not personalizing it.

And then the other thing as a closing piece to that, which I wish I would have known was the other thing is the loudest voice is usually the smallest group. And so you had people that come and say, ‘My people want this and my people want that.' If I would have known at the beginning, cause everybody gets kind of riled up and stirred up and ‘We've got to do something right now. We have to act on this.' And it wasn't until my second term in office and I'd say, ‘Well, bring those people in. Let me hear from them. I'm their representative. Well, then why did they elect this body?' So the loudest voice is usually the smallest group. That's why they say the silent majority. Now when those people that I never saw before were coming into the office and were stirred up, then I knew something was wrong because that was the silent majority, the people that like Rebecca's family that didn't get involved in politics, that didn't have their faction or their personal or family interest to sway. And so when I saw those folks coming through the door I'd say, this wasn't until second term, ‘These are the majority. These are the...once they get stirred up, we have to deal with this right away. That means something is really wrong.' So just some...that's the closing piece I had is the loudest voice, at least in my community, was usually the smallest group and yet our council would be jumping and moving to try and create some kind of change because of what they heard."

June Noronha:

"So I think we'll... Thank you. So let's go to the second question. The second question is, ‘What was the most...maybe I'll say the toughest situation or the most interesting situation you found yourself in or you find yourself in as tribal chair?'"

Darrin Old Coyote:

"For myself the toughest situation I found myself in was a lot of times family...basically a lot of the toughest situations I had involved my immediate family or my extended, like my mom's family or my dad's family. I'll just give you an example. There was a federal program where one of my cousin's had the qualifications and he was kind of running...he was the assistant to the director and he'd been there years and then we did, because it was a federal program we did a drug test and my cousin he ran out the door when drug tests came around and he came and said, ‘You need to get rid of that policy, the drug policy.' And so that's one of the toughest situations is your own family will try to have you waive everything just so that they can benefit and you're in there for the whole tribe, not just your family or one individual. So that's one of the toughest situations. You have to be open minded, look at the whole picture and he was suspended for not doing the drug testing and then his sister and his family, they started saying, ‘We're going to get rid of you. Next election we're going to remove you,' and this is my own aunt doing that and my own cousins doing this. But in the long run people saw that I wanted accountability and I wanted things done right and so they, after awhile it kind of died down from there. But that's the toughest situation I've been in is our own immediate family.

And then another situation would be the most interesting. I don't know if you're all familiar with the Pentecostals. We have a lot of Pentecostals in our tribe and there was one, Speaker of the House, a few years back I was presenting the budget to the legislative branch because they're the ones that approve yes or no voting on budget so I brought in the budget. And I was standing, the Speaker of the House was behind me because the podium was...and he was saying, ‘The executive branch did this, did that.' He was starting to point fingers and he was going off and there was a whole bunch of people, a lot of the council, the whole membership, a lot of them were there and he was just pointing fingers, going off on how their belief, the Pentecostal belief they say, ‘If you don't do this, if you don't do that you're going to go to hell.' And he kept doing that to me and he was pointing down on me and he said, ‘If you don't do this, if you don't do that,' and finally at the end he said, ‘If you don't like me, you're not going to go to heaven.' That's what he said. But this guy was my clan father. In the Crow way we have our clan system, he was my clan father and whenever your clan father says something that...to...you can buy...whatever they said, you could buy that right. So I turned around and I gave him five bucks and I said, ‘I'm going to buy what you just said.' I said, ‘If you don't like me, you're not going to go to heaven.' So I turned this around on him after him putting me down and saying, ‘If you don't like me, you're not going to go to heaven.' I turned it around. Using our culture I turned it around and I said, ‘If you don't like me, you're not going to go to heaven,' and I pass the budget. So that's one thing.

There's different cultures, the culture, the religions, belief ways, there's different groups. Some want you to do...jump through hoops. They say, you don't like us because you don't go to this church or that church or you don't...maybe Native American church or Sundance. Different religions they tend to try to pinpoint that you're not a part of them and so they try to push you aside but if you're open minded, let them all be equal. That's the only way you're going to survive the next election basically. But that's what I used, using my culture I turned it around on him because he was using his religion to kind of put me down so I turned it around on him and I said, ‘If you don't like me, you're not going to go to heaven.' So that whole getting on his soapbox and putting down people, I wiped that all away and then passed the budget because everybody started laughing after awhile and then I told them the important parts of the budget. But that was one area that was interesting and I thought...I was in a tough situation basically, you have to think, ‘How am I going to turn this thing around?' And that's one situation that really helped me then because it took about a whole 15 minutes to get to his point and he just kept blasting and putting down the executive branch. We hear it all the time now but now every time I walk in he's nice to me because he's scared he might not go to heaven."

