An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Spring 2018

Indigenous Leadership

Gary Sandefur and Philip J. Deloria
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A short contextual overview of the past and present opens up a discussion of the challenges surrounding American Indian leadership in the contemporary world and into the future. We survey some of the literature on Native American leadership and consider leadership issues in institutional settings such as academia, tribal governments, pan/inter-Indian organizations, public interest and NGO groups, and global Indigenous structures, suggesting ways in which non-Native organizations can better recognize, respect, and partner with American Indian leaders.

GARY SANDEFUR is Provost and Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs and Professor of Sociology at Oklahoma State University. He is the author of Growing Up with a Single Parent: What Hurts, What Helps (with Sara McLanahan, 1994) and has published essays in such collections as Quality and Inequality in Education (ed. Japp Dronkers, 2010) and Key Indicators of Child and Youth Well-Being (ed. Brett Brown, 2008).

PHILIP J. DELORIA, a Fellow of the American Academy since 2015, is Professor of History at Harvard University. He is the author of American Studies: A User's Guide (with Alexander Olson, 2017), Indians in Unexpected Places (2004), and Playing Indian (1998) and editor of Blackwell Companion to Native American History (with Neal Salisbury, 2002).

In 1993, leadership consultant Emmett Murphy suggested that American businesses could learn valuable lessons by studying American Indian leaders. He dissected the Battle of the Little Big Horn, comparing the leadership style of George Armstrong Custer– self-centered, top-down, predatory, one-dimensional –with that of Sitting Bull, whom he framed as “heroic.” Murphy’s Sitting Bull offered a role model for leadership that was powerfully confident, but also collectivist, organic, strategic, and smart. Two decades later, football coach Mike Leach saw a biography of Geronimo as the most effective way to convey his own set of leadership lessons. Unsurprisingly, these focused on preparation, leverage, nimbleness, toughness, indefatigability, and other tropes drawn from the sport.1  Indian leadership–at least as it was viewed from the outside–was a bit about what you wanted it to be.

Over the last several decades, the idea of leadership has become something of an American obsession. The Murphy and Leach books were part of a long wave of prescriptive writing on the subject, often focused on business and government. That writing has been supported by a consulting, coaching, and leadership training industry, itself backed by a range of academic studies, and given additional heft through an ill-defined but well-subscribed set of leadership classes and experiences for high school and college students. Though we struggle to define it and to teach it, most of us think we know leadership when we see it, and we understand that, somehow, it matters.

Leadership matters to American Indian people as well, not only in relation to deep historical traditions of strong leadership, but also to contemporary challenges and opportunities. Modern leadership challenges emerge from tribal obligations to both maintain and transform Indigenous social and cultural practice, intertribal organizing across Indian Country around a host of issues, and the constant imperative to develop and assert a sovereign futurity in a national and global world of proliferating institutional obligations, relationships, and responsibilities. Native American leadership carries its own particular sets of dangers, and these play out across a full range from the intimate, local, and tribal to the international and Indigenous. The tasks are many and they are hard.

Murphy and Leach situated American Indian leadership in terms of military conflict, a set of historical contexts that can make leadership seem obvious after the fact. Step outside those contexts, into the everyday nuts and bolts of contemporary leadership, and one may well find (particularly from non-Native observers) a different reading: a set of critiques. These often frame Indian leadership as being full of culture-bound deficiencies–nepotism, factionalism, corruption, and general ineffectiveness–that limit Indigenous potential in today’s world. Consider, for example, the discourse surrounding the 2016 protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, which took place on the Standing Rock reservation in North and South Dakota. Pipeline advocates accused Indian people of what were essentially failures of tribal leadership: they had not been proactive on administrative issues and had mobilized too late to be truly effective. The implication was that better leaders would have anticipated problems before they became crises and, once in crisis, would have managed affairs more forcefully.

