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Chiefs and Leaders
Alyce Spotted Bear

Chief Woman

My name is Alyce Spotted Bear. And my Indian name is Nemuk Shemehat and that was given to me by my clan mother, Jesse Bull. And that means "shows-the-way woman," and a male translation is "chief woman."

Spotted Bear

"Spotted Bear" was my great grandfather's name. Spotted Bear was the son of Raven Chief, who was one of the individuals from our tribe, from the Mandan tribe who was designated to attend the Fort Laramie Treaty hearings down at Fort Laramie in Wyoming. The name Spotted Bear came from the grizzly—that when the sun shines on the grizzly, there's a spot right behind its neck on its upper back that looks like a white spot. That's where the name "Spotted Bear" came [from].


In the past, people became leaders based on what they could do. If you needed someone to be the chief for the buffalo hunt, you had the best one. It didn't matter who they were. People wanted to eat so they obviously wanted the best person. Or if you needed someone to defend you, you'd want the best one, the one who could fight the best and lead the best. That's who you'd want, because it was a matter of life and death then. It was a matter of survival.

Well, from what I know and from what I've read and been told, two hundred years ago, if you wanted to become a leader, you had to be prepared. You had to prepare yourself in a spiritual way. You could emerge as a leader through preparation. The Mandans and the Hidatsas used to have age-grade societies, where they spent time in one society when they were probably around eleven years old, where they began learning things that the young men or women of their age would learn. And then after they had learned whatever it was they needed to learn from that society, they went on to another society. And there were ways, ritualistic ways, that they would go from one society to another.

There was never just one leader within our tribal nations. There was a leader who led the hunt. There would be a war chief. There were leaders who made sure that the village was protected. We had a lot of different leaders at one time, and they all had different ways of achieving that leadership.

Our leaders, they had to be brave and strong, and I don't just mean physically—we had people who were elderly leaders who were frail, but they were still leaders and they were strong in the sense of character.

I've heard so much about Four Bears—the Mandan Four Bears and the Hidatsa Four Bears, and that they were great leaders—and I think that when people look to them as being great leaders, I think that it honors our tribes. It's an honor to us to see other people recognizing their greatness.

Women Leaders in Olden Times

Female leadership two hundred years ago again was much different than the type of female leadership we have today, and that's because females weren't leaders within the governmental structure. But they led in different ways. With the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara, there were women who were strong and people listened to them, and they were leaders in the sense that they made things happen within the tribe. They were able to feed the tribe. They were matriarchs. The women built the earth lodges, they owned the earth lodges, they planted the crops, they tilled the soil, they cared for the crops, and then they owned the crops.

Leadership Today

Today, it's a lot easier to identify models of leadership. There are leaders today who really lead by example—who do the right thing at the right time—and I think individuals observe that and they tend to follow that person or listen to their ideas. There are also Native American leaders who are very traditional in the sense that they are highly concerned about their people as a whole. They worry about what their tribal nation is going through or what's happening or how they can make things better for their tribal nation.

Since the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act was passed, we agreed to adopt an electoral type of government similar to the type of government that the United States has—where individuals are elected to positions of leadership.

We do have leaders who do prepare themselves through receiving an education. Education is very important today because we're dealing with a lot of entities, organizations outside of our tribal government, and we have to be able to work with them.

Well, in the future, if you're going to be a leader, I think you need to understand technology. You know, you're almost out of the loop if you don't have e-mail or if you don't have access to the Internet to look things up. And this leaves a large number of American Indians out because there aren't that many people on the reservation who have access to the Internet and probably not only us but other people throughout the United States who don't have access to the Internet.

Exemplary Modern Chiefs and Leaders

Reuben Snake. He was a Winnebago tribal chairman, and he lived an exemplary life. He was involved in the Native American Church. But he was an individual who, when he spoke, everybody became silent and they listened to him because they wanted to hear what he had to say, because they knew that he not only had knowledge but that he had wisdom. Another individual who I know I admired a lot was Wilma Mankiller, when she was the Cherokee chief.

On our reservation, an individual that I admired was Rose Crow Flies High. She was the first female tribal chairman on our reservation. And she was a very humble woman in her own way, and she accomplished a lot in terms of helping to build an infrastructure for the tribal government, because she was chairman at a time when we were making this transition from the BIA, or the Bureau of Indian Affairs, running our tribe, and letting the tribe run our own affairs. She accomplished a lot because she was wise enough to surround herself with people who knew how to navigate the bureaucracy of the federal government and the state governments. She was largely responsible for seeing that all the community buildings and the different districts on our reservation were built and in seeing that we had a tribal administration building built. It seemed after we got our own tribal administration built, the government just began flourishing. She was a good leader.

