Regis Pecos: The Why of Making and Remaking Governing Systems

Native Nations Institute

Former Cochiti Pueblo Governor Regis Pecos shares his thoughts about the ultimate purpose of constitutions, governments and governance from a Pueblo perspective, and argues that constitutional reform presents Native nations with a precious opportunity to reclaim and reinvigorate their cultures and core values.

Native Nations
Resource Type

Pecos, Regis. "The Why of Making and Remaking Governing Systems." Tribal Constitutions seminar. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. May 1, 2012. Presentation.

Regis Pecos:

"Good morning. In my language of the Cochiti people, [Cochiti language]. I am of the Sun Clan, my given name is [Cochiti language], which is translated as 'antelope.' [Cochiti language]. How are you, my Elders? [Cochiti language] -- our leaders? [Cochiti language]. How are you, my brothers? [Cochiti language]. How are you, my sisters? [Cochiti language]. How are you, my relatives? [Cochiti language]. I give thanks to the Creator, as our brother from their homeland here welcome us -- to give thanks for our Creator and those who've gone before us who have answered our prayers, prayers of many that we might have this opportunity for dialogue. [Cochiti language], to have this discussion with regard to how we carry forward. [Cochiti language], how we carry forward what the Creator gave to our people. We all have stories of our migration. We all have stories of our origin, of our emergence, of creation, how we continue to sustain the gifts of the Creator, so that -- as we have been blessed and fortunate to inherit from all those who have gone before through their sacrifices -- that they maintain the vitality and the vibrancy of the gifts of our Creator. The question today becomes a very profound question and that is, what will future generations of our people from all of our respective areas inherit from us? It's a question that we must ask [Cochiti language] for the sake of the people and for the sake of the children. I begin this way to help put into context, and to put into some proper perspective, the incredible responsibility that we collectively have as we engage in the deliberations on this discussion about governments and governance.

I want to share with you a Pueblo perspective, but I want all of you to keep in mind that your people, your communities and your nations -- that you represent here today -- have their own story to reflect upon their journey through many generations of our people since the time of emergence, origin or creation. And I want all of you to keep in mind these reflections. Why did we start this morning with a prayer? We start with a prayer because it is recognizing our Creator. One of the great gifts of our Creator is all that we were given for the maintenance of a healthy mind, body and spirit that we define as a way of life. It is incredibly resilient that after hundreds and hundreds of years of an onslaught to disconnect our people from our lands, from our mother tongue, from our way of life, from our governance, from the language and traditions and customs of indigenous law, defining our jurisprudence, the institutions of family, the spirit of community, the gifts of resources with which to sustain us -- all of these are the gifts of the Creator. Sometimes we do not reflect upon the past to make sense of where we are today. As we talk about how we move forward, where I want to begin is this recognition that who we've become today, where we are today have very deep roots in history. That in all of your relations, generations of your people -- from Indigenous country, from this end to the east coast, around the world -- generations of our people have been engaged in a struggle to sustain all that our Creator gave to us for the maintenance of a healthy mind, body and spirit. Governance, Indigenous laws, customs and traditions are at the heart and the soul of our people. What I want to share with you is a recognition of what our forefathers -- all those who have gone before -- have sacrificed in their time to sustain the gifts of the Creator. Governance -- the spirit with which we maintain the collective wellbeing of our people, the spirit with which we maintain the wellbeing of our people. Indigenous laws, customs and traditions are the gifts of the Creator with which we are to use, that when individuals are in conflict -- out of balance in their relationships -- that these tools were provided to bring us back together for the maintenance of balance and harmony among individuals, among families, among clans, among members of our community.