At the same time, the Dakota Access Pipeline protest camps–with large numbers of shifting participants over a period of several months–self-consciously refused to churn out visible media-friendly leaders, as the American Indian Movement had done in the early 1970s during its takeover of the village of Wounded Knee, South Dakota. If one familiar aspect of leadership seems to be the generation of charismatic figures able to organize and speak for others, those people were not readily apparent–at least to the outside world. Where were the leaders? It was not until relatively late in the occupation that mainstream media actually began to identify the movement and its tribal leaders. The New York Times, for example, published its profile on Joseph White Eyes, Jasilyn Charger, Bobbi Jean Three Legs, and other youth leaders in January 2017, as the occupation was already winding down. And it framed tribal council and traditional leaders as being as late to the game as the Times itself.2

Other observers looked at Standing Rock and saw something different. To them, leadership was everywhere, active in alternative–and often highly laudable–forms. Leaders combined localism and Indigenous practice with global social media networking and developed a complex web of partnerships with environmental and anticapitalist organizers. Standing Rock suggested a more human set of leadership values: decentralization, spirituality, self-deflecting humility, collectivism, the navigation of subgroup interests, and a sometimes contentious but epistemologically distinct diffusion of authority. In this sense, Indian leadership was not so much an object of critique, or a set of lessons drawn from the past, but a model for thinking about “new ways” of organizing and leading people that pointed to the future.

How might we make sense of this landscape? First, we should admit that our thinking is likely to be colored by a long tradition in which (mostly) White Americans offer stereotypical visions of Indian leadership, usually cast in terms of conflict. Emmett Murphy and Mike Leach echoed familiar (if often grudging) American appreciation for figures such as Powhatan, King Philip, Osceola, Black Hawk, Red Cloud, Chief Joseph, Quanah Parker, and others. These men knew how to unify, organize, strategize, and lead people. The evidence for their leadership was clear: it lay in their resistance to American colonial incursions. Their eventual defeat made them safe to celebrate. To tell their story was to receive Indian leadership lessons while confirming the supposed essential superiority of American society. It was, as in the cases of Murphy and Leach, yet another form of appropriation.

Second, when considering Indian leaders outside the military–or the militant, in the case of the American Indian Movement– Americans have been slow to recognize three essential aspects: a much wider range of individual leaders (where are the business books on Zitkála-Šá, Arthur C. Parker, or Wilma Mankiller?), intertribal organizations (such as the Society of American Indians, the National Congress of American Indians, or the Council of Energy Resource Tribes), or the existence of tribal governments themselves. Despite the existence of a deep roster of Indian political leaders, Americans fail to recognize Indian equivalents of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, John Lewis, or Jesse Jackson. Despite a proliferation of American Indian institutional leadership structures, for most non-Native observers, there is no visible analogue to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Urban League, or the Southern Christian Leadership Council. The intricacies of tribal leadership remain a mystery. The cumulative weight of often-negative reporting on tribal activities has created, if anything, a shallow stereotype about deficiencies in Indian vision and management in the contemporary world. And it remains only barely possible to imagine Indian leadership in non-Indian institutional or political contexts. American Indian senators, business leaders, or university administrators are marked as exceptions that prove a rule of absence.

In short, general views of Indian leadership are often marked by positive misunderstandings, negative misunderstandings, and general ignorance. These views sit in tension with Indigenous understandings of American Indian leadership, and they do so whether the focus is on historical leaders like Sitting Bull or Geronimo, on tribal officials and intertribal organizers, or on the work of emergent leaders like the activists at Standing Rock. In these gaps lie a series of questions about leadership in general, and more particularly about past, present, and future leadership in Indian Country. How do contemporary Indian leaders function in relation to historical legacies and new institutional structures? What are the achievements, needs, and opportunities for leadership in Indian Country in the future? Are there commonalities among different tribal leadership experiences? Can one usefully identify specifically “Indian” styles of leadership in the historical and sociological record? If so, how have their elements changed in relation to conquest and colonization? How might Indian leadership practices transform the wider world of leadership? What is leadership, anyway?

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  • 1Emmett C. Murphy and Michael Snell, The Genius of Sitting Bull: Thirteen Heroic Strategies for Today’s Business Leaders (New York: Prentice Hall, 1995); and Mike Leach and Buddy Levy, Geronimo: Leadership Strategies of an American Warrior (New York: Gallery Books, 2014).
  • 2Saul Elbein, “The Youth Group that Launched a Movement at Standing Rock,” The New York Times Magazine, January 21, 2017, -group-that-launched-a-movement-at-standing-rock.html (accessed July 25, 2017).