Ron His Horse Is Thunder: The Keys to Effective Governance and Economic Development: Predictability and Sustainability

Native Nations Institute

Former Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Ron His Horse Is Thunder discusses why predictability and sustainability are so critical to effective Native nation governance and economic development.

Native Nations
Resource Type

His Horse Is Thunder, Ron. "The Keys to Effective Governance and Economic Development: Predictability and Sustainability." Emerging Leaders seminar, Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. April 11, 2007. Presentation.

"Now we are here learning about nation building and what really is nation building. You know as I sat down...I did not plan on actually taking part in listening to the sessions, but I'm glad I did. Because as I'm listening to and sometimes engaging in the sessions, I had for you, I had a prepared speech. And as I'm listening, I go, ‘That's something I can't tell them anymore. They already told them that. Okay, they told them that.' So I'm glad I listened. I hate being rhetorical. Sometimes it's good to hear things over and over again. It kind of embeds it in your mind. And so I'm going to do this off the cuff.

Now we're engaged in the idea, what does it truly mean, in terms of engaging in nation building? And I want to leave you with just two words -- if you leave here with anything -- and that's predictability and sustainability. Those two words. That's truly what we're about. As tribal nations, we were once just that. And they put on these reservations, they changed our form of government, and they created these tribal councils. And the tribal council powers were very limited in the beginning when they re-created us, if you will. And so tribal councils could do everything because they didn't have much to do. Now that's changed. As our nations have grown and we have exercised more sovereignty, what we do as tribal council members, as tribal leaders, becomes overwhelming at times, especially if we're going to stay in those traditional roles -- the traditional role being what the government gave us -- if we're going to stay in that role, the things that we do on a day-to-day basis are just going to overwhelm us. Because one of the things someone said, came to me -- and I read it in the book because I actually read that book. It says, ‘My constituents think I'm an ATM machine!' Well, that's because the traditional role, again for, as federal government has reshaped us. And I keep going back to that -- it's not tradition, it's a reformed government by the federal government. What tribal councils have been able to do again is very limited and they do everything in that limited context. And so our constituents have come to us consistently as tribal leaders, consistently saying, ‘You have the answers. You have all the power. You have control of the money.' And yes, tribal councils did, again to a limited basis. Bureau of Indian Affairs still handled many of those things; they handled all the leases. There were no corporate charters; they just brought somebody else from the outside. As we start to take over those responsibilities as tribal governments, we cannot allow ourselves to operate the old way.

And so part of these sessions is how do we then, with these new powers, if you will -- always were ours -- how do we in exercising these powers of tribal governments, how in exercising our sovereignty do we get away from the day to day, ‘I need, I need, I need, I need,' from our constituents? Well, we need to put in those places -- some of the things they talked about yesterday is constitutional development, the separation of powers; and that is the judicial branch, the legislative branch, and the executive branch. I think that was a fourth concept thrown in there -- some tribes use it -- and that is an elder's council. Something I learned; I might take that home with me. My tribe hasn't gotten to that point yet. My tribe did a separation of powers about 10 years ago, 15 years ago, something like that, and they separated out the judicial side of it. But the tribal council still held the hold of the legislative and the executive authorities, which really is a pain in my butt because they want to micromanage everything. And so we're here about learning to separate those out so that our nations become predictable. Because truly, if we're going to have sustainability, we can't depend on outside resources to continually take care of all of our needs, that is money. We all need money. And so in order to have sustainability on our reservations, we need economic development as we talked about this morning.

Economic development, in order for it to grow on our reservations, in order for it to be fostered by tribal governments, we need to put in place good laws. Part of those good laws is a separation of power. And so that legislative portion just writes the laws, the judicial portion just... and I shouldn't go into this. Now I'm becoming redundant in terms of what I already told you. But in order for us to be predictable, that's truly what businesses need, that's truly what an investor needs to bring money on to your reservation, bring employment, jobs, manufacturing -- whatever -- on to your reservation. Even your entrepreneurs, your tribal entrepreneurs need that stability. We talked about a lease in our last half hour and the idea of tribal government at a whim wanted to take away a lease. In order for anybody, whether it's an outsider or tribal member wanting to do economic development on your reservation, you need predictability. That's what laws are about, all laws are about predictability, whether it's creating safety -- criminal laws -- or whether it's civil regulation, it is about predictability and sustainability, protection of rights and delivery of services to our tribal members. So we -- if you leave here with anything, that what you're doing is creating a sustainable government that is very predictable. You need to absolutely be predictable, if anything else.

