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On New Native Leadership

Sara Marie Ortiz
4/30/14

Some say—in Indigenous and non-indigenous cultures—that true leaders are born, not made. I'm not sure if that's true or not, but what I do know is this: our Native youth, and our community of up and coming young Native professionals/leaders/scholars/educators need to be re-affirmed in process, an at once ancient and forward-looking process by which we become stronger, more intelligent, more aware, more generous, and better leaders—by virtue of good teaching, by virtue of transparency, patience, discernment, and by virtue of an acknowledgement of the massive body of knowledge which we do not possess.

Even a born leader doesn't become a great, or even a good, leader overnight. I've begun thinking lately that it's a mistake to elude youth with an illusion of natural or innate ability as virtue alone, particularly when it comes to leadership. Growth vs. fixed mindset theory aligns with this.

When we tell our young people, and our current or would-be leadership "You are so smart, you're so good at that" and even "you're the hope of our people—you must make good choices, you must succeed, because so many of us have not" it's not necessarily a good thing. When we affirm them as ever evolving complex beings, rooted Indigenous people always, but rooted or oriented in complex process, history, and experience - personal and collective - we offer them something vital. When we tell them "you're still growing," "you're working hard on that" or "you're working through that tough situation—keep going" instead of "you're smart" alone or "you're supposed to already know how to do this or that, I thought you were a leader!" we foster their capacity for growth instead of telling them what they are or should already be.
 
When we foster the development of prior and proven ability in our youth and promote - through our own intentional thoughts and actions - hard work, candor, and consistent meaningful social, intellectual, and political engagement: the possibilities for our young leaders and our Native community, are limitless. I'd say—because our pool of young educated Native leaders is still far too small (formal Western education is not the only way, I'll say that outright)—those of us who have gone to university, UW, UCLA, Columbia, Dartmouth, Yale, Harvard, Brown, etcetera, etcetera, often rest on our laurels, and fear all the time that nothing we've done will be good enough in service to the community, particularly because the needs are so high. When we move from this place of fear, as our forebears sometimes did because of just how great the challenges were, and they did it to survive, we often make bad decisions without even knowing we are.

Let us embrace what we do not know, let us fail, and not be afraid to fail. Let us love each other when we do. We will be stronger for it.

A contemporary recently posted something along the lines of "if our Native leaders don't have thick skin, if they can't take criticism then they shouldn't even attempt to lead." But I think that "thick skin" is not something leaders (born or developed over time) should be worrying about necessarily. Are they honest? Do they possess a sense of justice? Are they equipped to truly lead and foster capacity for leadership in others? Are they brave enough to fail and get back up when they do? Are they willing to take responsibility when they make a mistake? Are they willing to let someone more qualified, or prepared than them, lead if they are unable? These are deeper questions.

 Municipal v. State v. Federal v. Private funding guidelines have, in too many ways, made monsters and madmen of us all. The system built to divide and dispossess is still working its magic on us. Even this digital forum is lacking in its ability to truly foster equitable access and unfettered truth. From the SW to the NW I look and I see so many, particularly young, leaders, Tribal, in the city, and everywhere in between, trying their best amid magnanimous challenges—economic, political, all—and I also see the opposite.

I see leaders grown fat on the marrow of the dispossessed and unwilling to admit it, lest they lose their perceived power. And, the dispossessed, the poor, the uneducated in the city? They are our powerful majority. The great divide between the haves and the have not is real.

"Fancy Indians" abound in my realm, so too do powerful and visionary ones who know they are but don't wear it like an Armani suit, don't tout it as scepter or armistice, as though they are innocent or righteous, don't tout it as though they are truly gatekeepers or saviors or the voice of our Nations, don't wave it around just so they can have something to talk about at this gala or that one. True leaders know how finite this human moment is, how finite the social, economic, and political power the U.S. Government touts as the highest good actually is, to Native Nations and all. True leaders share this knowledge; it's okay to see the glass half full and still call a spade a spade. 

Leaders of the people, in this infinitely complex human moment, have their work cut out for them no doubt. Let none of us rest on our laurels or light too many fires without thinking deeply on what our endgame actually is and the battles that yet lie ahead. All of this is really to say, I'm looking forward to being elders with you all. We'll do the math when we get there, yes? Kuutra tsa tse mah sru taie qui yah (your life you are carrying).

Sara Marie Ortiz is an Acoma Pueblo writer, scholar, poet, public speaker and Native education specialist. She is a graduate of the Institute of American Indian Art's creative writing program and received her MFA in creative writing with a concentration in creative nonfiction from Antioch University Los Angeles. She lives in Seattle.

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