Paulette Jordan: Engaging the Nation's Citizens and Effecting Change: The Coeur d'Alene Story

Native Nations Institute

Paulette Jordan, citizen and council member of the Coeur d'Alene Tribe in Idaho, discusses the importance of Native nation leaders being grounded in their culture and consulting the keepers of the culture (their elders) so that they approach the leadership challenges they face with the proper mindset and tools. She also shares a story about she helped to mobilize tribal citizens and non-Indians in her community to support a tax levy in order to preserve adequate funding for local public education.

Resource Type

Jordan, Paulette. "Engaging the Nation's Citizens and Effecting Change: The Coeur d'Alene Story." Emerging Leaders seminar. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. November 7, 2013. Presentation.

Herminia Frias:

"Our next presenter is Paulette Jordan and she is a tribal council member from Coeur d'Alene Tribe and she is going to be presenting her experience in citizen engagement and effecting change."

Paulette Jordan:

"Well, good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for having me. I really appreciate this opportunity. It feels like a homecoming because I was here back in 2009, right Renee [Goldtooth]? And so it feels like home, and I really do appreciate the hospitality and the good nature that I've always been given. I started out here for the Emerging Tribal Leaders Seminar just when I was just elected on to the tribal council. And so it's always a learning process, but you just have to run and go. There is no college or any type of education that you can go through really to really prepare you for tribal leadership. It's one of a kind, it's all on its own. You can go and get any specific degree and your MBA, your doctorate, whatever, your law degree, but none of that really prepares you for the challenges of what you're about to face when it comes to the people with domestic violence issues or meth issues -- as we heard here -- and housing issues. There's always a concern and how you manage that with your own people really is based on how you base your culture within your own heart and your empathy to understand your people and not judge them.

And so that's always been my big learning thankfully being raised by the elders, they've always said, ‘As long as you hold your heart out in your hand, that is how you approach your people,' and so that's always been my strategy is just to listen first and foremost and so that's why I come here to you all and offer myself just more so as a student. So whenever someone tries to put me up on any pulpit or anything like that I just say, ‘I'm just a humble person. I was just someone who was just raised on the reservation who just wants to come back and help make my community a better place.' And so whatever title or whatever someone wants to put on you, you just have to remind yourself where you come from and that's one thing my [Coeur d'Alene language] always said. So all the challenges that I've faced, even the ones that I'm going to be facing tomorrow and the next day and the next day after that, I have to remember my grandmothers and they always said to never forget where you came from.

And I mention that because I've pretty much learned over the years where the necessary places for us as tribal peoples. Now how many in here are tribal leaders, sit on your tribal councils, your tribal government? We've got some good representation here. As tribal leaders, what I've learned is we face a lot of conflicts, a lot of challenges, and in those approaches we have to build relationships. It's your job and your duty and your responsibility not only to build a relationship with your people but those surrounding communities, whether you live within a certain county, within a certain state and just being in the U.S. You have to go and meet with the President, with the Congress, with your city council, with your county commissioners, etc. and you have to develop those positive relationships for your people. So you have to be able to communicate to express the nature and the value of your citizens. And so for me, coming in as a young tribal leader learning that we had to promote our own people, promote our own issues, they're all unique, but to me as a Coeur d'Alene woman coming in, the vested interest in me was that we had to tell our story so that our concerns would be addressed at home and that meant building these relationships with the non-tribal community. And so that's what I've been doing and that's been my goal. That's also the reason why I ran for a state representative position in the State of Idaho as a Democrat in a very Republican state. But the point of doing that was in a very racist state, we live 30 miles south of a KKK [Ku Klux Klan] compound. So Idaho is a very not only Republican state, but very white supremacist-natured state, so we have to deal with these issues. But it's...everyone, every state has their issues so no one's better, no one's perfect, no one's more challenged than the other. But that's something I raise today because that also helps to build up [to] what I'm about to get to.

And so I talk about how the white supremacy group comes in and why it is that I decided to step up to some of these challenges, because each and every day I've learned -- whether I worked in D.C. or came back home and worked or even sitting on the tribal council -- that it always comes down to not just telling your story, but being those rooms, the meetings, doing the work, getting there to tell the people, the non-tribal people that this is what you're about, that you're not here to be an enemy, but more so a friend and how you can work together, how you can build those partnerships. Not just for you and that other person in the room that you're sitting across the table from, but for your communities at large and how that's going to benefit both the tribal and the non-tribal aspects.

