Native Nation Building TV: "Leadership and Strategic Thinking"

Native Nations Institute

Guests Peterson Zah and Angela Russell tie together the themes discussed in the previous segments into a conversation about how Native nations and their leaders move themselves and their peoples towards nation building. They address the question all Native nations have: How do we get where we want to go?

Resource Type

Native Nations Institute. "Leadership and Strategic Thinking" (Episode 9). Native Nation Building television/radio series. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy and the UA Channel, The University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. 2006. Television program.

Mary Kim Titla: "Welcome to Native Nation Building. I'm your host Mary Kim Titla. Contemporary Native nations face many daunting challenges including building effective governments, developing strong economies, solving difficult social problems and balancing cultural integrity and change. Native Nation Building explores these complex challenges and the ways Native nations are working to overcome them as they seek to make community and economic development a reality. Don't miss Native Nation Building next."

Mary Kim Titla: "The challenges facing contemporary Native leaders are daunting. Typically, they are expected to do everything from defending and expanding the sovereign powers of their nations to tackling day-to-day social issues to finding ways to improve the future of their fellow citizens. Leadership can be tough. You get blamed when things go badly and sometimes fail to get credit when things go well. Today's segment examines what Native leaders are doing and can do to rebuild their Nations and forge a vision for their long-term futures. With me today to discuss leadership and strategic decision making are Peterson Zah and Angela Russell. Peterson Zah, a citizen of the Navajo Nation, has twice served as his tribe's chief executive, first as chairman from 1983 to 1987 and then as president from 1990 to 1994. For the past ten years, he has worked at Arizona State University, where he serves as advisor to the President on American Indian Affairs. Angela Russell, a citizen of the Crow Nation of Montana, currently serves as Chief Judge of the Crow Tribal Court. She previously served as a member of the Crow Legislature as well as the Montana State Legislature. Welcome to both of you."

Angela Russell: "Thank you."

Peterson Zah: "Thank you."

Angela Russell: "Good to be here."

Mary Kim Titla: "Leadership. Peterson, you know best about that I think, and I'm sure Angela can give us her advice as well, but why don't we start out by talking about just leadership in general and how it is so critical to our Native nations as they move forward."

Peterson Zah: "I think it is perhaps the most important issue today, mainly because of all of the questions that are being raised about Native leadership. The issues that we face as Indian nations, there are questions thrown at the Indian people regarding the sovereign powers of [an] Indian tribe, the social problems that we have on our reservation, things that we never ever thought will come to the reservation is now on the reservation, mainly alcoholism, drugs, the behavior of young people at the high school. Those are very, very crucial issues in the area of education. You also have questions on land, and recently it's the administration of justice on Indian land, in Indian Country."

Mary Kim Titla: "Angela, tell me what you can advise after all these years that you've served on the legislature on the tribal level and state level."

Angela Russell: "Well, among our people, when we say leader we say '[Crow term],' which means a good person or a good man, and I think leadership is extremely important to all of our nation,s and it's important not only for the leader to have a vision for his people but as citizens of a particular nation, we need to be very supportive to our leader, but we also need to be participatory in a sense that we need to give some direction, we need to give support, we need to give encouragement. I think too many times it's easy to be very critical and to not look ahead toward the vision. You have to have goals, you have to have reachable goals, whether they're short-term or long-term. So leadership is very important, but it's a very, very difficult thing, because in the past our leaders were usually men who had many deeds, many accomplishments and that's how they became a leader. They were supported by the community, and today it's a whole different role, different dynamics, a different society we live in -- lots of challenges ahead for leaders."

Mary Kim Titla: "You said something that was really interesting to me and that has to do with criticism. As a journalist, I always like to encourage people to give me constructive criticism and you really have to have thick skin."

Angela Russell: "You do, you do. You have to be able to take a lot of abuse. But there are lots of rewards, too. I think it's a real challenge to be in government, to be in leadership, because we are like third-world countries. There's lots of needs there. We do have resources. We may not have gaming where I live, but we do have a lot of natural resources, and that puts responsibility on leadership to take a look at what can the leaders do that would be best for their constituency. Abuse is there, criticism is there, but I truly believe that with good communication, you can dispel some of the criticism that goes on. You've got to have a good media outlet so that people always know what you're doing. We get very suspicious as human beings when we don't know the full story. We want to know what's going on."

Mary Kim Titla: "Peterson, we talked some years ago about your role as President -- Chairman and President -- of the Navajo Nation, and it really is an overwhelming job."

