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Working in Indian CountryRevisiting the Basics

“…governments or agencies just don’t know us. The biggest letdown of government agencies … they haven’t educated themselves about us enough. We’re lawyers, and foresters, and doctors, and teachers … in the present realm.. That’s one of the biggest letdowns – non-education of us”

Ivan Posey

Eastern Shoshone Tribe

2011 LDK Associates, LLC


About Me – Larry Keown

  • I’ve been on both sides of the fence as a retired federal official and business owner working with tribes across the country,
  • I have walked in your shoes when it comes to working with American Indian tribes!
  • I have taught tribal relations workshops to thousands of government and corporate officials the past 15 years, and
  • I am the author of “Working in Indian Country: Building Successful Business Relationships with American Indian Tribes”

2011 LDK Associates, LLC


What are the Basics of Working in Indian Country?

  • How history affects the way relationships exist and are built today
  • How treaties and sovereignty affect working relationships today
  • The importance of linking leadership, respect, trust, and relationships
  • A summary of communication, relationship, and trust building protocols

2011 LDK Associates, LLC

The important points include

The importance of knowing history

The differences of how history was learned

How history has shaped the way we do business in Indian Country today

Let’s Start with a Discussion of History

2011 LDK Associates, LLC


What is the Purpose of Understanding History from a Tribal Leader’s Perspective?

History is important and needs to be retold to remind government and business officials what the American Indian community has suffered through in order to avoid reoccurrence of the past!

2011 LDK Associates, LLC


The Positive Benefits of Knowing History

2011 LDK Associates, LLC


History and Relationships Today

  • We tend to think of history as a chronological record. But the first major point I want to impress upon you is that it is not the chronological records that are necessarily important, but the differences in how American Indians and non-Indians view history.

2011 LDK Associates, LLC


The Non-Indian Archetype

What we, in the non-Indian world learned in school about American Indians focused on Columbus discovering America, the first Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims, Sacajawea accompanying Lewis and Clark, famous warriors and chiefs, and massacres of non-Indian people. Basically, our perspective of American Indian history is framed within what we have been taught and what we have experienced in our short lifetimes.

2011 LDK Associates, LLC


The American Indian Archetype

American Indians, on the other hand, learned of these events through oral histories passed from generation to generation, not in the public school classroom or from a textbook. Their ancestors, their great grandparents, most likely lived through these events directly. Consequently, their memories are long and accurate, often going back centuries.

2011 LDK Associates, LLC


An Historical Account

If we ever owned the land we own it still, for we never sold it. In the treaty councils the commissioners have claimed that our county had been sold to the Government. Suppose a white man should come to me and say, “Joseph, I like your horses, and I want to buy them.”

I say to him, “No, my horses suit me, I will not sell them.”

Then he goes to my neighbor, and says to him:

2011 LDK Associates, LLC


An Historical Account

“Joseph has some good horses. I want to buy them, but he refuses to sell.”

My neighbor answers, “Pay me the money and I will sell you Joseph’s horses.”

The white man returns to me, and says, “Joseph, I have bought your horses, and you must let me have them.”

If we sold our lands to the Government this is the way they were bought.”

The North American Review, April 1879, An Indians View of Indian Affairs, Courtesy of Cornell University Library, Making of America Digital Collection

2011 LDK Associates, LLC


How History has Shaped Relationship Building Today

Today, the attitudes of many in the American Indian community are cast from their ancestors and their personal experiences of the past. Listen …

2011 LDK Associates, LLC

a new way of thinking about working in indian country
A Paradigm Shift

Business as Usual?

Definitions of Leadership and Leadership Activities

Communication Protocols


Building Trust

A New Way of Thinking about Working in Indian Country

2011 LDK Associates, LLC


A Paradigm Shift

Successfully working in Indian country requires that you re-examine the way you do business as well as the way you think about American Indians. The purpose is to help you change your thinking in both these areas. In other words, I’m asking you to experience a paradigm shift.

2011 LDK Associates, LLC


A Paradigm Shift

Many, if not most, of us work and operate in a traditional business environment defined by social and business norms. However, what few realize is that in our own country there are cultural microcosms—American Indian tribal governments, for one, where the business environment may differ significantly from what we practice on a broader scale.

2011 LDK Associates, LLC


A Paradigm Shift

Applying our “business as usual” approach when working with and within another cultural microcosm is not always effective and can lead to disappointing results.

2011 LDK Associates, LLC


Let’s Start with Leadership

  • In our “business as usual” model we define a leader as one who:
    • Is visionary,
    • Is a motivator,
    • Is a change agent,
    • Influences others,
    • Has power over others,
    • Is prominent, or
    • Holds a position of status.
  • We look at a leader to inspire others and chart a path into the future.

2011 LDK Associates, LLC


Why a Traditional Leadership Approach Does Not Work!

This traditional model of you setting yourself up as the authority figure or leader does not work well in Indian country for this reason—you are working with a sovereign entity! Tribal sovereignty is inherent and has been affirmed and validated by the Supreme Court of the United States. This means you are dealing with an independent organization, one that is self-governing and not ruled by any other state, much less you or your organization.