Rebecca Miles:

"Well, just moving on from those comments, when I got on council in '04, I didn't have any ambition or any idea of becoming any of the ranked leaders let alone the chair. It just had never crossed my mind and when I was elected in '04, one week later they had released terms to the Snake River Basin adjudication in principle meaning we were just getting ready to consider settling our water claims in the Snake Basin. That had started when I think I was about an eighth grader or ninth grader and I think we formally filed when I was a sophomore in high school. And I happened to...that's one of the things I wish I would have known before that that would be the biggest decision the tribe would face in its treaty time and it was a very tough time.

When I say toughest situation, when I got on council, you looked to even senior leaders...there's nine of us on the council, I was the only woman. You looked to see what's been going on and we had a couple members that served 20 years so they knew...they had to have known all about this. The people did not know about the settlement because it was ordered to be in executive session, any discussions because to protect all sovereigns. And the sovereigns were us, the State of Idaho and the United States.

So the very first meeting I remember thinking a week later, ‘I'll never vote for this. This will never happen as long as I'm a leader.' And as I began to...the thing that we did is we put all our non-Indian attorneys out in front of our people. And when you mentioned people coming out of the woodwork that are not your loud minority and you have your silent majority there screaming at you, that was a difficult time. My mother was even in the audience and she was so angry. And you could see this train wreck about to happen because one, we were talking about something very near and dear to us, our treaty rights, and we're having our non-Indian attorneys tell us how we're going to settle these claims and that didn't fly well. That's really when my education really came into really sitting down and figuring out a good orator, somebody who can explain something to somebody really well and so that meant I had to learn everything I could about this settlement.

So the next nine months the three sovereigns had to decide and all eyes were on...it was a very big deal and Crow was a few years after us but it was a very big deal. And we went on 18 hearings all over our reservation. And the thing that really surprised me is I was the freshman member, no experience whatsoever, and none of the leaders who had made decisions, there were several resolutions that got to this point, even led one meeting, not a single one, not ever got up and said, ‘This is why we did this, this is why we...this is where we're at.' Not a single one. And so I had to start from ground zero. We created a PowerPoint. I gave the presentations, never allowed our attorneys to have to be there. They're just staff, they're not going to vote on this. And they have been directed to do these things all these years so it certainly couldn't be passed off to them. And so after the nine months we took the settlement, very difficult, because it could have gone either way. Had we not taken the settlement we would have lost all our water claims. We would have been up against Idaho Supreme Court and then eventually a very volatile Supreme Court, United States Supreme Court. That was my very first year on council and I was ready to resign and I told my family, I said, ‘I've never quit at anything,' and I was ready to resign.

Well, two weeks later after I gave them that speech, we had our elections and our tribal chair did not get reelected and it just happened in literally like the snap of a finger. An all male council except for me elected me the first woman chair and I just think about it now because Jamie Pinkham's uncle Scotty was on council then and he sat back smiling when the vote was over. He said, ‘You just got elected by an all male council. People are focusing on the fact you're the first woman but...' And he said, ‘It wasn't because you're a woman. It had nothing to do... It was because of the work on such a critical, critical decision.' And that still hangs onto me and people say, ‘Well, you sold our water rights out,' and they don't even think of all the leaders over 20 years that built up to the decision. And I'm fine with that because I know that we protected our water claims. That was by far the toughest thing.

Nothing...I remember...a lot of leaders, brand new leaders come to me, come to my office and they'll be upset or they'll want advice and I always think, nothing can be tougher than when you're making a decision that will affect all your people. So anything outside of that, you can handle. And so it makes me to be a very good confidante for a lot of leaders that are just in your position, just brand new. And so that will never...I don't think and I hope...the kind of decisions tribes make for your people, you hope you don't have to make those decisions ever again and I hope our tribe will never have to face those. We're not like the United States where we can make always good decisions. It seems like we're always trying to protect resources that are diminishing and we're in competition with. The mention of the Missouri River, I thought that was very interesting. That's our fight too is constantly keep our seat at the table and we have a right here. They're not fun decisions to make but they have to be made so I just think that's by far, hands down the toughest thing. There'll never be a tougher thing ever."

