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Native Leaders, Vision, and the Paradox of Power

Robert Chanate addresses the Power Paradox that can afflict some Tribal leaders

Having a vision for nation and self is recognized as an important trait for Native leadership. Envision a path that guides your people to a place of well-being, and you might be entrusted with the responsibility of leading them there. In this sense, vision is understood to be directed outward. What about when a leader’s gaze is turned inward? When Native Leaders look at their people, what do they see and how does it affect their actions?

A few years ago our organization (we are indigenous community organizers) was scheduled to do a three-day training in a Native community. A friend from this community decided to pay a visit to a different but nearby reservation (which shall remain anonymous in this column) because he thought the people there might be interested in having us do a similar training on their reservation.

My friend approached the Chairman (aka Chairman $) of the nearby reservation and told him what we were going to be doing. He explained the training was going to teach basic political organizing, action planning and how to formulate media strategies. Chairman $ listened and replied that he thought this was a good training and he was glad to see Ndn people learning these skills. But, he continued “I support this in your community but I don’t want you-all to come here because if my people learn these skills, they will probably end up using them against me.”

When we heard about this, our first reaction was to laugh and speculate about all the reasons Chairman $ probably saw his people as a threat. The old standby guess was Chairman $ was probably embezzling federal monies and misusing travel funds. We also wove scenarios in which Chairman $ was engaging in nepotism, favoritism and shady deals. After a bit, we ended up trading stories about abuses of power by tribal government officials. Unfortunately, we had a lot of material to draw from and the humor of the abuses was gradually lost on us.

Like many before him, Chairman $ had come to view his people with fear. In his distorted view, what could have been a simple learning experience in community organzing training for his people was instead seen by him as a potential sharing of dangerous knowledge.

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In leadership discussions, the term Power Paradox is used to describe a transformation of some leaders. Before assuming a leadership position, some people may demonstrate great skills in consensus building, diplomacy, conflict resolution, etc. However, once having attained a position of power, those same people become self centered, heavy handed and less willing to see the perspectives of those with whom they once had collectively worked with.

A group of Kellogg Researchers demonstrated this by giving two different groups of test subjects a simple task. The task was to write the letter E on their foreheads and the groups were divided into a “powerful” group and a “less powerful” group. The first group was primed by focusing on scenarios and memories designed to make them feel more powerful. The second group was primed as well, but in scenarios that made them feel less powerful. At the completion of the task, the powerful group was three times more likely to write the letter E on their forehead--so that it would appear backwards to an observer—than was the less powerful group, who wrote the E so it could be read by an observer. In short, the more powerful one felt, the less likely they were to adopt the perspective of others and, thus, to have less empathy for them.

Traditionally, our Native nations had mechanisms to maintain a balance between a leader’s sense of personal power against the overall good of the people. Generally, a leader was supposed to put the people first. At present, those mechanisms exist in some places but have disappeared in others. In those nations where those mechanisms disappeared or are ignored, one might encounter someone like Chairman $.

However, personal integrity still guides many Native Chairmen and Chairwomen alike. Yakama Chairman, Harry Smiskin, recently used his leadership position to publicly support Vern Traversie and urge Native people to support his campaign for justice. Chairman Smiskin appears to have the good of the people guiding him to make that call.

Power shapes the perception, and ultimately, the vision of native leaders. If one fears their people, they see enemies coming to take their power. If one empathizes with their people, a better future can be envisioned that all create and share together.

Robert Chanate is a member of the Kiowa Nation and can be reached at and He is from Carnegie, OK and currently lives in Denver, CO. He is also co-authoring a new book with Gyasi Ross coming out in the Summer of 2012 appropriately called “The Thing About Skins,” and the website and publishing company for that handy, dandy book is