Sophie Pierre: What I Wish I Knew Before I Took Office

Native Nations Institute

Former Ktunaxa Nation Chief Sophie Pierre discusses the Ktunaxa Nation's nation-building struggle, and offers her thoughts on what sustainable leadership is and what it requires of leaders.

Native Nations
Resource Type

Pierre, Sophie. "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, 2008. Presentation.

"Thank you very much. [Ktunaxa language]. I bring you greetings, my colleague and I. Gwen Phillips is here with me. Gwen is the person within our nation that is working with us on governance and so I thought that it was right that she be here at this gathering. I bring you greetings from the Ktunaxa Nation and if it's okay I'm going to stand. When I'm addressing you I feel like I should be standing. I want to first of all acknowledge the great Tohono O'odham Nation and thank them for allowing me to be here today in your traditional territory. I want to take a few moments and just introduce who I am, who Gwen is and who our people are. We're in the Rocky Mountain trench in the southeast corner of British Columbia, in northern Montana and Idaho. Our traditional territory runs along, from the big bend of the Columbia River at a place called [Ktunaxa language] all the way along what's today the Arrow Lakes in British Columbia, places like [Ktunaxa landmark] all the way down to Missoula, Montana, that's [Ktunaxa landmark] and along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. It was mentioned earlier when Manley and Stephen were speaking that they were talking about the Kootenai Flathead Reservation and again it was a bringing together of peoples and of them learning how to work together. Those are the Kootenai people, those are part of the same people that we are. We speak the same language; we have the same culture, the same traditions.

My own personal experience, I was first elected in 1978 and I was pretty young. It's a good thing -- I thought I knew it all, had a lot of energy and it's been an incredible ride. For those of you young people that have just been, that are just coming on council, one thing I have to tell you is that 30 years -- it goes like that. Time passes so quickly. When I first started, when I was in my late 20s, I just figured that time went on forever and I had lots of time to do what I wanted to do. Well, of course time waits for no one. Time moves along very quickly. The experiences that have been described so far are very similar to what we have in Canada, in British Columbia, what we have in my own backyard, where we have family difficulties and leadership challenges, but it's been kind of an interesting anomaly in my own community. My community is called [Ktunaxa language]. It also in the book says St. Mary's Indian Reserve, IR #1. In my community, I'm an only child and in all the 30 years that I've been on council, when my mother was still alive, I always said, "˜I think I have one vote I can count on.' I was never quite sure because my mother, she was one of my biggest critics and she was also of course my greatest teacher and my greatest support. But we didn't have that particular dynamic and I think that that really does make a difference when you're not, you don't have those kind of almost imposed on commitments that you have to make just to one family as opposed to all of your people. And it has been able to help us in thinking on a nation basis because in Canada we have our separate Indian reserves that were set up, but we still belong to a nation. And that's why I shared with you where I come from because that is our nation territory. And as a nation of people, if you can move yourself from that mindset of family within one reservation and think of yourself in terms in of your nationhood, that is really what I feel that that's where Indian nations, that's how we are going to rebuild our nations and that's where our strength comes from is from our nations.

I was first elected in the late 70s and through the 80s. That was a time of great change and those of you that are my age and older, you know what I'm talking about. There was change that was happening here in the United States as there was across Canada. I was involved in lots of the sit-ins that we had, getting rid of Indian Affairs, well at least physically. We never really got rid of them totally in terms of the impact that they have on our lives, but at least getting rid of those offices that were everywhere, getting rid of the Indian agent. When I first started, when I first graduated from high school and I started working for my band, for my reservation, we still had an Indian agent. The Indian agent came around with the documents and had our people sign them. That's what I witnessed and I knew that was wrong so we went, so started from that to today where we're not totally there, but we're a long ways ahead from where we were. In my first few years of office I was just like everybody else. I chased all those grants and chased the programs because our communities needed it. We were like tall grass [NNI's "Tall Grass" executive education case]. We had unemployment, housing, like all those social ills and so we chased those programs -- not just myself but the other chiefs and councils within our nation. We chased all those programs. And we found ourselves bumping into each other fighting for that same money realizing that we were expending a tremendous amount of energy, but we weren't looking at our own, what was important for us as Ktunaxa people, what we needed.

Around 1991-92, two things happened that started to help us change our course. First of all, in the province of British Columbia, we entered what is called the modern-day treaty process. Now that's been a curse and a blessing in a way. It certainly brought about some changes, not all of them good. But luckily we have leadership within our nation that saw this as an opportunity for nation rebuilding and we have taken that, we have turned the treaty process around to meet our needs. We have insured that all of the negotiations that go on, they are what we call 'citizen-led.' Now that's made it a very, very slow process in terms of where some of the other nations are. We've had two nations just in the last year that have actually signed their implementation plan or they've signed their treaty with the provincial and federal governments and now they're in implementation and they're having difficulty. And the reason is because it's not been a citizen-driven process. We still have negotiating tables where there are lawyers and consultants that are sitting at those tables instead of our own people and that we know is wrong and that's something that we insured -- that we would not fall into that. So we have this treaty process. What the treaty process has enabled us to do, has brought to us, is financial resources and that's what really needed because we are on the Canadian side, four Indian reservations with virtually...we don't have two nickels to rub together, we don't have our own source [of] revenues. So we're financially, we don't have a whole lot of resources, but in other ways we have lots of resources. So we're using the treaty process, we're using the money that comes through the treaty process and we have been for the last 17 years, we've been using that to rebuild our nation.