So that was one of the first challenges that I've faced being on the tribal council and I just wanted to reflect that, because to me for us to get better as communities we have to look at who our friends are and that has to be everybody. We can't just think, ‘Oh, we're sovereign nations, we're going to move forward on our own.' That's not going to happen and that's really more of a pie-in-the-sky and wishful thinking but in all reality, yes, that's great, we're sovereign nations and let's act as such. Let's practice our traditional ways, let's continue to get out there and dig our roots and gather our berries and hunt our game and our wildlife, but yet still we have to know that we are one aspect in the larger picture and we are a small function in the greater world. But as my uncle always says, ‘We could still be a leader in this world based on how we walk our talk even as small nations.' Something I wanted to share, he's one of my greatest mentors, I probably should [have] mentioned this before, but I wanted to share that, how he has always stated to me that ‘the dollar is not the Almighty.' And again I'll say that, ‘The dollar is not the Almighty.' '...And that we must always remember to be humble before the Almighty God, to take care of our children, our elders, our people, our employees and our communities, to walk our talk and lead by example and in doing so,' he said, ‘we can improve our societies and show the world who we truly are as a nation. Our humanity is all that matters at the end of the day and how we look upon one another as relatives.' And he stated, ‘Once we can understand why and what it is we hold sacred, we can truly move mountains.' And so that is a quote that I wanted to share with you from my own uncle, who really helped advise me to the business woman, the leader that I am today.

Still, I just consider myself again a student, so I'm constantly learning from my elders. But it's always stated that you have to talk to your children. Arlene [Templer], she mentioned how you have to mentor each other, you have to mentor your children into these stages. Consult with your elders, your statesmen, your tribal leaders to build this historical knowledge to help prevent you from making the same mistakes that they made and then learn from their experiences because they all have great ideas, but people tend to write them off and want to move them into elders' homes when that should never be the case, that yes, they're in their golden years, but it's golden years for a reason. They're these treasures within our society that are the greatest resource that we have and I've seen within every tribal community that people tend to think more so towards and lean more so towards the western society and less to a cultural education. And so the problem with that to me is when we go all the way back to the United Nations, we talk about the Indigenous rights and the whole purpose of us fighting for that is basically to keep ourselves as a unique society within the world, to have this general understanding that yes we exist and we have these rights as Indigenous peoples, but to have those rights you have to practice those rights. And so that's the whole point is if you're going to practice it, then really walk your talk and go out and do those things of your people, your traditions and then teach your children.

And so with that being said, we have to be the change that we want to see. So I have a story to share and I know I was asked to come in and share some of my stories and I said, ‘Well, there is one recent one that really kind of strikes me that I think would be good for people to know,' because I've kind of been sharing this up in the northwest quite a bit. People ask me, ‘Well, geez, Idaho...' for example, is 47th in the nation when it comes to education, we're 49th in overall ranking. We're just poor as it can be, but again it's a Republican state. We have so many challenges to deal with, but one is education, but to our tribe, to the Coeur d'Alene tribe, we value education as the utmost priority. So to me, it became a problem when the school district within our reservation cut funding and then they were going to close that school when that school teaches around 70 to 80 percent of our students who are tribal students. So just to give an example of how we can engage our citizens and how we can unite with one another for the common good is what I'm getting to here.

It started with a levy, and I'll try to do my best to keep the story short because it's a long one, but it started with a levy. And basically the state said, ‘We're going to cut funding to the school and most of the schools throughout the state,' but our school was the only one who failed the increased funding basically to keep the school open. So it was going to lose its accreditation, lose its sporting programs, lose kindergarten, preschool programs, cut teachers and even good, great teachers, ones who were dealing with math or language arts, music, primary functions I would think for young development. And when that was going on, the tribe wanted to play a role, but the tribe played a role in more of a political sense. For me, I was just coming off of my own state campaign and I felt really worn out because to me it was a challenge's more about educating people to again, telling our story, what tribes really are, how we impact our local economy, socially and economically. And again, we're the number-one employer in the region, so we do quite well, but we don't brag or boast about it -- that's just not our way -- but we like to have other people tell that story. So again, the whole past six months of my life was spent trying to tell our story and educate people about the good that we do and how we want to work together to provide better resources to grow the economy, to create more jobs, to better the educational system, and to help those within even our smaller rural communities.

