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Honoring Nations celebrates tribal governance

BOSTON - The Native tradition of storytelling has been called into service in a unique program that identifies, celebrates and shares outstanding examples of tribal governance.

Honoring Contributions in the Governance of American Indian Nations - Honoring Nations, for short - is a national awards program administered by the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

In late September, 150 tribal members from across the country gathered at the Kennedy School's Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy to listen to panel discussions and hear stories about best practices, successful projects, innovative ideas and programs that tribal governments have implemented across Indian country.

''We get to celebrate the successes,'' said Amy Besaw, Brotherton Indians of Wisconsin and Honoring Nations director.

''We spend so much time hearing about and talking about all the bad things going on in Indian country, and to be able to hold up these wonderful stories of the successful ways that tribal governments are serving and meeting the needs of their citizens is empowering. These stories aren't coming from other governments; they're coming from Indian country. These are Native stories and Native examples of solutions to problems. We're not romanticizing anything about Indian country. This is what's going on today. These are our stories today.''

The HPAIED began in 1987 to research and foster the conditions under which sustained, self-determined social and economic development is achieved among American Indian nations. The project collaborates with the Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management and Policy at the University of Arizona, and is affiliated with the Harvard University Native American Program, an interfaculty initiative.

Honoring Nations was birthed in 1998 with the support of the Ford Foundation. It is a national awards program that identifies and highlights tribal government ''best practices'' in addressing the challenging issues facing the 562 federally acknowledged tribal nations in the country. Honoring Nations is a member of a worldwide family of ''governmental best practices'' programs in Brazil, Chile, China, East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda), Mexico, the Philippines, Peru, South Africa and the United States.

The program is overseen by a board of governors chaired by Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Onondaga Nation.

From 1999 to 2006, Honoring Nations was on a three-year cycle, presenting $10,000 and $5,000 awards to high honorees and honorees, respectively, for two years in a row. In the third year, Honoring Nations would hold a symposium at which the previous year's awardees would be the featured presenters, sharing their best practices and telling their success stories.

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Starting this year, the program will shift to a two-year cycle, alternating an awards program and a symposium. Awards will be fewer, but bigger. In 2008, Honoring Nations will grant five $20,000 high honors award and five $10,000 honors awards.

Last year, award-winning projects ranged from a local recycling program by the Bad River Band of Chippewa in Wisconsin to a multi-nation coalition of tribal leaders and grass-roots organizers who worked together for the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.

''It was a spectrum of government functions from the very local to organizing for a voice on the national level,'' Besaw said.

This year's symposium included panels on strengthening governance, encouraging civic engagement, the importance of leadership, and sovereignty - an overarching issue that flowed into most panel discussion and conversations.

''We have to increasingly exercise our own tribal governments,'' said Michael Thomas, chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, according to a report in Harvard University's Gazette Online.

''Sovereignty means equal parts of authority and responsibility,'' and it demands transparency in tribal finances and governance, Thomas said, according to the report.

Traditional tribal values help, he added.

''Most of what you need, our grandmothers taught us at 3, 4 or 5.''

For more information about the program, visit