The Part-Time Blog of a Full-Time Indian: What is a leader's responsibility?

April 07, 2010

The Part-Time Blog of a Full-Time Indian: What is a leader's responsibility?
Gyasi logoPublished widely in Native American newspapers and websites, Gyasi Ross has kindly volunteered to share his blogs here on Look for his writings, The Part-Time Blog of a Full-Time Indian, the first Wednesday of every month.

Once upon a time...

A strong man, whose name roughly translated into English was "Smashes Rock," led his village, named "Little Tree," with a firm hand. Little Tree was prosperous and safe, even though they were a small group -- approximately 150 adults and many children. Despite their small size, Little Tree hadn't been involved in a major battle or lean time during Smashes Rock's entire tenure as leader.

Smashes Rock was credited with creating peace. Prior to Smashes Rock's reign, Little Tree fought a series of bloody battles against a neighboring band and suffered many deaths and casualties. On the verge of total loss, Little Tree's former leader and many others had their throats slashed and noses cut off in the battle. Smashes Rock fought bravely, but saw the battles would inevitably end with every Little Tree citizen getting killed. Therefore, when the former leader was killed and Smashes Rock took over, he was able to come to a treaty with the opposition and stop the massive bloodshed.

The villagers appreciated Smashes Rock for creating peace -- he literally stopped the village's bleeding and ensured a peaceful future. In addition, they loved his bravery and work ethic; Smashes Rock was a "hands-on" leader and labored hard during the day with the rest of the men. He hunted, fished, helped maintain the camp and discipline the children.

Naturally, there were some that felt the people in the village worked too hard -- that Smashes Rock was somewhat of a taskmaster. Still, no one really complained because Smashes Rock was right beside them, sweaty, tired and working hard. And the village always had enough food, even in the coldest, harshest winters.

Smashes Rock's people did not always understand his ways. He preferred solitude when he was not working; he usually stayed in his own camp with his family, where some of his close associates and relatives would come over. Whenever the seasons changed, he invited members of neighboring bands to come over for a dinner and songs, and it seemed as if they always had good times together.

His fellow villagers did not like seeing him eat with the leaders of the bands that Little Tree warred with for so long. Still, they overlooked his relationships because he did such a fine job making sure their children were always safe and fed.

Plus, the villagers knew and appreciated that Smashes Rock was a fair man. Although he was very stern and decisive, he appreciated debate and did not wish to be a dictator. While he understood that many within Little Tree did not like his visitors or his foreign policy, he nonetheless concluded that they were entitled to their opinion. He was convinced of the importance of diplomatic relations and felt confident that his alliances made his villagers safer. Therefore, he was willing to tolerate the criticism for the continued safety of his people.

The opposition begins

There was a particular group of young men in Little Tree who openly despised Smashes Rock. They were jealous of his rapid rise to power; these young men sought ways to gain power for themselves. After some time, they recognized that many of Little Tree's people hated seeing Smashes Rock being friendly with the leaders of the neighboring bands. Realizing this was a possible opportunity to turn people against Smashes Rock, the young men complained loudly about his diplomacy to other people. The young men never told the other villagers how they would make Little Tree stronger and safer. Instead, their energy was committed to turning the villagers' affections against Smashes Rock.

One young man said, "He's too hospitable to our enemies," and "Our neighboring band is wealthy and we could easily conquer them!"

"He forces us to work day and night so that he can eat and get fat!" said another.

And yet another, "I would never eat with our sworn enemies! They killed many of our ancestors! He insults Little Tree with his friends!"

Smashes Rock did not pay the young men any attention. He simply continued to do his job, keeping his people safe, storing surplus food and helping raise Little Tree's children. In the meantime, the young men continued to raise the ire of the villagers against Smashes Rock. And Smashes Rock, rightly or wrongly, did not attempt to correct the young men's lies other than to say that "This is the right thing to do. Little Tree's relationships with its neighbors will keep us safe. We all see what war got us."

