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White Earth Chair: Tribal Leaders Are Stable, Credible, Ethical

Offbeat  (tags: crime reports, drug busts, assaults, society )

- 2769 days ago -
It is appalling that a letter like the one written by Ray Bellcourt in the May 8 Becker County Record was printed for your readers.

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Dave Kane (308)
Tuesday May 18, 2010, 2:13 am
Erma J. Vizenor

Erma J. Vizenor Tribal leader, dreamer, visionary and champion for her people

A novel about Erma J. Vizenor’s (BLF’88) life might tell of an intriguing series of random coincidences that a woman with a sharp mind and a giving spirit recognized as opportunities. But it’s a true story and an even more compelling read as a biography—the story of a leader who continually reached beyond what everyone thought was possible to improve her skills, take risks and improve the lives of her people on the White Earth Indian Reservation in northwestern Minnesota.

The needs of the people come first In a way, nothing has really been random about Vizenor’s life and career path. It has always been guided by her desire to improve the life of her tribe and her community, Pine Point. The eldest of eight children, she dreamed of becoming a doctor, but her family’s migrant work schedule made it tough to stay in school. After dropping out at 16, she returned to graduate two years later only to be told by the Bureau of Indian Affairs that she wasn’t “college material.” Despite that lack of encouragement, she took advantage of an open-door policy for minorities to earn a degree in education from Moorhead State University, graduating cum laude in 1972.

She returned to work on the Reservation, where teachers were needed, and became the director of the chronically underfunded Pine Point School in 1984 despite the opposition of the current Tribal Council. There she learned to speak and lobby for Indian education and honed her leadership skills in others ways.

In 1988, Vizenor applied for a Bush Leadership Fellowship. Initially she thought she’d get a Ph.D. in education at the University of North Dakota, but friends and a mentor, White Earth educational leader Jerome Buckanaga (BLF’71), spurred her to reset her sights on Harvard.

Buckanaga, her former boss, said in his reference letter for her fellowship, “Erma’s skills as a negotiator have continually nullified the hostility she’s faced from [Tribal] Council members. Working in the atmosphere of uncooperativeness, resentment and chauvinism, most educators would have become frustrated and discouraged, minimizing their effectiveness. Erma has not only succeeded in a very difficult situation, she has succeeded smashingly, with her dedication to educational ideals and commitment to Indian people still intact.”

His statement was prophetic. The professional goals she listed in her fellowship application were mostly about improving education on the Reservation. But at the end of the list, objective five, it says, “To seek and become elected to political office, either state or tribal in 1992 or 1994.” Vizenor gained last-minute admission to Harvard by special exemption and began learning all the skills she would need to take her into the political arena that awaited her back at White Earth.

Five years of fighting for justice Vizenor returned to the Reservation a newly minted doctoral candidate in 1991. Before she could even unpack her books and computer, the tribal elders were at her door with a gift of tobacco. They asked her to be the spokesperson for them at the tribal headquarters, where corruption and election fraud had left the people feeling helpless. The elders believed Vizenor would help them and she did, by organizing a three-day sit-in at Tribal Council headquarters.

The sit-in began five years of reform work on the Reservation. During those years, Vizenor (often accompanied by the White Earth Ojibwa Hymn Singers) traveled around the country as a political activist, telling her stories of corruption and reform on the Reservation to anyone who would listen. (She also defended her dissertation on resiliency in Native American elders and received her Ph.D. from Harvard.)

In 1996, reform work led by Vizenor culminated in the removal from office and conviction of the chairman and two other Council members for stealing nearly $900,000 from the tribe and rigging tribal elections. That same year she was appointed to the Council as secretary-treasurer (a position second only to chair); in 2004, she became head of a sovereign nation, the tribal chair of the 22,000-member White Earth Band of Chippewa in Minnesota.Erma J. Vizenor

Vizenor said, “My immediate goal was to establish stability. I campaigned on fair-minded and ethical leadership. Without stability, no one will work with you—we’ll see nothing but the same.” She said of her administration, “We put the corruption of the past behind us. Our tribe has liquidated the debt. Now we can pursue self-governance and be more independent from the federal government.”

Confidence in tribal government Despite her own struggles with tribal government over the years, Vizenor has confidence in its ability to work for the people. “Tribal governments are the oldest form of government in this country. We are sovereign nations and have treaties with the government. We have already paid for everything we get—health care, education, everything—with our land. They are all obligations agreed to in the treaties. But economic self-sufficiency is our responsibility. It is a myth that we are all supported by gaming. However, it has done more for us than the federal government has. It has changed the economic complexion of Mahnomen County, basically by providing jobs, but we need to diversify beyond gaming.”

Vizenor considers herself a tribal leader who is in the position of partnering and cooperating with other entities to bring in jobs “on one condition—the tribe will not be exploited. We will be the decision-makers. If we’re going to be partners, then we’re going to be in the driver’s seat.”

Besides economic stability, her focus is the constant improvement of health, education and safety on the Reservation. One of her greatest accomplishments is the establishment of a tribal college on White Earth. Her sister, Helen Klassen (BLF’92), left a job at Harvard to help start the White Earth Tribal and Community College.

“I need three lives,” Vizenor said, to do what she wants to do for the people. In a keynote address to the American Indian Policy Center in 1996, she called for the use of new weapons for today and tomorrow: “Our deep connection to Indian traditions and identity, our sovereign rights, our language and beliefs, and the knowledge we have gained from the non-Indian community.”

From Giving Strength, May 2006

Dave Kane (308)
Tuesday May 18, 2010, 2:27 am

Supporting Courageous Leaders

At the Bush Foundation, we "invest in courageous and effective leadership." That’s a great headline, and I have to admit that when I saw it for the first time in the Foundation’s vision statement, I got pretty excited.