So after all this was going down and then the levy comes up, we thought, ‘Okay, everyone will vote for the levy. Why not, it's supporting our children, supporting education?' But then that failed and it failed miserably and the tribe became frustrated, the local non-tribal community was extremely frustrated, and sadly people were just ready to give up: the teachers, the students, everybody. So people were thinking, ‘Okay, where do we go next? Where do we go from here?' In a small community where that's checkerboarded [land] tribal and non-tribal, you get a lot of people thinking about their lives. What are they going to do next, where do we go, do we move, do we find a better school system? And this is a reservation and us Indian people, we don't just up and move to where we find a better life. This is our land; we have a sacred relationship with our land. So we don't just call it quits and move on and pack our trailer and go. We have to find a way to make it work. So a lot of the non-tribal people, they knew my plight and what I was trying to do and so they had approached me, the superintendent, the principal, and a lot of the teachers and I was kind of shocked by that, but they came to me and asked me...again, I'm just a tribal citizen in the community and they said, ‘Help us. We need your help. You know how to get out to the people and we think you can unite because we're going to need tribal and non-tribal votes to get this levy passed.' So you can imagine I was burned out and I really don't like politics. I really don't. I didn't like those forums and debates or really getting into the issues, but I do love helping the people and if I know that it's going to better the people overall, that makes me feel good about things.

So when I said to that superintendent of the district, I said, ‘Well, give me a week. I'm going to be here and there, but I need some time to think about it because I'm also a mother, too, and I know this is going to be another commitment and I already have a full plate.' So it came down to basically me seeing the school board panic. They panicked and then they had to cut everything and I felt bad for that school board and a few of them were tribal and I thought, ‘This is what they have to deal with. They have to deal with the state legislature who cut educational funding and it's trickling down to the people.' And so the rural county, the rural society, they're having to put the economy on their shoulders. So these are people just like you and I who have bills and families to feed and they...everyone has issues, they have a real...reality, basically to deal with. And so whatever that was, I thought, even my neighbors. I looked at their struggles and I thought, ‘It's just tragedy overall if we do nothing about it.' So this is what it comes down to, how do we engage our citizens?

So what I did was talked with all of our local folks. We had our education director, talked with our chairman. Basically I had to make this a grassroots effort and turn it into a community-wide, strong movement because they all had to come together. I said, ‘Even our students are willing to help and our teachers are willing to help, our elders, our tribal leaders, anyone and everyone needs to get out and vote.' But they're not only just responsible to vote. They have to get up and show up to these meetings and keep everyone educated because that was the reason why the levy lost in the first place. It always comes down to how you educate, how you tell your story and the people said, ‘Well, I don't really want to go door knocking. I don't really want to have public meetings. Why should we do this?' And I said, ‘Well, let's talk about John Deer, for example, who is a local business owner. He voted 'no' because he thinks that you want to basically bear this burden on his back as a local property owner. You're going to increase his taxes. Whether that's a minimal tax or a large tax, it's a tax and a local business owner does not want to be taxed any further than they already are.' But how do you tell that story? I says, ‘Well, speak from your heart. I'm teaching these young students here to tell their story and how it applies to their neighbors in that community.' I said, ‘And I learned going door...' It's really humbling to go door knocking, by the way, if anyone's done that or not. But I learned that if you want to win these elections and tell your story or have a vote in the broader forums, you have to get out there and tell people who you are and why you're running or what you're there for and how you can help them. And so I said to these students, ‘You're not here for yourself, you're here for your neighbor and you're here for their future because you are their vested interest. They're investing in you and you are the future.' I said, ‘When I went to school, my elders...' as much as I wanted to go back home to the reservation, I stayed in private school, but I said, ‘Only because I knew that my elders would always be with me,' and I knew that when they said, ‘Your education belongs to us. Your dedication, everything that you do belongs to the tribe,' I wholly believed in that. ‘So what you're doing today, this belongs to your community and you're bringing that back to invest a greater interest.'

