Robert McDonald: Engaging the Nation's Citizens and Effecting Change: The Salish and Kootenai Story

Native Nations Institute

Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) Communications Director Robert McDonald discusses the challenges his nation faces when it comes to effectively educating and engaging its citizens -- particularly in the age of social media -- and what the nation is starting to do about it. He also discusses the reasons why CSKT decided to produce The Rez We Live On, a ten-part series of public educational videos designed to eradicate misconceptions about his nation and Native nations in general.

Resource Type

McDonald, Robert. "Engaging the Nation's Citizens and Effecting Change: The Salish and Kootenai Story." Emerging Leaders seminar. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. October 11, 2012. Presentation.

"[Salish language]. Thank you for having me here. My name's Rob McDonald. I'm with the Salish and Kootenai Tribes. I need to read my own presentation so throw stuff at me if I get in your way. My name's Rob McDonald and I need your vote. Sorry. Wrong speech, wrong speech. I am the tribe's communication director but I'll get to that. I want to talk a little bit about communication, how that ties to engagement and the people, talk about how it works in our community and then talk about outside of our community. Just to kind of set the right stage, I started this job...actually we go back 20 years. I'd bring up government around family gatherings or whatever and people say without a thought, ‘Council's corrupt, they're taking our money, there's so much corruption I just can't stand it. Somebody should do something.' I had the audacity as a journalist to go, ‘I'm really curious ‘cause I don't know, what have you seen that is so corrupt? Teach me.' And then, ‘Oh, well, there was that one time.' I go, ‘Just one example recently, anything.' ‘Well, so-and-so drinks.' I keep asking that question. I ask it today when people get very angry. But I do see...I look at the passion, I look at the anger -- anger is passion -- they care, our people really care and I think we're getting closer to harnessing this passion.

This is headquarters. This is Pablo, Montana. This is where we've got several buildings. Of course this is the council chambers. This was built...back in 2005 we moved in. It's a drum on top. Nice building. Mission Valley Power is our utility company. They let me borrow their truck and you can see a shadow. I'm in the top of the bucket getting a good view of the thing.

Who we are: we are 1,200 employees, largest employer in the county. We overlap with four counties. Nearly 8,000 tribal members, 5,000 on the rez. We're in a dozen departments, top three administrators overseeing department administrators, legal team, two culture committees, many people doing many things. This is how we do it, how it's broken down. I'm tucked...I'm not on council, I'm not an elected official, I'm a staffer. I am way in the right somewhere in communications. But council always makes a point to point this out. At the very top is the membership, they are the bosses and it is a popular election. Ten councilmen, four-year terms and usually the most popular people get in.

This is my messy office. Seven years ago they brought back this position. Someone did it one year before me, a non-tribal member of our tribe. Didn't do too well with the politics. This is what I do. Each of the 10 council [members] I learned very quickly are already experts in talking to the membership and I learned very quickly the last thing they want is me between them and the public. It even feels weird for me to talk to a group. I look around and make sure no one here is Salish or Kootenai ‘cause no one corrected me and laughed and said, ‘You just said good morning in Salish and Kootenai, ha ha.' ‘Cause I can't pronounce the good afternoon in Salish and Kootenai very well. That's my test I throw out.

Council meets twice a week. They commence with a walk-in session, which means between 9:00 and 10:00 anybody could come in the door, they can check in with the gatekeeper, Sharon Silverman, and say, ‘I want to talk to the council about this.' ‘How much time do you need?' '10 minutes, 5 minutes, half an hour,' and they engage and they...I swear I have seen someone come in and say, ‘They promised to fix my gate, they did not. It's been two years.' ‘We'll fix it.' Followed by the person that said, ‘My neighbor's dogs are harassing my cattle, I want you to do something about it.' ‘Okay, we will.' To someone who says, ‘My son just got a scholarship and I want to introduce him to you all.' To someone saying, ‘You're all on the wrong path and this is why,' and criticizing the government. Never know what's coming through the door. Council likes to point to that and say, ‘We're highly participatory, wide open to our membership, anybody can come in.'

