Indigenous Leaders in Governance

The Indigenous Leaders in Governance program, launched in early 2021, is specifically designed for elected Tribal leaders and offers a deep dive into traditional forms of Indigenous governance and Native nation rebuilding principles. (Native nation rebuilding refers to creating Native-run, self-determined programs and governance structures that elevate a Native nation’s values and strengths.) It’s useful for both newly-elected leaders who need onboarding training and incumbent leaders who want to brush up on fundamentals and examine new approaches to governance. The goal of the program is to strengthen leaders’ confidence in building Indigenized governance systems and making long-term decisions for their nations.

The Indigenous Leaders in Governance program ultimately aims to help Native nations thrive on their own terms. It’s part of a larger movement around Indigenous governance that’s growing across Indian Country. Native Governance Center Program Manager Apryl Deel-McKenzie explains, “When it comes to governance, we’re in a place of healing. And a place of empowerment. We’re going to do the things that we know are best for our people. Right now, there’s this exciting energy, this resurgence of reclaiming and revitalizing our Indigenous knowledge, cultures, and practices.”

Native nation rebuilding refers to creating Native-run, self-determined programs and governance structures that elevate a Native nation’s values and strengths.

Meeting Tribal Leaders’ Needs

We created the Indigenous Leaders in Governance program in response to needs communicated by Tribal leaders through our 2019 Native Nations Listening Tour, conducted to align our programming with the needs of Native nations in our region. Our evaluation process prioritized trust, strong relationships, our Indigenous values, and an acknowledgment of colonization’s impact on Native governance. We took the evaluation on the road and visited with elected leaders and staff from 19 of the 23 Native nations in Mni Sota Makoce, North Dakota, and South Dakota.

We identified several key trends in the Listening Tour evaluation data. Tribal leaders overwhelmingly communicated the need to strengthen their leadership through onboarding training. Many Native nations do not have an orientation program in place for newly-elected leaders. Leaders often must learn as they go, forced to immediately make decisions without time to understand their nation’s key systems and goals. We responded to these findings by developing and launching the Indigenous Leaders in Governance program.

A Customized Approach

The program has two main components: customized learning sessions and follow-up technical assistance. The learning sessions introduce participants to Indigenous governance and leadership fundamentals. The technical assistance component provides nations with guidance and tactical resources as they begin the process of developing their own orientation programs, which Tribal leaders have indicated a desire to do.

We work with one nation at a time, delivering the Indigenous Leaders in Governance curricula to all elected leaders from the participating nation. This allows us to customize our content to fit that nation’s needs, goals, culture, and values. For example, when we teach about Native nation rebuilding during our virtual learning sessions, we highlight examples of how the participating nation is already implementing rebuilding principles as a way to foster understanding. We ask Tribal leaders for input on specific topics, focus areas, and speakers. We also work with them to identify and host a knowledge keeper who can speak to their nation’s traditional forms of governance.

Re-Indigenizing Governance

The program is not only unique for its customized approach to content; its focus on traditional Indigenous governance also sets it apart from other leadership training programs. Why is it important for Tribal leaders to know and understand their nations’ governance history? Native nations had strong and effective governance systems in place prior to colonization. Due to the ongoing impacts of colonization, many nations currently operate under constitutions that they themselves did not design. These constitutions do not reflect their values and culture; to put it simply, they don’t work. Our program provides nations with the opportunity to examine pre-colonial governing systems and determine potential ways to integrate elements of these systems into their current and future governing models.

Re-Indigenizing governance is simultaneously a healing and challenging process. Apryl Deel-McKenzie explains, “It’s actually really emotional. Because you’re like, wow, your people had a really amazing, intentional, and beautiful system in place. And colonization just really really created a mess. I feel like our traditional teachings and systems are good medicine. They’re where the solutions lie.”

Where We’re Headed

We launched a pilot of the Indigenous Leaders in Governance program with the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in February 2021. We feel grateful to have had the chance to receive meaningful feedback on the program from Rosebud Tribal leaders. Participants told us that the training ignited their interest in incorporating traditional governance principles into their future constitutional reform and Tribal administration redesign efforts. They also encouraged us to continue offering these trainings and supporting Tribal leaders on the ground.

We plan to bring the program to two additional Native nations in 2021. We’ll continue to deliver our Indigenous Leaders in Governance content to as many nations as we can each year until we reach all of the nations in our region who need it. Additionally, we’re in the process of creating a resource library that nations can access and refer back to as needed.

Governance Benefits All of Us

Native nations are taking intentional steps to Indigenize the future in a way that makes sense for them. Indigenous governance doesn’t just benefit Native nations, though. Apryl Deel McKenzie explains, “As Native people continue to strengthen our governance and let it reflect our people, we’re going to be an example for other communities to learn from and follow.” Native nations don’t exist within a vacuum. They maintain relationships with non-Native governments, employ non-Native people, and serve surrounding communities every day through vital systems, natural resources, and infrastructure. When our neighbors thrive, all of us thrive. We’re seeing the Indigenous governance movement deliver much-needed good medicine to our communities. This is only the beginning.

Do you have questions about our Indigenous Leaders in Governance program or our other Tribal Governance Support offerings? Contact Program Manager Apryl Deel-McKenzie: