Rebecca Miles: What I Wish I Knew Before I Took Office

Native Nations Institute

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

Native Nations
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Miles, Rebecca. "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. March 23, 2011. Presentation.

"Probably the best thing I love is being a mom and being an assistant basketball coach. And if you heard in the short [presentation] or introduction, I also graduated from Washington State and Gonzaga, where our women will be playing this Saturday in the Sweet Sixteen in Spokane. I will be going for the other team, the Louisville Cardinals where one of my nieces, if you watch basketball, is Shoni Schimmel. And she is a true freshman, a Umatilla tribal member that has taken her team, they beat Xavier last night and [she] scored 33 points. So it's not part of my presentation, but be watching for her. She's a real great...

I kind of went off course because I thought very long and hard, I answered the questions in my outline but just...I'll skip, really, the introduction. It was really quite by accident in a sense of how I got to be in some of the titles I've received. But it was no mistake on what I wanted to do in terms of leadership. And I'll talk to you a little bit about that and why I chose to run for office. I served very young on the General Council Committee and that's the committee who facilitates the tribal meetings where our council gets elected and that type of thing. And I became the General Council Chair at age 27 and I held that position until I actually ran for our council. And I would sit there, meeting after meeting, and I would get very fascinated with our leadership and the types of issues they were involved in. So when I ran for office, it was, I got really excited. I was, I never thought I was really different than anyone else until I got older. And my dad recalls I used to record the State of the Union [address] when I was 12. I still have this speech of Anne Richards at the Democratic National Convention and I might've been 13. And I was so moved at a young age about people making a difference, people in power, and the roles of people. So I understood really quickly who held the power, who holds the power, where effective leadership can happen. So that was a really great thing for me. [Next slide.]

So getting excited at a young age for me and establishing my leadership and recognizing that all the decisions, how I make decisions, how I played on the playground, how I played basketball, how I dealt with tiffs with my girlfriends, all of those things prepare you to be an effective leader or not. You know the classroom bully, a lot of classroom bullies, all they do is grow up and become adult bullies. So [you're] understanding, 'What kind of person are you, and how effectively can you make a difference?' The bullying type, unless you have the majority of them that are bullies on council, are not going to get very far. And so I recognized early that I was a problem solver. I was able to listen at a young age and reflecting on how I did problem solve. How do I get answers? Was I willing to listen to people? Was I willing to change my mind, if it was something that I stood very firmly on? So recognizing my strengths and weaknesses was primary when I got elected. [Next slide.]

The other thing that I thought was very interesting was, how are we different? Our nations are different. Our reasons for running for council are different. For example, we don't have parties like other countries. When I, when we would run... how about all of you guys? When you run, everybody says, "˜We're running for change. I'm running to make change.' Well when you get on there, I mean, what change are you actually talking about? I mean, what was, what change was I trying to accomplish? And everybody, even in the national elections say, they're going to run for change. But when they get in office, the reality is right there in front of you. The reality of the previous administration or the reality of previous tribal leaders, what they were faced with, and a lot of times... [Next slide.]

A lot of times there was this "˜aha!' moment. An "˜aha!' time that says, "˜Wait a minute, now I know what they had to go through.' All of you are tribal leaders to some, most of you. So you know you have to deal with a lot of confidential information. You can't tell your people, so they become very mistrusting of your information. So the one thing that I was listening to the discussion this morning is people, when you get on council, they talk about the council like the big bad beast and you forget, they forget very quickly, when you elect somebody, we elect somebody, we elect them from our peers. We elect them from us. We want to elect somebody just like us. I read a really good book by Rudy Giuliani after the 9/11 attacks on leadership. And of course he was met with all this scandal of affairs and all these types of things. And he really talked in that book about...I could relate to a certain extent that he got elected from his peers. They're just like everybody else and they make mistakes. They make mistakes but they can also do well. And so he talked a lot about that, and I see tribal councils do that all the time. The young man, for example, that's very traditional, treats his wife well, is a good father, and then he gets elected and everybody's throwing darts at him and he's the worst person, he needs to go get an education and all of that kind of stuff. So we forget -- almost like you're walking through an orb, and it becomes a rude awakening. And I don't know if you've experienced that, but in 2004 I turned down a very good job at Washington State [University]. It was a job that I would call at a young age, at the age of 30, my dream job. I thought it would be perfect. I had just gotten divorced. I thought, it will be the perfect place. It's still close to home and I can raise my children in a university setting, a school that I loved and a school that loved me. I was able to grow. I can work on a doctorate. And the small part of me said I wanted to run for council. And I did and I was elected. [Next slide.]

