- Diné Political Leadership Development on the Path to Sustainability and Building the Navajo Nation
Indigenous leadership was about commitment to nurturing a healthy community and enriching the cultural tradition of one’s people. Indigenous leadership was about service and support of community values and life. Indigenous leaders were predisposed to care deeply and imagine richly with regard to their people. They listened to their own visions and the visions of their people; they used their imagination and creativity; and they gathered the people and moved them together to find their life.Gregory Cajete, Look to the Mountain: An Ecology of Indigenous Education
In indigenous communities, traditional leadership had a responsibility to the people. Leaders worked for a community’s prosperity, stability, harmony, and continuance. They were visionaries and planners. They thought of others before their own individual wants and needs. They fought to maintain their people’s land and way of life. However, settler colonialism has altered Native Nations. In many cases these changes have devastated the people, land, and way of life. Leaders are needed [End Page 25] to help the community and people overcome these challenges. How do indigenous communities develop political leadership whose vision and purpose is to build a sustainable community and way of life reflective of traditional leadership principles? In this essay, I discuss how the Navajo Nation can develop political leadership reflective of traditional leadership principles and overcoming the consequences of settler colonialism.
Traditional Diné leaders had responsibilities. They were mature and experienced. They were advisors to the people, not administrators or managers. They worked to ensure the people’s prosperity and the community’s sustainability. They were accountable to their respective families and communities. They thought of others before themselves. They protected the welfare of the people and fought for the land.
Traditional Diné leaders were a significant component of the community; they were not superior to anyone; they did not govern with ruthless coercion, but through honest oratory, mutual understanding, and humility. They had a lifelong commitment to serve and care for the people. Diné people called leaders “naat’áanii” and these individuals were acknowledged as such. Diné historian AnCita Benally describes a naat’áanii’s responsibilities:
He/she took on the role of a parent. The ability to settle discord was crucial especially because naat’áanii did not have any means of policing at their disposal to enforce their decisions. They relied on their ability to persuade and on their sacred knowledge to convince their constituents to obey them. The ability to speak or make speeches was a key element of a man or woman’s skills as a leader. It revealed intelligence. Furthermore, controversy, disagreements, and discord required skillful negotiation and teaching. Leaders learned the art of addressing and followed a pattern that touched on specific points reminding people of their purpose and what was expected of them. They needed to speak persuasively but firmly. They had to reason through many layers of thought processes and consider many strands of an issue to arrive at a decision acceptable to the parties involved. In settling disputes, a naat’áanii focused on achieving and maintaining “K’é” [family relations] among all of the opposing factions no matter how few or how many there were. Formally trained leaders were taught to emphasize K’é, the overriding principle, and the greatest tool at a leader’s disposal.1
Diné leaders used language and cultural knowledge to lead and govern. Oratory was highly esteemed. A leader learned to speak to all people [End Page 26] in a respectful and honorable way, where in turn he or she was able to obtain consensus.
Leadership was earned by achieving a level of integrity. Naat’áaniis were intelligent, creative, and planned for the future. They had to be astute, insightful, fearless, and resourceful to tackle life’s challenges. A naat’áanii had to understand all aspects of the community’s situation, including the physical, political, social, economic, psychological, emotional, and spiritual. They lived by the principles of caring, humility, and generosity.
In the twenty-first century, Diné political leadership is viewed in a similar fashion. It is needed to overcome the many socioeconomic challenges and experiences...