Attitudes were changing

Over the course of several moons, Smashes Rock began to notice the villagers' attitude toward him changing. He was sure it was the result of the young men speaking horribly about him. He also knew what they said were lies. Still, he saw the young men's lies must be working; he noticed people openly questioning his authority more and willing to be very short with him. It got to the point where he felt unsafe when he went hunting with other men from Little Tree.

One summer night while Smashes Rock and his family slept, he heard several voices outside his camp. He opened the doorway and, in the dark, saw a large group of men from his village approaching, their faces illuminated by the moon. Smashes Rock's adrenaline rushed -- as in the past, he was ready to prove himself in battle. Still, he looked back into his camp at his sleeping wife and children and realized that, while he would surely sacrifice his own life in battle, he had an obligation to protect his family. He quickly woke them up and scrambled away into the darkness, leaving all of their belongings behind.

Neither he nor his family ever returned to Little Tree. Smashes Rock took his family to a distant relation of his wife; he could not risk his family's safety.

The young men who prompted Smashes Rock's ousting were soon elevated into co-leadership roles within Little Tree. As summer turned to autumn, the leaders from the neighboring bands came for food and fellowship as usual. But instead of meeting with the leaders, the young men commanded a group of armed men to chase the foreign leaders off.

The neighboring leaders tried to meet Little Tree's new leaders one more time; again they were chased out at the tip of a spear. The neighboring bands soon surmised that Smashes Rock was no longer Little Tree's leader, otherwise this would never happen. The neighboring leaders did not know whether Smashes Rock had been killed or he died naturally; the one thing they did know was that he was no longer there and Little Tree did not seem to want peace with the neighboring bands anymore.

Within two moons, the several neighboring bands coordinated a series of raids against Little Tree. During the raids, the neighboring bands made a point to slit every man, woman and child's throat and cut off their noses. They did not want the children to grow up to be dishonorable, like their fathers and leaders. Other than Smashes Rock's descendants, raised far away, no remnants of the Little Tree band exist to this day.

Smashes Rock focused on his people's prosperity at the expense of his status and popularity.

The young men who followed Smashes Rock focused on their status and popularity at the expense of their people's survival.

What is a leader's responsibility?

Is a leader's job to guide their people -- sometimes into uncomfortable waters -- and do what they feel is the right thing, even if that "right thing" is unpopular? Is a leader's role to lead their people to long-term success and prosperity even if they have to endure criticism and possibly lose their public position?

Or is a leader's job to find out what is popular and move their platform to conform to those popular positions? Is a leader's job to ascertain the will of the people -- even if that will is self-destructive -- and make sure that the public will gets done?

What is the role of the people, the citizens, in this? Is it our job to call for our leaders head every time we do not agree with their decisions? Or do we try to look at the bigger picture?

Some possible examples of this:

What if an economist could show, with mathematic certainty, that monthly per capita payments will ultimately bankrupt most tribes? What if tribes -- as a matter of provable fact -- simply were not able to maintain paying a growing population base an increasing amount of money every month? Yet, the tribal leaders continued to approve payments because they understood that voting against per capita payments equaled political suicide?

Similarly, what if blood quantum rules, as they currently are, ensured that most tribes will literally breed themselves out of existence in the near future? What if, without pooling various tribes' blood together, many tribes will be extinct in the next 80 years? Still, political leaders will not consider aggregating blood because of political pressure?

What would a good leader do in these examples? What is the proper role of a leader? What is the proper role of a citizen?

What do you Skins think?

Gyasi "Fancy Skin" Ross is a member of the Amskapipikuni (Blackfeet Nation) and his family also comes from the Suquamish Tribe. His Pikuni (Blackfoot) name is "Oonikoomsika." He is co-founder of Native Speaks LLC, a progressive company owned by young Native professionals which provides consultation and instruction for professionals and companies. Gyasi is currently booking dates for his newest presentation, "Mother Lovers: Poetic (and Musical) Justice." E-mail him at

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