The Tribes Need Heroes--Where Are They Today?
A Discussion in Cyberspace

By Dana Lone Hill, Dan Patnode, Dave Denomie, Tom Ferguson, Bill Rice

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Dana Lone Hill is a Lakota from Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. While majoring in Computer Science in college, he received an internship training grant to do UNIX system programming on the phone company computers in Denver, under U.S. West's American Indian Leadership Initiative program. He began to wonder.....

-- I often wondered how leaders in the past were able to keep people together. What we need right now are leaders like them. It seems to me that today's leaders don't have the "charisma" that they had. They don't have that ablity to pull large groups of people together.

The tribes need heroes.

Dan Patnode tells Dana that in the past, if Indian people did not all agree on some course of action, they didn't have to be pulled together to follow just one, they could "agree to disagree." So leadership doesn't have to mean charismatic leaders that people follow blindly.

-- Point well taken Dana. I've wondered about how various leaders in the past have led and can't help but think that they must have faced many of the same challenges in "leading" as do many leaders today, regardless of who they are attempting to lead. Maybe I shouldn't say this as I cannot quote sources, but I suspect many of us have read accounts of situations in centuries past where a band or other group of Indian people split because they could not come to agreement on which course of action to follow. In effect, they agreed to disagree.

Dave Denomie, an Anishnabe from Bad River Reservation, Wisconsin, thinks leadership means everyone who takes personal responsibility for helping Indian people, and sticks to it year after year. He feels that it's wise to be a bit suspicious of those who want to be "leaders" in the sense of being famous, a glory hog, "Number 1".

-- I just returned from a conference of other people involved in Indian JTPA programs; currently endangered, by the way, due to the Republican wishes to gut many important programs that invest in human beings in this country. Many of these people have worked helping Indians for the last 30 years or more. Helping in a very real and direct sort of way.

I think we have heroes out there but often our communities, especially in urban areas, are scattered or drowned out by the huge numbers of others that we now live amongst. Many people, honestly, don't even realize that we still exist! Can we say that this is because we don't have enough leaders?

In my opinion, I think it's because each one of us must take the responsibility to act as we expect a 'leader' to. We must be involved and represent the interests of our people when facing the outside world in as effective a way possible for each of us. Your way may be different than mine; but if we wait for someone to come along and lead us, I'm afraid we will have to wait forever.

I believe that many of the 'leaders' of the past were individuals who, due to circumstances, ended up involved in major events that required to use their resourcefulness to its fullest to meet the challenge. These people were also human beings, however, and history has a tendency to make them larger than life and make people feel afraid to take on any positions called 'leadership'.

I also think it's important to watch out for those who WANT to BE leaders a little too much. They often seek glory without understanding responsibility; I have seen it. True leadership develops naturally.

Leaders also need people to support them actively and not just sit back and say, "Oh, well -- they're the leaders. It's up to them now." This goes back to the idea that we should all try to live up to the standards of what we expect out of our leaders.

To return to the original point: I believe we do have charismatic leaders out there while I understand what you're saying about the inability of leaders to bring together large numbers and unity. I think what Dan said contained excellent insight on this issue as well. Doubtless, a continuing story...

Thomas A. Ferguson, Anishnabeg from Garden River Band, in Canada, near Maniwaki, Quebec, is majoring in horticulture, plant science, which he will use to help his tribe farm on lands the Band has reclaimed in their traditional area--which mis-translation and perhaps misuse of the land by non-Indians had named "Desert River". Tom suggests some answers might be found in history's records, showing how leaders in past times were those who could help their people best and set good examples for everyone's lives through their own actions:

--Kwey! Dave:

To provide you with some insight of how the Amerindian leaders kept their people together, I suggest reading "Canada's First Nations" a well written account of the First Nations People... the Amerindian.

Olive Dickason (author) writes "The power of the chiefs depended on their capacity to provide for their followers, as well as their powers of persuasion; perhaps most importantly of all, they were expected to set an example for their people. Chiefs, instead of gaining wealth through their positions, could end up the poorest of the group because of the continual demands made on their resources."

Le Clercq described the situation among the Mi'kmaq tribe. A chief could attract followers, but they did what they pleased and were not subordinated to their leader's will, except perhaps to limited extent in time of war.

Bill Rice, United Keetoowah Band, Cherokee, a lawyer, has represented Indian tribes since 1978. Recently he became Pofessor of Law at the University of Oklahoma, Tulsa. He turned to his grandma...

--A few days ago Dana was asking where our Indian Heroes were today.

After thinking about it, I decided I would throw in my two cents worth for whatever two cents will get these days.