It's hard to stay in touch though. We are larger than Rhode Island. That's the reservation, exterior boundaries. Now homesteading and allotment policies broke us up. The tribe owns about 62 percent, got a checkerboard situation. I'll get to that. It's hard. Actually there are...there's an IT network that keeps all the computer networks together that goes through six different companies going from the lake area toward Missoula trying to keep us all connected. Email does a good job with that. How did we ever try to stay connected? Well, in 1956, Walter McDonald, my great uncle, was on council and he said, ‘We need to tell the people information, crucial information. They keep asking me questions in the grocery store. Let's make this formal.' 1956 they start the Char-Koosta [newspaper]. It's a nod to our last two hereditary chiefs. We adopted a constitution in 1934 or the Indian Reorganization Act and the last two chiefs that we had were Chief Charlo and Chief Koostahtah, put the names together. It went away and came back in '71 and still exists today, the tribal paper. It's still mailed to all tribal members. Includes the [council meeting] minutes. Non-members do subscribe at times without the minutes.

It is not what I would call a true newspaper. It is not free and unfettered. It is not independent. It does have the 'oop-tion,' the ten on council who could take great exception for the content and made it pretty clear no personal grievances, court conflicts and excessive negative attacks on individuals, especially people working for the government. When that decision was made, before I ever came around, it came about partly because previous leadership at the paper thought it should be unfettered and free and they put in many challenges and attacks to the current administration. And that was deemed as feeding into the surrounding anti-Indian groups who are using this dirt to hurt us and destroy our credibility. And the belief was, ‘Let's keep our fights in-house, let's not air them out so the public can see them.' That is what was handed to me as I showed up. Like I said, it's not perfect but I do say it's kind of like the Stars and Stripes, what that is to the U.S. Army. It's informative, but it will not have attacks and I do point to people when they complain about their letter not running that they're protected by that same thing, nobody will be attacking them in a letter as well that is unfair.

However, our world has changed. Anybody seen this movie? It played enough on HBO, whatever, "The Social Network." I love that movie, nerds, rebels and I'm CEO... partner. It's a nice movie but this is real life and it has had a great impact on communications. The community around us has discovered a very quick and efficient way to share ideas although not always accurate. This is the start of a discussion on why council is refusing to put part of the settlement money for minors into IIM accounts. ‘What, are they going to spend it themselves?' He says, ‘Yeah, I know they're going to do that.' The third one down here, ‘I can't believe they're doing that. I know they're doing that, they've done this before, they're stealing from us. I know they do that. I cannot...' It's amaz...when I've got a thick elephant skin I love to read it ‘cause I'm like, ‘How did they get from here to here?' All you've got to do is introduce so-and-so did something and then 20 people jump on it, true or not. Usually when people say...when I say to people, ‘Where's this corruption?' usually it's, ‘Well, I saw it on Facebook.' Okay, well, is that a good source...I don't get into that discussion.

So I call it gossip on steroids. Now, our council does look at it from a very negative light, but I think there's a bigger picture that we can miss. This is membership engaged and even organizing at times on some of their views. There's a petition out there trying to get us to give out more of our settlement money from the Salazar settlement. It's called the Hundred Percenters and about half was given out. They're trying to give out more and they're trying to get petitions and have their way. They're engaged, they're organizing. There are more voices; more voices than there were before, young people engaging. Is it official? No, but the conversations are not unknown to our leadership. They do get elevated. Someone tells someone who tells someone who tells their wife who says, ‘Hey, look on Facebook, you should see what they're saying about your husband or your wife.' And council is aware of this, kind of a back informal channel. Unfortunately the debates, like I said, are often negative, caustic, attacking, based in fear, rumor, imagined corruption. I'm not going to say there never was corruption. We have the same challenges throughout history. I think decades ago probably but they're attacking the wrong corruption in my opinion. It's a turn-off. Some people refuse to get involved or they get involved and they just say, ‘I don't want any part of this.' But my experience in my little education tells me this will eventually evolve, be more sophisticated. Into what, I'm not sure. But it is power and our department heads wanted to hold some of that power. They saw networks that would really help them. These are people, a thousand people actively engaged. How do I get my information into this group? I've asked council directly, ‘Do you want me to jump into this Facebook site, interject some facts?' I'm kind of like jumping into the mob, gladiators in the arena. Are you not entertained? But they said, ‘No, no. Let's not...let them talk of course, free country, but don't...don't jump in.' So I watch once in awhile.

