Keller George, Wolf Clan Representative to the Oneida Nation Men's Council, was recently elected to his fifth term as president of the United South and Eastern Tribes.
USET, which began in 1969 with only four tribes, is now comprised of 24 tribes from Maine to Texas. It works to assist member tribes and their governments in meeting the needs of their citizens and in dealing with public policy issues. USET has grown to be a substantial organization of considerable lobbying clout in Washington, D.C. At its fall meeting, where more than 800 attendees re-elected George president by acclamation, the non-profit organization hosted both BIA director, Neal McCaleb and U. S. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., one of the BIA's biggest critics, as guest speakers. Many in USET credit Keller George's leadership for guiding the once fledging organization to its current national prominence. George points to USET's motto of "Strength in Unity" as his own guiding principle.
Keller George, whose Oneida name Laluhtay^thos, means Tree Planter, is the Oneida Nation's full-time diplomat. He represents the Oneida Nation in a variety of capacities in the American Indian community. Among his other roles, George is a delegate to the National Congress of American Indians, the oldest, largest and most influential Indian organization in the United States. He also serves as member of the Board of Directors for the National Tribal Development Association, which is dedicated to the promotion and sale of Indian products throughout the global marketplace. Additionally, he serves on the advisory committee for the Close Up Foundation in Washington, D.C.
In his own nation, as a Wolf Clan Representative to the Nation's Men's Council, George helps develop policy on aspects of tribal government and business enterprises. He also chairs the Oneida Indian Nation Gaming Commission, which oversees gaming and licensing operations at Turning Stone Casino Resort.
The quality of leadership is always necessarily strategic. Without broad, winning strategies, in business and politics, nothing can be gained for a nation. Keller George employs a great deal of that kind of strategy, but he has that other piece too, which is the human touch based on traditional values. At a Cornell University symposium last fall that gathered leadership people from throughout Indian country, the Oneida elder offered a vista of his life and times.
George recounted the difficulties of growing up landless - in an Oneida family on the Onondaga Indian reservation. He spoke of the elder women of his family and clan, particularly his grandmother, what she taught him, how he later walked away from those old ways, joining the Army, seeing combat in Korea, enduring battles with alcohol and then undergoing that revelatory experience of so many leaders, when the call to help the people took hold of his life.
He had this to say at the Cornell University Millennium conference: "My grandmother was my inspiration, I guess, for why I stand before you today. My great-grandmother was born in 1850 and I had the opportunity to be with her about 16 years before she passed away. Probably the last eight or nine years of her life she taught me the ways of the Oneida people."
But afterwards, for a number of years, George said, "I abandoned the traditional teachings of my dear grandmother. I started using alcohol and cigarettes and all the things that were out there. I stayed in the military for 22 years?" It was in an alcohol recovery program that he woke up again to the values of the traditional teachings. "The teachings were given to me in the stories," he continued. "That's the way she taught me things, she told me a story about a particular tree or a particular animal, taught me the ceremonies and the reasons for these ceremonies through the years. In these ceremonies she drew a circle with a stick in the ground and said we have all these ceremonies starting with the midwinter. There is no beginning and no end for a circle, just a renewal. The time to rededicate yourself and to ask forgiveness, and all of those subsequent ceremonies as you go through the year, are all done in thanksgiving to the Creator for having us here."
The Oneida primary tale of his youth, George told, was about the loss of six million acres of land. "When I was a young man, Oneidas didn't have one little square inch of land that we could call our own," he said. For the Oneida people and for all Indian people, he asserted, sustaining and adding to the land base is crucial. The major teaching for his generation was about the land, its importance to sustain identity and to exercise self-governance.
The conference format called for American Indian leaders to craft and send a message from this current generation to the Seventh Generation. Here is a little of what George wrote: "I am writing to you from across the decades and in my serious hope that all we accomplished in my generation continues to benefit yours. At the time of this writing our nation has re-acquired 15,000 of our acres of our ancestral lands. Each acre we purchased we purchased for the betterment of the Seventh Generation to come. We did this for you. Each development, every investment, every decision we made we made with the faces yet unborn in our mind. You are those faces.
"Most importantly, never diminish your land. In my generation we struggled to acquire our lands for you, for your children and your children's children and beyond. Our land is sacred to our people. Indian people are survivors and it is my hope that with the guidance of the Creator, the Seventh Generation after you will continue to prosper based upon the solid decisions you have made. To you, the Seventh Generation, I send my heartfelt regards, though my spirit is with you as the spirits of my ancestors were always with me."