Rebuilding Native Nations Builds Leadership

A screenshot of the Indigenous Governance Database.

The late Hopi leader Thomas Banyacya once said, “Do not look outside yourself for a leader.”

That’s good advice for those with inherent leadership qualities. Now the Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy at the University of Arizona is offering an in-depth program to help people develop their inner leaders.

Rebuilding Native Nations: Strategies for Governance and Development is a comprehensive distance-learning course series that provides students with the opportunity to learn about all the various components of Native nation building from people who are actually doing the on-the-ground work of building their nations. The series examines the critical governance and development challenges facing Native nations and surveys the breadth and diversity of Native nation-building efforts across Indian country.

“Sharing lessons learned from more than two decades of community-based research by Native Nations Institute (NNI) and its sister organization the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, 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,” says program’s website. The self-paced, professional development certificate courses are suitable for both individual and group learning.

Rebuilding Native Nations is a massive project that has been unfolding over the past five years. Level One of the series, called Native Nation Building, features one module – Introduction to Nation Building. Level Two courses include the subjects Administrations, Constitutions, Economic Development, Intergovernmental Relations, Justice Systems, and Leadership, each with multiple modules. And Level Three, Rebuilding Native Nations, features nine selected modules from the other two levels. An overview of the program, along with videos of tribal leaders talking about each subject, is available on the extensive website.

Ian Record, the manager of educational resources and director of the Rebuilding Native Nations course series, explained to Indian Country Today Media Network why the program has been rolled out over five years. “As we’ve completed modules we’ve been announcing the course, but now that we have all of the nine learning modules done, we’re re-announcing to the world all of the courses in the entire curriculum and trying to get the word out not only about the focus of these courses, but the ground-breaking nature of them,” Record said. “The reason it’s taken this long is because it’s not a bunch of academics teaching an online course. We wanted to make sure that folks could learn about Native nation building from the horse’s mouth, if you will, so we’ve been systematically interviewing tribal leaders, videotaping presentations they give at our seminars and elsewhere—all in an effort to provide the firsthand perspectives of the challenges to nation building and what you need to do to make it happen.”

The NNI program developers have complied hundreds of hours of footage of leaders, some of which becomes part of the online curriculum. The Introduction to the Native Nation Building module, for example, features more than three dozen Native leaders and scholars offering their firsthand perspectives on the importance of and the challenges inherent in Native nation rebuilding—as well as the innovative solutions that Native nations are crafting to meet those challenges. Among the leaders are Brian Cladoosby, chairman of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community; Karen Diver, chairwoman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa; Keller George, Wolf Clan Representative, Oneida Nation Council; David Gipp, president of the United Tribes Technical College; and Suzan Shown Harjo, president and executive director of the Morning Star Institute.

The bulk of the videos end up on the Indigenous Governance Database, a related website that is a huge online resource center of texts, videos and audios on almost limitless subjects that are easily searchable on a custom-built search engine. For example, a search for “federal recognition” brought up dozens of articles and videos, including interviews with Jayne Fawcett of the Mohegan Tribe; Frank Ettawageshik, former chairman of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians; David Wilkins, professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota; and many more. Best of all, the database is available free to everyone. It was developed with support from the Bush Foundation and the Morris K. Udall and Stewart L. Udall Foundation.

Rebecca Crooks, Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC), tribal administrator and a member of Shakopee's Education Commission, told ICTMN she took the Native Nation Building course as part of her participation in the Bush Foundation’s Rebuilders program. She was working at the time for Bill Rudnicki, the tribal administrator at SMSC, on various projects within the community.

“In my work I got to see firsthand how the ideas and principles being discussed in the course were implemented at SMSC,” Crooks said. “The overall theme of sovereignty and how to use the sovereign status of tribes to create opportunities for Native people through structure that has been proven to work in Indian country was something that I got to see implemented every day at work.”

Crooks found the courses “extremely engaging,” particularly in the mix of reading with the online modules. “The best part of the course is the interviews/stories with tribal leaders… The stories and insight that these videos bring to the curriculum makes it very memorable and links the content to real world situations,” she said.

Between family and work obligations, the flexibility of the online schedule made it possible to complete the work. “I would definitely recommend this course to anyone who is enrolled in an Indian tribe or works for an Indian tribe. I think the information is critical knowledge to people in leadership positions within tribal communities… (or) anyone who works with Indian tribes,” Crooks said. “It does a fantastic job of explaining sovereignty, how the sovereign status of tribes got to where it is today and how that unique status is being used today.”

Karen Cary, director of the Career & Technical Department at Leech Lake Tribal College, said she was looking for material for her own tribal administration course she teaches and her mentor led her to the Rebuilding Native Nations program and Ian Record.

“Without a doubt, what happened next has changed my life and my career, while doing the same for many of my students,” Cary said. “Hiring me to review the Nation Building curriculum may have been Ian’s way of answering my multitude of questions as much as an effort to get feedback. However, it truly prepared me to assist my business students in connecting the past with the present and the future in tribal government and administration.”

The Native Nations Institute provided Cary and 12 of her students with scholarships to take the Nation Building Economic Development module, which they completed with certifications. Some of the students were from nations other than the Leech Lake Band of Ojiwe where the college is located, Cary said, “but amazingly many of them realized that their own nations are participating in rebuilding efforts. These students are preparing to meet their nations where they are going, be participants in the rebuilding process, and they are proud of their education… In the words of one off my students, ‘This knowledge gives hope for the future to Native people.’”