Peterson Zah: "It really is overwhelming. I see some of our leaders today -- particularly with Navajo leadership -- those people are overwhelmed and they have so much on their plate. They have so many things to do decide and every one of them are crucial. Everything that they have on their mind is important that people bring to them. But one thing that the leaders have to learn how to do is prioritize their work, because you have all of these problems coming at you. You have to sit back and say, 'This issue has a priority over all the others,' because in the representation of your constituency you have to learn how to do that. Number two, I always say that you also have to learn how to delegate responsibilities. You have a certain amount of responsibility as the leader for Indian people, Indian communities. You also have on the other side the council, you also have the tribal courts, and they are there to take on certain issues. You have to learn how to play your role and where those limitations are and be able to have enough trust in your people to say that they'll do a good job of handling those situations and you don't need to be everywhere. And that's where learning how to prioritize your work really comes into existence."

Mary Kim Titla: "We are going through elections constantly, and a lot of times people may come across as being a good leader. But after you elect them, you realize, well, 'Maybe they weren't the leader that I thought they would be.' We make mistakes sometimes in choosing our leaders. How can tribes, tribal people protect themselves from poor leadership?"

Angela Russell: "I think it's real important for tribes to have primary elections for one thing. It's only been recently that we've had primary elections. So people just entered a race and if they won, they won. But now I think we have a little more choice and we like to have our candidates be out there and talking about policy, about their platform. I would really like to see us have our leaders address the state of our nations and that would be research: What is the status of our tribes? What is that poverty level? What is the main economic income that's coming in? What are those potentials out there? I think if we had a State of the Indian Nations, or if it was the Crow Tribal Nation, I think any candidate should address that and say, 'This is what I want to see for our people.' You've got to have that vision. You've got to be projecting what is best for your people. You've got to move away from self interest and you've got to be looking at the interest of the whole."

Mary Kim Titla: "I'm sure you've dealt with that, Pete, with especially all the different delegates and members of the tribal council that you have to deal with."

Peterson Zah: "Well, I think the key is participation. The Indian people who are listening to this program for example, the students, the young people, they should never say to themselves, 'Let the tribal council do it, let the tribal chair, the tribal governor do it.' They have to learn that this is their government, these are their leaders that they elected. They have to learn how to work with them and they also have to participate in the tribal government process. In the process of participating, then you can judge how your leaders are doing. So I believe that's very, very important, because our leaders need to be held accountable for many of the things that they do, and I guess that's why I am in education. I always believe that education can solve many, many things and some people will say and argue with me and say that education can't solve everything. But, by god, education can solve a lot of our problems. It may not solve everything, nothing ever does. But if you have an educated community, people who are aware, people that have had the experience handling the affairs of our tribal nations, then I think we're in better hand as a group, rather than just sitting back and watching the tribal government do something that isn't pleasant to the local people."

Mary Kim Titla: "You touched on what was going to be my next question, and that is the role of non-elected leaders in the community. There are many of them. Can you give some examples of how people can become more active in their tribal government? I know attending meetings would be one thing, but can you give some examples of that?"

Angela Russell: "It's important for legislators, and I was one, you need to get out in the community, you need to let people know what is on the agenda for the next session, and you really need to solicit their participation. I had a woman just a few months ago who said she was really concerned about horses that were just all over the road, dogs that were abandoned and not fed, and why were these individuals having livestock and not tending to them. And I said, 'Well, you know what you can do is talk to your legislator and by the petition route, if you get a signature of 10 percent in your district, you can promote [a] resolution and that may become law.' So I think we need to really encourage people to participate instead of griping. You can say, 'Well, you can do something about that.' Another example is truancy: A lot of kids missing school, suspension of kids from school and somewhere, somehow somebody brought together a truancy bill, and now our students have to be in school 'til they're age 18 and we are going to enforce it. In fact we're getting ready through the court to enforce that shortly. So we need to have people participate. Instead of having a gripe, let's put it into action and do something."

Peterson Zah: "I also happen to believe that those things that really make our tribal government function very well is the people who participate in a lot of those programs, because you can go out into any Indian reservation, you won't have any problem finding the problems. They're there, many, many problems. I think the role of the local people, the non-elected people, is to define some of those problems and then say to themselves, 'How can I make a difference as an individual? How can we, the two or the three of us, make a difference? Let's see if we can do something about this particular problem,' instead of not doing anything, and to do that you have to motivate the young people. In the generations of Indian people that we have on Indian land, Indian Country nowadays, students are completely different than those students that I knew when I was just a young man, and motivation has to take place among those young people for them to begin having them become active in a lot of the social problems that we have on the Navajo reservation, for example."

