By Glenn C. Zaring
At a recent ‘town hall’ meeting with a state representative, numerous issues were discussed as is typical of these events. However, one member of the audience, asked, “What about involving the tribes?” The look on everyone’s faces was one of surprise mixed with equal amounts of incredulity and disdain. They just don’t think about Indians often…and rarely look to us as having positive contributions and solutions to issues. This is a communication and public relations issue that we simply must start addressing!
Following the meeting, a lady that used to work for the local tribe said, “That sounded just like Bill Memberto (LRBOI Ottawa).” Uncle Bill was the head of Family Services and a major pain in the rump to outsiders for always asking, “What about the Indians?” He was also quick to kick someone’s behind and include lessons with the kick, but he was a true Ottawa and is sorely missed by many of us. Uncle Bill was a true advocate for Indians.
He also clearly understood that people need to be reminded about the presence of Indians within our communities.
While this is not something done naturally by our people because we value our privacy, it is something for all of us to seriously consider. Because if there is no one from the tribes attending meetings with government agencies, schools and business groups, there will be no one to advocate for us or watch out for us. You can be assured that if we do not remind them of our presence, they will conveniently forget about us.
A tribal public affairs department, such as the one that we had for years with the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, was a formalized approach to ensuring recognition and potential participation upon behalf of our nation and people. We were always out there with chambers of commerce, city and county governments and agencies, 211 boards, United Way and just about any other group you could imagine.
Many of the meetings were boring and the coffee marginal, but attending the meetings served our purpose. The purpose being to nicely remind them that we were there, we were interested and we were involved in our shared community. We didn’t always have to get in their face either. They were expecting that and were pleasantly surprised when we came forth in a rational way to bring about solutions that helped everyone. This is not a cop out, it’s just that sometimes honey is better than shaking your fist in someone’s face.
Participation in this way not only lets others know that we were there, but it also brought about opportunities for our tribe to be involved and not ignored. Our public relations was based upon being there, being active and behaving. We didn’t get in the face of others but respectfully demonstrated our presence, our concerns and our skills. We also identified community issues before they became overwhelming and then helped to solve them, when at all possible.
Many times, we brought skill sets to the meetings that were not available by any other means. As a tribal government, we had contacts and connections from a wide range of places and this had taught us a lot about getting things done. This gave us a perspective (and some tools) that have proven to be extremely valuable.
The funny part is that most of the people involved from outside our tribe had never really thought about the tribal presence in their area beyond the revenue sharing board where they could get money for their pet projects and needs. They love our money, just not us.
As any of us who have worked off the rez among outsiders have learned, we find that people have pre-conceived notions about Indians and learn that they are surprised to find that we are resourceful and thoughtful. They expect confrontation and when they don’t get it and instead find value in our participation, it helps them to understand that we are truly valuable people, just from a different cultural basis.
Reminding outsiders of the problems of the past between us feels good (to us!) However, if we also can be viewed as offering solutions to challenges that we all face, it casts Indians in a different light—one that just might give us the breathing room we need to take care of our people and the time to preserve and honor our culture.
What do you have to lose by trying it? ♦