So what happened when a very short time...a week into my election, the tribe was facing the biggest decision it had made since the treaty time. And I thought, 'Why in the world does this have to happen when I decide to run for council? Why would this be happening?' And so that was my first major decision, my first facing a big decision, and that's one of the questions we were asked. And right away, you just got elected, your natural thing is you are protecting your tribe's sovereignty, your treaty rights, and nobody's going to tell us what to do. And your instant reaction is always to say, "˜No.' And that's exactly what I said. And it was by...I was the rookie. I was the only woman on council. I was not the chair that year; I had just got elected. And I went down with our chairman to Boise. Dirk Kempthorne, who was our Governor at that time, and Gail Norton -- the great Gail Norton, was the Secretary of Interior -- and they had released the terms of the 17- or 18-year-old water settlement. And anybody knows that, everybody knows that water is our most sacred thing. So dealing with that issue, I remember flying back on this little plane thinking, "˜Who are these...' -- we call them [Nez Perce language] -- "˜white attorneys?' "˜Who are these people working on this settlement for us? Who do they think they are? We will absolutely, this will never happen.' I said, "˜My grandparents would roll over in their grave.' And so when we got back, we held our first meeting and we put our [Nez Perce language] attorneys right up front and told them, "˜You tell our people what this settlement means.' And it went terrible. I mean, my mom -- Jaime [Pinkham] back there, he knows who my mom is -- she's a very small petite woman and she's really nice. It looked like she was going to pop a vein, a blood vessel. I mean it was terrible. And so after our meeting, I thought, "˜Well, why weren't the tribal leaders out there doing a meeting with our people?'

And so I met with our council and I said, "˜Explain this to me.' One of the questions we were asked is financial literacy, stuff like that, what was the big thing, a hurdle? I had to learn everything I knew about this water settlement. I never knew I would know so much about practical irrigable acreage and acre-feet based on...whatever. I never thought I would know that, but I had to because that's what my people elected me to do. So I dove right in and I started leading. No one asked me, no one appointed me, but nobody would do it on council -- not our chair, not our vice chair, not anybody who had been on council for 20-some years -- no one would touch this thing with a 10-foot pole. So I started to get to know our attorneys and I would ask questions over and over. And then I did research. What I can't tell you enough is do your research. What you're going to hear, and you've probably already heard, tribal leaders, let's say the person that you beat to get in office, is going to be at the public meeting and say, "˜You don't know what you're doing and yada, yada...' And I did. I pulled out every resolution and did a timetable of when we got in this settlement. The first question for the first five months was, "˜How did we get here?' Well, I needed to know that and I needed to be telling my people, how did we get here? I looked at every decision that was made and I found every resolution that appointed members of our council to negotiate this settlement. They were appointed as the negotiator. And so I was able to put faces and accountability to the tribe, that it's not just the person who just walks in, this is a bigger deal. And so research is important as well to avoid continuously making mistakes and not being accountable. [Next slide.]

I'll just pause on this and finish on the Snake River Basin Adjudication. That decision came down to the very end. The [U.S.] Congress passed it into law, the [Idaho] State Legislature passed it, and then all eyes were on the Nez Perce Tribe. And you will never in the history of water settlements -- I do not believe -- will see another settlement of that magnitude in Congress, approved by Congress, a water settlement. And the Nez Perce, we're still taking a beating. I personally am. I got calls, I got people saying, I got death threats, I got people calling; my dad would pray for me every night when we were going through this process. And it finally came down to making the vote. And we approved it. And so it was just a few months and the whole year had already passed and I told my parents, "˜I am not cut out for leadership. I am not. I apologize a hundred times over. I never quit anything, but I am not cut out for this and I am either going to resign or I am going to just ride out my time and just do as little as possible and go to conferences and do that kind of thing and never cause any trouble.' And in three weeks, our Chairman was not re-elected and when the elections are over then the nine members of the council actually form a table right in front of everybody and reorganize. And it was just like that, I was nominated to be the chair by the, and made the chair of 2005. And it just happened so fast. My family wasn't even at that meeting. They were just like, "˜Eh.' My family just doesn't get involved. They're like, "˜Oh, just let us know how it's going.' I was driving down the river 60 miles or so and I'm the Chair of the Nez Perce Tribe. It was, it just didn't hit me took me a long time, but there was a moment of gratitude in me. It had nothing to do with being young and it had nothing to do with being a woman. I mean this was an all-male [group] except for me. I had a couple elders on there. Jaime's uncle was on there; he's been on there a long time. They believed in me and all the work that I had put in -- that I thought was going nowhere -- counted. It mattered in the time of need. And so you don't hear it and you don't see it, but that work -- even if the answer is what your people don't want to hear -- that's what you're there to do. That's what you're there to find out. Sovereignty, in that people said you're taking away our sovereignty and all of this. No. Sovereignty is the ability to choose for yourself. We chose yes; we could've chose no. But the government didn't choose that, the state or government. That's your sovereignty. And most of the time, tribes get a block in the road, because the answer for most tribes of sovereignty is no. It's just, "˜No, we're not going to do it because it takes away our sovereignty.' The sovereignty is the very act -- and I've learned this from my elders -- the very act of being able to choose. The very act of being able to participate or say, "˜No, I don't want to.' And so that was something I learned very early on our council.

