Traditional American Indian Leadership
Traditional American Indian leadership displayed several distinct characteristics that developed out of a longstanding history of cultural traditions and values. American Indians lived holistically. They understood themselves to be interconnected with all physical and spiritual forms of life, and they did not compartmentalize their physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual lives. Spirituality was a fundamental cornerstone of American Indian culture, and leadership was one of the ways the culture was sustained and nurtured.
Because spirituality was a core element of American Indian life, all leadership possessed spiritual significance. Strong leaders were those who had a strong spiritual core. Some leaders were elders who, because of their age, possessed knowledge and had earned the respect of the people. Elders had a close relationship with spirituality. Ojibwe elders, for example, had a special kinship with manitous, or spirits, that validated their status as elders and leaders (Johnston, 1982).
Full elder status was earned by those who displayed care for future generations and honored responsibilities of cultural traditions and tribal relations. Elders demonstrated generosity and kindness, and honored all living things including people, plants, animals and the earth. They were deeply respected and valued for the wisdom and experience they accumulated over time. Elders were the source of information for younger generations, and passed on knowledge through oral traditions. American Indians depended on this transfer of knowledge for their cultural survival.
The oral transfer of cultural traditions, spirituality and experience served to protect the existence of the tribe. Oral tradition also provided education and entertainment. Elders shared their knowledge with those who demonstrated respect for the cultural and spiritual traditions. In this way elders cultivated the leadership of future tribal generations. Ojibwe elders, for example, had nightly winter lessons for those considered gifted and caring of the cultural and spiritual heritage. Johnston (1995) tells how Ojibwe “young men and women who were chosen to receive special tutelage would be the learned elders when their time came, accredited to interpret and to adjudicate” (Introductory Pages). Winter lessons were special sessions where tribal customs and traditions were passed on through sacred teachings.
American Indian leaders were humble servants to the community.
Individual American Indians did not seek leadership or promote themselves for it.
Rather, persons with strong traditional values and persons who contributed to the community emerged as leaders. The community recognized and sought leadership from persons perceived as having the knowledge, wisdom, skills and experience to act as a leader for the tribe.
No one person in an American Indian tribe was always a leader, and many were leaders at different times. Leadership was distributed among capable and respected persons. The people chose an individual to lead a particular project which, when concluded, ended his or her leadership. The Ojibwe word for this person was ogimauh, which meant the foremost person for the one project (Johnston, 1995). Dan explains the process of choosing this person:
In the past when we needed a warrior we made a warrior our leader. But when the war was over and we needed a healer to lead us, he became our leader. Or maybe we needed a great speaker or a deep thinker. The warrior knew his time had passed and he didn’t pretend to be our leader beyond the time he was needed. He was proud to serve his people and he knew when it was time to step aside. (Nerburn, 1994, p. 175).
Just as the community recognized leaders it could also cease to recognize leaders. If tribal members did not like or trust the actions of a leader, or if they felt that the leader had violated their trust or acted inappropriately, they simply did not follow him or her.
As Dan states:
When our leaders don’t lead, we walk away from them. When they lead well, we stay with them….A leader is a leader as long as the people believe in him and as long as he is the best person to lead us. You can only lead as long as people will follow (Nerburn, 1994, p. 175).
American Indian leaders never ordered people to do anything because they strictly adhered to the principle that people have a right to self-determination. American Indians believe that people have a right to their own beliefs, and as a sign of respect do not attempt to impose their beliefs on others. According to Good Tracks (1976), in American Indian societies “no interference or meddling of any kind is allowed or tolerated, even when it is to keep the other person from doing something foolish or dangerous” (p. 497).
American Indians led by example rather than by authority or holding power over others.
Only those leaders who had a special bond with the spirits could invoke an imperative command. In this way, American Indian leadership was neither coercive nor hierarchical.
In American Indian culture, all people were treated with respect regardless of their position within the tribe. Certain persons were recognized as having special gifts, but those gifts did not make them “better than” another person. Ironically, Europeans viewed this as a flaw in the system of American Indian life. A French fur-trader who lived with the Ojibwe and Ottawa during the 17th century was shocked to find that “the chiefs who are most influential…are on an equal footing with the poorest, and even with the boys” (Smith, 1979, p. 311).
