Patricia Ninham-Hoeft: What I Wish I Knew Before I Took Office (2009)

Native Nations Institute

Oneida Nation Business Committee Secretary Patricia Ninham-Hoeft reflects on her role as a leader for the Oneida Nation and offers advice for newly elected leaders.

Resource Type

Ninham-Hoeft, Patricia. "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. March 25, 2009. Presentation. 

"Thank you. And I want to reiterate what Mike [Mitchell] had said too. Welcome and congratulations to many of you who are new leaders and many of you who are continuing on in that position. I am the Tribal Secretary for the Oneida Business Committee in Wisconsin. We're located about eight miles west of Green Bay. The reservation is overlapped with several competing municipalities, two different counties, I think five municipalities. And our kids, we have our own tribal school but yet we still have five different public schools, districts that divide up the reservation.

As I said, I'm serving my second term. I was first elected to the tribal secretary position in 2005 and was recently elected seven months ago to a second term. And it's that second term that really poses some new challenges for me. Mike, before we had talked, Mike had reminded me when he first met me I was here at this event and talking about my experience and I was a very frustrated person, very frustrated council person. And it's funny that after the new elections, our new chairman Rick Hill was looking at the photographs that the council that I was on when I first got elected, looking at those photographs and he saw mine. And I looked very different three years ago than I did today. And he laughs and he says, "˜What is this, your high school picture?' It's because in those three years the work was very demanding. And the role was a very big burden that I'm not complaining about but just, and I know you all know that, that it's a big responsibility.

I always wanted to be the tribal secretary, or on the business committee. I always wanted to be on the business committee since I was a kid. And it's because of my mother, Sandy Ninham. And my mom as a young woman started working in her community, she was working in the tribe's civic center in their recreation, youth recreation program. And she and another woman, during that time, liked to play bingo at the local VFWs. And the civic center was having trouble getting its utility bills paid. So she and Elma Webster started their own bingo game in the gymnasium. That was in 1975-76. And today it grew into the Oneida casino, which now employs 3,000 people, 1,500 of those at the casino and 1,500 staffing different programs and services for our community. And it's my mom's can-do spirit, her entrepreneurial spirit that has always been my guide. And always in our house, either at my mom's kitchen table or her mom's kitchen table, relatives always gathered there to talk about and complain about what the tribe was and wasn't doing. So that's the story about why I'm here today.

Serving my second term as a tribal secretary comes after three years of being really frustrated. And I think this last seven months I've calmed things down and have learned a bit about how to be more effective. And that's sort of the basis for my story today is how to become more effective. Well, I'm going to talk to you about some of the things that I was surprised about when I got elected and then talk about some of the skills and maybe experiences that are helpful to someone if you're going to serve on the tribal council, some regrets or things that I wish I would have done differently, and then I'll end with some tips of things I've learned the hard way.

So getting elected, there were some surprises. One was, once I got elected it was the feeling of fear that I had, which caused me to be paralyzed at times and resulted in -- and I think a lot of the people, we have nine people on the business committee and I just wonder if they all had the same feelings -- because many times we'd have group think. And I don't have a good explanation for it now, but it's one thing that if you are working on a committee to know what it is and to know how to prevent it. Because oftentimes you're faced and confronted with many problems and you end up looking at each other not saying anything, no one's saying anything, and everybody wondering who's supposed to do something.

The other surprise I had was just learning how to become confident. That you sort of have that new honeymoon period of three to six months in your position, and you feel awkward and new, and you're trying to live up to that perception that everybody wants you to do something, but it's in that period where if you can relax and allow yourself to find your voice, but it's normal.

I've learned that you can't make promises. That no matter how small it is, do not promise anyone anything. Promise that you'll get their issue heard, promise that you'll present their request someplace, but don't guarantee that you're going to solve it. That's also advice from my mom who, my mom went on and served on the tribal council for three terms for nine years.

One of the things I also was surprised about is the amount of meetings you attend per day and night. And the meetings are important. You have to know the different kinds of meetings. You have informational meetings, meetings where you make decisions, meetings where you just, it's team building, but you have to come to those meetings and you have to come prepared.