The other thing that happened is that we have a former Indian school; I think they were called industrial schools down here. We called them residential schools. But they're the schools, those big, old buildings where they gathered up our kids from all over and they put them into these buildings for, like in our case, 10 months of the year you never got to see your parents. And their whole purpose was to take the Indian out of the Indian child. But we have this big, old residential school sitting just right next to my reservation. It's called St. Eugene. Well, about 1984 one of our elders had given us a challenge. Mary Paul was at a meeting with us and there was a lot of complaining going on in the room about just how terribly burdened we were. Woe is us. We lost our language and our culture and everybody was drinking and drugging and all the usual litany of woes that we have in our community. And Mary Paul stood up and she told us, "˜If you think...' and she said this in Ktunaxa so this is paraphrasing. "˜If you think that you lost so much in that building,' and she pointed across the road because it was just right there. She said, "˜If you think you've lost so much in that building, you haven't lost it, it's still there, go back and get it. Only if you refuse to pick it up again have you lost it.' Well, we didn't really know what she meant but we thought, "˜Oh, she's an elder, we've got to listen to her.' So we started thinking about it and we realized, yeah, we have a choice. We have a choice. We can continue, continue to go down that self-pitying kind of road, blaming everybody else for our problems or we can take control of it. We chose to take control of it.

To make a long story short -- because I like my long story about St. Eugene [because] I'm so proud of it -- but to make a long story short, today that former residential school is a resort. It's a five-star resort, 125-room hotel, a PGA-type golf course and of course a small casino. But that's that was the other thing that was happening. So we have these two things burgeoning at the same time and one really helped support the other. So today we have this business and I am a walking billboard for St. Eugene. I'm always wearing our logo and I have this whole other presentation that I do about 15 lessons learned in getting into economic development because of the struggles that we had to go through. You can imagine going and trying to convince investors and bankers that you want to take a former Indian residential school...because at that point all these court challenges were coming forward and everybody was saying, "˜Residential school? Get away from me, we don't want to talk about residential schools.' If you can imagine taking that and turning it into the resort that we have today and -- just as an aside, we have a little TV clip that was done by Global Television and we're going to show it during the coffee break this afternoon if you're at all interested -- I think you'll find the story interesting.

Right now just a final word on St. Eugene. It was about partnerships, because Anthony [Pico] here mentioned that you're in partnerships with the Oneida on your developments. Well, we found that that's one of the strengths that we have with St. Eugene is that we have a partnership with the Sampson Cree Nation out of Alberta and the M'Njikaning First Nation out of Ontario. They have the Rama Casino just north of Toronto in their community. So they're our partners. And I think that that again is one of the strengths that we need to develop is how we invest in each other and work together in partnerships. We used the treaty process to rebuild the nation and as we're doing that we realize that what we really were talking about was enhancing sustainable leadership.

And I think that -- if this works, okay -- in dealing with sustainable leadership, first and foremost, leadership comes with inherent responsibilities. Our creation story sets out a relationship of the human beings to the land and to all of creation. And it's not, it's similar to all of the creation stories I'm sure that come from all the various nations in this room. [Ktunaxa language] is our word for natural law, which we received of course from the Creator and it's our mandate for stewardship and our responsibility to govern according to set principles from the Creator. As Ktunaxa people, we were taught to be respectful of leaders and those selected to lead were nurtured right from childhood. And other skilled individuals, their skills were enhanced and they became experts in their own field like the deer chief or the war chief. And of course there's always a high regard for spiritual leaders. Many societal activities were done by both male and female societies. Now the roles of the leaders changed and as those roles changed we started to see the breakdown of the nations. So what caused some of these changes?
There are historical impacts. These are just a few. Some of these are similar to the experiences that you had and some of these are particular to Canada. Well, I think that in reality all of them are similar instances because when I talk about laws in Canada, there are similar laws here in the United States that affected you also. We had things like small pox. The establishment of the 49th Parallel, that had a tremendous impact on the Ktunaxa people because here all of a sudden we are no longer on family, one nation. Now we have these outsiders telling us that we can't move back and forth. One of our communities is right on the 49th Parallel and when that reservation was being created that chief stood up and said, "˜What are you...why are you dividing my house in two? You're telling me that I have to live in my bedroom and I can't go into my kitchen,' was the analogy that he used. Because his particular group of families were actually moved from Montana, moved north and told that they're now Canadians and there's this 49th Parallel and that we can't go across this anymore. We have a way of dealing with that now and that's for another time.

