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Great leadership, humanitarianism apparent at NIGA gathering

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It was said many times during the Indian Gaming 2007 conference of the National Indian Gaming Association, held March 25 - 28 in Phoenix, that it was the most successful in its history, with the highest participation of tribal delegates and trade show vendor participation to date.

Opening the trade show, former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell remarked that Indian gaming and hospitality has grown into a $30 billion industry - a tremendous achievement by any measure. NIGA's measure of success extends beyond gaming revenues, voicing resolve for success among all Indian people, whether they participate in gaming or not (its stated purpose is to help Indian people generate opportunities for social, economic and political advancement). NIGA Chairman Ernie Stevens Jr. pointed out Sicangu Lakota medicine holder Leonard Crow Dog as an adviser in carrying out this mission, providing a grounding perspective on the huge gathering. Innovation and development are widely becoming new cultural facets for tribes, as Indian leaders hold fast to their guiding principles and welcome modern challenges with all the strength and determination of our ancestors.

A highlight of the gathering was the heartening presentation of the 2007 Wendell Chino Humanitarian Award, named for the enterprising Mescalero Apache who led his tribe for more than 40 years. Given to Indian leaders who demonstrate a commitment to peace, fair governance, the advancement of intercultural understanding and ease of suffering and injustice, this year's deserving recipient was Ivan Makil, former president of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, a partner with Generation Seven Strategic Partners and Native rights advocate. Makil has been a model of humble but strong leadership; his wealth of experience includes strategic planning, governmental affairs, tribal economic development and leadership training programs, all of which have contributed to prosperity among his people and partners.

Like past recipients of the humanitarian award, including former Morongo Chairman Mary Ann Andreas, Sycuan leader Danny Tucker and Tim Wapato of the Colville Confederated Tribes and first executive director of NIGA, among others, Makil expressed his gratitude by reminding us that leaders who fight for Indian causes do so at the will and expense of their own families. This sacrifice is what makes advocacy of the highest quality, at all levels possible.

''The love and respect we share as Indian people,'' said Makil, ''is really the foundation that will create the success we have.'' Indeed, amid all of the hustle and bustle at NIGA, one could find many examples of the diverse benefits of Indian gaming: strategic partnerships between gaming and non-gaming tribes; an emerging Indigenous Language Institute that touts meaningful consultation with individual communities as their key to success; youth and elder programs that connect generations through public service; artists and craftspeople finding new paths through networking; community leaders sharing knowledge of tribal governance systems; and so on.

A common theme, and one that Makil emphasized during his acceptance speech, was the need to practice, not preach, unity. He called upon leaders to begin walking the walk, reminding them of the power and strength of Indian people: ''We can be one of the most influential entities in this country if we just get together and do it.'' This call was met with great applause, but we hope it is followed by a continuing commitment to partnership among tribal nations along with communication strategies to promote their hard work.

Nation-building through love and respect, courage and wisdom is entirely possible. It is a sentiment that, though always true, is not expressed nearly enough among the ranks of leadership in this country. Too often through the media we hear about examples of bad leadership and the damage it can cause for personal political careers, but typically we are left without the opportunity to fully appreciate the governmental gridlock it creates. In a time when national political figures are better known for transgressions and indiscretions than actual leadership abilities, it is never cliched to recall great Indian leaders of the past because it was precisely their love and respect for future generations that created the foundation upon which we stand today. The great leaders of today know this very well and are carrying on the message through their own service.