Adam Geisler: What I Wish I Knew Before I Took Office

Native Nations Institute

Adam Geisler, Secretary of the La Jolla Band of Luiseño Indians, discusses the diverse set of challenges he faces as an elected leader of his nation and discusses some of the innovative ways that he, his leadership colleagues, and his nation have worked to overcome those challenges. He also offers a number of pointers for how to lead effectively based on his own experience.

Resource Type

Geisler, Adam. "What I Wish I Knew Before I Took Office." Emerging Leaders seminar. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. November 6, 2013. Presentation.

"Thank you, Renee [Goldtooth], for inviting me out here. It's an honor to be here. It's an honor to have the opportunity to speak to all of you. You're probably looking at me wondering, "˜Who's this kid? What can he say, what can he share, what does he know?' I'm going to hopefully enlighten you a little bit on some of the challenges that I endeavored through. My name is Adam Geisler. I'm the secretary for La Jolla Band of Luiseño Indians. I've been in office for five years. I have been working for my tribe since I was 14 years old and I guess I'll just kind of start with, 'Tribal council, are you ready?'...

A little bit about the photo. We have a five-member council. We have roughly 10,000 acres with about 700 enrolled members that live on and off the reservation. We have roughly 189 houses, about 15 miles of roadway, three separate water systems, and the major northern loop of the utility for feeding San Diego running through our reservation. I always like to talk about my council because I think a lot of times in Indian Country we hear about all the politics and everybody fighting and people don't like this or that, somebody didn't get a house because of this or that and the road didn't get taken care of. I'm really blessed to be able to sit with a council that works together, communicates well, and really has been a solid opportunity for me to learn some things. The woman in the middle is actually my mother. Her name is LaVonne Peck. She is the chairwoman for our tribe.

In the first two years that we were in office, we went through a process with UCLA law department to update, revise and bring back our constitution, all of our ordinances and all of our bylaws, because they hadn't been touched in about 30 years. So there was a lot of things that didn't make any sense when you read through them from everything from enrollment to land. The reason why I say that's my mom is because number one, I want to acknowledge the fact that she's my mom, but anytime we're doing business I call her 'LaVonne' or 'Chairwoman.' Nepotism exists in Indian Country. I'm not going to act like it doesn't, but I did run for a separate office. In my second term, I ran unopposed. The same thing goes for her and I just want...I guess I'm coming from a unique perspective because what I didn't realize coming into this was how challenging it would be working with a family member as close as your mother in this process, but it has been very rewarding and I'm very fortunate to be able to have gone through this.

Some other things that I didn't quite understand when I got in...I was always sitting out in the general membership kind of wondering, "˜Hey, why aren't they doing this? Why aren't they dealing with that? How come I didn't get a budget for this?' And I had no idea the type of time obligations that that was going to require and I had no clue when I got into office that this position was going to afford me the opportunity to learn about energy, learn about gaming, learn about finance and I'm going to highlight some of those as we move through this.

So something that I walked into right away that I wasn't prepared for, I got in council when I was 25 years old, I'm now 29, and I had no clue that I was going to have the DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] show up one day on my doorstep and say, "˜Hey, the Mexican cartel just grew a field of marijuana on the backside of your mountain.' "˜Okay. Well, how do I deal with this?' "˜Well, why don't we take you up in the helicopter so we can take a look at this and understand how these guys are moving product in and out and how we can work with your law enforcement to make sure that we can monitor this more closely.' That kind of dives into Public Law 280. California is a Public Law 280 state, which means that we have concurrent jurisdiction. Some of you probably come from reservations that are directly funded through the federal government for your police, your prisons or jails. We're not. Although we can establish them if we have the money to do it, we're really relying upon the Sheriff's Department, which doesn't always respond in a timely manner because they're small not necessarily because they don't want to. The days of that are gone. But that's part of the situation that I wasn't aware of.