There's been some push-back. When department heads said, ‘We'd like to get into this Facebook thing somehow,' they said, ‘You've got a tribal website. This is front page. There's all kinds of info up there. You've each got a site for your department. You can post things. What's the problem? Why do you need this other toy? Do you just want to surf and have the instant chat feature or what?' So in the end they said, ‘Rob, can you try to come up with a social media policy?' And so I looked at it and I said, ‘Well, let's create a mechanism for departments to create an official tribal government Facebook presence.' They had to explain why it was needed, how they'd moderate it and keep the stuff off it, the name calling and the attacks and how the department has exhausted all other tools. That right there kind of stopped some of departments, ‘cause they're like, ‘Oh, well, we don't really use the website.' ‘Why don't you?' ‘Well, it's too hard.' ‘All you have to do is send text to the IT person and say, ‘Put this up'.' ‘Oh, well, we haven't written that yet.' Well, this is no different. You're still writing, so, ‘okay.' It kind took the glisten off the new toy a little bit. But three departments did.

This is the actual policy; so usually three pages on Microsoft Word, pretty straightforward. I have copies I could email or share. It's not exactly brilliant policy. It just says, ‘Here's what's expected of you and council will ultimately decide the guidelines that guide the paper, guide your content and how is this going to help you, check in with us in six months.' Council has said 'yes' three times, although it's been a split vote, 5-4, 6-3. So far, so good. The People Center, which is kind of like a tribal embassy. They work with the culture committees and present history, stories, museum pieces, classes plus a gift shop. Education Department has found it a great tool to get information on scholarships, success stories, resources for homework. And the Victim's Advocate Program is struggling with it because this is a world where Facebook by inherent nature is wide open in a community, but sometimes you don't want to be wide open if you've got problems at home and you need some help. It's not a network some people are joining for that reason.

Department heads are still asking for some updates but they're still not accepting of it, they still kind of put up with it is probably the best way to put it. And there are some troubles. I'm sure all of you experienced a little bit of this but disgruntled employees have discovered, ‘Hey, this is a great place to talk bad about my boss.' And someone else will go, ‘Yeah, he is a jerk.' And then come back to work and kind of give you the... ‘What? It's a free country.' And our personnel department is kind of like, ‘Well, there's a policy against disrupting the government but they're not protesting, they're not burning down buildings.' I understand this is a big issue in the workforce off the reservation as well. But for the most part it's not's blocked at work, you can't use it at work. You can get special permission to use it for research or department. Our lands department has been very successful in using and tracking down owners of different tracts of land with the newspaper, etc., I think. Four or five different individuals had permission from council to use it. However, it doesn't mean you can't use a smartphone and get out the information that you want to get out ‘cause you can still post on a smartphone and...'Well, I was on break and it's my phone, what's your problem?' It's a challenge.

So engaged versus 'gotcha.' It was a series of bitter communications over months that led to the tribal paper having kind of a restriction of their content. And these bitter communications on Facebook are outside the governmental control for the most part but they are leading to hard feelings. Tribal community does have an independent public forum to hash out these ideas. Sometimes they use facts, which is nice. I hope that'll mature but we're still just dabbling in this social media world and it is starting to have an impact on our official commentary. There's been some happy successes. The tribal paper does have a website, and I found that I can put a link on Facebook to a story or an announcement and it gets out there circulated very quickly. This is a dinosaur. It is paper delivered into the home once a week and everybody gets it, yes, but that' the current era of communications that's pretty slow. But on Facebook, everybody knows pretty quickly. Those who don't know get on Facebook.

