LeRoy Staples Fairbanks III: What I Wish I Knew Before I Took Office

Native Nations Institute

Leroy Staples Fairbanks III, who serves on the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Council, discusses some of the hard stances he had to take in order to do his job well and also shares an overview of some of the major steps thatthe leech Lake Band has taken in order to govern more effectively and use its resources more wisely and efficiently.  

Native Nations
Resource Type

Fairbanks III, LeRoy Staples. "What I Wish I Knew Before I Took Office." Emerging Leaders seminar. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. November 6, 2013. Presentation.

"Good morning. I introduced myself this morning. Like I said, I'm Leroy Staples Fairbanks III and I'm the District 3 Representative from Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, which is in north central Minnesota. Normally how...I've seen others introduce themselves in their language and so kind of how we would say it is I would say Boozhoo, which means hello, [Ojibwe language] is I'm Fox and I'm from the Bear Clan. Our tribe is located in like I said north central Minnesota. We have roughly 9,200 band members or band citizens. This is my first term and I was elected last year in July of 2012 and I wasn't going to say my age, but I'm actually older than this young fellow here. I was elected before I was 30 so I'll just say that, I won't say my age. We have a five-person council with four-year staggered terms. I would just like to say, I would like to thank the NNI staff for inviting me to be here today to share my experiences. I don't consider this much of teaching you guys but just sharing my experiences here with you and I would also like to say Miigwetch to the tribal leaders from this reservation here for welcoming us here to this reservation, this beautiful casino and hotel.

What I'm going to start with is campaign promises. I'm going to take a little bit of a different approach to the previous presentation, which was...it was an awesome presentation, very informative, and something I wish I could have sat through before I was elected into office. But I'll start off with campaign promises. When I ran my campaign to getting into office, it was based on honesty, ethical decision making, transparency, and you have a lot of people that support that, they support you. They say, "˜Yeah, this is what we want you to do. This is who we want you to be in office.' And you get in office and things just kind of switch. Those same people are asking, "˜Well, I did help you. Can I get a job? Can I get a raise? Can I get a house? Can I get a transfer? Can you appoint me to a certain position?' And it's difficult that the people that did help you, but you just kind of return the message back to them and you ask them, "˜Why would you put me in a situation like that when all that we talked about was maintaining integrity in a position?' So during my time in office I've had to have that conversation many, many, many times of telling people, "˜You wanted us to change the way that we do the hiring and the firing and the personnel matters with the tribe. We have an HR department, we have policies and procedures that outline how all the decisions are being made and how the hiring is...how it happens and employees rights as far as being a part of the organization,' but yet they want to jump straight to the council. And so we started to change those methods on how we handled it, but still the employees will say, "˜Well...' They'll try to get you back in your office and say, "˜Well, I gave you this many votes or I helped you in this way and you're obligated to help me,' and the easy answer is, no, you're not. I won by 30 votes. I had 919 votes and the other guy had about 890 and so everybody wanted to be a part of that 29 or 30 votes that actually got me into office. The easy answer for me is that 920 people voted me into office, but I still represent the rest of the band membership and that's the decisions that I have to make. I have to make it for the band membership and I don't make it to who voted me into office. That's just a process on how you get to that position.

And I would say that I didn't dream of running for office or I didn't dream of being a council member growing up. I had a little bit of a different type of experiences growing up. And so I've had quite a few experiences, but in my experiences of understanding what tribal politics and tribal government was on Leech Lake, I kind of had a sour taste in my mouth about it. I didn't have a good outlook on it. So I didn't really envision myself as this prestigious position and, "˜That's what I want to do, I want to get into tribal office so I can help my people.' It was more or less you see some of the negative outlooks and the negative aspects of what the office was looked at as, and so that wasn't my dream. My background is in human service. I'm a drug and alcohol counselor, and so in that field you aren't really involved as much in governmental operations. A lot of the things that he was talking about, you're not privvy to that information. You focus on helping the people that you help, your client list and that's your focus and so you put so much energy towards that, but it kind of becomes burnt out. And so when you carry yourself in a certain way in the community, people say those individuals that do carry themselves in a respectful manner, they kind of gravitate and people see those traits, they see the character, they see the behaviors and they kind of look to those people. And so I would just say that I think I was blessed that people seen some traits in me that they wanted me to start moving into leadership positions.