The other big aspect that I wasn't ready to come into was domestic violence. I have it in the letters on the bottom; we lead statistics in some really sad areas. I didn't know coming into office that a woman will go back to her abuser 11 times before she's either killed or before she finally leaves the guy. In a community as small as mine with 700 members, this was actually something very prevalent that our community was tired of and finally addressed. We wrote some grants, we held the first ever Domestic Violence Walk in the state of California, which is partly why I have that purple ribbon there, and we brought out all kinds of people from both tribal and non-tribal to support the efforts that we're making towards these things.

We sat through a ton of meetings in my first couple years dealing with these issues, where people were coming and talking about the meth head that lives next door or the dealing that might have been going on. And by the way, my community is a beautiful community. I'm just highlighting some of the challenges that are there. Making it sound like La Jolla, you're going to walk in, there's going to be like people high all over the place or something. It's not like that at all, but the reality is that you all have these, Native or not, you're going to have these folks in your family, you know who they are, and the funny part is that the neighbor who might not be in your family is coming to you telling you to deal with it and you're sitting there trying to figure out, "˜Well, man, how do I deal with my cousin? How do I deal with my brother or my uncle?' And those things are very real when you get into this office and there's expectations on both sides. Your families are going to come at you and expect you to protect them, the public is going to come at you and expect you to uphold the ordinances and the laws and enforce the job that you're there to do. And so right off the top, I had to realize that being impartial...I've always been fairly impartial about things, but these types of issues really started to test your ability to do that on a daily basis because these things just happen.

So DV [domestic violence], drugs, alcohol abuse, and then kind of figuring out how we address that; we formed a program called 'AVELICA.' As I mentioned, in our language that means 'butterfly.' Obviously the women coming out of their situation, being more aware on how to address the DV issues. And one thing that we did is we creatively developed the program, we hired and trained advocates from within our own community, we established domestic violence shelters for the women and these were all things that I walked in, I never had a clue about how to address. And I'll go over some training components later, but just realize this, if you're going to be successful when you come into doing this, if you're motivated, you have a heart and you're willing to get up every day and wear some broad shoulders, you'll be able to make through it.

Jobs; we talked about cousins, brothers, uncles, aunts, nieces. Jobs is always an interesting discussion in Indian Country because I appreciate the former, the presentation beforehand about reliance as opposed to... I don't know, I think sometimes our communities get really dependent on these programs that come in. And so... and unfortunately I'm in a community where when I walked in the social norm was seasonal employment. We have a campground. I'm not a gaming tribe, I know a lot of people think, "˜oh, you're a Southern California Indian, you're rich.' Nope, not me. I've got Harrah's Rincon, I've got Pala, I've Pauma, I've got Pechanga, Valley View, but not me. I have a campground that brings in almost 150,000 people a year and supports our tribal economic development and government operations. But back to the idea that people came in wanting to know, "˜Where's my job? I put you in office, I expect you to get me a job.' And I said, "˜When I asked for your vote, I made it really clear to you that I'm not going to promise you anything.' And so my comment about jobs is, when you get into office, don't make promises. The guys that were in there before me, they got in, "˜I'll get you a job. I'll get you on this project. I'll do this, I'll do that.' I have stated...I've stayed where I'm at as long as I'm at because I don't BS my people. Excuse the term. I know we're being recorded. I don't. You have to be up front with your folks. You have to be transparent. You can't be afraid to share with them the truths about the realities that you're in. If there are jobs available, see what you can do to hire your folks. Tribal Force Account is an amazing, amazing, amazing thing that you can utilize. It's a tool that I didn't realize.

Partnerships with, for's a road, this is the picture. I guess talk about the picture for a second. This road is a road that was done by all Tribal Force Accounts, which is really rare in California because we don't really have the dollars coming in federally or always the personnel to be able to staff a full-time roads department or a full-time public health department. And what we were able to do is bring in about 30 tribal members to come in and basically create a road going through the middle of a mountain -- because I'm on the side of a 7,500-foot mountain, which makes development fun -- and we put our guys to work. And what was really amazing about this process was number one, Davis-Bacon [Act] doesn't apply because through our sovereignty, through exercising our sovereignty we created our own Tribal Force Account wages, we set a standard that was proper for what our people were doing and in some cases we are beating Davis-Bacon. By the way, this project, because of tax exempt abilities and delivery onto the reservation, we also built this for one third less than what any other public department could build in the county, in the state or from a federal standpoint. So recognize that.