Resistance was a big surprise for me when I got elected, because I thought once you got on the business committee that automatically everyone would embrace your ideas but that doesn't happen at all. You have to earn it from your managers and you have to earn it from your peers, especially. And it takes work and it takes a lot of time.

High expectations is another surprise and that one I get and I've gotten from myself: high expectations from my myself, from my peers, my friends and my own experience. High expectations, it's like the constituents, they think you can fix anything or they think that the business committee is responsible for solving all their problems. And you oftentimes disappoint people by what you did or by what you didn't do. The great story I use for myself is with my mom when she was on the council, and oftentimes she'd come home and want to vent or complain or have someone to talk to about maybe an issue she and the council were struggling with, but yet she didn't come home to a supportive daughter. She came home to a daughter who was criticizing my mom and telling her what she should have done and as a result she came home but she didn't talk to me anymore. And so now as I'm going through that experience and having it happen to me by my friends who pushed me to run, "˜We'll be right there for you, Patty.' And when I failed to do something right or failed to do what they thought I should do, they weren't there. And we're just recovering from that, my friends, we're just talking about that. And so it's important that you find somebody who's going to be there for you regardless of what you do, you need that person. And then to be easy on yourself, because oftentimes you're the biggest critic and then also, with your peers on your council 'cause they're probably feeling the same thing and they don't need their peer to be hounding them.

Skills and experience: before I got elected I wish I was better at conflict resolution as a skill. And the biggest thing about conflict resolution is how to avoid it in the first place, how to have the skills that you listen first, have the discipline to not react, have the respect to see all sides, know it first. And then if you are in conflict -- and I think Mike gave some really great examples of all that -- is work hard to find ways to resolve it and never give up in trying to find that common ground. Because I think with politics people forget that politics is about dealing with conflicts but using words to do it instead of violence and guns. And so you are in the business as a political leader to work on conflict.

Know the difference between governing and managing. Oftentimes, at least in Oneida, I see people crossing the lines in day-to-day business. Oftentimes, I see the elected officials getting involved in the day-to-day business. And I think it's because you don't know the difference between the questions of what to do and how to do it. And as an elected official your responsible for, I feel like I'm responsible to decide with my committee what gets done, what are we going to do, what are we going to accomplish, and then being able to articulate that so that your managers then can figure out how to achieve it. But that one question is hard and I think it stems in vision and strategy. And it's hard on a day-to-day basis to think about strategy. It's not sexy. It's easy to talk about, "˜Well, let's have a PR [public relations] campaign, and let's write five articles, and let's build a hospital, let's have an oxygen chamber for diabetes.' Those are all tactical kinds of things and our job is to focus on, 'What is our community going to be in 25 years or 100 years? Who are we?' And oftentimes too you'll hear managers accuse you of, at least I have, of being involved in day-to-day. And that's usually a red flag for me that either I am interfering and messing up my role or that they want to keep me out. And so that's where governing comes in that you have to know that you're responsible for governing, which means setting the direction and the vision but don't forget you have to oversee things. Oversight is especially important, that you have to make sure that your managers are doing what they said they were going to do, that the money that they got budgeted to them, that they're spending it the way they're supposed to spend it.

And then know what success looks like because you'll be given balance sheets, you'll be given financial reports, you'll be given reports to look at and you have to know what success looks like. The financial area is a big thing that I recommend everyone, if you're on a tribal council that you have to know the difference between a budget and a fiscal responsibility role. Budgeting is about spending. You start, you make a prediction about how much you're going to spend in a year to accomplish a certain number of things and you watch that, just like you would your own checkbook at home. But it's the balance sheet; it's the income statement that you get that is intimidating. So find, maybe there's somebody in your community who's a CFO of some local business or a non-profit and reach out to that person for advice.

Relationships is important, especially in a community like mine where we have all these different competing municipalities around us, that we have good relationships with various people in the community there. Also having relationships within your own tribe, be involved as best you can and within your own committee, that the relationships that you have with each other are important. That yeah, you're going to disagree and you're going to vehemently disagree, but in the end you still have to be kind to each other because you live with these people. For me, I've grown up with the people I serve with. They've either been older people who served as my mentor or we went to the same high school and college together.

