It is not often that we have the opportunity to witness truly outstanding leadership. It is even rarer when that leader is a beloved figure among colleagues and constituents alike.
Keller George, Oneida, stepped down as president of the United South and Eastern Tribes in October after serving an unprecedented six terms. At the USET annual meeting in Choctaw, Miss., many expressed heartfelt gratitude to “a great man.” George bid an emotional farewell to his top role amid a standing ovation and more than a few tears, ending his duty with the famous Gen. Douglas MacArthur line: “Old soldiers never die; they just fade away.”
George’s legacy is unlikely to fade away. He led USET, comprised of 24 federally recognized Indian nations east of the Mississippi River, for 12 years. Universally adored, he was elected by acclamation his last four terms. George worked tirelessly to grow the once fledgling group of tribes into the substantial organization of considerable influence it is today. Many in Indian country credit his exceptional leadership and personification of the USET motto, “Because there is Strength in Unity,” for its membership growth and firm financial footing over the past decade.
As a Wolf Clan representative to the Oneida Indian Nation Men’s Council, George, whose Oneida name, Laluhtay^thos, means Tree Planter, is the Oneida’s full-time diplomat. He represents his nation in a variety of capacities and helps develop policy on aspects of tribal government and business enterprises. He is a board member of Four Directions Media Inc., an enterprise of the Oneida Nation that publishes Indian Country Today. George’s commitment to the newspaper’s independence and journalistic integrity has been constant and unconditional.
Ever the statesman, George will now dedicate himself to passing his wealth of knowledge about USET to his successor, Brian Patterson, also Oneida. Patterson, a Bear Clan representative to the Oneida Nation Men’s Council, plans to continue the legacy of dedication and commitment established by George.
Among his other roles, George is a delegate for the National Congress of American Indians, considered the oldest, largest and most influential Indian organization in the United States. In 2003, he was named to the National Museum of the American Indian’s board of trustees, part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Additionally, he serves on the advisory committee for the Close Up Foundation, a Washington-based citizenship education organization. And lest we forget his roots, those fortunate enough to spot George around his home office in Oneida can always expect a warm greeting.
The quality of leadership George brought to the national stage is rare. In him, USET had a principal who employed not only winning strategies, but also the traditional values of respect, remembrance and gratitude. George often punctuated his messages by recalling childhood memories of poverty and loss of land, putting a sharp point on the importance of Indian identity and self-governance.
As president of USET, George testified before Congress on a number of issues affecting sovereignty in Indian country. He often used humor to thin the tension of controversial subject matter. One such occasion was when he presented his view on the addition of unionization clauses to tribal/state gaming compacts (which he opposed) before the House Committee on Resources. He recalled a radio ad by a labor union, which said: “This ad was paid for by the people who brought you the weekend.” George’s reply: “So, let me just say on a personal note to the union representatives here: ‘Thank you for that!’” Few leaders employ charisma as a leadership quality; George might write the book on it.
ICT salutes Keller George for the wise leadership and congeniality he demonstrated in his role of USET president, and continues to exhibit as a role model for our younger generations of leaders. Certainly, countless Indian people across the nations share this sentimen