I'm going to kind of couple this with TERO [Tribal Employment Rights Office]. How many of you guys have a TERO ordinance on your reservation? How many of you guys really use it? When I got into office, no clue about what the heck TERO was, I didn't understand what are these four letters representing, what's the point behind it, why is it here? I learned very quickly that this is another tool that we have in Indian Country that we can utilize, the Tribal Employment Rights, Opportunities and Ordinances that you can establish and then use that in working with the Department of Labor to go after federal contracts and dollars are awesome. That's the part I didn't know about TERO. I didn't realize... I thought TERO was, "˜Oh, you're going to build a project, I'm going to tax it, then I'm going to take it and I'm going to train somebody with that money.' There's a whole other side of TERO that I didn't know about that had to do with federal contracting and compliance.

And one thing that I want to highlight that we were successful in doing in utilizing TERO in San Diego was we actually... we have 18 tribes in San Diego County. How many of you guys have that many tribes in your county? The answer is none because we have the most in the country. Sorry. We have 18 tribes in San Diego County, which means that federal contractors are required to notify all of your tribes about the fact that there's jobs coming online and the reason why that's there... everybody goes, "˜Oh, it's an ethnic thing, it has to do with racism, the Indians.' No, it's a political relationship that the tribes have with the United States government, which is why if you're qualified as an Indian and they're qualified as a non-Indian, you go to the top based upon laws that were passed based upon your political standing. Not because you're Indian, but because of the sovereignty that your tribe exercises and you being a citizen of a nation.

So what we did is we realized that all these federal contractors were coming up and they did not know how to send it out to 18 tribes because some are rich, some are poor, some have fax machines, some have an HR department, some have something in the middle. And so we got everybody together because the federal contractors were tired of getting audited and fined and in all fairness, how do you communicate with 18 different governments that all operate differently? What we came up with was a website called and this... write it down, Google it later. You're going to like what I have to say about this. was a concept that came out in working with the Department of Labor, in working with the federal contractors in San Diego County and in working with the tribes. What we did is we sat down and discussed how can we get this information out collectively for job availability, for contracts that are out there and then how can we also...our tribes ourselves look for these things. Nobody has ever thought about how to create this. Well, we did. We created It's basically an Indian version of Craigslist and mixed into one. You can be notified via email when jobs are available. You can be searching for jobs and the cool part is it's going to be coming actually out here to Arizona and shortly it's going to be heading nationwide because that's the Craigslist part of it. I want to work in Idaho. You click on Idaho and all of a sudden 15 different jobs come up in Idaho that you can be eligible for and that you can qualify for under TERO because they're trying to meet these guidelines. So TERO was something I didn't know a whole lot about. Since then I've created a website to help implement this utilizing the federal TERO policies to employ people, train people and so on and so forth. And I will say this, the Bureau [of Indian Affairs] -- people beat up on the Bureau a lot and sometimes it's deserving -- the Bureau worked with us actually very hard to make this a success because that was the beauty of what we recognized. It wasn't the tribes pointing the finger, it wasn't the businesses pointing the finger, it was everybody just sitting down at the table recognizing that we had some issues to work out and finding a solution for it and the Bureau actually was able to help us find the dollars to get this thing generated through a 638 contract. I'll go over 638 contracts. I didn't know what the heck those were either when I got into office. So

Financial awareness. Obviously, financial partnerships are key for your tribes to succeed moving into the future. In California we have tribes that, yeah, they went out and they made their money in gaming, but the neat thing that we're starting to see is they're getting into banking. There are tribes that own banks. They're getting into real estate, they're getting into, I guess hotels are real estate. They're getting into tourism components. And all these things are capable because, yes, they cut their teeth on the casino development but they realized that through these financial partnerships in leveraging with different industries they were going to be able to grow and maintain the self-resiliency of their tribe. Let's get off the federal dole. I might bother some of you by saying that, but to be real honest with you, my goal by the time I'm out of office is to make sure that I don't need those federal programs. That's what it's about. If we're going to claim sovereignty, if we're going to claim the ability to exercise our own rights and take ownership of our own nations, then we need to understand that there's a financial component with that.

