The Value of Traditional Native Leadership

André Cramblit

Author’s Note: I originally wrote this article for the magazine Winds of Change back in 2002, published by the American Indians Science and Engineering Society (AIESES). In writing it I wanted to share some of the basic tenets of leadership as filtered through the lens of a Native perspective. In preparation for putting together the article I interviewed several people I look to as mentors or role models for younger generations and myself. I will publish portions of those interviews in a separate feature. As Indigenous societies move into a future that finds us in an increasingly shrinking world with growing attacks on tribal sovereignty, critical decisions on long term environmental issues to be made and the need to preserve and protect our culture, lifeway’s and language, strong visionary leadership is needed more than ever.

Like many lessons learned, becoming a leader does not happen in a single moment. The qualities of leadership are seen when the experiences of life are looked at as a complete continuum.

My Great Uncle (Xúkam in Karuk) Leonard Super was a wise man, one of the most intelligent people you would ever meet, although he only completed sixth grade. I remember him reading the dictionary simply because he wanted to know what everything meant. Uncle, along with My Great Aunt Violet, were like my Grand Parents as my Mother’s Father and Mother died when she was 16 and 4 respectively and I never got the chance to be around them. Auntie and Uncle helped raise me, taking me home to our Tribal community every summer, taking me with them to ceremonies and to visit their Elders, where they only spoke in the Karuk language. I remember my uncle, who died in 1992, as a great teacher. He would punctuate every lesson with a thump of his gnarled, logger’s fingers against my head, or my ear if it were in reach. This is a traditional instructional method among the Karuk people. There is even a verb for it, aknup–to thump with ones fingers.

“Put the tools away when you are done with them–THWACK, look for the calm areas around the rocks when you cross the river– THWACK, Don’t fight the fish so much–THWACK, You shouldn’t throw rocks, those may be your relatives–THWACK say hello to your Elder–THWACK, run–THWACK, don’t run-THWACK, –THWACK, –THWACK, –THWACK.” I was growing to be one of the wisest people on the river with all the lessons I was learning. He taught me to be observant, to learn, to follow our traditional “laws”, how to be a Karuk, how to be a human being.

The leadership my Xúkam shared was experiential, what life had taught him. He had seen a wide range of things change in his life, from the time he took his parents to see the Pacific Ocean for the first time in their lives, even though they grew up less than 60 miles from it, to the launching of the space shuttle. The wonders that occurred in his lifetime marveled his very sense of reality, but it did not change who he was. Uncle was a quiet man of great patience, who grew up on the river and did what he could to make it a better world for those he loved. He, like many Natives, served the USA in the Army, learned about life in the white world and came home to live out his life. He helped create the organization that would lead to the development of the Karuk as a federally Recognized Tribe, he hunted and fished and always spoke his mind. He led by example.

While I did not serve in the military like my Uncle and countless other American Indians, my character was partially tempered by the forges of western society. I went to college, learned my lessons, even worked for the BIA (please don’t hold that against me), but came home to be close to my family and to work for my community. What have I learned about leadership has been at the feet of those that have helped guide me: My Mother, Uncle THWACK & Auntie Vi, Elders, Teachers, other relatives, my mentors, and even my brothers. The lessons I have been collectively taught are that leadership is having the courage to follow your convictions, to do what you know is right. For me Native leadership means seeking advice, working for consensus, staying close to your cultural norms, considering the importance of your Tribe and their sacred geography, and how your decisions impact your people. The struggle to stay grounded in your culture is an important daily task. Staying focused on who you are and how you got to where you are will allow you to share your strengths and gifts.

The leaders who have inspired me share common traits of having commitment to their beliefs, and to making the world a better place. Kintpuash (also known as Captain Jack) helped the Modoc people oppose the might and terror of the U.S. Army while they were exterminated in the Lava Beds of N.E. California. Heinmot Tooyalaket (Chief Joseph) struggled to give his Nez Perce people a hope for survival. No, this isn’t a case of My Heroes Have Always Killed Cowboys. I appreciate the tenacity of Ada Deer in her efforts to move her Menominee People back from the brink of Termination. I admire tribes like the Wiyot that have fought to preserve their culture, traditions, land and language in the face of genocide. I applaud the efforts of people like Vine Deloria, Wilma Mankiller, Ohiyesa (Dr. Charles Alexander Eastman), David Risling and thousands of others who have educated themselves and then used what they have learned to help their Native peoples. I respect the hard work of my cousin Naomi Lang who has become the first Native Woman on the U.S. Winter Olympic team. Don’t get me wrong there are also great Non-Native leaders who I strive to emulate. Congresswoman Barbara Lee displayed leadership when she stood as the lone voice in opposition to the Resolution to Authorize Force after the devastating attack on the United States on September 11. She voted her conscious in spite of overwhelming pressure. I encourage the countless individuals that continue the fight for their cultural survival. I also respect the commitment of men and women, including the large number of Natives who serve in the military to support their ideals. And most of all, I honor every parent who works daily to make this a better place for all our children.

Leadership is strongly needed for the continued growth of Native Peoples. We must still fight the social problems and diseases that plague our communities confronted by poverty and a loss of connection to our Tribal values. We need to preserve the culture and traditions of our peoples despite the passing of each elder, as they represent loss of our history, our language, of ourselves. We must keep working to stimulate economies on reservations and Native communities that face massive unemployment, low educational achievement levels and little personal growth opportunities. We must keep alert to the efforts to reduce Tribal Sovereignty, and we must hold the United States government to their Treaty, Trust and Moral obligations to American Indians, Alaskan Natives and Native Hawaiians.

Seek the knowledge and values of your own Tribe to become the Leaders that we need to enter the future.

André Cramblit is an enrolled member of the Karuk Tribe of California and is also of Tohono O’odham blood. His family are traditional dance owners and come from the center of the Karuk World at Katimíin. He is currently the Operations Director of the Northern California Indian Development Council a non-profit that meets the community development needs of American Indians throughout California. He lives with his wife Wendy and son Kyle in Northern California and still enjoys the occasional thump of a life lesson along side his head.

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