Robert Yazzie: Traditional Principles of Leadership

Native Nations Institute

Former Chief Justice Robert Yazzie of the Navajo Nation Supreme Court provides an overview of the traditional Diné governance system and specifically the leadership principles that Diné leaders relied upon to make sound, informed, strategic decisions in consultation with and on behalf of their people. He offers a convincing argument for Native nations to consult their traditional governance systems in order to meet the challenges they face today.

Native Nations
Resource Type

Yazzie, Robert. "Traditional Principles of Leadership." Emerging Leaders seminar. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. November 6, 2013. Presentation.

Ian Record:

"I have the great pleasure of introducing Robert Yazzie, who is...who I've known for many years through his affiliation with the Native Nations Institute. He's been one of our longest serving members of our International Advisory Council. He's a real major figure in the area of tribal justice systems, and in fact I think Rae Nell [Vaughn] and Eldena [Bear Don't Walk] may reference the Navajo Nation Justice System tomorrow because they're really viewed...that system is really viewed as a leader in the process that many Native nations are engaging in in terms of reclaiming the function of justice in their own communities and returning it to a position where it's culturally appropriate and culturally relevant and reflective of culture. And Robert was one of the main architects of that movement, to make that justice system work for the Navajo people in a Navajo way. And we have the great was interesting, we see Robert a couple times a year and after the last time we saw him he mentioned a desire to come and speak to leaders such as yourself about what he calls the ‘traditional principles of leadership' and basically how you work to instill your own core values in the actions and decisions that you make as leaders, again, whether you're an elected official or just a decision maker within your own community, within your own family, within your own nation. So with that I'll turn the floor over to Robert. He's going to present for about 20 minutes or so and then we want to leave a little time at the end of his session for some questions."

Robert Yazzie:

"[Navajo language]. Anybody here? I have a humor to share with you just as an opener. When we say '[Navajo language],' we always say, ‘Goodness be unto you.' And so I had a solicitor when I was the sitting chief justice, he used to -- he's a white guy, used to see his Navajo wife every weekend. They would go to drive three hours to Albuquerque and when they meet they'll say [Navajo language], hugs and kisses and everything. So around 8:00, she would tell him, ‘Hit the hay.' And then over the weekend when she gets mad at him, she'll say, ‘What the hay?' I know that would get you going. Thank you for the cake. Good for my sugar level.

I would like to talk about the principles of Diné leadership and I want to talk about the definition of how Diné leadership can be understood in terms of its definition, in terms of its qualities, and also the challenges and experience of Diné leadership yesterday and today. So for purposes of achieving a better government, the question is, ‘Can the modern day leadership incorporate the traditional principles of governance from the past?' I think that's a very important question on our table.

So what is leadership? Studies of political systems show a scale of differing patterns, from absolute authoritarian leadership to leadership that's only persuasive. Some leaders exercise command with force and others only persuade. Most form of western leadership are based on the notion of power, to back up a command. In other words, leadership in that respect usually means power, control, authority and coercion. Diné, traditional Diné leadership is not about power, it's not about control or coercion, but a recognition that words are powerful through influence and persuasion. Persuasive leadership is based on compliance with the command or advice of a leader such as a wise uncle or other relative out of respect.

The Navajo word for leadership is '[Navajo language].' I think the concepts really teach us a lot, so I'm going to be talking about concept as a way to understand something about leadership, traditional leadership. So the Navajo word for leadership is '[Navajo language],' which in essence means 'a planner' and it comes from a word base means ‘speaking' [Navajo language]. The word for ‘planning' is '[Navajo language],' refers to talking things out to make a plan. The Navajo word for ‘leader,' '[Navajo language]' arises from power as a speaker and the word for ‘planning,' '[Navajo language]' is about problem solving and discussing plans. An elder would say '[Navajo language],' that it is about learning how to think, '[Navajo language],' learning how to use your thinking when the [Navajo language]. The [Navajo language], the leader uses those elements of thinking and planning as tools for leadership.

We generally understand that traditional leadership is based on possessing wisdom and the ability to speak, create plans for successful outcomes and results, create respect that compels people to follow. It's something like his or her word is law. So given that brief definition, we can ask the question, ‘Well, what are the qualities, what are the characteristics or traits of leadership and how does one get the qualities of leadership and earn respect?' So when we look at the thinking of the leader or for anybody for that matter, we look at two things that are opposites. The simplest way of saying it is you have something good, you have something bad. That's the centerpiece to your your thinking. So in that respect, our old system of government last seen in operation 1859. '[Navajo language]' means ‘the peaceful chief.' '[Navajo language]' is more of the opposite of a good peaceful chief. '[Navajo language]' means ‘firm.' It could mean something very rough as well. So looking at those concepts helps us to understand the Navajo leadership definitions and qualities according to the early style of leadership we call '[Navajo language].' So if you can imagine a circle, imagine that you have 12 leaders sitting toward each other, one representing the peace, one representing the war. So as I said, that was last observed in 1859.

So the two kinds of leaders traditionally, '[Navajo language]' or 'war leaders,' and the '[Navajo language]' or 'peace leaders,' the word '[Navajo language]' relates to decisions that are prompt, powerful and aggressive. That's the person's characteristics. The speaking done is for...the speaking to that...for that quality is for war. So the ability to immediately evaluate a situation and to speak to a plan to...and speak to a plan of immediate and aggressive action is necessary. Individuals get a reputation of being successful warriors. The word '[Navajo language]' comes from the word '[Navajo language]' basically means 'understanding of something good.' Understand [Navajo language] as a state of perfection. One definition is that [Navajo language] is that state of being where everyone and everything are in proper place relating and functioning well with everything to achieve a state of harmony or perfection. That requires a kind of speaking to achieve a perfect state that is wise and successful.

So Justice Austin who I used to sit with, Raymond D. Austin, who was Associate Justice when I was Chief Justice and after he retired he went to...went back to school. He was a law school graduate and he was a member of the Arizona Bar. He went back to the University of Arizona to earn do his dissertation in Navajo common law. So he has come up with a book called The Navajo Nation Courts: The Common Law and in his book he talks a lot about the duty of a [Navajo language], the duty of a leader, which is to maintain [Navajo language] as a perfect state of condition and he said that could be the theory, but in terms of practice, the leader would identify a problem, a [Navajo language], and that leader has the obligation to engage himself or herself in what we call '[Navajo language].' In English is to say, ‘Think for the people to find the problem.' Identify the causes of the disruption of the state of [Navajo language] and once you have done that, then the challenge in one is to restore [Navajo language].

Individuals who want to be leaders do not appoint themselves. The status is earned. The western notion of advancing one's own name for political office by election makes no sense. Election in a traditional sense is spontaneous and based on necessities. For example, there may be plans for spring planting over a winter fire. So there would be talk of when to plant, who could read the stars to know when that is done and other matters that call for leadership guidance. So people who talk about what would be the best...who would be the best person to guide the planting season; that is a way leaders were chosen.

I served as the Navajo Nation court judge and the chief justice for the Navajo Nation Supreme Court for 19 years. As Navajo judges, we are considered as successors of the traditional [Navajo language], peace chief, because we are chosen for our individual qualities. Traits that make a difference in being a good leader include adherence to the duty of promoting harmony and order and treating people with fairness and humility. [Navajo language] of the past and today are looked upon as role models and the respect for our decision depends upon our personal integrity. Humility is a personal value, which prompts people to respect us judges for our decision not for our position.

One of the traditional terms for leader is that person is slightly higher than others and it reflects the view that leadership and the acceptance of its authority comes from those who conduct themselves well. It comes from individuals who speak well, plan well, show success in community planning or those who can talk the goods in for the people. Humility is not simply self-effacing behavior, but behavior that is consistent with competent leadership that is tempered with humility. Leadership is not for the self, but for the people. The people [are] the source of that power.