So some terms I wrote over here on the side: profit and loss. Man, my first council meeting where I got a financial statement was a trip. I sat there for probably three hours trying to digest what my CPA [certified public accountant] was feeding to me because he was talking about debits and credits and encumbrances and half the terms that I see over here on the side that I had no clue. Audits: I didn't realize the shape that my tribe was in quite honestly when I got into office. You always hear about, "˜Oh, that guy stole, that guy did this, that guy did that.' Well, when I got in I didn't find anybody that was stealing, but what I did find was that my tribe was on high risk because we had not done the SF425s, the IRA reporting documents, or federal documents. We had not done our reporting to the federal agencies so we went on high risk. And had our administration not come into office at the time when we did, the Bureau was actually ready to yank all of our funding and we were going to be operated and functioning out of the BIA office out of Riverside, our local area office. Luckily, we were able to get all the documents together, complete all the reporting and unfortunately I had to go back two years. So my first two-and-a-half months in office were really, really...they were really boring to be honest with you. There was a lot of stressing out and a lot of numbers, but I got to learn a whole lot.

GAAP, GASPI, the difference between government accounting and standard general accounting practices in the way that tribal governments are unique, and this is a thing I think that states really have a hard time digesting. They don't realize that we have the opportunity to operate both businesses and government, and unfortunately they don't do it very well when they try it. I think tribes are an awesome model of how you can exercise these things and they could really learn a lot from us. I will say this -- in San Diego I think that they are, they're realizing opportunities that are there. Leverage ratios. I never thought I'd be negotiating a multi-hundred million dollar casino deal and I have...this picture is actually with us signing our letter of engagement with Key Bank. I don't know if you guys know Key Bank. Some of you may, some of you may not. They came on to be our financial advisor for our tribe and the gentleman in the middle, his name is Jay Maswagger, and he used to tease us because he said, "˜By the time we're done going through this process you're going to have an MBA, a Maswagger MBA.' The gentleman is Indian from the Middle East, from the East Indian. And he started to give me this huge education on things that I never knew about; waterfall agreements, how to structure debt appropriately, leverage ratios. These guys use these big fancy terms and it basically boils down to, "˜Look, in order for me to give you $10 I need to see that you're going to give me $2 first.' So I learned about things like that.

Natural disasters: for whatever reason the other two photos didn't show up on here. I've been through two natural disasters, federally declared. My grandma's house burnt down, my mom's house burnt down, my businesses were devastated by flooding, and I had to learn the entire process about how to recover both immediately, so address and respond, but then go into long term and then find the money on how to do that. By the way, something that has changed in the last five years is that you as tribes can now declare your own federal disasters. You don't need to wait for the state to do that, which is huge, that you couldn't do in the past. You might not think it's ever going to happen and then one day it's going to hit you and you'll realize, "˜Man, I wish I would have gone to do some training.' You're actually required by law to get out there and become NIMS compliant, National Incident Management System compliant. So if at all today when you guys go back to your tribes or if you're in leadership positions, go back and ask...oh, there it is. There's grandma's house. If you can, go back and start asking questions. Emergency management is not just about fire chiefs and cops. It really boils down to your community members because they're going to be responding to the incidents first. That's who's there, it's your family, it's your friends.