We're still looking for the sweet spot. We have trouble communicating to all our membership. There was an incident where we had a bunch of turkeys for the holidays. Somebody in the giant freezer turned the dial...this is how I imagine it. He walked away and he thought, ‘Should I check that dial to see if I do it right? Nah, I'm sure it's fine.' So we have 400 turkeys that spoiled and we're in the process...some got delivered and so how do we get word out, ‘Don't eat the turkey!' That's a critical communication. Luckily it was a department that is actively engaged with...a department that's actively engaged with that population and could reach out very quickly and tell them. And that was...but it was kind of a wake-up call to me, ‘How do we reach these people?' We do a thing called 'everyone email' that goes out to all the employees and if it's really interesting it's forwarded to all their family very easily. That helps but that's not everyone. Tribal paper and the website like I said, kind of. There is no silver bullet. We're looking at a cell phone alert system. Kind of a solution but again doesn't hit everybody. We're looking at 'Indian CNN,' it's what I call it anyway. In our lobby we've got a pilot, this is a screen and I control it from my computer or any computer. I can log in, I can post updates, news and it flashes around. If you go to Char-Koosta, you can see an html version of that and I think this is going to be in all of our buildings here pretty soon.

Room to improve? Definitely. People are involved. I think that's a good thing. There is access to council that we already have; access socially in our community. I think we do a lot of work in the grocery stores. Should people want to get involved? We have all kinds of pathways and invitations to speak up and they do. Whenever someone comes in to complain, which we all know does happen, council is in a position to say, ‘Have you put in for this board? Do you want to say on this? Do you want to affect tribal credit? Do you want to be a say over this corporation? You can apply to be on this board.' It's been very effective to fact, some of these boards don't have enough people apply sometimes. ‘We need care that much, please help us.' It's been very effective to engage them. And it's kind of a grooming for them in their future political leadership. Facebook offers unofficial forums, but again with the freedoms I hear them say, ‘We're saying all this great stuff but can't we make council do anything?' I see that they're almost there. They're realizing we're having great talks, but we need to connect it to the government and I think that might be the next step that we're going to see. I could just tell them that but they're not going to listen to me I don't think. They have to find their path.

Okay, quickly. Looking outside. We live on a reservation where we are a minority in our homeland. It's been that way since 1934. We were homesteaded in 1910, allotments and whatnot. So we have our lands, then we've got theirs and theirs and theirs and theirs. As our D.C. lobbyist says, ‘They stole the land fair and square.' Obviously being a minority in our homeland, allotment, some say it's the worst thing ever done to us, but it's perceptions that come from not knowing us. Those perceptions led to federal policies that thought we needed to be assimilated for our own good. There's a lot more other impacts of this ignorance that I'm seeing. Ignorance does hurt us. I see so commonly lawmakers, educators, leaders, business entities, make decisions that impact us based on bad information and it became clear that our tribal story needed to be better established. We've been telling it, but it's not sticking and for some reason I think we were shooting too high. We had our best, our smartest, our most passionate giving presentations on sovereignty, self-governance and history and afterward I learned something. I think we kind of duped ourselves. We see Michelangelo, ‘The greatest danger for most of us is that we don't aim high enough.' I think that is important, but I think in our situation we were aiming too high. We were missing the ground floor. We did not realize how unschooled our neighbors were.

