LeRoy Staples Fairbanks III and Adam Geisler: What I Wish I Knew Before I Took Office (Q&A)
Fairbanks III, LeRoy Staples. "What I Wish I Knew Before I Took Office (Q&A)." Emerging Leaders seminar. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. November 6, 2013. Q&A session.
Geisler, Adam. "What I Wish I Knew Before I Took Office (Q&A)." Emerging Leaders seminar. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. November 6, 2013. Q&A session.
"We have a few minutes for a Q&A. Is there anyone that has a question like just got to be asked? There's one back here and if you can speak loud, there's a microphone over here otherwise if you just say it loud if you can."
"My name's Tiffany Sorrell and I'm a Ph.D. student currently at the U of A [University of Arizona]. A lot of my focus has been on educational psychology and so I thought you touched on a lot of good points here with domestic violence and the drugs and alcohol, and you mentioned a little bit about education, but I just wanted to know more on your thoughts on some challenges that you've been facing with education. I've been focusing a lot in my dissertation on cultural influences and how that impacts learning and how that impacts curriculum and things like that and so I was just wondering also, a second part of the question is what recommendations and tools do you have to address these challenges that you've been facing."
"I guess my response to that would be that education is a huge...it's been a huge barrier of getting our membership to go...to take the step into higher education and I think that Leech Lake actually providing a tribal college in the community was the biggest thing they could have done for our membership or for our citizens to overcome barriers of trying to go off reservation for higher education. There's...the biggest barrier I would say with education is that drugs and alcohol are basically...they're probably the basis of all problems on the reservation and drugs and alcohol keep people from...even if they take the step into going to college, it keeps them from finishing out college. It keeps them from being focused, it keeps them from taking that extra step when things get difficult because they've started families early and it's difficult when you have a family that started early, and I would say that's one of my barriers is I didn't necessarily follow the societal norms that society tells you how you're supposed to live your life. Go to high school, go to college, get a job, find a wife, buy a house, have a kid. I kind of did mine all over the place. But I wouldn't have done it any other way. However my path has been to get to where I'm at today is basically because of my family and I'm...after my time here I'll be going back to get my education, but it's about inspiration and maybe making it cool for kids to go to school. And athletics, I would say at our tribal college is huge because there was a big bump in students who signed up for school this fall semester because of athletics. There just needs to be a motivating factor to keep them going and they have to see that the leadership is in support of doing that. Four year ago or four years prior to me getting in office, our tribal council reduced our direct allocation to our tribal college by 66 percent and that was one of the things that I ran on. I said, "˜If that's not a slap in the face to a priority of education then I don't know what is.' And so I've allocated money to going to build our library and archive center, building actual bricks and mortar foundations to our tribal college, building...just showing in our communities that we stand behind them and we're going to support them in any way, trying to establish new educational programs like critical professions programs, like an actual tribal endowment because we say we lack funding for colleges and so it's just kind of thinking innovatively of how students are getting their college money and they'll go to school for a little bit and they'll drop out. How are we keeping them...how are we going to keep them to finish the semester out because they're going to have a bad report back to the funding agency wherever they got their money from and it's going to affect them and they're going to be put on probation at whatever institution if they try to go back. But I would say that a big thing, it does fall on the shoulders of the leadership to show that there's going to be support there for their band members or their citizens to do what they choose to do in life and they can depend on their tribe."
"Can I just follow up on that real quick? I'm kicking myself because I didn't put a slide up there on education. I actually thought about it after I printed the 60 copies. We started off...when we got in there, we had three kids in our after-school program. I think you hit on like the college component. I'll speak a little bit about the younger kids. We came in, there were three kids in our program. We had been suspended on the Healthy Food Program for...prior to us getting in, so we had some headaches that we had to get through. When we got there, that was the initial challenge because I think the biggest motivator that you have in anything that you're doing can always actually come back to food, especially in Indian Country, because our kids in our community, what we were finding was that was actually the only place they were getting a meal was at our after-school program, which is really heartbreaking. Title 7, we started doing exploration about what the heck is our school district doing with our Title 7 dollars? We use Title 7 dollars. And we started pressing the school board asking them...we'd been open for a year, we had seen the reading proficiencies and we had seen where our kids were struggling. We got tutors involved working with kids from first grade all the way up into high school. With very little money we were able to start addressing this. So after the school board found out that we had a woman that had a master's in education, very, very skillful, they recognized that we were serious about making sure that our kids were going to be receiving services and that they weren't just going to take those dollars and they were using it to supplement other things that weren't addressing our Indian kids specifically. So we got engaged with the district, we got parents to sign consent forms, because unfortunately we have parents that aren't parents in our communities. They may start families young, they may have abandoned their kids, whatever happened happened, but the reality is that still I viewed as something that we were responsible for because they are members of our tribe, we do take care of our own, we always have. So we started getting report cards, we started getting updates from the school district to a point where we actually even started showing up to parent-teacher conferences and relaying that information back. Maybe mom had to work and just can't make it, too. There's a lot of single mothers that are in our community. And so between those components and then the caveat of athletics we were really able to bring more kids into the program "˜cause they were getting food, entice them with sports, and then hold them accountable because finally somebody was actually seeing their progress reports and understanding where their proficiencies were and then providing the tutors to deal with that literally on a daily basis."