However, saying we support it and knowing what it is are not necessarily the same thing. And even if we know what it is, how do we create more of it? On this the Bush Foundation certainly doesn’t have all the answers. And so we are on a relentless journey of discovery.

In that search, four people have shaped my personal thinking about courageous leadership—Robert Greenleaf, a Minneapolis elementary school student named Andernetta, Ronald A. Heifetz and Parker J. Palmer.

Robert Greenleaf came into my life many, many years ago, when I read about his concept of servant leadership—a leader is first and foremost a servant to his or her followers. Greenleaf says leaders provide "certainty and purpose” to those they serve by “going out ahead to show the way." The focus on "showing" is radically different from the notion of leaders as authority figures telling the rest of us what to do. Leaders have to walk their talk and are accountable to those they serve.

Some years later I met Andernetta. She was in elementary school in Minneapolis and had just been asked by her teacher "What is a leader?" Andernetta didn’t hesitate for a second: "A leader is someone who goes out and changes things to make things better." What a fantastic and eloquent distillation of the job of leader—not a protector of the status quo, but a catalyst for change; and not just any change but change for the better.

Greenleaf and Andernetta taught me a lot about leadership, but what about the meaning and sources of courage?

In his book Leadership Without Easy Answers Ronald A. Heifetz’s argues that the central challenge facing leaders is in making change when you know a problem exists (from the stress it creates), but don’t know how to solve it and cannot find an answer using the traditional tools of technical analysis and authority. Of this quandary Heifetz wrote, “How to manage sustained periods of stress … poses the central question for the exercise of leadership.”

Heifetz joined with John V. Kania and Mark R. Kramer to describe what this means for foundations in "Leading Boldly," published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Their conclusion:
Adaptive problems require ... the stakeholders themselves (to) create and put the solution into effect since the problem is rooted in their attitudes, priorities, or behavior. And until the stakeholders change their outlook, a solution cannot emerge.

Therefore the central task of adaptive leadership is mobilizing people to clarify what matters most, in what balance, and with which trade-offs. People and institutions that lead must harness, manage, and ultimately defuse conflict. … Tools that depend on a known answer and the authority and organizational capacity to impose a solution are not likely to be effective....

Getting people to pay attention to tough issues is the heart of adaptive leadership. This is an especially potent tactic for foundations, as they are in an unusually strong position to direct attention to specific issues....

If foundations are to become effective institutions of adaptive leadership, they must understand the value of employing their expertise, political access, media skills, and bold strategies, rather than just their grant dollars, to generate change in society. They should reject the artificial dichotomy between proactive and passive grant making, and firmly lead social change without imposing the answers.

Now there’s a challenge—lead without knowing the answer or having the authority; lead by embracing the conflict inherent in tough problems; use the energy of the conflict to power the change necessary for resolution. In this formulation courage comes not from knowing and imposing but from not knowing and trusting in the power of conflict (something we fear) to generate answers.

Finally, Parker J. Palmer connects fear with the courage it takes to lead. Palmer is best known for his book Courage to Teach and his work helping teachers reclaim the passion for their profession. In 2000, he wrote Let Your Life Speak, which includes a key chapter on “leading from within.” In that chapter he challenges leaders to face their fears rather than projecting them onto those they serve.
A leader is someone with the power to project either shadow or light upon some part of the world, and upon the lives of the people who dwell there. … Leadership is hard work for which one is regularly criticized and rarely rewarded, so it is understandable that we need to bolster ourselves with positive thoughts. But by failing to look at our shadows, we feed a dangerous delusion that leaders too often indulge: that our efforts are always well- intended, our power always benign, and the problem is always in those difficult people whom we are trying to lead! … If we, as leaders, are to cast less shadow and more light, we need to ride (our) monsters all the way down, understand the shadows they create, and experience the transformation that can come as we "get into" our own spiritual lives.

Palmer’s message is powerful: Courageous leaders face their fears rather than projecting them onto those they serve.

I am grateful for the lessons these four have given us about courageous leadership:
bullet A leader must first be a servant.
bullet Leaders change things to make things better for those you serve.
bullet Leaders embrace the conflict inherent in tough problems and use the energy to discover solutions.
bullet They can do so because they have embraced the conflict, and fear, from within.

From those lessons we have crafted this working definition of courageous leadership to help guide our work.
Courageous leaders embrace the conflict inherent in tough problems. People and institutions that lead courageously harness the energy released through conflict in order to mobilize entire communities to discover solutions that foster adaption of community members to one another and their changing conditions and improve their quality of life. Courageous leaders face their fears rather than projecting them onto those they serve.

Learn about...
The Foundation goals to:

Develop Courageous Leaders and Engage Entire Communities in Solving Problems
Support the Self-Determination of Native Nations
Increase Educational Achievement

Parker Palmer’s Center for Courage and Renewal

To approach the Foundation with an idea or to ask a question, contact a member of our staff.

chris b (2474)
Tuesday May 18, 2010, 2:46 am
Well despite the claim of the media to be the voice of the people they never let the truth or facts impede a good "story"!

Rajee Seetharam (138)
Tuesday May 18, 2010, 3:36 am
Noted with thanks.

Agnes H (144)
Tuesday May 18, 2010, 5:34 am
Noted with a good story of someone who's done a lot.

Rhonda Maness (580)
Tuesday May 18, 2010, 8:29 am
Thanks Terry

linda b (186)
Tuesday May 18, 2010, 12:45 pm
Noted TY Lone.

Aletta Kraan (146)
Tuesday May 18, 2010, 6:36 pm
Great article , thanks !!

True Patriot (226)
Tuesday May 18, 2010, 11:03 pm
THank you

jay way (11)
Wednesday May 19, 2010, 9:48 am
Brilliant woman. Thanks Lone
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