2011 LDK Associates, LLC


It Means …

  • You cannot –
    • Impose a vision on a tribe
    • Exercise power and authority over a tribe
    • Change a tribe
    • Require a tribe to do something,
    • Require an action you think is best for a tribe, or
    • Dictate mandates to a tribe
  • Without the tribe’s participation and willingness

2011 LDK Associates, LLC


An Example

A state aeronautics official once shared with me that he had approached a tribe informing them he had a million dollars to build an airport on their tribal lands and it would be a great deal for them. It would assist in economic development, bring them closer to the real world, and enhance their infrastructure. He told me the tribal officials sat in silence except for a few that lectured him on, “What did he know what was good for the tribe?” He said he felt like they ran him off.

2011 LDK Associates, LLC


Some Sound Advice

2011 LDK Associates, LLC


A New Definition of Leadership

“Rather than define leadership either as a position of authority in a social structure or as a personal set of characteristics, we may find it a great deal more useful to define leadership as an activity. This allows for leadership from multiple positions in a social structure. A President and a clerk can both lead. It also allows for the use of a variety of abilities depending on the demands of the culture and situation.”

Ronald A. Heifetz. 1994.

Leadership Without Easy Answers.

The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

2011 LDK Associates, LLC


What Does This Add Up To?

In his definition, Heifetz makes two vital points that are applicable to working in Indian country. First, leadership is a set of activities or skills that are adjusted to meet cultural situations. Second, anyone can provide leadership despite his or her standing in an organization.

2011 LDK Associates, LLC


What Does This Add Up To?

In other words, Heifetz’s idea of leadership is that it can be done by anyone in an organization and can be adjusted to fit any culture—internally to an organization or externally when dealing with different social cultures such as the American Indian community.

2011 LDK Associates, LLC


Leadership and Culture

2011 LDK Associates, LLC


What are These Activities?

First and foremost is the need to respect the inherent sovereignty of tribes and remind ourselves that we have no formal authority over tribal programs and operations. Our focus needs to be on how we communicate, honor cultural protocols, and ultimately build trust and strong social and business relationships.

2011 LDK Associates, LLC


Specifically, This Means …

  • How we carry out the following leadership activities:
    • Listening
    • Asking questions vs. making statements
    • Collaborating
    • Presenting programs or projects
    • Coping with time issues
    • Appreciating social encounters
    • Respecting the culture and spiritual etiquette
    • And so much more

2011 LDK Associates, LLC


The Key Business Leadership Activities

  • Communicating Effectively
  • Honoring Cultural Protocols
  • Developing Social and Business Relationships
  • Building Trust

2011 LDK Associates, LLC


Questions To Ask Ourselves

What are some of the filters (perceptions) non-Indian people have about Indian people?

2011 LDK Associates, LLC


Questions To Ask Ourselves

What are some of the filters (perceptions) Indian people have about non-Indian people?

2011 LDK Associates, LLC


Concluding Thoughts on Communications

  • We cannot let our past experiences with tribal individuals, or even organizations, plug our filters
  • We must come with an open mind free of any misperceptions, stereotypes, or biases
  • We must recognize that there may be other cultural behaviors taking place that we may not be aware of
  • We should not draw conclusions based on our own cultural values, e.g. time, body language, delayed responses, etc.

2011 LDK Associates, LLC


Honor Cultural Protocols

  • Speeches and communication
    • Allow people to speak and express opinions
    • Do not interrupt
  • Relationships before business
    • Develop relationships before conducing business
    • Allow time for socializing before business
  • Prayers and spirituality
    • Allow time for prayers
  • Gifts
    • Honor the importance of gifts, both giving and receiving

2011 LDK Associates, LLC


Social and Business Relationships

  • Develop relationships before conducting business
    • Go to coffee
    • Tour the reservation
    • Get to know your tribal representative as a person – not a business contact
  • In the business environment build in time for socializing
    • Group lunches
    • Celebrate successes
    • Receptions and events

2011 LDK Associates, LLC


Social and Business Relationships

2011 LDK Associates, LLC


Building Trust in the Business Environment

  • Trust does not come naturally
    • The history of abuses, government actions, and illicit business dealings has many times created a skeptical Indian community
  • Trust is earned through respect
    • The Platinum Rule: Treat others as they want to be treated, not as you want to be treated
  • Trust is earned as an individual
    • Trust is not automatically conveyed to others in your organization

2011 LDK Associates, LLC


Final Thoughts

  • We have covered a number of critical topic this afternoon
    • How history affects the way relationships exist and are built today
    • How treaties and sovereignty affect working relationships today
    • The importance of linking leadership, respect, trust, and relationships
    • A summary of communication, relationship, and trust building protocols

2011 LDK Associates, LLC


A Final Thought

2011 LDK Associates, LLC


Need More Information?

  • South Dakota Indian Business Alliance –
  • South Dakota Department of Tribal Relations –
  • Wakpa Sica Place of Reconciliation –
  • National Native American Chamber of Commerce –
  • Pine Ridge Area Chamber of Commerce –

2011 LDK Associates, LLC


This Breakout Session is Based on the Book …

“Working in Indian Country: Building Successful Business Relationships with American Indian Tribes.”

2011 LDK Associates, LLC

thank you

Thank You!

I wish you the best in your endeavors and greatly appreciate your participation.

2011 LDK Associates, LLC