"I'll just add one more thing. He opened the door for like elementary education, and I would say that there has been feedback in the community from like elementary schools that have said that they know which families are going to school, which parents are going to college because they're understanding more of an importance of what it's about and that shows because they're making sure their kids are getting up and going to school in the morning. Something as simple as making sure your kids get up and go to school in the morning is huge because your kids are growing up with a huge...with a greater understanding of what it's about to get your education and taking pride in getting that education. If they aren't hearing those messages at home, it's difficult for them to prioritize that when they feel like they can't get out, if they feel like they're stuck wherever they're at. They need those messages and if they're not hearing them at home, they've got to hear them from somewhere. That's another big thing is down at the elementary and junior high [schools] as far as intervention goes."
"Grand Chief, you had a question?"
"Thank you. First I'm going to apologize because I tend to speak loud and hard. I don't really need this, but I'm going to comply with the requirements here. We're from Akwesasne, which is a reservation that's half in Canada and half in the United States and it's a Mohawk community. And I've been where you guys are sitting right now and I just like to sit and listen to others that come after and it makes you think. One of the greatest lessons, and I hope that whatever I say to you you take it in a good way "˜cause it's not meant to be criticizing, more perhaps for sharing. The lady had a question on education and you talked about everything but the most essential part of teaching our Indigenous students is their own culture and language, to reinforce that before they leave because when they go to school, they go to high school off the territory, they go to a university, college off the territory and you want them to come home. At the end you want them to come home, you want them to be proud of who they are when they leave. We have to equip them, and so that's the greatest thing that we can give them is that knowledge of knowing who they are. And one of the things that you mentioned a while ago, nation building begins with our children, our families, our community. It begins with yourself of being comfortable of knowing who you are. If you're Mohawk language, Anishinaabe -- however you define yourself and your nation -- as you travel about and get into the education system, you will be challenged many times. Not physically, not even mentally, but generally. So when you get asked a question...a while ago you said the 'Ojibwe Band,' in Canada they go through this...there's national legislation called the Indian Act where they refer legally that we're not to be called 'nations' in Canada. We're not to be called even 'tribes' but 'bands,' and when I became chief one of the things that I worked on...I says, "˜That's a very offensive word because the government subliminal [message] is trying to get us not to recognize our people who we are, who we were and who we are now because of the proud nations that existed back then, it doesn't mean they don't exist now.' So my grandfather always told me to identify myself as a member of the Mohawk Nation, but when I went to school and as I grew up I started hearing other kids refer to themselves as the Mohawk Band of St. Regis Akwesasne. So when I became a chief I changed that name from St. Regis to Akwesasne, our traditional name for our community. We changed a lot of things back to our traditional names and that meant that the community became more aware of themselves individually, family, community, nation. And so as the chief, when we had a council meeting, because of many years of government telling us that we had to refer to ourselves as the 'Band,' all the chiefs...they had a Band administrator, they had Band programs, they had...everything was 'Band.' I put a coffee cup on the council table and I said, "˜The next person that says he's a Band of something, put a quarter in that cup and we'll have coffee for next week.' We had coffee for many months because they couldn't shake that. But after awhile they started seeing that they're not a Band and I would ask them, "˜What are you then?' "˜I'm a nation.' Yes! That spilled over to our staff, the community, everybody got into the game. Pretty soon more awareness. I say that because when I said 'Band' is offensive, the story you told about that little white lady that sat next to you on the plane, when she asked you what you thought of the name 'Washington Redskin,' you should have told her, "˜It's a racially offensive term,' that if it was the 'Washington Niggers' she would have noticed, anybody would have and that is how they equate the difference. No problem as long as they're called 'Redskin' but to all our young people they should know, we should tell them. And being [Mohawk language] and a member of a proud nation and for generations to come we no longer want to be referred to as 'Redskins' and it starts with a pro football team that should be leading this in a good way to say, "˜We are going to change it,' and for all the students going to schools that should be first and foremost that recognition of defining who we are, that it starts with those multi-million dollar sports organizations. So I've been in politics now 28 years and I've got a chance to share a lot of thoughts with a lot of leaders and in this way, in a good way, I want to share that with you, because you're going to be chiefs for a long time yet and you're going to be aware from the smallest population...we've got 18,000 at Akwesasne and 12,000 that we're directly responsible for. That responsibility is no less greater or less than the ones who have 700 in their community because the process of nation building, why we're gathered here, is to recognize ourselves, who we are and to equip our young people and our leaders with the tools necessary and that starts with spiritually, culturally, knowing how we define ourselves and so I thought I'd take a few minutes and share that with you."