Jamie Fullmer:

"I don't know if I can even talk that tough. That's tough. I'm just trying to think, I didn't have it that bad I guess. No, actually, the leaders have brought up some things that I think are important to this and that is, as I try and piece my thoughts together because I had some simple thing and I'm like, ‘Wow, I have to get a little bit more focused here.' But I think that the toughest or the biggest, I guess interesting and tough, because it did involve our community and the bigger community was we were trying to put lands into trust and it was during a time when no lands were being entrusted.

We have a housing shortage at home, which most tribes do and we had lands that we had purchased over the years that the two chairmen before me had tried to get it entrusted and could not or did not or it didn't go through. And so I decided again, if I would have known before hand how tough it was going to be to move through, I thought, ‘Well, it's clear as day that it passes all the scrutiny.' I had our lawyers come in and give me good advice, ‘You passed all the tests; adjacent, ancestral homelands, next to existing tribal trust lands.' And I thought, ‘Well, this is a no brainer. I just need to help push it through.' And that was in my first term in office. When I first came into office I took that on. I said, ‘I'll take this on as one of my top priorities.' And it wasn't until, just to fast forward, it took me all of my first term and all of my second term, so it took a total of six years to get those lands into trust, 2,000 acres on behalf of my people. And the challenges that...you recognize that we...at that point when I started, I thought, ‘Well, this is going to be an easy movement.' But that was complete ignorance going into there just thinking of the statesmanship that I would use and moving through the landscape but not recognizing our place as a sovereign and the neighbors around us and their impact on our decision making, whether it would go through or not. Because when I first went out to Washington, D.C., the senator there, John Kyl and John McCain and the House of Representatives, Rick Ramsey. At the time they said, ‘Well, what do your neighbors say about it?' And I'm like, ‘I didn't even think about the neighbors. I don't care what the neighbors said.' In my mind I was thinking that we're sovereign. And they said, ‘Well, that's the first thing that has to be dealt with is if your neighbors are in opposition to this lands into trust, do you think we as public officials that represent your neighbors can actually support this getting into trust?'

So I had to go back and clean slate my whole thinking of, ‘Oh, my gosh, we are part of a bigger neighborhood and we have to present ourselves, we have to share who we are.' We're private people. The Yavapai Apache Nation, just our culture is very private. We hold some things sacred that we don't share as I'm sure you all do as well and yet we had to open that door up to settle the concerns of the neighbors. Because of our private nature there's always that distrust of the history of our landscape there from both sides. It was...now it took on a whole new light and a whole new element of over the years. Year one, I'm going to reach out to all of the neighbors and my council getting mad at me, ‘You can't go out and talk to these neighbors. We've always been...they've always been our enemies, they've always been against us.' And I said, ‘Well, you know, these are people that are opposing our lands getting into trust.' After going through the records, it was the people in the towns around us and the towns themselves that were opposed to us getting our lands into trust and so the challenge with that is there was like seven, there's seven little towns around us. And so going and reaching out to all of these seven little towns, they're like, ‘Why are you here? You guys have never been interested in presenting to us.' The balance of respecting and protecting sovereignty and being a good neighbor and I know all of you deal with this because it's impossible not to in our Indian world today. But in order to move the ball forward, the diplomacy that was needed there was a whole new lesson for me and that was tough because I was more hard driven. I'm more like the bull in the china cabinet or whatever at that time. I was more, ‘We'll aggress our way forward.' And aggression was not the way to move forward. So taking guidance from the elders and respecting what they didn't want shared, taking guidance from our experts that we had hired to help us with the process and saying what needed to be shared, and then meeting with our leaders to find out what they'd be willing to support me standing for on behalf of our people because they had to report to their own constituents about what we were doing. As you know, as councilors, you represent a certain constituent group, either your family or clan or a district or a combination of those things.

