Native Leaders Need to Put People, Not Politics, First
Too often we simply accept that tribal governments (as opposed to our traditional governments) have elected representatives—presidents, chiefs, chairmen or CEO’s and so forth. They are entrusted with great powers and are expected to rule according to their thoughts, desires and beliefs. This is a dangerous thing.
We rarely hear what is in their minds and hearts as they compete for electoral votes and vie for positions of government. Positions of great power.
In Iroquoia amongst the Haudenosaunee we shun the gestures of the eager ones whose ambitions make them want a leadership role. We think them greedy or dim-witted, because only a crazy person would want the heavy responsibilities and the endless worries of leadership. So, in our traditions we pick our headmen and headwomen and when we do, all must agree. In order to agree that a certain person should be in a leadership position we must be able to honestly say we know this person and their character. Because we must trust them with all that we have.
Too often you elect people of sour character. You see this consistently in your national representative organizations and you see this consistently in the gaming organizations. The ambitious supersede the humble and patient. And often they are rewarded because you have adopted the American Way of thinking—the individual is better than the collective.
That is why you have such sovereignty compromising agreements such as the various Indian gaming compacts, law enforcement agreements and financial agreements. The eager do not respect the people they represent and thus they say stupid things and do even dumber things all on your collective behalf and at the cost of your collective rights.
The hard reality, the contradiction we all live with is that tribal governments will not go away anytime soon, so you must stack the deck in your defense. Stack those forcibly installed tribal governments with people of good character.
I am not a fan of the Indian Reorganization Act nor federally imposed tribal governments, designed to be controlled by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, let there be no mistake about that. I am a fan of the people. And I make sure our Op/Ed pages reflect as often as possible that reality. Tribal sovereignty is a myth, an illusion. Only our traditional governments hold our inherent free and independent rights of life and liberty. "Don’t Tread On Me" is an Indigenous way of life. The Two Row Wampum is the true and only way to live amongst governments.
Today, I want to share with you the thoughts of a person who was asked to run for tribal office at the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Government. She does so reluctantly and at great cost to her family and her career.
This person is my sister and I have attempted to convince her not to run. But, in her heart and in the hearts of the people who believe in her is the feeling that balance and health has to be restored among our people and she is the person to accomplish this. And the poor woman is willing to sacrifice all she has to do this thing. I cannot help but love her and have compassion for her and her family.
I share with you her letter of intention to run for Tribal Chief of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe just so you can see the thoughts of an honest person who is entering a contest that if she wins, can only bring her endless hours of heartache and struggle.
I can only hope that you will demand such honesty from your leadership in the future. Your children require that of you. Learn this.
I am Beverly Cook and I am running for the position of Chief on the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council. The decision to run for this leadership position did not come easy and I take this commitment very serious.
I’ve worked in and around Akwesasne for over 35 years. I’ve been with St. Regis Mohawk Health Services for 29 of those years. Most of you know me in my role as a Family Nurse Practitioner, but I also serve as Clinic Coordinator. I love my work and the people I serve. I’ve tried to display the qualities instilled in me by my parents, Julius and Elda Benedict Cook: compassion, a strong work ethic and a keen sense of justice. I’m grateful to have played a role in protecting the health of our families and promoting healing and wellness.
It has been my honor and privilege to sit with many of you, to listen to your concerns and do what I could to help. Because of those conversations, I’ve come to understand the breadth and depth of the challenges we face as a Mohawk community. I’ve learned that achieving wellness requires a multi-faceted approach. A narrowly focused approach may heal the obvious wound but the underlying cause remains. This idea has informed the program development I have facilitated with the support of Health Director Debbie Martin.
Good health is not only a physical state of well being, it also includes our mental, emotional and spiritual wellness. I’ve heard the cries of our mothers for their children. I’ve seen our men stumble and fight to regain balance and normalcy in their lives. Meanwhile, our children are swept along in the current, suffering the consequences of someone else’s choices. It’s likely they will model the behavior of their caregivers and continue the cycle of dysfunction. We are fortunate to have a tradition of loving family support where grandparents, aunties and uncles step in until balance is restored. That tradition of unconditional personal regard gives us a pattern to follow when designing programs and hiring or training individuals who will provide services to our community.
We’re blessed to have many dedicated and gifted community members who work tirelessly in our programs and on their own to help create a brighter future. Although we are resilient, we still struggle. When I look at the enormity of the challenges we face as individuals and as a community, it reminds me of the sheriff in “Jaws,” who stared down the throat of the great white shark and said, “We’re going to need a bigger boat!” We need each other more than ever.
Building a thriving community is a tremendous task. That is why I’m compelled to step out of my usual role and take a different approach. I ask you to consider a shift that combines vision and action, one that encompasses all aspects of our needs as a distinct people. It requires leadership that protects our basic rights to health and safety, education and food security. It must also engage the community in achieving environmental justice, a sustainable economy and creative solutions to the needs of our youth. We all dream of a secure future for our children and grandchildren. Now, let’s move forward with purpose.