About ten years ago we [founded] the New Mexico Leadership Institute, which is a convener of Pueblo people -- of young people, college students, young professionals, established professionals, community leaders, spiritual leaders -- all that represent who we are as Pueblo people. And over the course of the last ten years, we have engaged in bringing people together, creating a safe environment where we can have the frank and honest discussions of those things that challenge us within our communities, realizing and appreciating that sometimes we cannot have that frank and honest discussion in our own communities. And at the first of last month was the culmination of ten years of work across all areas that reflected upon where we are with regard to sustaining our last remaining homelands upon which are the gifts of the Creator -- places of worship where we go to draw upon the spirituality and connection of our people and all those who've passed, all of the living things that are a part of this environment, the state of where we are in the maintenance of language. Language is what gives us meaning to understand our purpose in life and our role in all of humanity, where we are with regard to the gift of governance, the gift of the tools of our customs and traditions and laws, the health of our family, the place where we learn our core values; where we are with the maintenance of the spirit and vitality of our community as an institution; and where we are in the protection of all that sustains us as a people -- our resources, the precious spirit of water, the giver of all life. And this is what we reflected upon -- a Pueblo convocation that brought 400 Pueblo people of all ages that I just shared with you -- one, to reflect upon where we've been, where we are, and where it is that we're going, understanding that the challenges we face today are deeply rooted in history.

And I want us to think about this context and this perspective -- that over many, many years this has been our fight and this has been our struggle. I shared with you the gifts of the Creator. From those gifts of the Creator come our core values. If we went around this room and I asked each and every one of you to share what has been a core value that has guided your passion in your life and all that you are engaged in -- and we could fill a huge circle to add to just the few that are here. But the principles of these core values is what brings to life our relationship with the gifts of the Creator. Every one of us from where we come -- whether we're Pueblo, whether we're Oneida, whether we're Sioux, whether we're Diné, whether we're Cherokee, whether we're Choctaw -- at the time that the Creator gave us these gifts, the Creator also provided to us pathways to maintain our connections to these precious gifts from which come to life the core values that guide our relationships.

In Pueblo worldview and in our existence we have a traditional calendar -- from winter to spring to summer to fall. Daily we engage, as I did this morning, to give thanks to our Father Sun that, as he travels the course of today, that we might be blessed -- that our minds and hearts could be opened that we can absorb all that is shared in our contributions to sustain our connections to these gifts and to these core values as we examine the governance of our people at a critical time in our journey. So daily -- if we maintain our connection to our Creator -- daily as we wake up, we think. And as we pray, we verbalize and articulate in prayer, asking our Creator, all those who have gone before, to guide us in all our engagement for the sake of the people in the work that all of you are involved in -- that our actions may demonstrate our convictions in how we relate to one another in this process of defining expectations -- as we define the values and principles of relations that come through the process of governance of our people. So we get up, we have these thoughts, we put them into words. And at the end of the day, as we pray and retire, we reflect upon what we have done that day. So daily, weekly, monthly, annually is this cycle of engagement that connects us to the core values, to the gifts of the Creator -- that is a validation, a reaffirmation that these are the values that guide our lives and our people since the time of origin, of creation, of emergence. That is our connection to that time that we continue in our daily contributions to this purpose, or we wouldn't even be having this discussion. But here is what has happened over time.

Among Pueblo people, upon first contact -- as you all in your respective history reflect upon contact with the English, with the French, with the Spanish, as you reflect upon your own histories -- for us as Pueblo people, our first contact was with Spanish. And as the Spanish colonizers imposed their will, or attempted to -- threatening the gifts of the Creator, our core values, our way of life, our lands, our language, our families and communities -- what happens? What happens to a people when they are afraid, faced with the threat of something so precious that defines who they are and their connections to a way of life? It results in resistance. And classically, the Pueblo Revolt in 1680 demonstrated what people will do in the face of threats to a way of life, to their values, to the gifts of the Creator. And in each one of your own respective histories are the classic examples of Indian history of resistance because of those threats to the gifts of the Creator, to our core values, to a way of life. Ours moved from that period --through the impacts of Mexico and the debates about whether or not Indian people were human beings -- moving quickly to the impact of the time that I want to focus in on, are the years of our collective experience and struggles with all of the impositions of one of the most powerful countries, if not the most powerful country in the world.

