Traditionally, this title was an honor bestowed on those distinguished both by willingness to serve and effectiveness in doing so. This was our concept — unique throughout the world but one with such a strong sense of rightness that many would claim it for their own. Of course, claims and reality are not necessarily the same.
The crazy part of this story is that we don’t use this concept or even the expression anymore. Americans never quite got the concept but to this day they refer to those elected or appointed to office as belonging to the public service — to be sure, these are only words. But what happened to us?
Those now getting themselves an “office” or “title” call themselves “tribal leaders.” They claim authority from nowhere, earn ridiculously fat paychecks, and leave policy, diplomacy and defense of sovereignty to lawyers, consultants and lobbyists, most of whom are non-Native. Even worse, they claim this illegitimate authority and empower “professionals” to do their work while stripping power from the people and trampling their birthright.
Now don’t get me wrong. This doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The lazy, “pass the buck” attitude of the people enables all this to happen. The very name “Idle No More” is an acknowledgment that the people have been far too idle for far too long.
To be clear, this isn’t just a commentary about “elected governments.” Anyone suggesting the virtue of the “chief system” that some would claim exists today, or speaking romantically of its performance in the past already proves my point. The Kaianerehkowa of the Haudenosaunee NEVER called for a “chief system.” The process laid out meticulously and represented by the Haiwentha Belt, the Circle Wampum and scores of other images is a “clan system.” This slow and deliberate process empowered the people, laid out the shared responsibilities of both men and women, and clearly defined the roles of those men and women who would be placed in the service of their people.
Today, Chiefs, Presidents, Chairmen, Trustees, Councilors, and even Faithkeepers and Clan Mothers are selected through whatever process by small fractions of the populations they claim to “lead.” They become “federally recognized” through the BIA in the U.S. or Indian Affairs in Canada and in the absence of their own “constitutional authority” rely on this “recognition” as their authority to act not as servants but as “leaders.”
Some of these “leaders” are paid more in a single day than most of their people earn in a week, with no accountability for their time or requirement to show they actually did anything. They spend more time in securing their leadership spot than on performing the job at hand.
Servants of the people? As I have said before, when winning an election or an appointment becomes tantamount to winning the lottery, we need to ask who is serving who. When was the last time your “tribal leader” reached out to ask how you felt about an issue or even how you were doing? I suspect unless it was your family member on council, probably never. When was the last time you ever heard them refer to themselves as servants of the people? And when was the last time they actually served?
I was told recently that people need leaders and that they want to be led. I beg to differ. I find that people want to be encouraged and to be empowered. They want to know that they matter and that there is a place for them in the decision-making process. They want to fight for their sovereignty and be the force behind the diplomacy of their “servants”; they do not want to be the last to know what their “leaders’” lawyers and lobbyists lost in the latest negotiation or court battle.
I have seen what the powerful “leaders” do. While they get rich, get famous and get praised by non-Native governments and institutions, dependence on gaming or government programs grows, sovereignty is encroached upon, and inch by inch the process of assimilation by the dominant societies around us continues.
Though many have indeed become complacent as to how things are, brief glimpses of an empowered people do show themselves on occasion. The people need to be the power every day.
We don’t need leadership. We need participation!
– John Karhiio Kane, Mohawk, a national commentator on Native American issues, hosts “Let’s Talk Native…with John Kane,” WWKB-AM 1520 in Buffalo, Sundays, 9-11 p.m. He is a frequent guest on WGRZ-TV’s (NBC/Buffalo) “2 Sides” and “The Capitol Pressroom with Susan Arbetter” in Albany.
By John Kane