Mary Kim Titla: "And I'd like to see more of that, young people really taking charge in their communities. I tried to do that as a young person and I'm hearing more from young people about efforts they're doing. In fact one young lady I met recently is going to spearhead a suicide-prevention walk, and I thought that was excellent because as we know, that's a big problem in Indian Country right now. What changes do you see in our leaders today? I know you've touched on this a little bit, but from say 10, 20 years ago, how different are they?'

Angela Russell: "Well, I think that the challenges, the demands of leadership today are just monumental. We're bombarded by so many requirements, so many changes that our societies need and I guess even going back further, I really like this term of enlightened democracy, where people have information, they're educated, they can make a decision looking at all the facts. But I think Indian people have a long way to go yet because we have so much poverty on many of our reservations and it really is a luxury to be participating in government, because a lot of our people are just kind of living from day to day, making sure that they're going to get through the day with whatever needs they may have. And it's not unusual for those of us who live on the reservation and are blessed to have employment, we have a lot of people knocking on our doors, people looking for work, people just looking for money and hopefully if we ever have a secure economic base for our people, then I think that we can start having more participation. Right now, I think it's limited, but I'd like to see that expand, and I think the economic situation is really important to take a look at for all tribes, not only our tribe but other tribes, too."

Peterson Zah: "I think this is probably where we have such a big difference between leaders of 20 years ago and today. If you go back 20 years ago, even in this state here [Arizona], we have Dr. Annie Wauneka for example on the Navajo. We have Ronnie Lupe with the White Mountain Apache Indian nation. Agnes Sevilla with the Colorado Tribe. And if you look at those folks, what did they have? What did they not have, and what did they not do for example? They really didn't have the education that we now have with our tribal leaders, but they have one thing that is so important in my own estimation which is a commitment and education and the dedication that they had to their people and they were honest. They didn't have much money to work with. They didn't ask for let's say compensation for their travel. They did things where the Great Spirit told them to do things. When the Great Spirit moved them, that's when they move and they were good leaders, women leaders in this state, and they were solely dedicated to, for example, eradicating tuberculosis on the Navajo by Dr. Wauneka. And she did all of those while there were no roads on the Navajo Nation and she rode horses, she rode wagons and she used radio, she used the Navajo language to do all of those things that needed to be done. She did not have the kind of education that many of our tribal leaders today have. And so I would say probably today's leaders are less traditional than let's say they were 20 years ago, but 20 years ago those leaders, 40 years ago, you could never outdo them in traditional way of doing things. You could never outdo them in dedication and commitment. I think that's what's missing."

Angela Russell: "I think tradition is extremely important, and for many of our tribes, it's real important to speak our language and to communicate with people through our language. We have a clan system and it's important to include clan members or to give them information. I think tradition is really the backbone of our society so we need to foster that and continue it. But I think if you can deal with tradition as well as trying to develop modern ways of dealing with things, I think that's the best route to go."

Mary Kim Titla: "What about our future leaders, our young people? What advice would you have for our young people who want to become tribal council delegates or tribal chairmen or presidents?"

Angela Russell: "I think that we don't use our young people to the extent that we need to use them. I think the tribe really needs to set up internships, they need to set up fellowships, give people practical experience, have them get their feet wet, so to speak. A lot of young people come home, they may go to college with the intention of coming back and doing something and they may graduate, they may come back, and there's nothing there for them. I remember a young man who just got his degree in civil engineering and he came back and he was really excited about working for the tribe, but the tribe did not hire him. And we have other instances like that. We have to make room in our government to encourage young people to participate and to take some leadership roles."

Peterson Zah: "If you look at the three of us, we came from a family where the tradition was very strong so we were taught by our parents and our grandparents about traditional belief. Now, if you look at the young people that we have today in college, their parents are less traditional, and many of the students that we now have coming from single parents and they don't have as much tradition as what the three of us had. And I think that presents a problem because the young kids today represent a totally different set of values that they have. The values aren't the same and I think that's going to cause some problems for the Indian nation. So we have to go not only to the young people but to the parents that are raising them, and then their children. And so to some degree we're losing the tradition that helped us survive among all of the Indian nations for this long. And the young people should never ever forget that we survived as long as we had because of our traditions, because of our language, because of our culture. Those may not have dollar signs, but they were more powerful than all of the dollars that the tribe gets now, and the young people should never ever forget that."

Mary Kim Titla: "One of the things that I was interested in learning more about from you Pete is this Navajo Nation Permanent Fund. Tell me about that and what made it become a reality?"