And as you reflect upon your own histories, all of these impositions -- over generations of our people -- results in who we have become, the personalities that have been defined that we can understand. Because none of this has ever been part of our own inquiry -- with regard to the history and the impacts -- because nowhere in our educational system provides us that opportunity. Federal policies and laws that dealt deliberately with efforts to disconnect us from our lands, to kill our Native languages by prohibiting the speaking of Native languages [with] the policy creating boarding schools, resulted in a mission of this country that the way you kill a culture is to take the children from that culture and deny those children their culture. Does that make sense? A deliberate process to disconnect us in that process -- after they were unsuccessful in their practices of genocide and extermination -- that a more humane way was to try to assimilate us as a way to become visible in this society, in this country, disconnecting us from the gifts of the Creator, from those core values. So as we move through history of genocide and extermination, through assimilation, the forced segregation of children in an educational process -- the effort to kill a culture by removing its children and denying those children -- they removed their culture. And as we move through that process using education -- the effort of the policies articulated, delineated, implemented -- that tried to change the governance systems of our people. And now, 75 years later, many are struggling with the impositions of a form of government imposed that we have not properly engaged in a dialogue -- with regard to how do we deal in the aftermath. Seventy-five years later to examine and reflect: How have these impositions taken us further away from the core values, our connections to the gifts of the Creator, incompatible with fundamental core values of our people?

And as we move from that period, obviously the impact of many men and women who were engaged in military experiences -- and how that experience changed many people becoming quiet agents when they returned -- ways in which, following that period, the policies of termination, the policies of relocation added a whole other layer of impact to many generations of our people. Conscious or unconscious decisions, in this time of relocation, that many made to follow the American dream for their children -- and how for many following that American dream really became an American nightmare -- and the further victimization that we in our communities inflicted on those who tried to come home. Another layer of victimization that we imposed on our own and the painful human emotions -- those experiences compounding the way in which many dealt with that -- reflect an inability to deal with these impositions and the way it led to dysfunction in their lives and in their communities. That created the struggles and challenges we face today -- as a result of many people engaging in self-hatred and self-destruction that still haunts us today in our communities -- only we never traced the deep roots of those experiences and how they shaped and formed many people in our communities.

And as we moved into a period today -- that will be defined as a period of self-determination -- we have to be mindful, that over the course of 30 years, to ask the question, have we simply just been engaged in replicating programs that people before us were critical of? Questions like: What are we doing differently in this time of self-determination when supposedly we're in control? What are we doing differently from those times when others were in control and we were critical of? We so embraced accessing resources for Head Start in the late '60s and early '70s that we forgot to ask where is this a head start to, if not to an earlier and a more aggressive pursuit of acquisition of language proficiency? And now in our communities, programs that engage children even younger than Head Start age children? But that's not a criticism, that comes with new ways in being places we've never been before.

Housing development -- and the way in which in many communities but particularly, fundamentally important in Pueblo society -- is the way in which homes and the community are built to complement our social organization. And the way that we embraced HUD [Department of Housing and Urban Development] homes and the development that was cost effective -- it was argued to create subdivisions -- that over time, we reflect how disruptive these subdivisions were to our social organization. What have we done differently in the education programs that we are now in control of at the elementary, mid and high school levels? We operate a school of 800 Pueblo students at the Santa Fe Indian School created in 1890. I was chair of that school for 15 years, and I often asked this question of our board and faculty and our leaders: What are we doing differently today, different from those times when education through boarding schools were imposed upon our children? If we're not doing anything differently, then why do we continue to take children away from the families and communities for nine months out of the years in similar ways as the government took our children?

I take you through this timeline very quickly to understand and appreciate that where we are today -- as we move towards this discussion specifically on governance -- is to ask those same questions. It really is ironic that in this time period, as treaties and other obligations were being made, that the whole issue of blood quantum was introduced. And as we move into other parts -- through the land allotment, the Dawes Act, and all of these other imposed policies and laws meant to disconnect us from our lands -- that the whole issue of blood entered the debates to define who was civilized and who was uncivilized. And yet today, one of the most conflicting issues in our communities are those who argue that we should keep policies that have been imposed upon us through laws imposed upon us -- that over time has caused incredible disconnect from the core values and the gifts of the Creator. And yet, we are now in control but arguing to keep those things that cause conflict and division in our communities, as blood quantum haunts us today and, in many cases, threatens our own demise. And as we look at constitutions, if we're not asking questions with regard to, what must we change in this time that we are in control and create something that is compatible with our core values? Think about the way in which elections in our communities have become so disruptive, that it results in -- as we see the Republic and Democratic parties play out daily, the ugliness of that divide that threatens the demise of the most powerful country in this world from within -- and think about our own communities of that overlay and that supposedly democratic process threatening -- as long as there are winners and losers -- the kind of tremendous internal conflict of our people.