So the toughest situation wasn't necessarily going up to Washington, D.C. to deal with the federal government because I knew the relationship there, it's clear as day, government-to-government. It's this way, in my mind. I wasn't going there asking permission. I was going there telling them what we as a sovereign wanted and needed and felt like that the United States was obligated to do. But at the local level, at the municipal level that's a whole different relationship. They don't...they had no idea about sovereignty and what it meant at that government to government relationship. They really just saw us as this kind of vacuumized neighborhood within the region that nobody had any interaction with. And so I think the toughest piece of that was opening the door enough to share and shed light on who we were as a society and as a people and trying to normalize the situation. I would go into these towns and say, ‘Look, we want the same things as you. We want our kids to be educated. We want our elders to be safe. We want to have healthcare for our people when it's needed. We want to be able to have homes to live in. So everything that you want as a people, we want. But there are some things that are different because we have a different relationship to the landscape here.' And then the doubters inside, ‘You can't get this done.' Maybe historic or political leaders that had tried before and hadn't done it and you're thinking that they would be aligned in wanting to get it done but seeing that maybe they didn't necessarily want to see it get done, by me anyway.

And I do want to say that it was a team effort. It was definitely getting our council to support that process which gave me the, I guess the courage to go and deal with those issues because it wasn't just me dealing with it, it was me on behalf of my people and my community doing it. If it was just me, I probably would have pulled the plug on dealing with it. But standing for the people takes on a whole new level of security and courage."

June Noronha:

"Before we go into the question and answer session, what we're going to do is we asked each of the chairs at the table to tell you what would be their advice to you. So what advice do they have for the new tribal council members? So we're going to do that and then we're going to open it up for questions and answers."

Darrin Old Coyote:

"My advice to new tribal council members is, there's always people coming and like there's a problem and they want you to solve their problem and one thing I've kind of used, I used an analogy and this could be suicide prevention, drug prevention, diabetes prevention, all the areas. They give you so much funding, federal funding, whether it be 638 or federal funding, you've got to think outside the box. One thing is, I'll just use an analogy here. Say they were going to give you some money for suicide or say there's a cliff there and kids were jumping off that cliff and you had funding available and the federal government wanted you to do basically an ambulance at the bottom to haul off people that are jumping off that cliff. Why can't we use that money to build a fence so that people don't jump off, that's prevention. And that's one area that I know a lot of people will say, ‘Let's build a dialysis center.' Why don't we build a wellness center? You've got to think prevention and everything you do, think prevention.

Another is build bridges whether it be local communities, the county or state and national. Build bridges, don't burn bridges and it helps you. Diplomacy goes a long way when you work with whatever happened historically that's been in the past, put it in the past, put it in history books. Build bridges, don't burn bridges. When you burn bridges, it doesn't go anywhere. You don't achieve anything. So I'd recommend that you build bridges with the county or the state.

And then another one is, I always used the vision of one of our last traditional Crow chiefs, Plenty Coups. He had a vision of forests and there was a storm that came and wiped out all the trees in this forest but there was only one tree still standing and there it was the home of the chickadee and the chickadee would learn what all these other birds were doing and he would learn from them, he would learn from all these birds and the things they did and what they did right and what they did wrong and he would use that. And at the end when that whole storm wiped out all these trees that...the home of the chickadee was still standing in his vision and so from that day forward he said, ‘Whatever we do, don't go against that storm.' And that storm is, whether it be the White people or the federal government and today that tree, the home of the chickadee, he says that's the home of the Crow because he learned from other tribes what they didn't do or did do and then he used that to survive. Basically it's about survival. But diplomacy is key and then unity, unifying your tribe.

One quote I always use is, ‘There's no other Crow tribe. You can't jump on a plane and go find another Crow tribe, we're it. We've got to do this right. If we don't do it, no one else is going to do it for us.' And we take on that challenge. It's up to us. We're elected, in here, it's up to us in here. We're the ones elected, we can't go and find anybody else to do it for us. It's up to us. Once you use that in every meeting, all the tribal leaders are...they look around. It's us. Well, you're elected to do a job and if you use that saying, ‘Our people are depending on us.' There's no other Crow tribe and there's no other whatever tribe you're from. If we don't do it, no one else can do it for us. And that's when you bring them in, part of the team and unifying them and going after whatever the task is. But unifying your council, that's one way to do it, and it's helped me for the last few years as vice secretary now as chairman. It's helped me kind of making them feel that they're part of the process in resolving the problems and I will say, ‘You can't jump on a plane and go find another Crow tribe.' There's no other tribe like us, there's no language...this language I'm speaking, there's no other language like it,' and I'm speaking Crow to all of them. ‘No other culture like this and let's tackle this.' Because a lot of times tribal leaders are looking for somebody to help them whether it be an attorney or whether it be another tribal leader, have him do it. But it's up to us. You're elected and it's up to you to make a difference and unifying your council would be key."