Wendell Chino [Mescalero Apache] was the leader of his people, and they loved him. And another one [leader] was Roger Jourdain, of the Red Lake [Band of] Chippewa [Indians of Minnesota]. He was a chief for years. Over the years everybody came to know them—not just different tribal members, but people throughout the United States got to know who a lot of these leaders were.

The War Bonnet

I would say one of the symbols of power and authority is very much the same symbol that was used years ago, and that's the war bonnet. Years ago, many of the chiefs would wear the war bonnets, and each feather symbolized something that they had done, some great achievement that they had accomplished. And today when an individual is inaugurated as the tribal chairman, they wear the war bonnet—the chief's headdress. And I wore that when I was sworn in.

My Experience as Tribal Leader

I've always had questions as to if it was difficult for me to be a woman chairman. And I have to say honestly that I never really experienced a problem in working with the men on the council. There were some older men on there like Ernest Medicine Stone. He was my uncle. And we both had great respect for each other. And he was a lot older than I was, but we treated each other with great respect. And then my uncle Pete Coffey was on the council with me and we also had a very good relationship. Because of the respect that I received from these elderly men, the younger men also gave me the same respect. And some of the accomplishments I don't consider them my accomplishments, but I consider them my administration's accomplishments. Because we all worked together. In my mind, we did do a lot, and I think that the records that are located in the tribal building—the minutes of the meetings—all bear testimony to the fact that we were an extremely hard-working tribal business council. I do think that we were probably one of the hardest working tribal councils in the history of our tribe. We were trying to strengthen the tribal government, and I think that we did that very well.

When we had the secretarial election to change our constitution, all the powers that should have been the tribal government's we stripped from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and we gave them to the tribal business council. The people did that with this referendum that we had. They gave the tribal business council all of these different authorities that you need for governance, and then we also claimed jurisdiction over all people in all lands within the exterior boundaries of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. So, before, when the tribal business council operated, they had to get approval for everything from the Bureau of Indian Affairs before they could do anything. And we changed that so that they didn't have to go through the Bureau of Indian Affairs for everything, and that the only time when the Bureau of Indian Affairs had to be involved was when there was a trust responsibility involved. And that pertains largely to matters of realty so that Indians' land won't be separated from them unlawfully.

Our Great Success

Today, it seems to be a federal policy to get tribes to handle their own affairs. The tribe is enjoying the fruits of our labor because we went for what we called "just compensation" when our lands were flooded. When our homelands were flooded, about 86% of our tribal members were relocated for purposes of the construction of the Garrison Dam. We had lost our whole way of life, and we were not justly compensated. We were given very little for what was taken from us—over 156,000 acres. It's a long story, but eventually what happened was because of the work that our tribal business council did at the time, we were able to eventually get a Bill passed through Congress where we were compensated to the tune of 149.2 million. The agreement is that we will operate off the interest earned on those monies and the principal will stay intact, so today the tribal government has monies to operate a lot of different programs and to do a lot of building, and they're able to offer a lot of jobs for tribal members and non-tribal members.

Choosing Our Government

I was talking to Barb Poitra from Turtle Mountain [Chippewa Indian Reservation] and some other Indian women recently, and my remark was, isn't it just amazing that we could develop whatever kind of government we wanted, but yet we're still copying the type of government the United States has, or other states within the United States. We could really develop whatever kind of government we want. We're a people, we're a nation. We can do it our way, but we don't even look at that. A lot of times we're just copying and doing something that doesn't really work that well for us, but we do it because that's the way we were taught to think.

We're running our own affairs and the government respects that. That's even their policy now—to let tribal nations handle their own affairs to the greatest extent possible—and that means that we can change our constitutions. We did when I was in there. We changed our constitution to strengthen our tribal government. But we could change it even more. We could go back to having a more traditional type of tribal government, but that may not work. I think what we need to do is go back and look at our traditional teachings in the way of how we're supposed to treat other people. And how we are supposed to respect other people, and how we're supposed to respect ourselves.

Return of the Buffalo

A number of the tribes are trying to restore the buffalo or bring the buffalo back to their reservation, and that was one of the things that, when I was chairman, we did. We started out with a herd of about thirty-five, and today it's over, it's probably about 385. And the tribe is very supportive of that buffalo project, and other tribes are doing the same thing. The tribal community colleges, through United Tribes Technical College, have formed a coalition, [and] have each of the colleges develop a buffalo herd, and they're teaching courses on bison management.

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