Our elders teach us that along our journey we must always be mindful of our collective past experiences tied to the gifts of the Creator -- our core values -- and when we disconnect from that consciousness -- driven by our core values -- that we can become our own worst enemy. And sometimes we think that where we are in the journey are those times that we can self-destruct from within. Now here is a thing to appreciate -- that with colonization and impositions brought by different representatives from around the world, depending on where we live -- that each generation over time has been faced with these challenges. And through all of the generations before us -- reflected in our history and in our stories -- there was never a willingness on their part to compromise our core values and our gifts of the Creator that defined our inheritance today. The question becomes, what will future generations of the Cherokee and the Choctaw and the Oneida and the Sioux and the Hopi and the Diné inherit from us? These are incredibly challenging times, but these are incredibly important times in the maintenance of these connections.

Here we are in this middle circle today. We're connected through our parents, our grandparents, our great-grandparents. That arrow moving in that direction is a personalized experience of these inflictions that I've just briefly gone over with all of you. We are personally connected to that history of infliction of impositions -- that defines who we are as individuals, that defines our families and our communities -- but we never take those into consideration, as we assess where we are today in the challenges that we face, because none of this is a conscious part of our thinking. And think about the next 100 years. We're in the middle. How many have children? Raise your hand. How many have grandchildren? How many have great-grandchildren? So we have in this gathering here individuals personally connected already to the next 100 years. All dictated by the decisions we make today that 100 years hence, will be a discussion among future generations of our people. How will they reflect upon this time? Will they be as kind as you reflect upon your history and you reflect upon the heroes and the champions that have let the fight in your struggles to retain your identity, your connection to the gifts of the Creator to those core values? How will future generations reflect upon all of us, upon all of you as parents, as grandparents, as great-grandparents? How will they reflect upon this time? Will they say [that] we were blessed, that in that time of incredible challenge and struggle of our people, that they rose in equal and honorable ways -- as all generations before them -- that defined our inheritance? Or will they reflect, "˜If only great-grandpa, if only great-grandmother, if only grandpa, if only grandmother, if only my parents had the courage and the strength to rise to the challenge that we might still have connections to our lands; that we might still have a language, our mother tongue; that we might still have a way of life connected to the core values and our Creator; that we might still have our own governance systems; that we might still reflect upon the incredible gift of the tools of the Creator of our traditional laws, customs and traditions; that we would still have the vibrancy and the vitality of family teaching core values and the vitality and the vibrancy of a community fully engaged in one mission toward the same vision.' How will they reflect upon this time, that history will define as your time, as our time? And that becomes the really profound nature of your discussion.

Grandfathers and grandmothers have always prayed that sometime in our journey that we could be blessed with the minds and hearts represented in this room and represented back home. That they would be wise, that they would have the courage and the strength driven by their core values and their conscious connection to the gifts of the Creator; that they would find balance for the first time in our history to use an education and a process intended to disconnect us -- to use the skills that finally struck the elusive epiphany of a balance between the two. Our communities, the communities where you come from, are richly blessed with individuals like you, who are having this dialogue. That after 70-plus years of an imposed system of governance, that you would have the courage and the wisdom and the strength -- that as fragile as the connections to the core values might be, the fragileness in the connections to the gifts of the Creator might be -- that there still is a connection that takes us all the way back to time immemorial when those gifts were provided to our people for the maintenance of a healthy mind, body and spirit. Who are we as a people? What is our mission?

