Leaders vs. Rulers -- another place "we" went wrong
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"I want you to understand this, Nerburn. I don't think you've got it figured out. Sitting Bull was a leader. He was a real chief. People followed him because he was great. He never won any election or was appointed by any government official. That's not how you get to be a leader."
"You're saying the policemen didn't have any real authority.""That's right. They were policemen because the government told them they were. Gave them uniforms and a job. It didn't have anything to do with the old way, where it was an honor you earned."
"Unfortunately, that's the way the white system works, I said, though not with conviction.
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"It doesn't work too damn well," he responded. "At least for Indian people. We had a system that worked, then the white man came along with his elections and laws and now we've got one that doesn't. They should have left us alone.""So why doesn't it work?" I asked. I was curious to hear Dan's ideas on government.
"Aw, it's too complicated to explain," he said. "You've got to know too much about the old days.""No. Try me," I said. "I'm interested."
He heaved a weary sigh and held his two hands up like a man comparing the weights of two different objects."There are leaders and there are rulers. We Indians are used to leaders. When our leaders don't lead, we walk away from them. When they lead well, we stay with them.
"White people never understood this. Your system makes people rulers by law, even if they are not leaders. We have had to accept your way, because you made us Indians make constitutions and form governments. But we don't like it and we don't think it is right."How can a calendar tell us how long a person is a leader? That's crazy. A leader is a leader as long as the people believe in him and as long as he is the best person to lead us. You can only lead as long as the people will follow.
In the past when we needed a warrior we made a warrior our leader. But when the war was over and we needed a healer to lead us, he became our leader. Or maybe we needed a great speaker or a deep thinker."The warrior knew his time had passed and he didn't pretend to be our leader beyond the time he was needed. He was proud to serve his people and he knew when it was time to step aside. If he won't step aside, people will just walk away from
him. He cannot make himself a leader except by leading people in the way they want to be lead.
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"That's why Sitting Bull was a leader. He was needed by the people and the people followed him. He was brave. He was smart. He knew how to fight when he had to. And he understood what the white man was all about. People saw that he could not be tricked by the white man, so they followed."That's why the U.S. government hated him so much. It wasn't just that he set a trap for Custer. Anyone could have done that. It was because he was a leader and people listened to him, and he wouldn't listen to the U.S. government. He listened to the needs of his people."
I nodded my assent.Dan continued. "If people didn't want to follow his way, that was fine. They could follow another way. That's what happened with Gall. He'd fought with Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse against Custer. But he decided he had to work with the white people if he didn't want all the Indians to be killed. So he left and went his own way. I think he was wrong, but that was his choice. If enough people had decided not to follow Sitting Bull, then he wouldn't have been a leader anymore. But people still followed him, so he stayed a leader."
"It sounds Utopian," I said.Dan looked perplexed. "Perfect," I amended.
"It wasn't perfect. But it sure as hell worked," he went on. "That was the Indian way. A person wasn't a leader because they got votes. They were a leader because the people would follow them. The same with teachers."The example seemed pointed. I imagined he was thinking about me teaching Indian children at Red Lake while I was too obtuse to understand why a hundred-year-old grievance should determine the way you greet a stranger. "A person wasn't a teacher because they had been elected or got a certificate. They
were a teacher because they knew something and were respected. If they didn't know enough, they weren't teachers. Or if we didn't need to know what they knew, we didn't go to them. Now you send us teachers and you tell us to send our children, when we aren't even sure what the teachers know. We don't even know if they are good people who will build up the hearts of our children. All we know is that they are teachers because someone gave them a piece of paper saying they had taken courses about teaching. Do you follow me?"
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"Yes," I said, almost adding, "more than you know.""What we want to know is what kind of person they are and what they have in their hearts to share. Telling us they have a paper that lets them teach is like putting a fancy wrapping on a box. We want to know what's in that box. An empty box with a fancy wrapper is still an empty box.
"We just don't like people standing in front of us and telling us what to do. Teachers, governments, anything else. We will say who our leaders are. They can't make themselves leaders and laws can't make them leaders for us."Those police who shot Sitting Bull, they got scared. They were like little children who were afraid they would be punished if they didn't do what the false leaders said. They thought they wouldn't get food. So they did what the false leaders - the law leaders - said, even though they knew it was wrong.
"There are all these stories about how the police were crying when they shot Sitting Bull. If they thought it was wrong, they shouldn't have shot him. They should have listened to their real leaders, not to their law leaders. They didn't understand the difference between leaders and rulers."As usual, Dan had wound his way through the hills and valleys of his own logic to arrive at a destination.
"I understand why people followed Sitting Bull," I said. "But he was a chief. Didn't people have to follow a chief?"
203 LEADERS AND RULERS"The chiefs weren't like that," Dan answered. "They had to earn their respect. At least with our people. You might be a chief because your father was a chief, but if you were a coward or not a good man, people would just move away from you. You would be a chief only to yourself. To be a chief you had to be a leader.
"You know, this was a lot of the problem with the treaties. Lots of times our real leaders didn't want to sign the treaties. But your government needed to have a piece of paper, so they found an Indian who would sign a piece of paper and they told him he was a leader. Maybe he was from our tribe, but he wasn't a leader unless we all said he was. He couldn't sign that piece of paper any more than someone down the street can sign a piece of paper giving away your house. These men were false chiefs. They were law chiefs, made up by white people who needed one Indian to speak for everybody."But no real Indian leader would try to speak for everybody before hearing from everybody. He might get the elders together, or the council of chiefs. It depended on the tribe.
"Then they listened to everyone. Everyone could speak. If someone didn't like the decision that was made, they could leave. If the chief made a decision enough people disagreed with, they could make another chief. All they did was move their tepees near to the new man's, and he was their leader."I would rather we had this old way, where the wisest people got together and discussed. If there was one person in the tribe who knew more than any other, he was raised up.
"But now you make us do it differently. You tell us we have to elect a leader to represent us, and he has to represent us in everything. He is supposed to be wise about everything because he is responsible for everything. Even if we don't want him to speak for us on some matter, he gets to because it says so in the constitution you made us write.
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"That is not the way it should be. Good leaders wait to be called and they give up their power when they are no longer needed. Selfish men and fools put themselves first and keep their power until someone throws them out. It is no good to have a way where selfish men and fools fight with each other to be leaders, while the good ones watch."You made us follow this way, so now we have no government worth the name. Our leaders have no power; our rulers are not leaders.
"That is why Sitting Bull was great. He did not rule. He led."
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This is an excerpt from Kent Nerburn's "Neither Wolf nor Dog" Mr. Nerburn and Dan, thank you!!