Rebecca Miles:

"Following that I have I think about three things just quickly as advice to all of you. One of the things I learned is to rely on your staff whether they're your attorneys or your experts in the field. Brian Gunn gave an excellent PowerPoint of what the United States leaders do and about their staff. They've been working in that field a long time and all of a sudden you recognize...it really becomes a team. I used to call...there used to be two Daves in my office; Dave Johnson who's still there, our Fisheries Manager, and Dave Cummings. And I lead a lot of fisheries issues, natural resource issues and we'd go to the White House administration two or three times a year and I'd say, ‘Okay, Dream Team, it's time to go.' I felt very honored to be with these guys who the respect was given to me but it was work that they had spent 20 years doing on behalf of your people. And so I called them my Dream Team because they really were...they really earned us a lot of respect. Your staff are really looking for that guidance and they really are, they're looking to serve you. And if they're not, if they're looking there to make you look bad then perhaps your policies need to be improved.

The second thing is relationships whether they're...and starting just with your other people on the council. A lot of times election will happen and you think a person's elected that may have been your archenemy or they have made your life hell while you were on council and a lot of times they can be your very best friend. It's issue by issue. You don't always agree on things but don't lock yourself in a box to have the reputation of not working with anybody. You really lose...you can really lose sight. And so one of the things...in high school even I always hated cliques. We just had our 20 year reunion and I was friends with everybody in our class and it felt really good seeing everybody again and there were the same clicks, locked in as grown women or men not talking. It was a small community and I just was really blessed to be able to not just follow one... One person wrote in my yearbook, ‘She was friends with everybody, the nerds, everybody, the sport...the guys, everybody.' And so that's how I carried my relationship in life. There were people that may have not liked me and they got on council and it just became, we're all here for one reason, for our people. And so it behooves you to work together and everything is relationships, whether you're amongst yourselves. If you're fighting, then your people are hurting, I promise you that. It's just like parents. If your parents aren't doing well, the kids are hurting and it's exactly the same way on tribal council. But relationships are everything, even in Congress. The staffers, even though they may seem like they just got out of high school, you really got to...they really are sophisticated in a lot of ways and that leads to my third piece of advice I have.

You know 40, 50, 60 years ago when our constitution was being formed and our government was being established as a formal government, tribal leaders really had to know a lot about very little and that was treaty rights, history, knowing that they have to educate people in Congress or in the administration about our place and to protect our sovereignty. And then today's tribal leader is really the exact opposite. Because Congress or the administration has more then quadrupled in 30, 40 years so has...and as tribes have developed. You now have to know a little about a lot of topics as opposed to what your leaders did 50 years ago and so it's a very different shift in the work you kind of do and that's where it goes back to staff; being a good study, being a good study of capturing the main points on a lot of issues. Brian Gunn hit the top issues across Indian Country but you as individual tribes now have your own top issues aside from what is facing Indian Country. And the reason why I say that and being concise is so correct because your leadership in Congress have already heard...they already know your treaty rights in a lot of ways. They have their staff do the research and everything. They want specifics, they want details. They don't want you to just go in and demand treaty rights. They want a specific ask and so that helps when as a tribal leader you study the issues. You don't have to be a professor. A lot of times your people think you have to go in being very smart and actually the best tribal leader is one who is going to sit and listen and not know a lot about things, somebody who's going to be open minded.

I just think those are things that are very valuable and make you actually a well rounded leader because you learn so much, there's just so much you learn, good and bad, on tribal council and you're in that place to make that decision. I really appreciated the PowerPoint because I wish I had that ahead of time because a lot of times people think you do need to be that expert in the field and maybe you were elected because you either teach the language or you know something, some trait. But when you come on council, I don't know about your council, but ours is we all vote equally on the same issue and so it just is very...a lot of times you're not the one leading the issue. Your counterpart is leading that issue. Not everybody can be in the healthcare field. And when you recognize that what your job is on council, some people get on council because just to be honest they want to maybe fire staff or they want to have retribution. They have an agenda. Not having an agenda is actually the best thing because there is so much work for you to do and if you actually just went into one policy arena which I found myself accidentally leading natural resources, which is another story in itself. The men automatically pushed me towards health, being on the health board and that's all great but my life prepared me and I didn't realize it for natural resources and to lead natural resources. If you just take salmon recovery, there is more than enough work for one tribal leader to do. And so if you're spending your time focusing on negative things or things that are not the council's role, then you're not doing your job because the amount of work Indian Country has to do in any one policy arena is just...the levels of bureaucracy and red tape you've got to get through is just tremendous and that's your job. So there's a lot of work to be done so focus on those things. Thank you."

