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Tribal Sovereignty and American Indian Leadership

October 17, 1997
Judy Roy
Tribal Council Secretary, Red Lake Band of Chippewa

"Traditions are the strength of Indian people," asserted Judy Roy, Tribal Council Secretary, Red Lake Band of Chippewa, in talking about American Indian leadership. According to Roy, American Indian leadership should preserve and maintain traditional Indian ways.

Maintaining the traditional language is a cornerstone of this effort. Roy contended that the loss of native language is a tragedy for a culture. Language determines how people understand and communicate about their world. Often times, the essence of an idea or the humor of a story or situation are unavailable without the traditional language to capture them. For instance, Roy asked, "If you don't have the word, can you think the thought?" Roy believes there is a loss when people are unable to preserve a way of thinking which is embedded in language. There is a further negative impact of using another language, such as English, which is more mean-spirited and has more negative words with which to label people than the native language. She spoke of some native languages which have a "forgiveness tense" in which it is implicit that although someone did something wrong, the wrong is over and done.

Roy's experience with leadership began as the first born of seven children in her family. Because she demonstrated care and concern, her siblings let her be the eldest. She eventually took on the role of parent to her siblings, and grandparent to her siblings' children when her siblings passed on. Her more formal experience with leadership began when she was 22 and became director of the Red Lake Head Start program. She became a leader because the Head Start staff and parents allowed her to be and accepted her direction. They also coached her and taught her along the way. She reminded the audience of the American Indian tradition in which "you are not a leader unless people are willing to follow you."

In her experience, Roy learned a distinction between leaders as people and leaders as positions. She stated, "Leaders are just people - we all depend on each other and need each other." Likewise, just because someone is in a position of authority does not mean they are respected as leaders. In American Indian traditions, leadership is not a role or position to control people. Rather, leaders are those whose particular skills are necessary at the time and those who demonstrate kindness and generosity, working as humble servants for the tribe.

As a leader at Head Start, Roy became aware of how Indian people wre being taught to think of themselves. Part of Roy's job was to write grants to secure funding for the program. Originally, she wrote proposals that were a "litany of misery" because the worse they made themselves sound, the more likely they were to get money. At the time, Head Start was seen as compensation for being "culturally disadvantaged" children and families. Roy decided that American Indians were not "culturally disadvantaged," but "culturally advantaged" because they had kept their culture despite enormous efforts to eradicate it.

She began to write proposals that reflected the cultural strength of the people and Head Start still received the same funding. The danger of citing great need, even if it was a concious "playing the game their way to get the money," was that people may have begun to think of themselves as victims or as helpless. A significant point stressed by Roy was that it is good for the people to know they are operating from a stance of competency and strength, rather than from weakness. Moreover, requests for federal funding should not depend on some bureaucrat's humanitarian good-will gesture, but on legally recgonized rights that Indian tribes have reserved; that is, the United States government should deal with tribes on the legally established government-to-government basis.

Roy closed with a description of her own route to leadership as healing the "soul wound" with which people live. Rebuliding the connectedness to each other is important to maintain traditions, something Red Lake is doing in their "Putting the Unity back into Community" initiatives. Diabetes is claiming lives earlier and earlier, depriving the tribe of elders. She reminded her audience of the quote, "When we lose an elder, we lose a library." She underscored the point that consensus building and reliance on traditions are the cornerstones of strong American Indian leadership and healthy Indian communities.

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