Now in terms of economic development, if you do your business code, your commercial code -- your uniform commercial code is what they'll say in law school more often than not -- you absolutely need to do that. If you haven't done that, I would advise you that's one of the things you need to take home with you is creating a business code, uniform commercial code, absolutely for predictability. Somebody invests their money, they're going to want to know how they're going to get their money back should everything go belly-up. And the tribe cannot -- here's one of the things my tribe has faced for the last 15 years that I've watched them as the tribal college president, is our tribe is so worried about sovereign immunity. They're so worried about controlling every aspect of business development on our reservation. They don't want any business to locate on our reservation unless they're willing to give up 51 percent ownership so the tribe can own it. They want to own everything. And I guess that's an okay thing if that's what your tribe wants to do. But most businesses don't want to locate from the outside in and have to give up 51 percent of their operation. And so you need to ask yourself, they said there were two forms of business development. One is large business development -- tribally owned businesses -- and entrepreneurs. Well, there's really another, third category I want to pose to you and that is large businesses locating in from the outside.

When we talk about entrepreneurs, we talk about small business and we really want to talk about people already on the reservation taking care of those C-stores, etcetera, etcetera. Questions tribal councils need to ask themselves is do they want to foster business development from large corporations outside? There's always a fear of that. There's a fear because of control. A real interesting concept that we have taken on and that is, for tribal, as tribal nations, as tribal governments, we have had so little control for so long of our lives, that the Bureau of Indian Affairs have controlled almost every aspect of who we are, that as we get control, as we start to exercise that sovereignty, we jealously guard it. We absolutely do. It's an okay thing. But sometimes it gets in the way of development; it gets in the way of sustainability. Yesterday, we talked about the idea of the Nez Perce. When the Nez Perce were fighting with their county commissioners; each of them vying for sovereignty, if you will, over this piece of land. And they worked it out and said, 'You know what, we understand that we're both sovereigns, but we need to work together.' And truly, when you start taking a look at attracting businesses – if that's what you're going to do – from the outside, large businesses from the outside, you have to be willing to say, ‘Okay, I'm a sovereign, but do I need to control 51 percent ownership of this business?' That's a decision your tribal council's going to have to make. I can tell you this: most businesses are not going to want to come, they're not going to. And so if that's the mode that your tribe's in, then you truly have to take a look at, okay, just tribal businesses, large tribal businesses, and you've talked about that this morning in terms of Lance Morgan and the Ho-Chunk, how they did that.

I want to talk to you then, a little bit about entrepreneurs on your reservation. And I know that some tribes, culturally speaking, frown upon it in terms of individual businesses. But I want you to think about this. That -- and Joan said it this morning or a roundabout way of saying it -- that is we were always business people, we just didn't call ourselves 'business people.' It's a foreign word to us. It's an English word. Truly there were people who possessed all kinds of skills. And not everybody was a good bow maker. Not everybody was a good, made good pottery. Not everybody knew how to train horses. Not everybody knew how to do everything. There were skilled craftsmen amongst our people who had a gift, if you will, and they would make beautiful pottery, but that's all they could do. So they would trade with somebody else and that person would trade with somebody else. Well, that's business. That is business. The only difference is you have a currency between today. That's the only difference. So we were always business people, always. And that's something we need to teach our young people, teach them in K-12 schools, that it's okay to be in business because we always were.

Now, we have to grapple with this concept of capitalism because businesses are associated with the word 'capitalism,' making profit, making huge profits, if you can. And I'm going to dive, I do this all the time, I go off into a tangent. We as Indian people don't grow up thinking, ‘I want to be a millionaire.' Rarely, rarely, rarely do you find an Indian who says that, ‘I want to be a millionaire.' And in high school says, ‘I want to be a millionaire.' In college says, ‘I want to be a millionaire.' And they go out and they start businesses to make lots of money. Most Indian business people don't have that mindset. Non-Indians, on the other hand, they have that mindset. That's the difference between us. But capitalism truly is the trades of goods and services for money and accumulation of wealth. So capitalism amongst Indians has a negative connotation to it. And therefore, businesses have a negative connotation to it. See, for so long, we have been shut out of business as Indian people. The only people that own businesses were non-Indians. And so when we look at business owners, ‘Oh, that's what white people do,' because we forgot that we were business people. Again, the only thing we need to grapple with is this idea of capitalism, that word, and that is the accumulation of wealth.

Well, I can almost guarantee you that in almost every Indian society, every Native culture, there were wealthy people and there were poor people. Tell me I'm wrong. Tell me I'm wrong. But we had a way, we had a mechanism of dealing with it, and that is if you wanted to be tribal chairman or you wanted to be a politician, councilperson, you had to share your wealth; you had to share it. Taxation is a foreign concept to us. Why? Because our leaders provided for those people who didn't have, and there were always people who didn't have. So that's the only thing that we need to grapple with as entrepreneurs, is how do we become successful business people without having people label us as being greedy. That's something that you have to deal with as an entrepreneur. But understand truly, we were business people. There were rich people. There were poor people. One of the differences, and an old concept of doing things, again, the business people who were rich would have given out of their own pocket.