Jamie Fullmer:

"A couple of points. The first one is the one does not outweigh the all in the tribal system. The one individual...hiring the one individual that is incapable to do the job does not outweigh all of the individuals that that individual can impact in their particular role. You hire a director that is incapable to do their job, then they affect everybody who's in that system. Education is a perfect example. So when you say, ‘Well, we're hiring that person cause they're a tribal member or they're a relative or whatever,' just keep in mind, the one does not outweigh the all. And the other thing is they've always talked about, and I don't know who they are, maybe it was we.

We talked about nepotism and the discussion around nepotism but in a tribal system we're all related. And if you develop policy and you follow that policy and you hire based on talent and skills, it doesn't matter if they're your cousin, brother, sister, nephew, uncle, niece. It doesn't matter. But that was a hard challenge, especially the smaller the community. Everybody's related at some level, clan relative or blood relative or whatever and so that was a battle that we faced a lot was this whole nepotism battle. And so the way we overcame that was by developing policy for hiring that was based on skills. It didn't matter if they were somebody's brother, sister, relative, whatever. If the criteria was there and they were...met the criteria threshold, then they were eligible to be hired. But that really helped elevate the bar rather than lowering the bar to meet the standard of the people. Elevate the bar and have people work up to it but you need to provide the programming to help them do that.

Just a final point about this advisement; create a plan and follow through. There's always that honeymoon period. You have a great meeting, you have a great session, you're real enthused and you get back in the office, you still have the stacks there, you still have the phone calls coming in, you still have the demands of daily life, you still have to follow those. Define the issues as was brought up and respect and recognize the cultural priorities and the chairman brought up a cultural story of a vision that tied very much into the here and now. We have a lot of answers in our own stories, in our own histories and songs and part of our heritage ways that will teach us how to run our governments as well. It doesn't always have to be the western philosophy, although most of the tribal governments in the modern world are built around a democratic system, a republic system actually.

And then budget where the priorities are established. If you say, ‘Culture is our number one priority,' and yet it has the smallest budget in your government, you've got to put your money where your mouth is. That's so important. You can't just build all these priorities and then run business as usual. The budget has to match those priorities. You say, ‘Education is a priority,' and it's only two percent of the budget, it doesn't really connect.

Learning from past mistakes and successes. Let your...as was said, you come in with an open slate and saying, ‘I'm not aligned with one or the other but what have we done in the past that's worked. What have we done in the past that could be done differently to change it?' I remember, real quickly, my grandfather, he'd come in, he says, ‘Oh, we tried that in '72 or we tried that in '84,' and I'm thinking, I was thinking I'm coming up with these great, bright ideas and cutting edge and he's like, ‘Oh, yeah, we were too small back then or we didn't have enough money then, this'll probably work now.' So learning from those historical figures in your community.

Finding out what you all as council members want. Each of you might have, this was brought up, an agenda, what is that? Is there some things that you can align on? You should fight... We used to always say that the strongest debate makes the greatest answers. But there are some things that you should be aligned on. If healthcare is an alignment issue, then put all the argument aside and say, ‘What do we need to do to actually move forward with it,' and then defining how much money is actually available. It's one thing to have your wish list, it's another thing to have down there how much do we actually have to get this done.

And then finally, listen to your people. Listen whether it's your constituents or it's other...your fellow council members. Listen to your people. They'll tell you what they want. They maybe not necessarily will tell you what they need but they'll always tell you what they want and at some point you'll be able to drill down into what they need. We want to have our kids be happy and healthy. Well, in order to do that we need to have food in the house, lights on, education, safe homes with no abuse and neglect. So those are the tidbits of advice of a has-been leader."

Related Resources


Jamie Fullmer (former Chairman of the Yavapai-Apache Nation), Rebecca Miles (Executive Director and former Chairwoman of the Nez Perce Tribe) and Darrin Old Coyote (Chairman of the Crow Tribe) field questions from seminar participants about how they have negotiated the fundamental challenges of…


Nez Perce Tribe Executive Director Rebecca Miles discusses the challenges she faced as the first-ever chairwoman of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, and the strategies she used in order to govern effectively and make informed decisions.


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