Actual questions I've gotten recently. ‘Can non-Indians buy land on your reservation?' Not that dumb of a question I suppose, but without fail someone's going to come up, ‘That's a great talk on sovereignty and the socio-economic impacts of this and that and historic trauma, however, do you want to be called Indian or Native American?' I'm like, ‘Really? That's what you got out of that brilliant talk of our Ph.D. and social scientist?' ‘Where's your Indian village?' Wow! Max Rehberg has a staffer who has a daughter-in-law who came to the rez with a camera and asked me to take her to the Indian village, people in loin cloths, fires, teepees. I said, ‘Well, we've got tulle mats too.' ‘Where's the real Indians?' Ya'll hear that. But a light goes on. We're talking way over the head. People lack essential understandings to understand the more complex ideas. How do we do that? I got right to the heart of it. What are 10 things I never want to hear said again about my people? And I did an informal poll in the building, I did emails to our administrators, I did emails to the community and staff and I gathered this information and it was pretty amazing how the list was pretty consistent. I brought in some talent ‘cause I can't really do a great website and I found some people that said, ‘You know, we can do animation.' ‘How much is that going to cost?' ‘Not that much.' ‘Wow! Okay, let's keep talking, let's keep talking.' And council always said, ‘People must know they live on our reservation.' They just don't get that in our community. The county seat in Polson, I had a high school kid call me up and wanted to do a story on border towns because Polson has high racism and border towns have high racism, ‘I want to do a story on Polson.' I said, ‘Well, you do realize Polson is on the reservation, it's not a border town?' The kid was like, ‘Oh, okay.' Excused himself and never called me again. It's just they don't know where they are. I guess you got played a video yesterday so we can spare that. Ten videos addressing 10 things I never want to hear again and it does it in about a 45-second clip, much faster than I can. That's taken on a life of its own far beyond anything I expected. Ya'll play it to people. I'm so flattered. I did not know that until recently. I know people have asked for it. It still gets hits. It's going through an upgrade. UC San Diego law school professor wrote me and said he assigns it to his Intro to Indian Law students. Vine Deloria, Jr. wrote me, not Vine Deloria, Jr., Philip Deloria, Vine Deloria's son, Ph.D., social scientist wrote me and said, ‘Great site.' It's on to something. It's information that I heard the state is using to train the tribal police. It's still hitting in 50 states. Well, it started out hitting in 50 states. It's kind of tampered back to just Indian Country. I did learn a happy accident, so I'll share that with you, is that educators in the classroom in our community, they have a mixed population and the kids start fighting when they talk about history, Indian, non-Indian, ‘Your parents get tax dollars that my dad pays for,' that kind of B.S. Well, the teacher wants to stop the conflict and the teacher may or may not know that one of these two kids is repeating myths, incorrect information and if not outright racial fueled ignorance. Well, the teacher is not allowed to say to the ignorant one, ‘You're wrong. You're just out wrong,' ‘cause that kid will go home, tell his parents, the parents will come to the school, go to the school board, they're paralyzed. I did not know that. Now they can go, ‘I understand you think this and you think that. Let's see what the tribes have to say. Here's their story.' So the ignorance is so deep a teacher can't hit it. I ended up giving them a tool and didn't realize it. Like I said, the upgrade's coming and I think it's important.

My message is: as tribal nations, embrace getting your story out. Don't underestimate the impact of the ignorance to the systems around us. And realize that sometimes the gatekeepers that talk about issues that we're doing like in education...I just saw this picture online and I can be a shallow person. This might be an Indian man for all I know. He might be married to an Indian woman. He might be very schooled on the intricacies of Indian history and policy and he may not be smirking talking about Indian education or casting it in light that somehow we're getting another handout from the government. He may be our best ally but my instinct at looking at this picture was, ‘Do I want this guy telling thousands of viewers, ‘This is what's going on with Indian education...' It wouldn't be my first choice but maybe that's me being shallow. I don't know.

My hope ultimately is that other tribes follow through with their own public education campaign and other tribes have contacted me, thought about doing something similar. I heard there's a national effort that's been trying to get off the ground from a company out of Seattle called Pyramid Communications. I kind of view that like a bumblebee. Maybe it'll fly but its wings are a little small. I hope it flies. I hope it doesn't care it's too big to fly. But from my point of view, this formula has worked to some degree and maybe it offers something to you all. [Salish language]."


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