Peterson Zah: "I was very, very lucky when I became the tribal chair back in 1983. We had an 88-member council. Most of them were traditional people and a totally different perspective about leadership and about Navajo life and Navajo goals and aspirations. The difference is that back then those were visionary leaders and during that period in the history of the Navajo tribe we won several very, very important court decisions. One of them was Kerr McGee versus the Navajo Nation, a United States Supreme Court case where the Navajo Nation wanted to tax all of the companies that were extracting minerals off Navajo land, businesses that operate on Navajo Nation. We decided what we should do is tax them, and that's been in the works with the tribe for many, many years and so finally the tribe says, 'We're going to tax all of you, as you're being taxed elsewhere, you're doing business throughout the United States.' And so we did and they took us to court. While we were in litigation during the court process, they were paying us escrow funds, the amount of taxes that they're supposed to pay the tribe. So by the time we won in 1984, it had accumulated a huge amount of money in the escrow account, so all of a sudden as a young chairman of the Navajo Nation, $214 or $216 million was dropped on my lap and my job was, what to do with the money? As you know and Angela well know, when you have a tribal council such as what we have among Indian people, they want to spend, spend, spend. And any time you raise the issue of wanting to save you were an oddball. So in my case, I decided that I'm going to go against the grain of what the Navajo Nation Council wants, which is we're going to invest all of these monies, and the one that people always hear about is the Permanent Fund. That is where you establish a permanent account and we put something like $26 million into a permanent Navajo fund and we want that to grow. Back then, from 1984 to 2004, for [a] 20-year period we all agreed that we wouldn't touch that amount of money, and then the Navajo Nation was to contribute 12 percent of its total revenues into that account each year. So you had the $26 million that was earning interest and the Navajo Nation council was also depositing 12 percent of the total revenue each year into the account and that thing grew and grew and grew. And to this day, 2006, we're almost at a billion dollars. And when we reach a billion within the next several years, that money is to be used by the Navajo people after they have a referendum vote, so it's not only up to the council to decide how that money should be used. It's going to be up to all the Navajo voters. We had hearings three summers ago and the Navajo people decided that what we should do is don't use it all. Use only the interest off that one billion. We can handle that but keep the one billion in the bank so that you'll always have money in the bank for a rainy day for example, and only use the interest. And we can use that interest just to keep the tribal government, tribal services going and not ever spend the one billion. So that was the kind of visionary leaders the Navajo council was back then, and I was just very, very lucky as a young person to be in that seat working with them when that thing happened."

Mary Kim Titla: "Sure. And Angela, you have a new constitution."

Angela Russell: "We do."

Mary Kim Titla: "Can you talk about what prompted the tribe to develop this and where did the leadership for that come from?"

Angela Russell: "Well, I think there were only a couple of tribes that had a town council form of government. We were one of them. Our constitution was actually modeled after a Moose Lodge charter, and that was in 1948, so that was the constitution we had. And with mineral development possibilities, with changes in our society, we really needed to be more business-minded, and looking at that old constitution, it wasn't going to work. We had a group of individuals that were part of a committee called the 107th Committee but they -- in discussing where the tribe needed to go -- recognized that we needed changes in our constitution and there were a number of things that they really wanted. They wanted separation of powers, they wanted longer terms for tribal officials, looking at maybe limited waivers of sovereignty. There were a number of things that they looked at and when they looked at the old constitution, it just was not going to work. It was either in conflict or it was so inconsistent that it would raise lots of problems. So back in 2001, actually even earlier than that, many of us who participated in those old councils worked hard to try to look at a new constitution or constitutional reform. I remember I had a resolution before the council -- I think it was 1973 -- just asking for a study to look at different constitutions and bring it back to the council and that was defeated. So it's taken a long time to get where we are, but in 2001 we did approve a new constitution, and that gives you the three branches of government, six districts on our reservation and we have three representatives from each of those districts. And then we have the executive branch and then we have the judicial. If we really are going to move forward into business, it's really important that we have the three branches of government, because a lot of businesses don't want to come on Indian land if they don't feel they have a right to certain things or if they believe their rights aren't being protected. At least the courts provide a forum hopefully to be fair to individuals working on the reservation. So it's new and it's pretty exciting. There are problems that we need to work out, but I think it's moving along."

Mary Kim Titla: "We could talk all day about leadership and issues that our leaders are dealing with in their own communities, but we've run out of time. So I just want to thank you for your insight and your advice. I've learned a lot today."

Angela Russell: "Thank you. It's good to be here."

Mary Kim Titla: "We want to thank Peterson Zah and Angela Russell for appearing on today's edition of Native Nation Building. Native Nation Building is a program of the Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management and Policy at the University of Arizona. To learn more about Native Nation building and the issues discussed on today's program, please visit the Native Nations Institute's website at That's Thank you for joining us and please tune in for the next edition of Native Nation Building."

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