There is one...times change. Where we live changes, what's around us changes. One of the things that has changed, and we need to come to grips with this when we talk about business and capitalism, is that we, at one point in time, had unlimited resources. That as tribes, we defined our boundaries as being very expansive. Our boundaries [were] as far as we protect them. And every resource in it, in our territory, was ours. And so we, in essence, had unlimited resources and people could then acquire goods, lots of horses, have plenty of places to hunt and fish. And so our resources were unlimited. Having unlimited resources gave us unlimited wealth, only according to a person's ability was what limited our wealth, your abilities. Not resources, because they were all there. And that was how a businessperson was able to give it away because there was always more resources. Today they've confined us in a limited box called reservations and our sources  therefore ar, limited. And for a businessperson, to demand that a businessperson give all their wealth away is unrealistic, given limited resources.

And so we don't elect our officials to government anymore based on the amount they give away. We elect our leaders slightly differently now. Can they operate in this world around us? Can they deal with the state government? Can they deal with the federal government? Not can they accumulate wealth to give away to people, but can they effectively deal with county, state, federal governments? Can they do that? I spent all my life now going to school and learning how to deal with governments, etcetera, and have not ever gone into business. I don't have the resources now to give to all my tribal members. And so the tribe has to develop those resources to take the place of business people in the past who gave away their wealth. That truly needs to be the new model. And you need to teach that to your people. It's not the business people who must give away. Not to the point where they're broke or give everything else [away]. I would suggest that you, as you talk to people, talk to your entrepreneurs, tell them that they should give some of it away, because that's who we are. But we expect them to give everything away and they can't. They can't.

So we need to teach our people one, that we were always business people, we need to teach our people that entrepreneurs can't give everything away. As tribal governments, we need to develop laws and regulations that sustain, encourage, foster economic development for our people, and encourage businesses to come in from the outside as well, too, if that's what you want. You can tell them stay away and let the tribal government do all of that for you, that is the large businesses. But in terms of entrepreneurs, we need to foster that. The tribal government, as you've talked about this morning, really should...any small businesses they get into is going to compete against another tribal member or they're going to fail because they're too small of a business. You cannot run a country store 24 hours a day, seven days a week with a tribal government because you're going to have to pay someone overtime, comp time. An entrepreneur works 20 hours a day in order to make it succeed, and they don't get comp time, they don't get overtime, they don't get holiday pay. And so if you expect for small businesses to work, the only people you can really depend on is entrepreneurs. You can't depend on small business to be run by tribal government. It just won't work. And you've seen it fail many times on your own reservations. So you must encourage --if you're going to have this revolving money within your community and that's what you need to be sustainable. It's not just big businesses locating -- whether individual or privately owned or tribally owned -- not just big businesses but you need the entrepreneurs to make that money revolve. Because what will happen if you don't have the small entrepreneurs, what you're going to have is big businesses where everyone gets a paycheck and still runs off the reservation to spend all their money. That's what you're going to have. And as soon as the big business downsizes, you're going to lose all those jobs, you're going to have huge unemployment again, and you're not going to have any way of capturing the dollars that are already there.

One of the things I like to tell tribal governments is this: is you have millions of dollars on your reservation right now without doing any major industrial development, period. You do. Our problem is that we don't capture the dollars that are there. You don't necessarily have to bring a huge industry to have sustainable economies. You just have to capture the dollars that are there is what you need to do. BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs], Indian Health Service, tribal government, public schools, all have capital coming in and dumping it on the table and employing people, and we don't capture it. And until you do that, you'll never have a sustainable economy. Never. You can bring in all the big business you want.

One of the cautions I have to you about bringing in businesses from the outside is, do not sell cheap labor and do not sell natural resources with the ideal that it's going to sustain your economy forever. It won't. Look at Kentucky who had lots of natural coal. That was a huge industry. They have massive unemployment in Kentucky. In Mississippi, they had huge labor pools. All those businesses are located offshore now because they can get their labor cheaper some place else. And so do not try to attract big business with the idea of cheap labor. They can find cheap labor someplace else, or natural resources. Again, sustainable economies on natural resources. Yes, you can use your natural resource. Yes, you can. But the ideal of sustainable economies for generations to come, sooner or later those resources run out and the jobs are gone and you have no sustainability. So that's what you're looking at from large industry, don't bank on it for generations. Back to the entrepreneur.