And so I managed a halfway house for a while and the tribal council asked me to come be a part of the administrative team as a deputy director, chief administrator basically, and I did that for a few years and that was my eye opener to what was going on with our reservation. There was a lot of things that I wasn't aware of on so many different levels because tribal government encompasses everything from top to bottom, it really does. I'm not so much hands on with all the little things like this gentleman has because we have...we employ 2,500 people. We have three casinos and we have departments that kind of handle a lot of that stuff and so we aren't so hands on with everything, but there's a great understanding and a learning curve that happened as a part of that position. But it's about training and helping people job shadowing and trying to train future leaders to take over those positions. My understanding of getting in this position was I wasn't going to be here forever. It's a four-year term. I'm hoping that there's enough movement in four years that if I choose not to re-run in four years that I've done enough to try to mobilize and prepare future leaders to take over these positions, because there's some bold things happening at home and we want that to continue.

I'll say one thing though is that I went through the [Native Nation] Rebuilders program. NNI partners with Bush Foundation out of St. Paul, Minnesota and there's a Rebuilders program that focuses on tribes in a three-state area: Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. And I was a part of the first cohort and I would say that I would attribute me running for office as being a part of that program because if I didn't go through that program, it probably wouldn't have motivated me enough to see some of the success stories outside of Leech Lake that gave me a big enough push to tell me that things can work, this is how tribes are working, because when you're in the middle of the mess sometimes it's hard to see out, and so you have to kind of step back and you have to take a look at how are other tribes doing it, what are other tribes doing, can we apply that here, how can we apply it here? And that's the most of what I got out of that program is seeing...they talked about some of the reservations and economic development up here this morning and those are the things that inspired me to, 'Yeah, there is opportunity and I'm going to bring that to my reservation,' and so that's kind of what got me to wanting to run for office.

I don't have a four-year degree and a lot of elders in the community, they told me, "˜Maybe you should just wait to run for office until you have that degree on your wall because that's going to validate your work in office and people can't question that,' but there were too many signs that were coming before me. There were signs that things just were happening the way they were supposed to be happening and I even told myself when I was working for the council, "˜I don't want to be in one of those positions.' I seen the mentality and I seen the behavior and I was kind of taken aback. I was like, "˜Ah, I don't want to be in that position. I can't do some of the things that they're doing because it's not right.' And so I told myself I wasn't going to do it. I went through the program, frustrations were building because of how things were going, and I said, "˜You know what, if I'm not going to do it, I don't know who's going to.' So I decided to take that step and it was a very big step. Tribal politics on Leech Lake is...can grow...I don't know how to put it kindly, but it can get kind of messy. And so it has been kind of messy. And I would say in the last year and a half things have stabilized, things are...they're progressing. I'll touch on how important nation building is to me.

I used to fly quite a bit when I was a little bit younger in airplanes and it didn't really bother me and for some reason that flying in airplanes bothers me now. I don't know if it's because I have a Twitter account and every...twice a day you hear about plane crashes or terminals being attacked, but I have a fear of flying. The last time I flew, I flew with the Bush Foundation up to go visit Salish Kootenai last year -- it's the last time I've flown out of state, otherwise I try to drive and it's just something that I have to overcome. Bush offered me an opportunity to speak down here in March on...I don't remember exactly what the title was about...I was going to be speaking about, but I ended up skyping in the presentation and we had a little bit of connectivity issues and I felt kind of bad about that and so this is...nation building and nation rebuilding is...it's the basis of everything that I'm trying to do back home and it's that important to me that I wanted to get on a plane. And it wasn't just a direct flight, I had a layover in Phoenix, and so that's two takeoffs and two landings. I get nervous about speaking sometimes too, but my hands aren't nearly as clammy today as they were when I was on the plane. It was tough.

