The Historical Context of Indigenous Leadership

by Allen Stephenson

Here at Haskell, we’ve observed our American President say some rather questionable
things to the press and tweet undeniably questionable things to the public world at large. While
we ultimately don’t condemn or condone the president’s actions we can only help but wonder
about the legitimacy of his leadership skills. It was this thinking on criticisms of Trump as a
leader that I was struck by the notion of studying Indigenous leadership and decided to see what
lies within the leadership of current and past Native leaders.
Gone are the days of wild dances and primordial fires. Our ancestors of the last true tribal
independence have told their stories. Great stories of battle and sacrifice. Stories that have
shaped a nation, created empires and ultimately defined what it means to be a Native American.
How then, do we put the great stories of our people, the indigenous people, into metrics the
world can understand? We need only to look at the pivotal examples of our forefathers, the
iconoclast leaders of the many tribes that populate the Americas of both past and present.
Throughout history we have looked at the many and varied ways indigenous
leaders have exhibited leadership to some surprising results. The biggest observation we see in
the historic examples shown to us would be, that there is no one way to lead. When it comes to
indigenous paradigms, high levels of variance are common. This means that we see each leader’s
example use their own Tribal epistemology and methodology applied toward concepts of
To be a leader, you must have followers. This truth permeates throughout the annals of time and
with good reason. The leaders in all our most famous studies had followers.

Tribesmen, families, elders, all looking to them for answers and this is where we make our
second observation. Many of the Indigenous biographies studied had a common factor in their
historical context. The rise of America as a world power, the Industrial revolution and the last
formal fights of resistance are all common backdrops in the lives of virtually every leader that
existed during this time frame.

The past clearly shows us that Historic context gave birth to leaders. That people,
our people, at least have always risen to the challenge of survival. The simple fact that we are
still here is testament enough to that. What about the narrative of leadership? Did all our
examples have the same motivations? Of course not. While some will argue the personal
motivations of these historic leaders is paramount for research, we should instead look at the
cultural context that is applied to each leader. It is by doing this that we gain greater insight into
the culture and people they respectively belong to.

This is very important when it comes to our perception, because our world is not the
world any of the historic leaders could have ever imagined. As we try to dissect the narrative of
indigenous leadership from the historic perspective of the Indian Leaders of the past, we find a
few glaring problems, not with them, but with us. As the modern Native identity seeks to
reconcile its new “American Individual” alter ego within its own indigenous community. We
must remember that even as we see their biographies as individual, they are very much a single
part of a whole, not a whole single part.

This is critical if we are to decipher their actions and truly learn from the priceless
examples of Indigenous Leadership they set before us. This final observation is that none of
these leaders were individuals in the sense that we know.

The followers they had were directly connected with them. There was no distinct
separation of class between a leader and follower within the indigenous paradigm, all were of the
tribe. With this final truth we begin to see the unique definition of Indigenous leadership come to
fruition and realize all the sacrifices of the past will not be in vain. Standing on the shoulders of
giants, Now it's our turn to lead for the next generation. The way is clear, the path is open.