What is the traditional Navajo process for planning and decision making for leaders? The way of achieving [Navajo language], the good things, is by talking things out. As I said, the Navajo word '[Navajo language]' means 'to talk,' is related to leadership because of the common expression, as I said, words are powerful. Words of great leaders are powerful because they speak solution into reality. Navajos believe thoughts become action in words and that words create action or reality when they are spoken. Thinking becomes speech become action. That is the thought system where thinking and intuition drive words and speaking. Speaking in groups is planning and action is the result of thinking and planning. The Navajo word for leader '[Navajo language],' which arises from power as a speaker and the word for planning '[Navajo language]' is about problem solving and discussing plans. And there's a word, I'm sure that you have your own word for this concept, called '[Navajo language].' It's a very important concept in the past traditional practice of leadership. '[Navajo language],' which is 'talk things out.' It involves having free discussion among the leader with his people, with the community to clarify relationships, to identify problems and disputes and provides for a method of planning and making decisions. [Navajo language], talking things out process requires that reciprocity, doing things for each other in return, is about his or her obligation to what we call '[Navajo language]' and [Navajo language] is a concept that really can't be translated into English and I believe you have the same...the same experience is true with your language. That one word cannot be said, while '[Navajo  language]' means respect. '[Navajo language]' can mean many, many different things, even a book won't satisfy a good explanation of what that word means, but at best '[Navajo language]' is something like treating people with respect, compassion, reverence. So [Navajo language] or talking things out requires that reciprocity be practiced to ensure there's equal and equitable treatment for the people.

And there's another word that is very important as well, '[Navajo language].'Can you all say that? [Navajo language]. Not today? [Navajo language] is one of the practices for [Navajo language] and as I said, it's understood as knowing how to treat people with dignity and respect. The [Navajo language] as a [Navajo language] is always expected to act as though you have relatives. If you walk around, talk around, walk around and talk as if you have no relatives and the people would always say, ‘That person is forgetting about his or her obligation through [Navajo language].' A [Navajo language], a leader is always expected to honor his obligation through the concept of [Navajo language]. Talking things out with the people helps a leader to learn about ideas, expectation and recommendation of the community. An important aspect of making effective decisions by a leader is being well informed of the issues and concerns of the people. To be informed is to know what the people want. I think that is probably your experience as well when you observe Navajo Nation tribal council in session. Not everybody is there to fully know what the people want, because the more you observe sometimes the more you find out the leader really needs to understand what the people are thinking and what is it that they're concerned about.

The other part, the other issue that was discussed is transparency and it's something that is really difficult to translate from English to Navajo, but at best you can say in Navajo, we say '[Navajo language],' means you can't hide your plans. '[Navajo language],' it means to make clear your plans. [Navajo language] requires transparency, a free flow of information, a duty to communicate, to make known the issues at hand. Planning for action can be transparent except for war way planning so that everyone who is affected can see what is going on and have an opportunity to have a say. Navajo tradition requires energy and good will when putting plans into action so that good intentions reflect positive energy [and] will produce a good result.

What are the challenges and experience of leadership in Navajo country? In 1989, we had a major crisis. The Navajo Nation government was, were nearly as a whole was nearly put on its knees. The Navajo Nation Chairman Peter MacDonald was accused [of] bribery and kickbacks and the Navajo Nation Council proceeded to put him on administrative leave for accusation and for other serious criminal allegations. He refused. He told the Navajo Nation Council, ‘You have no legal basis.' And he was right, but the matter was put before the Navajo Nation Council on a certified question and the Navajo Nation Supreme Court came back with a response and said that...he says, ‘under traditional method of selection of leaders, people choose their leaders [Navajo language] based on trust and confidence. If a leader breeches the trust by wrongful acts, the people would simply walk away.' This practice was what justified the council action to remove Chairman Peter MacDonald from office.

I think one of the questions that really bothers a lot of us is that when it comes to decision-making, how effective are the leaders in making a good decision? I think here's where we can involve the question, ‘Does traditional Diné leadership make a difference in the modern day?' And we talk about the problems we have on Indian Country, that at times the atmosphere towards leadership can be very negative. And you look at the situation in Indian Country, people are living the hard life, frustrated, overwhelmed with trying to make things...trying to make ends meet and because there are no jobs, no money, no educational opportunities people are suffering from domestic violence. People cannot help but feel that leadership is inefficient, ineffective. So here's where we are asked the question, ‘If we were to do something a little different,' for example, look at the question, ‘Do the principles of Navajo traditional governance have a role in this scenario?' That is to say, does the traditional Diné leadership make a difference in the modern day? And sometimes when we need to respond to that kind of question we always talk about journey narratives, we always talk about Twin Heroes.