I had some conversations with people on the airplane about...they were asking about, "˜What is your take on the Redskins issue?' And I said, "˜I don't know. It's not something that I necessarily think about day to day.' And she's like, "˜Well, what do you think the inception of the name was? It wasn't intended to be disrespectful, do you think?' And I was like, "˜Well, I don't really know the history behind the name. I would say that it's not one of the biggest things that bothers me, but I can understand how it gets under people's skin. I understand why there's a movement to change the name because it's not necessarily the owner of the Redskins is out depicting Native Americans in a certain way, it's how the fans, how the people...you get the people doing the...with the headdress and the tomahawk chops in the arenas and that's not very respectful and there's a lot of things down that line that I don't agree with.' It's just...it's something I didn't...I was kind of taken aback by and she's like, "˜Well, I live in San Francisco and there's not a lot of Natives so I don't really get to talk to a lot of Natives and ask them this question so I just wanted to know.' That was on one flight.

On another flight, they're asking about how gaming came to be. "˜Did the Indians want it or did the federal government want to give it to the Indians? Who regulates it?' I said, "˜Well, there's a commission.' "˜Okay. Well, are you guys represented nationally?' I'm like, "˜Yeah, there's national organizations that represent gaming.' There was another lady who was kind of sitting by me and she was like, "˜I feel so bad about Indians and their addiction.' I'm like, "˜Well, what do you mean?' These are just some of those things and she asked me, "˜Well, how much money do you guys get in per capita payments at your tribe?' And I'm like, "˜We don't get anything in per capita payments because we have 9,200 band members, we live in a very remote area, and we don't generate enough to do per capita payments and I'm not even in favor really of per capita payments because it kind of promotes...it promotes dependency and there's a few tribes in Minnesota that have big per capita payments like Shakopee Mdewakanton [Sioux Community]. They have less...around 500 band members. They're located very closely to Minneapolis, the Twin Cities area and they have a lot of money and they do give money back out to other communities, which is...it's very good on their part.

I would say that in getting into office you're challenged. You're challenged by naysayers; you're challenged by people who don't agree with your viewpoints. I was challenged on my knowledge of history of Leech Lake and my knowledge of history of the Ojibwe people and Native history in general and I would say...I kind of revert that back to...because these are supposed to be the experts in the community and they say, "˜Well, what do you know about this, what do you know about this?' And I say, "˜Well, I'm still learning. I probably don't know as much as I should yet. I will though.' But I revert that back to those experts and I just wrote a column in our newspaper last month and that's basically kind of what I said to them. I said, "˜I challenge all of you history experts in the community to ask yourself what are you doing to ensure that the younger generation in our communities are learning this stuff instead of being hoarders of information.' And that's what we have. We have a lot of hoarders, because people are scared because information is power and so you have to kind of go and find all the cracks and crevices of information to empower yourself and that's basically what I've done. I'm a quarter way through the room, through the house. There's plenty and many more things that I have to learn, but I'm not going to stop. But that's what I challenged all the experts on. I challenged them to ask themselves what are they doing. And there was this one guy who one time told me, "˜Well, I went and spoke to this one class and they liked it.' I said, "˜One class, one time. We have many more band members in this area that need learning. There needs to be system changes, there needs to be systems set up so we are preparing our kids and our next generation to understand who we are, how we've become to where we're at today and how we're going to be moving forward.'