Things like the Indian Act came in and it was mentioned earlier that those, there are similarities here in the United States. In Canada we had laws that prohibited our people from cultural practices. And if that wasn't enough, there was also laws that prohibited Indian people from hiring lawyers to protect our rights. Our reservation boundaries were formed in 1887 and residential schools were established in 1893 and there's a whole list of other things that were happening. One of the things that we don't have on there but that is very important in terms of our development was that in 1991 we did a full psych analysis of our entire school-age population and we found that 40 percent of our school-age children were suffering from some form of FAS/FAE [Fetal Alcohol Syndrome/Fetal Alcohol Effects] and we haven't heard very much about that, we don't hear enough about it. We need to be aware of that, of the impact that that has on our people.

With all of those things coming at us, we're really talking about trying to lead through chaos. The traditional roles of leaders have been replaced by government, particularly the traditional roles of men. That's within our nation, we know that's within nations in Canada, and I would imagine it's the same here. Most of our First Nations, we have tremendous experience in administering government programs, everybody else's agenda except our own. [I have to move a little faster Ian just told me.] At any given time, First Nations in Canada, we are managing programs for 20 different agencies all at the same time. So it's like 20 different balls in the air. You're so busy keeping those balls up in the air you forget about the real purpose of why you applied for that ball in the first place. And then the employment challenges within our communities were forcing our leaders to become, like the chief is the band manager or the other council members, the council member would be the band accountant because of employment challenges within our communities. So that too often our leaders, they're not governing, they're only administering, they are directing and they're managing programs. And in fact what they're really doing is they're managing crises, from ones crises to the next. We said that what happens is that we have taken on this challenge of looking at our problems, trying to solve our problems and that's the wrong way to go. You don't look soon as you start just looking at your problems you get more problems. You solve one problem and it's created ten more. You solve those ten; all of a sudden, you've got 30 more. Problems generate their own. They're like rabbits. So quit concentrating on problems and start looking at, 'What are the good things that are in your community, what are the strengths in your people?' So find ways to enhance those strengths.

What we realized is that leaders need to be retrained to better understand the leadership role and we gained that to regain what it was really that leaders are all about. With us, we realized leadership; it's effectively guiding the people towards a common vision. And that was really what we needed to work on and this is where the treaty process assisted us with this, gave us the time and the resources to do this because it does take a lot of time and it can be expensive. This is our common vision of the Ktunaxa Nation: strong, healthy citizens and communities speaking our language and celebrating who we are and our history in our ancestral homelands, working together, managing our lands and resources as a self-sufficient, self-governing nation. It took us over two years of going to each household, working with all of our members, all of our citizens to come up with that as our vision. [I've just skipped through because I know that I have to finish off. Ian has just given up on me. He went and sat down. He's been waving his five-minute flag.]

First of all, sustainable leadership creates and preserves sustainable learning. Hereditary leadership is...that's what we have in some of our nations. We still practice that. Others we're in this election or appointing or whatever but what we're talking about is renewing leadership skills, always renewing them. [This would cooperate with us. So I apologize for this. You're going to have to try and find, well actually, I can tell you where it is then.] Traditional or sustainable leadership secures success over time. [So we have that. Okay, I'm having difficulty, I think I'm just; don't worry about the picture up there.] Traditional leaders are advisors until they pass on and we know that and it's been mentioned also by my friend here that going back to the teachings of our elders. We're not the first leaders, and I think that that's really the thing that we have to remember, that we are only following in a long line of leaders before us. Sustainable leadership sustains the leadership of others. You're only as strong as everybody else that you have working around you. Delegation builds trust and potency. Sustainable leadership addresses issues of social justice including a broad interest in equities. We talk about the 'haves' and the 'have mores.' We don't talk about the 'haves' and the 'have not's.' In our nation, it's every has and some people because of their own efforts will have more. And I think again it's a different way of looking at things.

Sustainable leadership develops rather than depletes human and material resources. We have that mandate of stewardship that all things are related. We must remember that. And sustainable leadership practices that. Sustainable leadership develops environmental diversity and capacity so that we're flexible and adaptable. This is, on the top corner, the older lady with the glasses -- that's a picture of my mother -- and talk about being flexible and adaptable. She went through an incredible time of change and she was able to maintain, even though at the time that she was young other Indian women were marrying non-Indians because it was considered a way of uplifting yourself. She never ever did that. She believed that we had to keep our culture and she ended up in the last years of her life being one of our most important teachers. Sustainable leadership undertakes activist engagement in the environment. And one of those that I'm talking about is that whole thing around FAS/FAE. It was very, very difficult to look at ourselves and see what we had done to our children because of the drinking and the drugging that's going on in our communities. It's still difficult today, but we do look at that challenge directly and that's what sustainable leadership is about, is that you take on those challenges. You don't just take on the easy stuff or the good stuff, you face those challenges. Another big one that we all know is in our communities we have to deal with, sexual abuse and where that came from. So it's those kinds of challenges. Thank you very much."

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