A few years ago, a young man came to see Grandma looking for help as he was supposed to lead his college Indian club as its President over the next year. While asking for prayer so that he could do a good job in his new position, he asked the same question - where are Dragging Canoe, John Ross, Lone Wolf, Quanah Parker, Gall, Joseph, and the other heroes of old when we so desperately need them today?

I thought I would share Grandma's reaction with you. After talking to the young man for awhile, she got up, took him by the arm, and stood him in front of the mirror in the bathroom. She told him she would pray for him, but if he wanted to see today's leaders he needed to look one of them in the face. I think, maybe, I understand a little of what Grandma was trying to make that young man understand.

These old people were not heroes because they had 100 percent support from their people. In fact, I suspect every one of them had detractors within their own Tribe, Band, Clan, etc. who thought they were doing the wrong thing.

Sometimes they were -- they made mistakes just like we do. They were, after all, only human. What made them heroes was not complete support from their people (let alone all Indians), nor infallibility. They are heroes (dare I say legendary) because they took whatever skills, knowledge, and materials they had to work with and tried to make life better for their people, and to protect the people when danger threatened.

We are generally a humble people, and I suspect there is not a single person taking part in this discussion who would claim "hero status."

Given how Indians are, anyone who did would never hear the end of it. In fact, anyone who would try to claim it probably shouldn't. The fact is, however, that everyone who consistently works with the skill, knowledge, and materials they have to protect and improve the lives and resources of their people (and other Indians) should be acknowledged -- even though we may not always agree with the positions they take on some matters.

In my opinion, we have Indian heroes all around us. We have doctors, accountants, lawyers, politicians, police, faithkeepers (by whatever designation your tribe uses), teachers, secretaries, administrators, grass-cutters, commodity distributors, wood choppers, judges, business people, computer-gurus, and a host of men and women who have spent/are spending their lives trying to help the best way they know how.

Far too often we do not take time to acknowledge their efforts, but we always seem to have time to criticize when things go wrong. When was the last time you saw any of these groups recognized and honored at a powwow or other Indian gathering?

I think we will find plenty of Indian heroes if we are willing to open our eyes and look for them. We should, our children and grandchildren need them.

.....and of course there is a place YOU should look, when you wonder if you should take responsibility for something, when your studies seem too boring or hard, when you are feeling lonely and tired, when there is a job that has to be done but nobody really wants to. That place is where Bill's grandma told him to look to see one of today's and tomorrow's leaders--leaders in all the ways these young men have been thinking about, as they realize it means themselves. The face in the mirror Bill's grandma showed him is each of them--and it is you.

These young leaders, all of whom are in school (college) now or just finished, all said they would like to hear from you. You can click on the EMAIL envelope by each man's name to bring up a letter already addressed to reach them.

CREDITS: The black-and-white ink illustration was drawn by Kahionhes (John Fadden), Akwesasne Mohawk, the most prolific and talented of the artists who did the thousands of illustrations for Akwesasne Notes Indian newspaper from 1969-1978. The brownish background comes from the fact I scanned it from a crumbling old yellow-brown 1976 newsprint paper.

John has become a well-known artist and art teacher. who has illustrated many books. Summers, he helps his dad, Ray Fadden (Tehanetorens) operate the 6 Nations Museum, at Onchiota in upstate New York, not far from Akwesasne Reservation, the Mohawk Nation that spans the U.S. Canadian border (it's called St. Regis on the Canada side). Some of John's own paintings and drawings are in this museum. Ray Fadden is a distinguished elder who, in the late 1940's observed the Mohawk language and culture were about to die. He founded the "Indian Guides" program, to teach youngsters of that period--grandparents themselves now--and to record his own knowledge and that of the elders who were then still alive. As a very young man, John's artistic talent and his strong interest in artistic cultural preservation, may be observed in his illustrations of these early books. John's own children are artistically talented, and are carrying on their Dad's artistic tradition.

This picture shows 6 Nations traditional old-time young leaders--including women--conferring and passing the Speaker's Cane among one another. Who held the cane "held the floor"--or ground under the Pine Tree or in a lodge. This person's words were listened to carefully, and no one else could speak, question, or interrupt until the cane was passed to another speaker. This reminds me of discussions on EMAIL or newsgroups, what some people call Cyberspace. You can say as much or as little as you want, you will never be interrupting anyone, and no one can interrupt you either. Anyone can reply or ask questions, but the computer "passes the speaker's cane." I followed the cane with reading, instead of listening, and so this story came together.

Page prepared by Paula Giese copyright 1995. Individual copyrights asserted for each contributor above, 1995. EMAIL to:

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Last updated: Friday, February 16, 1996 - 7:59:22 PM