I'll talk a little bit about my first days in office. I worked with the council for two years and I thought I had an understanding of what it was going to be like on council and I guess I didn't know because my first days in office there was probably 45 people to see me...45 to 50 people to see me every single day the first couple of weeks in office and I was like, "˜Whoa!' And the basis of what they wanted to come and see me for was assistance and sometimes I feel...I'm not embarrassed to say it, but I feel bad that the state of my tribe was so dependent on...and basically it's kind of exploiting the band members about assistance, that it's their money, that I need to give you this money. That's not the case. It's not equitable distribution of resources if 10 percent of the membership are getting 90 percent of the resources. There's other percentage of band members who deserve equal access to those and so I was very taken aback. I thought it was going to be like, "˜Oh, okay, I'm going to get in there, we're going to start addressing some of the deficiencies programmatically,' that we were going to get into office, we were going to start tackling a lot of that stuff and it took time. It took a whole year to make some drastic changes as far as assistance methods go and I would tip my hat to the Salish Kootenai Tribe on their human [resource] development program, because when I flew up there last year I got to see a small snapshot of what that program is about and that is kind of something that I tried to apply back home is consolidation of assistance programs, that it's more easily accessed, for band members to be able to access services and it's not scattered all about and people are luckily enough if they catch a program who might be able to help them.

I guess...I wrote down in my notes that it might seem far-fetched to some tribes about the mentality of assistance, but we all know the power of the dollar and so it's, 'What can you do for me?' is very powerful sometimes and it's very powerful during those elections. And we have an election coming up next year and I keep talking to our council and talking to the membership that just because there's an election doesn't necessarily mean that there's an overhaul. We need to conduct business in a different way. The train doesn't necessarily need to stop and turn back and go the opposite direction because there's new council or new council members who are elected. Take what the successes are and how can you build upon those? But the communities are so split that sometimes it is drastic measures that they want to see done all the way from left to the right and right to the left and that's how progress fails. If you aren't able to capitalize on movement, you're not going to progress and that's why I would say that we are a little bit behind in development at Leech Lake. But like Ian [Record] talked about this morning, it's...you have four years and it might seem like a long time. It's not a long time. I've been in office a year and a half and it seems like a couple of months and so you want to make drastic change and people want to hit those home runs, but it's about institutions, it's about the system changes and starting with your foundation and that's a lot of what the first year, year and a half has been and I didn't think it would take that long. And so that's something that I came to terms with in being in office that government is slow; it's very, very slow. I guess in the size of government it makes the difference.

We had NNI and Bush facilitate a GANN process. They do a GANN, it's a Governance Analysis of Native Nations that we brought to Leech Lake and we focused on three things. We focused on changing our assistance methods and that's what it took -- a whole year. We changed those on July 1st so the tribal council doesn't have direct assistance. We had...prior to getting in office we had a budget, I won't necessarily say how much, but we had a budget. Each council member had their own line-item budget for assistance that was never adhered to. And so we have an emergency assistance program that basically was doing some of the same things that the council were doing, but it's very convenient if you have that money at your fingertips to try to help people. And you want to help people, but is it really helping people by giving direct assistance? Are we spending our time effectively by handing our assistance? Yeah, we're speaking with our band members, we're getting in touch with what the issues are, but we sure aren't putting enough energy towards a real solution and just providing assistance. And so that's something, that it took a little bit of change and it was very tough because there's a high percentage of band members in the communities who had that expectation of that's what tribal council does. And it's trying to change that mentality, it's been very difficult, but it's a work in progress and it's moving forward.

The second thing that we had was bylaw revision and I'm not sure of the political makeup of a lot of tribes, but in Minnesota there's seven Ojibwe tribes and one of them is Red Lake and they're kind of separate and they have their own constitution and whatnot, but the other six Ojibwe tribes in Minnesota are part of a Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. It's kind of an organization that has oversight of all the tribes constitutionally, and that's something that I would say I'm not in favor of because it's not self-determination if you have a tribal council member who is representing 1,000 people in one of the tribes and you have another tribal council member who is representing 20,000 members on the other end of the spectrum and they both have equal access and authority in the decision making of this tribal executive committee. And so it's not fair representation. And so that was the basis of what I was trying to do is revise and reform. And there is movement and through that GANN process that was one of the things that we identified is reform, but we can't reform what we can't change so there's systems that we have to make changes to first.