And so that's what the youth said. They understood that. They said, ‘Yeah, we know, we get that.' And then they told their stories from their heart and that's what it came down to and that's, I think, how we won because this is a happy ending because people were ready to give up and call it good and throw in the towel and move on. And then of course the tribe is stuck footing the bill because people thought, ‘Well, the tribe obviously should be expected to pay this bill. We should be able to hold up that fourth leg to keep it standing.' But it's not the tribe's responsibility. We don't have a leadership arm in the school district. It's the state and it's a state-funded school, but the state was not doing its job and it was withholding money from local communities. So to me that's a travesty, but also it's against the law because they were not upholding an Idaho State Supreme Court decision and it's a law that every child in the State of Idaho is guaranteed a free and good public education. So they weren't upholding the needs of the people and again, it's not the tribe's responsibility, but the tribe was willing to do whatever was necessary. But I said, ‘Wait a minute. This is not the tribe's responsibility, but we're all about community here. We want to build up our community just as the next person.' And so a grassroots effort -- you have to really get out there and tell your story if you want to make change. And so being the change you want to see is about walking your talk, sharing your message, being that voice. Each and every one of us has a vision and we are blessed to have those visions because not everybody is granted that ability.

You're here again for a reason, so you just didn't stumble through that door and decide, ‘I'm going to listen in on Paulette and Arlene here.' You have a good reason to be here. So I'm hoping this story is helpful because to me that really opened my eyes, because when I was in that room I was directing the command center at the last day on voting day and I didn't have the tribal council or the chairman, I was...I said, ‘You know what, this is best left aside from all politics. This is about the children.' So I put the children at the helm and I said, ‘This is their doing. They're the ones who got out and educated the community. They went door to door,' as shy as they are, some of them are the most shy people, but I think after that experience it's going to turn them into strong nationwide leaders because they are young warriors. And I said, ‘You have just been inducted into basically what is kind of like our Indian Way Leadership Academy. You have stood up and counted coup against this levy.'

And so that day was neat because in our tribal headquarters we had all of our youth, we had a lot of our tribal citizens, we had non-tribal people and the most amazing point of the day to me was when we had some non-tribal ladies joking with our tribal people and they were joking like we were all relatives and I've never seen that before. I've never seen tribal and non-tribal and again, we still have a lot of race issues, we still have that line there that we need to get rid of, but I think that line is not as bold as it used to be after that moment. And so for those race relationships we really helped one another, and I think that people will remember that day and they'll see that we came together for each other's children. And so people are starting to see that tribes are not enemies but we're friends and we want to be good relatives and good neighbors to one another and so we showed that by example. And so again, we walked our talk that day.

That was the story I was asked to share and I wanted to come down and express that much to you and I do hope you take something from that. But again, it is...engaging your citizenry is about being humble and having that vision and really I think having diligence and just being honest with your people about what the issues are and what the concerns are. Really tell them, if there's a problem, you have to tell your elders and your people and not be afraid of that backlash because, yeah, they're going to criticize you and I know it's hard to take, but just realize it's constructive criticism that will help you in the long run. I know I would, as the youngest person of the council, I used to develop and hold elders' meetings and I was the elders' liaison and the elders were considered the tough ones of all the bunch in our community. And so they said, ‘Oh, put Paulette over there, she can talk to the elders.' And they thought they were setting me up good ‘cause I was the young one and I got vetted for that job. And I said, ‘Well, I see that as an honor and a privilege. Thank you.' And all the elders of the council, they're all in their 60s, 70s, and so here I was at 28 and so I really seen that as an honor, but my first step was to engage them wholly and we had an elders' listening session and yes, that first session was great. All they wanted to know is that they were being listened to and that you were going to do what they said and not just throw it into the wind. So I followed up after those listening sessions and we had them yearly and so they became very productive. And I thought, ‘I wish we did this more often.' But I would have them once yearly and so trying to keep that tradition going. But that's all it's about is talking to your people and not being afraid to be disciplined and you know how that finger may be waved in your face or challenged in some way or form. So thank you. I appreciate this time again and I appreciate all of you having me and listening to me, especially after that good lunch we had. [Coeur d'Alene language]."

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