Energy. That's Secretary Chu before he headed out. I was a year-and-a-half into my term and energy conference in D.C. and lo and behold here comes Secretary Chu and I made sure I sat right behind that guy because I wanted to talk to him about what kind of dollars were going to be available in Indian Country. And he and I had about 15-, 20-minute conversation. Have you guys ever sat down with a secretary of the President's cabinet? It's near impossible if you can ever get there and to get 15 or 20 minutes is almost unheard of. Snuck in there. So again, be motivated, get up every day and do your best to get where you can around these folks. We got to talk about some of the needs and the roll out that was going on under the stimulus program and this conversation really changed my opinion about how I thought about energy in general. I didn't realize how inefficient the homes are on our reservation. I didn't realize the need for R38 insulation. I didn't realize the need for LEED which is like a fancy term for building green. I thought green was like a roof with grass on it or going back to the old days for us with like mud lodges and things like that, although those are actually very energy efficient. But also looking about how can you control your own energy future. We're going to come back to the sovereignty thing. Another part besides being financially astute, aware and responsible is also controlling the energy itself. In the northern loop of San Diego County runs the main distribution line that feeds North County San Diego. Well, guess what, their easement's up in 2021. So in 2021, that means that I can either condemn their lines and they're going to have to go around my reservation, which is all federal land, impossible environmentally, or they can work with me and they can work with me to generate an energy production on my reservation. We're actually starting a 10 megawatt energy production facility of PV on our reservation right now; photovoltaic (PV), photovoltaic panels. So again, another thing that I really wasn't aware of.

Partnership. I'll just go point at these really quick. The main reason I wanted to put this up there is because partner with everybody. Try partnering with people that you think will never partner with you. Have those conversations. Have the uncomfortable conversations because those are the ones that are actually going to bear fruit I think in the end when you really need to talk with those folks. You guys ever heard of Bob Filner. He was our mayor that got booted out of San Diego. I just put this up here because he showed up at Native Hire, when we launched These are all chairmen and there in the middle is Mr. Filner and I thought it was interesting because again, you never know where politics are going to lead you. You never know who you're going to meet. But partnerships wherever you can make it happen.

Training. You guys are here. Obviously you're proactive in trying to find training opportunities so just get out there. I was able to take financial training courses; I was able to take energy courses. They have these conferences. If you're elected into office, ATTG, Aid to Tribal Government dollars are a way that we have been able to afford to go out to these things. A lot of times there's scholarships available. I put this photo up here. That's not me speaking at NCAI. It's actually a gentleman from Pala and I put this up here because we're here talking about leadership. He's a former council member, he's actually a hard core conservative and he gave Romney's speech -- I don't know if you guys were there -- at NCAI in front of the whole delegation. And I don't put this up here to be political but my point is this: that's a heavy room to walk into and knowing what you're up against and knowing what people think and just generally how Indian Country operates and to have a man walk up there and speak his mind, speak his voice and exercise the way he thinks was just something that I thought was worth highlighting because he's educated, he's smart, Harvard background, pilot, but he didn't get there by just being lazy, not showing up to things. He got there because he was motivated and he wanted to train himself and it put him in front of a very large audience at a very heavy hitting conference.

Pass the knowledge. You're not going to be there forever. How many tribal councils out there actually picked out people out of their membership to go up and be trained so that they could be replaced into the future? We did. I'm 29. I don't want to be doing this forever, and the reality is that if you're going to do this job effectively on a day-to-day basis, you're going to get a little bit tired. It's not going to be something that you're going to be able to do, in my opinion, I know some guys can do it for 20 or 30 years, but a lot has changed in 20 or 30 years. And when you don't have the dollars like us that means that I'm doing it. I don't have staff, like I said, I don't have an HR department, I don't have an energy department; it's me and it's my council. We have two people that work with us intimately on these projects. So pass the knowledge both here and both with the youth. I should have put a slide up here on education. Maybe you can hit on the educational component a little bit.