Now here's something that we have to think deeply about. And that is, we are at all points on the spectrum driven by the many differing experiences by way of contact with other sovereigns -- through their own impositions -- that created challenges of our people in their struggles to maintain their connection. Some have been affected more significantly and dramatically -- that sometimes we hear the criticism of over engagement in development generating money and revenue -- but for them we have to say that it's their way perhaps, of never being threatened in ways that almost decimated them from this earth. And there are many on the other opposite end of the spectrum.

In my community, we're blessed that we still have a traditional governance system, that people rise to the level of leadership -- largely through the recognition of spiritual and medicine people -- as the ultimate gift of service to their people. And in those times when leadership changes, it is a time of reunification and a reaffirmation to our core values, to our connections of the Creator. In Pueblo governance, culture deeply matters because that is the soul, that is the heart and the soul to the vitality and the vibrancy of our governance system -- but it permeates throughout all of our society. Language is a critical part in the maintenance of that spirit of vitality in Pueblo governance. It drives our decisions with regard to protecting the gifts of the Creator, lands upon which there are places of worship from where we draw our sense of spirituality and connection to those gifts. Governance and our way of life are inseparable -- there is no separation of church and state in our government and in our governance system -- but we represent only one point on the spectrum of many other points on the spectrum.

So as you engage in your own reflection of where you are in your journey, at this part and time in history, think about the incredible opportunity that you have knowing all that you know of the collective experiences of many of your brother and sister nations across this country. As we reflect and share how people are responding -- always in contact with other sovereigns -- the strength and the powerfulness of their impositions have always dictated our responses. And sometimes they've been so powerful we've succumbed and they've taken it all to transform us. Sometimes we stood up to those challenges and in our response we adapted, striking a balance. In this time of self-determination we have to ask, are we simply replicating programs that further undermine the fragile systems and institutions that nurture and nourish our core values and our connections to the gifts of the Creator? If we didn't believe that we are still connected in this spiritual way, that our responsibilities -- as politically as they might be defined -- that at the very core and the heart of what we do, is driven with an understanding of a sense of sacredness of that responsibility and that obligation all toward answering the question, what will future generations inherit from me, from you, from all of us? So this is a time of important sharing and if we're not mindful -- that what we do today has a profound impact in the future -- the question becomes, whether we will maintain that connection we have had as Indian people since time immemorial or will this happen? Will future generations be disconnected from the gifts of the Creator and our core values? And when that happens, is there ever a time that we can reconnect? And so as you deal with the issue of governance, think about what you're blessed with. Think about this time in history, that we can actually revisit with the powers and authorities that have been retained with tremendous sacrifice something that makes sense to us. Or will this time be no different than the plus hundreds of years that -- even in the sacrifices of our own people in our own communities, families -- that we're going to internalize this imposition in ways that results in the contributions to our own demise? That's the question. And what will your contribution be towards that effort, is how profound this time is.

An important part in the maintenance of the core values, affects decision-making at every level. In all the decisions we make, we ought to be asking, how are the decisions we're making today strengthening our core values? Or, how are the decisions we're making today taking us further away from our own core values? And if we're not consciously making decisions with regard to that basis and analysis, then are we really finishing what the most powerful in the country in this world could never do -- destroy us as Indigenous peoples, disconnect us from our lands, kill our languages, kill the oldest Indigenous religions in this world, destroy our governance systems, destroy the oldest Indigenous customs and laws in this world, destroy the institution of family, destroy what is beautiful, that is rare in this country, the spirit of community that we still have that drives our passion to sustain and maintain, protecting our resources to provide future generations their sustenance, mind, body, and spirit. And how will we do that if we're not more consciously articulating a vision, delineating our strategies and using education where there is a complement between the formal education and a rich cultural education? And then lastly, who will be your caretakers? Will your caretakers be loving, respectful and compassionate? And who will define that if not each and every one of you in what you do?

So governance, to close, is not something to be treated in isolation of everything else. Governance must be connected to all of the other realms that contribute to the maintenance of our core values for the collective well being of our people. And it can only be engaged in that fashion to produce leaders conscious of that connection -- driven by their core values for the collective well being of their people -- because it's also a connection to the gifts of the Creator. What will be your contribution?"

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