Twin Heroes were out to help save the people when the bad energy, the bad monsters began to take its toll on human lives. People really struggle, people were suffering, people were living with chaos and disharmony and so when we look at these narratives we can say that there was...that the Twin Heroes came and helped the people in many, many ways. They destroyed almost everything, all of what we called '[Navajo language],' the bad energy. But there were some who say, ‘Please save us. We can help the human race to live a quality of life.' But there are certain type of [Navajo language] that have no mercy on humans and so when the Twin Heroes, before killing the monster, the father, the Sun said, gave instruction and said to carefully study and observe the movement and behavior of the monster. Before you make the attack, thinking before you make the attack is a value that advises leaders today to carefully observe the problem before taking any sort of action. So it's telling us that where there's chaos is to really study the problem, understand the problem before you proceed to say, ‘What are the alternatives?'

So one of the things that we're trying to do within the Navajo Nation is to make some changes. I have a proposed legislation here before the Navajo Nation Council and it's about creating a uranium commission that would help to clean up the abandoned mines. We have so many... so much abandoned mines that it's causing a big risk. It's already causing a lot of health problems and people have died from it. And I was told, ‘Well, could you help us? Could you design a legislation that touches upon the fundamental law of the Diné?' And so it took me a long time to think that when we look at our tribal code, we see a lot of incorporation of state law, federal law and I think the emphasis should be, now that most of our kids are going to law school and are coming back to establish their practice, I think the emphasis is to take seriously and to say, ‘How do we develop our Indian thinking and use it as a tool to craft legislation?' So when I thought about this in terms of creating a commission and I thought about the leadership of that commission, that this leadership should be guided by the fundamental law of the Diné, and also the leadership also should be informed about the laws that we have, the laws from the time of creation. The laws from the time of creation is telling us about what is the natural law, '[Navajo Language]'? Natural law means laws that come from the earth and the universe and that itself, the natural law was like planting the seeds, planting the seeds to develop other forms of law.

For example, we have what we call traditional law, custom law and common law. So the medicine people sat down and said, ‘Well, the natural law should be something that is coming from the water, from the air, from the fire, from things that grow on earth. They have their own independent existence. We are...we come from those elements and then as such we should observe a relationship that is one of respect.' Everything that we learn from those elements we say that '[Navajo language],' means everything is related, we're all related in one way or another and as such we are the elements of nature and the elements of nature is us. So in that respect, we can't dominate those elements and the only thing we can do is to clearly understand that from the time those things were put in place and the time we were created is what the holy people did and said to us, ‘This is the law and I put it in your hand. [Navajo language] in the holy way I put it in your hands. Now you shall become the stewards to take care of these elements. These elements, you take care of them, they'll take care of you.'

So those were the thoughts in terms of creating a commission. I know that a lot of us are concerned that what is it that we should recover from our past? There are sources already that we can learn about, that we can apply, that we can work with and if we proceed to do that, it's amazing how much that can be done, it's amazing how much of an influence it has on the kind of thinking we have. It'll change the paradigm. Like you said, this is the way Navajos handle it, this is the way the Mohawks handle it, this is the way the Blackfeet handle it, is what we will be saying if we were to proceed down this path. And I think a lot of us learn, know our language. And this legislation is talking about a story as an approach to develop a law, but it's not a matter of talking about the story. The story should be to say, ‘How do I use this material to develop something for this modern day? How can I develop this as law so my kids in the future can say, this is the law of our grandfather and our grandmother.' A lot of us are up in age, we are the grandmothers, we are the grandfathers, and a lot of grandmothers and grandfathers say, ‘I have no idea, I have no clue about the creation story.' When the grandkids are asking questions, the response is, ‘I don't know.' But it's not simply that we can't just say, ‘I don't know,' because I know that a lot of us Indian people know a lot about our past and if we take the time to share that and say, ‘How can we revive those? How can we learn to articulate those teachings so that they sound like law in the statutes, in case laws?' Thank you."


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