Courtesy Steven Judd
'Indian Hulk' by Steven Judd. You can buy prints of Judd's art at -- buy two, get one free!

Happy New Year: Indigenous Learning, Leadership, Loss and Love

Gyasi Ross

Happy New Year to you all…I hope that it started off with smiles, passion and time spent with loved ones. I spent my New Year’s Eve, exactly as I’ve spent many, many other New Year's Eves, on the beautiful Suquamish Reservation: blowing up stuff with fireworks, drinking Martinelli’s sparkling cider with family (and almost having to beat up some drunk white dude). 

Lots of drunk, white dudes on the Suquamish Reservation—there was actually a Supreme Court case about it. Wild times.

This post is sort of scattered—lots happening at the end of the year, lots of thoughts going through my massive dome. 

The end of 2012/2013 was probably the year when I did the most “growing up” I’ve ever done.  Growing up sucks, and Natives are infamously stubborn grower-uppers (I’ve begun to realize now that Native men are, in fact, no different than really any men of any color—none of us want to grow up and all of us have the Peter Pan complex).  Still, I’ve had to; I had no choice.  A lot of my heroes and role models passed on in the past year or so—it’s a part of life, and if no one steps into those shoes, the next generation won’t have anybody to look up to.

I get it.

Russell Means

But it hurts.  And I’m a sensitive little boy when it comes to loss.  My grandmother, Uncle Gene Guardipee, Uncle Lyman Bullchild, Darrell Kipp, Russell Means, Charlie Hill, Nelson Mandela, many more—I acknowledge you and thank you for your important work and being amazing examples of honor, wisdom and vision. 

I learned a few things in the past year.  For example, I learned to acknowledge that there are many people who listen to what I say, value what I say, and, yes, look up to me!!  That’s weird to me—I still think of myself as the goofy, big-headed and pigeon-toed kid whom nobody listens to.  I come from a family where the kids are to be seen and not heard; I’m not used to anybody listening to me!!  I’m also not used to, other than my nieces and nephews and son, really anybody caring what I do or thinking of me as a role model.  But…that’s not the case anymore, and it’s dishonest for me to pretend that it is. 

Nelson MandelaThere’s a certain safety in being able to spout off with no consequences.  No responsibility.  But I can’t do that anymore.  I have influence, and I need to stop pretending that I don’t. 

It’s a part of growing up. 

I learned that, if I am going to be a leader, I have an obligation to make myself available.  Within our communities, “leadership” wasn’t something that Native people pursued in the napikwon political world—with ambition, audacity and attacks.  No, I began to realize why being a leader is actually a burden and our Native leaders were historically the most fatigued, poorest and most stressed within our communities.  Your time is not your own, your resources are not your own, your energy is not your own…

It’s about service, not politics.  There is a difference.

We have to feed our people.  First.  Before even feeding ourselves.  It’s not “charity”—my communities feed me, and I have an obligation to feed them.

Those leaders who feed/honor themselves before considering their community are governing according to a white model of leadership, not an Indigenous model.  We’ve got to expect more reciprocity from our leaders.  All of them.  They need to give back constantly because, once again, it’s not charity…it’s their job.

Native people, we need to expect more AND we need to DO more. 

There are actions that should make you question your leadership—make you ask, are these actions are actually in the best interests of the community?  We see, for example, individual tribes threatening the tribal sovereignty of ALL tribes by making bad decisions—like the recent Bay Mills Supreme Court case—or doing pretty shady business practices, like payday loans, under the guise of “tribal sovereignty.” (SIDEBAR: No matter WHO is giving out payday loans, they are slimy—in fact, it’s actually probably worse when people do it in Indian Country because they’re preying on Native people).  Yes, tribal sovereignty is absolutely the ability to make bad decisions!  Yet, when those decisions weaken tribal sovereignty for all, we should rightly question, “Is that good leadership?” 

When we see these ugly and mean-spirited disenrollment cases, for example—we SHOULD wonder “Why? What’s the motivation?”  Legally, these Tribes absolutely are quasi-sovereign and have the unquestioned ability to determine membership.  But why now? Our communities were always based upon participation and presence—surely there are people who are less worthy to be considered tribal members, if there are squishy criteria that would allow disenrollment.

Why now?  It’s probably political.  And that’s sad—because it’s politics that looks exactly like those in the white world.  Native politicians emulating white political principles instead of Indigenous leadership principles.

Native leaders are NOT supposed to be “politicians.”  They are supposed to be leaders.  There is a difference.  Within our communities, leadership decisions are supposed to be made with LOVE—a love for community, and to TRULY seek the best interests of the community.  Not use “protecting the community” as an excuse to air personal grievances and pursue personal agendas.  Love for community would, I think, cause leadership to more carefully consider the consequences of their actions for the entire community. 

After all, love has always motivated and informed our leaders to be better stewards of our communities—the desire for our communities to be stronger, healthier and live better.  Love should still be the motivating factor for choosing to lead and serve within our communities. 

Let’s have an amazing 2014.  Let’s love each other more.  Unreasonably. Passionately.  For the good of our communities.   

Happy New Year.

Gyasi Ross
Blackfeet Nation/Suquamish Territories
New Book, "How to Say I Love You in Indian"—order today!!
Twitter: @BigIndianGyasi


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