"Thank you, Grand Chief. I wanted to say that the beauty of a gathering like this is that we always get to learn new things like this from veteran leaders such as the Grand Chief and also the folks that are on the panel. It never ceases to amaze me how sometimes you hear just the right thing that you need to hear to put in your pocket or to carry in your heart or your mind for the next person to maybe ask that really critical question like the Redskins issue so thank you very much, Grand Chief, for those words and then also Tiffany for your question. I also...is there anybody else that had like a question that they just had like a burning...oh, we already have one guy jumping around over here. We'll have this question and I have kind of a wrap up question and then I have a couple of announcements."
"I wasn't jumping but I was excited to ask these questions. I really appreciate these talks about education. That's what we do, that's we're here and what the former speakers just said is really key. One of the things we found at our college is through research and through experience for anybody else who teaches at college or any other educational institution, for us to be really successful with our students or for them to be successful and to stay for the entire program, they have to feel like they belong. They have to feel like they have a support system, that they have a family, that they have connections to whether it's faculty members, other students, student organizations, activities. Those are the things that really keep students engaged in there and if we can base it out of a cultural understanding of who they are and they take that along with them, because we're really...for the most part we're teaching them a lot of like content area subjects: accounting, business law -- all these things that you could teach in any sort of environment, but without providing them the basis and context for them to understand where they live, where their families live because a lot of our students come back from being away from Lummi, the reservation where the college is on and they come back and they haven't...they've been raised by an extended family member in Los Angeles for 18 years and now they want to come back and get an education and learn about something that they've never learned about. So I just wanted to really encourage anybody in education to not just focus on the whole factual teaching of "˜We're going to increase your brain power' sort of thing. You really need to get to the cultural thing and you need to get to really provide them with the basis to have an opportunity to create meaning for their own life "˜cause if they can do that and if they have that meaning and they keep that in their mind then they're just going to keep moving on. This is of course all my perspective. So I just wanted to comment from an educational perspective, because this is really what we're trying to do, we're trying to engage students for their life, create lifetime learners, and so that they then can become the role models for their kids. "˜Cause one of the things we deal with, we have so many young parents at our college, which is good and bad but if we can teach these students how to be good role models, students, professionals, community leaders, council members, then their kids are going to pick up on that and we don't need to tell them that anymore because they've had a lifetime of experience of mother, dad doing these things."
"Do either of you have a response to either of the last two comments?"
"I don't really have a response to it all. I would say that I think you're on point as far as a cultural basis or spiritual foundation to every individual and an understanding of who they are, not just historical governance...is history but there's also a cultural history to each reservation. And I agree about 'the Band' and sometimes that's...you're very on point, and I'm really glad that you said that, because terminology is very key in understanding who you really are. I don't even like to say 'Indian' but sometimes back at home if someone's not changing the terminology, no one's going to change that and so I'm glad that I got to hear that today because it kind of motivates me to make more of a push to change things. We have...like Red Lake is a neighboring reservation and they're still Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians. We're not Chippewa either and so it's just still some of those terms are still lingering out there though but that's one of the things that I didn't really get to finish with what I was going to say is that...and I'll just touch on it right now is family time that I didn't touch on when I was speaking earlier is that you have to dedicate that time for your family. That's one thing that I think is very important that you can't lose sight of during these years. You want to dedicate yourself while you're in office...if you choose to be in office for a very long time or short time, that you want to do the best job that you can do while you're there, but you can't forget about the family time or the family that supports you in doing the work that you do. My foundation is trying to keep that balance and I have elders in the communities that I look to for that balance to help keep me balanced. I have elders who kind of keep me on the straight and narrow sometimes because sometimes I lose sight of that bigger picture and that bigger picture is that balance of maintaining a healthy balance with your physical health, your mental health, your spiritual health and so I appreciate your words. [Native language]."
"I too appreciate what you had to say. I always...anytime I have an opportunity to learn and listen to others that have been before me and have experienced it...unfortunately I'm going to have a really hard time changing the name of my tribe from the La Jolla Band of Luiseno Indians and I mean no offense to you by that but the reality is for us to...I think it just goes to show that we all identify ourselves individually by our nations, by our tribes, and how we organize ourselves in that on one side of the...one portion of the country will view things one way and one part of the country will view things another way and that I think is the biggest part to overcome in anything that you're dealing with in Indian Country because I find it in every single program that we ever deal with. They always think that I operate the same way that somebody else operates and I think it's good to acknowledge the fact that we all come together and I think have commonalities with things, but at the same time view ourselves very differently depending on what part of the country you're in because we all have very different histories. I can appreciate what you shared about the language but the reality is I have one person that speaks it on my reservation due to termination and I would love to start a language class up there with that individual and we're trying to do that but the reality is it takes money, time and resources and a motivated individual who's willing to share the knowledge "˜cause I totally agree with that, that occurs in our community sometimes. The people that know, which we have a whole section of them that know because they ran into the mountains, they weren't captured by the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] and taken off to the boarding schools. They know and then there's others of us that come from families in the community that don't. But I do appreciate what you had to say and from the...people. [Native language]."
"Thank you very much. We are coming up to the top of the hour and I wanted to again extend our deepest appreciation for you spending some time with us sharing what you've learned, especially as young men. It feels good to know that there are folks like you who are going to be leading the nations."