Moving forward...and I know my time is running short. We talked, you talked about economic development and I wanted to say, one of the things... [Go back to the last one. Go back one.] Know your funding sources. If I could tell you this up front, know what funds your government. Know exactly how your government runs. Know how your staff are being paid for. I've served with people and I think they're...they just sit there thinking, "˜Oh, we'll just pass this and they get paid for that. We'll just make a position and we'll just hire these people to do that," without understanding what the funding source is. In order to govern, make decisions, the council needs to know where that money's coming from. Do you tax as a government? Could you tax if you wanted to? If you're not taxing, you should have your staff look into that [because] a government taxes to operate. Know what economic impact your tribal nation has on the local and regional economy. That's your power. That's your power to say to our neighbor -- our neighbor city is Lewiston, Idaho -- we have to tell them every single year that we are the second or the third largest economic impact in the whole region. And if Potlatch, our mill -- it's now Clearwater Paper -- were to go away, the tribe would be number one. And, you know, this answers all the feelings like, "˜The tribe shouldn't be there. They shouldn't have their own rights, you know. They shouldn't have their own police force." No! If we were to go away, everybody else would be hurting. It would be a very bad economy if we were all to go away. Because -- getting down to knowing your funding sources -- where do you cash your check? Where do you spend your... I know because I'm one of those Indians as well, Walmart© Indians. We keep Walmart© in business. We do. We love a good bargain. You know, you can get everything there, material, everything.

Support your economic development, not just for tribal government, but for your individuals. When I said, "˜Where do you cash your check?' Where do you cash it? Does it go into a bank owned by an Indian, do you go buy your groceries owned by an Indian. You're not...your economic impact is leaving your Indian nation the very minute you cut that check, in most cases. And so, what we're working on is trying to keep that money, not just cash it at an Indian bank or, and then that Indian bank invests in the school gym, but then that also has to turn over another time through another way. That gym should provide a service for something else. And see that dollar turn and turn and turn and then you're going to start to see. A lot of times we get too jealous of tribal council, too jealous of individuals succeeding. And if you do not support them to succeed...America would have a fit if we let the United States government just own all the businesses and we just let the United States and Obama divvy it all up. America would never happen. So why are we allowing it to happen on tribal council? It just can't happen, we've got to see our will just continue to grow. [Next slide.]

Okay. Just real quickly, are your tribal lands zoned? Do you have a plan for them? Do you have a long-term plan for your infrastructure needs? Those are very critical when you get in office. The very first thing, these are things you should be asking for. Otherwise, you can't just say, 'Let's build those apartments over there,' and then the health clinic could've said, "˜We had that land for our sweat house.' And then another group comes in, "˜That's prime property for economic development.' So it takes planning among your competing departments. [Next slide. Is there a next slide?]

It is very much tough but worth it, and I wanted to leave you with one of the hardest but best jobs. It is the best job that I ever had. It is low paying, no appreciation, but by far that job has taken me all over the world by being an effective leader. The hardest thing I had in my job was being a young woman. And I like to say this whenever I can. The rude awakening I had on council was not being treated different by men, but being treated terrible by our own Indian women. And so I work very hard in my young career. I coach young women. I was selected as a visionary delegate to help shape American politics for the future of women and that, I watched very closely how Hillary Clinton was treated in her election. And so I care very much that women keep each other uplifted. Ethics and integrity and attitude are very key. You really don't need a whole lot. The other thing as a women that I regret, that I would do differently, that was asked in our [questionnaire], was I would not have apologized for my success. And I felt, you'll see there are studies about...I was always feeling like sorry, like we just did something great and I would feel real bad because my vice chair had been the chair forever. He was the second-longest chair and I always felt like I was made to feel like that, I should really step back and not be overly excited about it. And women are often...they feel like they have to. Don't apologize for that. And the last slide is this one quote by Anthony Jay. [Next slide. It's the last slide.] "˜The only real training for leadership is leadership.' So thank you very much for your time and it's just definitely an honor to be here among all of you. And I don't think I would do it again, but it was the best job I ever had." 

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