The other thing was you see economic development talked about this morning. And so my point on economic development in government is that they don't necessarily mix together -- he talked about it -- but there has to be a separation because at Leech Lake the tribal council is supposed, the government is supposed to be providing service and how are you supposed to be providing service or how are you supposed to be building a business and letting it invest in itself and grow the business and start more business development if your services are depleting your economic resources. And so there is a separation that needs to be made and I think you guys will talk a little bit about that here today and tomorrow, but that's another, that's the three steps that we moved on.

I will talk a little bit about accomplishments that have been there that necessarily might not have been there before getting in office: community center, a bike path. There's a bike path on a road where there's been about three deaths in the last couple of years and there's been other kids who are hit because it's kind of on a road by our casino and there's a lot of traffic that's on the road. And so we had a bike path that was put into place to try to alleviate the traffic actually being on the road and we partnered up with the county to get that going. We broke ground with an assisted living facility this fall for our elders, we secured funding for a treatment center on our reservation because a lot of the band members felt that a barrier to their success was going off the reservation for their treatment and they wanted to try to get their treatment or they wanted to heal at home. We broke ground with a $3 million library and archive center at our tribal college. We started an athletics program. This is the first year for our basketball teams at our tribal college. We broke ground with a government center last fall, a $4 million government center.

I'll say a little bit about transparency because that was basically what I was about in getting in office. With the assistance, the council had so many different ways of giving assistance, it's kind of crazy, but when I got into office I started to publish all expenses that I had authority to give, is I published those in our newspaper for them to see. It was how many...it was basically how much was being...how much was going out in resources, but it was also how many people were accessing those resources. So it could kind of give people a picture of who is really getting the assistance or who is this really benefiting and it's a small percentage of the actual membership that was accessing it though, so it kind of gives them a picture about that. I had open forums monthly. And the full council, they didn't want to do it monthly. We have quarterly meetings that we have to put on in the communities every quarter and there's a small open forum session for that and in those open forum sessions the band members kind of get riled up, they kind of...they like to build the fire prior to the open forum session so they can kind of vent and release during that time. And so I thought, "˜Well, if we do them every single month, maybe that'll kind of keep the fire from building so big and it'll allow people to say what they've got to say, it'll allow them to be heard, it'll allow them to ask the questions they really want to ask,' to alleviate from like rumors and whatnot that are building in the community that...they spread like wildfire too. So it gives them that opportunity to voice their concerns and then be heard. And so I did that as well.

The other thing that I'll say that I didn't know I was -- well, I didn't know the outcome of it -- but prior to getting into office I talked about giving back. And so that's kind of one of the things I was supposed to talk about in March when I was supposed to be down here is an endowment that I set up at our tribal college. People thought it was a political ploy and it necessarily wasn't because it came to fruition, but I basically said I was going to give 12-and-a-half percent of my gross salary to an endowment for scholarships and education at our tribal college. I got into office, I did the first installment in December, I got another installment going in December and I have people that ask me, "˜What was the intent?' I said, "˜Well, it was to challenge the other council members to see...to ask themselves what were they doing to give back in the communities.' They asked if I felt like...do I feel bad about doing it now because none of the other council members gave back. I'm like, "˜No, I don't feel bad at all.' When I first gave the first installment of the...for the endowment, there was...the act of giving I guess, it kind of...it'll multiply. And so after that, there was other community members in the community that donated either to my endowment or to other scholarship programs at our tribal college and so there was a lot that came out of it, but I think long term the success of what the act will do is...it's not necessarily to show our tribal council members to one-up them, but it's basically to show our kids and our younger generation in the community that in order to grow, everybody needs to be invested and everybody needs to give back and that was a good way of me showing that I wanted to give back because I believe education is empowering and it allows a person to not be so dependent on somebody else. Dependency doesn't breed productivity.

I got the stop sign. I could keep going, but I'll stop there because I think we're opening up for questions and answers. Thank you for allowing me to present to you guys. [Ojibwe language]."

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