American Indian respect for all people regardless of their tribal status is derived from their belief in the circle of life and the interconnectedness it represents. Like the circle of life, natural growth and change, the pace of American Indian life was slow, patient, deliberate and unhurried (Johnston, 1982).
American Indian culture distrusted haste and urgency. American Indian leaders, therefore, were patient, and took their time when making a decision. The Ojibwe, for example, often took days, weeks, or even months to contemplate a matter before giving an answer. They always considered it better to take time when making a decision (Johnston, 1982).
Johnston (1982) explains the moral reasons behind this deliberate decision making. He states, “there were many practical reasons for ‘taking time’, but dominating them all was a reverence for ‘the word’. To be asked to make a decision was to be asked to give ‘word’, an awesome request” (p. 80). The ‘word’ was viewed as a final answer or decision. It was an irrevocable pledge, binding upon those who pronounced and agreed to it.
It was for this reason that American Indians believed that keeping one’s word was a measure of integrity.
When making a decision, American Indian leaders carefully considered the welfare of the tribe and future generations and did not make decisions lightly.
When tribal leaders met to make a decision, they would deliberate by pondering the question from many different perspectives. Different points of view were welcomed and respected.
Leaders did not argue for their points of view, and there was no debate. They sought understanding and consensus through mutual inquiry.
They stated their words as new interpretations on the matter and prefaced their remarks with statements such as ‘I have yet another understanding’ and ‘our brother or sister has provided us with an idea’ (Johnston, 1982). Ideas were put forth in this manner until a resolution presented itself to everyone involved. Dan explains: …no real Indian leader would try to speak for everybody before hearing from everybody. He might get the elders together, or the council of chiefs. It depended on the tribe. Then they listened to everyone. Everyone could speak. If someone didn’t like the decision that was made, they could leave. If the chief made a decision enough people disagreed with, they could make another chief (Nerburn, 1994, p. 178). In this way, decisions were the consensus of the tribe and not individual decisions made by any one leader. The process of consensus was central to the way in which decision-making was made and it assured that leadership was authentic to the community.
Only decisions reached by consensus were honored and followed by members of the tribe.
An important part of American Indian culture was the significance of spiritual ceremonies which helped to provide guidance and knowledge in decision-making. Once a decision had been made and agreed upon by the participating parties, there was often a spiritual ceremony to make the decision official. For example, when Ojibwe leaders gave their promise, they lit the sacred pipe. Smoking of the pipe sealed a pact and acknowledged their pledge was not given lightly, but was binding. As Johnston (1982) explains:
The ritual smoking of the pipe was an essential part of every conference, performed before deliberations began in order to induce temperance in speech and wisdom in decision (p. 160).
As with leadership, American Indian tribes also had their own ways of resolving social conflict. American Indian methods of resolving social conflict were based on the concept of restitution instead of retribution. Tribal restitution reconciled the people involved in a conflict and restored respectful relationships. The Supreme Court case, Ex parte Crow Dog (1883), which involved the murder of one American Indian by another, concerned one of the most widely known examples of this process. The interaction between traditional American Indian reconciliation and the U.S. system of retribution exemplified in the case of Ex parte Crow Dog will be discussed in more detail later in this report.
This is a summary description of some of the main characteristics of traditional American Indian leadership. It is not meant to comprehensively describe the leadership of all American Indian nations, although many aspects are inter-tribal in nature. We also emphasize that while we describe traditional American Indian leadership in the past tense, traditional American Indian leadership practices continue to influence American Indian people today.
This Excerpt from:
A report prepared for the American Indian Research and Policy Institute by Tracy Becker, supervised by John Poupart, President of AIRPI. Technical Assistance by Cecilia Martinez, Ph.D. September 1997.
This paper is the result of a collaboration between the American Indian Research and Policy Institute and the Building Communities Across Cultures initiative. Building Communities Across Cultures is an effort, sponsored by the University of Minnesota Extension Service, to support projects developed by American Indian organizations that are addressing current issues of concern.
Special thanks to Brian Klopotek, Jessica Kramer, Tammy Lauer and Carl Johnson for their editorial assistance, and to Dawn Blanchard for her computer expertise.
Copyright © 1997, American Indian Research and Policy Institute. All rights reserved. This document may be reproduced without permission. References must cite the American Indian Research and Policy Institute
photo: Kirby Sattler