One of the examples I liked that Joan used was this. And that was, the lease that takes twelve months to get and then the tribal chairman has to sign it in the end -- I know because I have to sign every one of those darn things. And I keep telling myself, ‘Why am I wasting my time signing this? Hasn't somebody looked over this and looked over this and looked over this? And what am I supposed to do, double-check everything? No. I sign it.' Well that was an extra two days, because it sat in my inbox for two days before I ever got to it. But you should have a department that takes care of that, is what you need instead of the tribal council having to. First it has to go to the Econ Committee, they have to approve it. That took two weeks before it got on their agenda. Then it has to wait for the next month for the tribal council to handle it. 'Well, I don't like that person,' so send it back. Then it comes back to tribal council again, they approve it. Well then it has to be a resolution, recorder has to record it, write up a resolution, takes two weeks, gets on my desk, sits there for another two days, I sign it. Then it has to go to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. How long does it take them to get anything done?

So when you're talking about sustainability, you have to make it simplistic as well, too. And so we talked yesterday about the idea of the Swinomish, I believe it was, and the county and having to work out the land management plan and having both of those sovereigns have applications. And who do they use? Swinomish, because it was simpler, took less time. So as you take a look at developing laws for business development on your reservation, putting in the predictability portion of that -- that's what your laws are, your laws are the predictability portion of it. When you put in your predictability, make them simple. Otherwise, business will go some place else.

How many of you have TERO [Tribal Employment Rights Office] offices? Almost everybody should have a TERO office. You know, I never knew what the heck the TERO office did before I took tribal office. And then I find out that I'm also the chairman of the TERO commission. And I found out what TERO means. TERO is: To Employ Relatives Only. It's not supposed to mean that. It's not. Truly, it is about enforcement of our rights, hiring our people, and it is about sustainability. That is, you take that tax dollars, that TERO fee, and it shouldn't just sustain the TERO officers themselves, but also provide some training. So that those contractors, when they come in, can hire trained people; is what it's supposed to be about. I found out that we had a million dollars in TERO fees that were sitting there and tribal council members were giving it to Housing Improvement because their aunt had an application there. And that's how they were using the money. They were using it as a slush fund. They would take a little bit of that money and they would give it to a program when one of their friends, relatives, constituents complained about something. They'd say, ‘I just stuck $10,000 in there. Go over there and get some of that money.'

And then I found out that they all got paid stipend, a hundred dollar stipend for every meeting that they had. And I'm the chairman. So first thing I say is this, ‘No more stipends.' I missed the next meeting and I missed the next meeting after that and they paid themselves stipends. ‘Well,' they said, ‘the rules, the regulations say that we get stipends. So even though the chairman said we can't get it, we're going to get it because the rules say we can. By the way, we make the rules.' And I'm the only person on that TERO commission who's never accepted a stipend. I won't, but they all do. And then the other thing they were doing is really interesting. They were calling all kinds of special meetings and I wasn't notified. So finally I called the director and I said, ‘When are we supposed to have meetings?' ‘The first Monday of every month, Mr. Chairman.' I said, ‘okay. Let me know ahead of time. You've told me when it is, write everybody.' I said, ‘Nobody calls a special meeting unless it has my signature on it.' So far that's working. But I understood why they were calling all these special meetings. You get a hundred dollars every meeting and mileage. So they would meet for half an hour, half an hour, one issue. The next week, they'd do it again. And the next week they'd do it again.

So yeah, some of these things that come into play in terms of why do council people like to sit on boards. And so rules like that need to change and you need to put in it some predictability -- that once-a-month thing, only the chairman calls a meeting, etcetera. I want to get the heck off of it, I really do. I've got other things I need to do. But if you leave here with anything, remember that what you're here for and what you really should be trying to do at your home, is to change the laws so that you can have stable economies that are predictable so that you can protect the rights of your people and your nation and better serve your members. Thank you."

Related Resources


Former councilwoman Verna Bailey of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe representing the Long Soldier District reveals the ins and outs of working with changes in a tribal council government.  Her experiences offer insight into the history of self-governance for Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

Thumbnail or cover image
Evaluating the Impact of Federal Welfare Reform Legislation in Indian Country: A Policy for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe

This report should serve as a policy guide to help clarify the complexities of the Personal Responsibility Act for tribal government officials, particularly those in Standing Rock. The guide seeks to: 1) describe and evaluate the Personal Responsibility Act and the provisions that impact Indian…

Standing Rock Sioux Tribe: Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy

A Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) is the outcome of a regional planning process designed to assess current conditions and guide the responsible economic growth of an area. It includes an analysis of factors that account for a community’s current economic state, identification…