And know the rules of your tribe, know your constitution, know your treaties, know the rules that your committee uses to operate and know the rules of the municipalities that are around you. Facilitating is another good skill to have and then also as I said earlier, knowing how to work as a body because for me, I'm one of nine members that serve on the committee. I don't have any authority as an individual. That authority only comes when we convene as a group and as a body.

And then finally look around, make sure you're always learning and look around the world. There's some great books out there about what other nations, what other Indigenous communities are doing to grow their communities. And look at that because I often hear the expression "˜power likes a vacuum' and you can see that, but "˜ignorance creates the vacuum.' And that's a phrase I just learned from a book about the cultural impact on development and prosperity in developing countries. Ignorance creates a vacuum. And I see that a lot when you're with people and they're not learning and they're not reaching out looking for new ideas and they're stuck in a mindset that doesn't work today.

Things I wish I had done differently: I wish I had held my tongue and controlled my emotions. There's a difference between being passionate and angry. And there's a difference between being persuasive and argumentative. And you just don't talk behind someone's back because you're trying to win people over to your ideas and they're not going to listen to you if you act with disrespect.

I have a great experience. When I first got elected there was a person on the council and I hadn't even started my first day. I was so full of energy and I was going to change things and do things differently and I just, I yelled and screamed in this meeting with her. And I still have not forgiven myself for that experience yet. I think she has of me, but if you can avoid having that happen to you, hold your tongue and control your emotions. It takes a lot of discipline, but it'll benefit you in the long run.

The other thing I regret, I wish I would have done differently is taking a public stance on per capita in my community. In 2008 last year we had a general tribal council meeting. And I don't know how many are organized the way Oneida is, but we have the IRA constitution, we have a general type of council that convenes. Everyone 21 and older, regardless of where they live, when they convene, it takes 50 people to sign a petition and then you have to call a meeting and a minimum of 75 have to show up for that meeting. Well, I could see this coming, many of us did see this coming that when the business committee became or wasn't dealing with the right problems, factions got very powerful. And so we had a petition for a per capita payment of $5,000 to people who were, I forget what the age, 55 and younger would get a one-time $5,000 payment and then everyone older would get $10,000. And more than 800 people came out for that GTC meeting and it passed. And all of the debate leading up to it, no one, I don't think any one person really stood up against that idea. And I was on the council at the time and sat back and let it happen. And I look back and I try to examine why I did that. And I know one of the reasons why I think it was fear. I was afraid to stand up. I was afraid to stand up against a popular interest. It's important when you have your family and your friends who are going to support you, that's when they're important and necessary [because] then they'll help you; so you're not alone, so you can do what's right.

And then wisdom to share: some tips. It's be dependable, be consistent, be transparent, accessible and prepared. That's how you gain trust. Right now in Oneida, we have this fantastic blogger who is very critical of the business committee and tribal government. And they're always talking about, "˜That business committee is corrupt, it's the good old boy system and the good old girl system, and they're secretive.' We're always getting those accusations and in fact, and daily. So the internet has been a good thing while bringing openness but it goes both ways. You get that feedback right away. But as long as you're dependable, consistent, transparent, accessible and prepared, you may not have to worry too much about that.

Know that you can't do it by yourself -- especially if you're on a committee, as in my case -- that you've got to change their minds too and being persuasive is the key, not attacking them; and knowing that to get your idea across, it takes time -- it may not happen the first meeting or the second or the tenth, but eventually it does happen, you can see. And you can't do it all at once, plant seeds -- and I've learned to be very excited about small changes, seeing that incremental change. And then embrace resistance -- you'll get a lot of resistance but embrace it, don't run away from it and don't be afraid of it: use it. Learn what they're saying, why are they resisting it, use it to help fashion your idea and make your idea better because -- like Mike said -- it's about building community and it's about building a people. And for me, it's about building a place where my kids are going to want to come back to and invest their lives and their grandchildren's lives forever and ever. So, good luck." 

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