Lastly, recognize your successes and your strengths. You wake up every day and you fight for something; water rights, energy, housing dollars, just motivating your people sometimes, but recognize that you do do that work. It's okay to recognize that you do work hard, in a humble way. But then also don't be afraid to share it. I'm happy to be here today to kind of talk about a whirlwind of things that I've been able to be a part of, but La Jolla's actually set the model in a lot of ways and I'll be happy to say it. We are the fastest recovery in Indian Country after our wildfires in 2007. No offense, but nobody's ever beat us in our recovery time; everybody back in their houses in nine months. We were the first tribe in a long time for the Bureau to actually hand us over $2 million and say, "˜Go build the road,' because everybody was scared, the old days of the Bureau. "˜We're not going to give you the cash. You Indians don't know how to spend it. You don't know how to operate your government.' I said, "˜Really? Watch this. Just give me the cash.' Government-to-government contract, here we go and we got the thing done. So don't be afraid to share those successes and if you guys have questions, I'll be happy to answer them later.

Tough stuff. Five things. Most challenging thing about this job: ICWA [Indian Child Welfare Act]. I struggle so hard with ICWA because these are the kids, these are the future, these are people that don't have voices necessarily for themselves, and this is the hardest part. Our council meets quarterly with our ICWA representative, the county case workers, our clinic case workers, and these things just rip your heart out. If you have a heart while you're on council and you go to your first ICWA meeting, you'll understand what I mean because you're hearing horrible stories about these kids and their living situations and the way they were treated and the saddest part is it all boils back down to families that you know. That's the hard part and sometimes you can't do anything about it. Sometimes the mom that is using drugs that is smart enough to take the kid over to her other mom's house so that she can leave for the weekend to go do drugs is not being a neglectful parent because she was of right mind at least to take the kid out of the situation. Now to me I'm going, "˜Mom's using drugs, mom's not really being mom, mom maybe shouldn't have the kid.' Those are the types of decisions that you're going to run into that I was never expecting. And then, when you make the decision for placement, when the county comes to you asking for the recommendation or your tribal court or however your ICWA is set up and you make a recommendation based on the best interests of the kid's health...we had this. I'll be real honest. Our council agreed to take a child from a home and put them into a non-Indian home, which I understand that this is the point of ICWA, but the reality was that to find Indian homes in our area that were going to be healthy for the kid, didn't make sense at the time to transition them out because the home that they were in, the kid's's it going with the kid in this home? 'They're not cutting themselves anymore, they're not drinking, they're not sleeping around,' and I'm going to take a kid out of that situation? ICWA is the hardest thing you're ever going to have to deal with when you're on council.

Last four things, most surprising thing, you guys just heard the whirlwind. If you've got a small council, you're going to deal with everything. You never know what's going to happen in a day. You're going to wake up one day and you'll be talking to Secretary Chu or you'll be talking to the governor and then you're going to get a phone call about the dogs chasing your kids home from the bus. That's just your day when you're on council, it's just how it is. I had to quickly learn about a variety of different laws. One thing I could change that I do a lot better now with is I don't sweat the small stuff. You can't do it all and I'm not saying that you give up by any means, but the sooner you recognize that there are just going to be things that happen that are out of your control, the easier it's going to be to lead more effectively when you're up there. And part of what's helped me do that really comes down to the last thing.

Effective leaders. Yeah, you listen. You guys are all here, you probably understand this. You all listen. You have to be patient. You have to be fair. But for me, the biggest way that I...the main core reason why I'm able to get through this on a daily basis is because I have a connection and a relationship with who created me. I have a religious understanding of how I work with god and how god works in everybody else's life and in mine. You need to stay centered when you're doing this because everybody is fighting with you. Well, a lot of people are fighting with you. There's a lot of great people encouraging you. There's going to be people pulling you this way, people pulling you that way and at the end of the day if you can't stay centered in what you believe, how you were raised and what you think, you're not going to be successful. You're not. You're going to get overwhelmed. So I would just end with sharing that. Wake up every day, reflect on who you are, reflect on what you know, and start there if you're going to get into office because it just gets crazy sometimes. Thank you very much for your time."

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