Rebuilding Native Nations – A non-Native Perspective



For the past 10 years, I’ve had the opportunity to work closely with Tribal Leadership — elected and traditional leaders of Native American Tribes in the U.S. and Canada.  This work has provided more opportunities to learn than I could  have imagined or even anticipated as a woman raised non-Indian in the U.S.

The way I was raised to make sense of the world has lots of overlap with the way these leaders make sense, but recognizing, respecting, and listening across the differences in our worldviews are essential .  I’ll leave it at that – ESSENTIAL.

Of late,it’s been too easy for non-Indians to cross into romanticizing Native Americans to the point  most harshly, and finally most accurately, called cultural genocide.  Cultural genocide happens when people of colonial cultures, like the dominant white culture in the U.S., decide they want to have the rituals, practices, artistic expressions, fashion of groups historically oppressed by colonial actions.  It’s a kind of manifest destiny attitude extended to the cultures of historically marginalized peoples.  It goes something like this:  “If I like your music, dance, speech patterns, clothes … well, they’re  mine.”

This really harmful habit is not necessarily news.  It’s articulation also continues to stimulate justification with  both excuse and entitlement.  At the bottom, it’s racism, and beneath that, it’s fear.  The fear, in this case, is less a fear of difference than a fear of missing out on the good stuff.  The good stuff being feelings of peace, happiness, and belonging associated with the cultural expressions of, in this example, the 563 recognized Tribes of the U.S.

The good stuff is romanticized.  While peace, happiness and belonging certainly exist in Tribal communities, imagining only that misses real life in Indian Country almost entirely

So, back to the essential nature of recognizing, respecting and listening across differences in world views.  While non-Indians have been busy discounting, ignoring or romanticizing Native Americans, the American Indian People themselves have been surviving .

This is true, but it too is incomplete.  As Antone Minthorn (Cayuse), the former Chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) says, “There is a renaissance in Indian Country.”  Native nations are rebuilding and many are on the move from survival back into thriving.

Over the past month, I have been reviewing and extending what I’ve learned over the past 10 years, primarily under the instruction of Roy Sampsel (Wyandotte/Choctaw).  Roy, a widely recognized Tribal Leader, is the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior for the Reagan Administration and a long-time facilitator of inter-Tribal collaborations.  My work with Roy has offered generous opportunity for me to begin learning the history of relations between Tribal governments and the Federal laws of the United States.

This history is profoundly missing from American education – virtually absent from the curricula of schools.  As a result, most U.S. citizens know nearly nothing of historical events that are central to our country and its character.  This extends to Native Americans, who receiving the same educational curricula, do not know the history Roy Sampsel recites.

I would never presume to rectify this in a blog.  What I can do is call attention.

I can also tell you about the Rebuilding Native Nations  (RNN) an innovative and vital curriculum providing immediately relevant support to Tribal economic development initiatives.  Here’s a bit of description from RNN itself.

From Indian Country to Congress to international arenas, the Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy (NNI) at The University of Arizona and its sister organization, the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development (HPAIED, or Harvard Project), are recognized as the premier producers of world-class, practical tools for Native nation building. 

The NNI-Harvard Project team works through multiple pathways, programs, and initiatives to assist Native nations in meeting the challenges of nation building. Our primary outputs are information — about lessons learned, best practices, proven methods, and workable solutions. Our educational philosophy is not to tell Native nations what to do, but to serve as a conduit by which they can learn from each other, with each then adapting approaches to fit its individual circumstances.

The RNN [curriculum] examines the critical governance and development challenges facing Native nations and surveys the bredth and diversity of Native nation-building efforts across Indian Country.  Sharing lessons learned from more than two decades of community-based research by NNI and its sister organization HPAIED, it explores what is working, what isn’t, and why as Native nations work to reclaim control over their own affairs and create vibrant futures of their own design.

One of the frustrating things about blogging – at least for me – is the impossibility of doing justice to the vast and complex circumstances underlying the presence and necessity of this curriculum.  In the end, that frustration doesn’t matter as much as the existence of the RNN curriculum itself.

RNN – its content and spirit – represent direct action in support of human well being.  It represents that essence of recognizing, respecting and listening across differences in world view by taking its authority from the experiences, wisdom and innovation of the Native American nations – the  563 Tribes recognized by the U.S. Federal government and all of the other Tribal people indigenous to this land.

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One Comment on “Rebuilding Native Nations – A non-Native Perspective

  1. it is my experience that mores and cultural values, when respected and followed, are the greatest tools in re-invigorating the status of Native Folks. these values have endeared the onslaught of the ‘dominant’ culture and today show the resilience of the ‘traditional’ people. I agree that Native Governments needs a resource to call upon to engage the ‘dominant’ societal values: To make something of yourself. even though this is counter to all I have known as a Native man. my teachings were to help others and reach out to help those who need help helping themselves. The survival of the Native Tribes is bordering a very disturbing limit. How much native blood must one possess to be native? in the quantifying manner of the ‘dominant’ culture – there is much exclusion happening to rid registry roles of ‘natives’ who do not possess enough blood to be certified. this is a consequence that will leave many of our children lost between the Native world and the ‘dominant’ culture.

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