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Skye’s Horizons – Revisited
March 31, 2016

 


By Harriett Skye (Standing Rock) UTTC Vice President Emeritus

When I received a letter from the University of California-Berkeley in 1997 that I had been accepted for the fall term, I was in shock. I applied, as I did many things in my life, thinking that it wouldn’t happen. I was to be in Berkeley on August 15th for orientation, and so I was.

My first class was with Ling Chi Wang, chair of the Ethnic Studies Department. There were several of us transfers from other universities, in my case, New York University. Ling Chi presented an overview of ethnic studies, how the discipline had grown over the years since 1960 and become a viable academic offering in the U-C System.

What interested me was his reference to various paradigms for peoples and countries around the world. He described these models and patterns for many, except Native Americans. The paradigms he described didn’t apply. As sovereign People, with an involved and difficult relationship with the U.S. Federal Government, our paradigm was anything but clear to me. He looked at me and said that it was up to me to develop one.

Throughout my time at Berkeley, I gave this challenge a great deal of thought. Then one day it made sense. I began working on what I called the Iktomi Paradigm to describe the pattern I’ve witnessed in my lifetime.

Iktomi is the culturally universal trickster character. In Lakota/Nakota/Dakota it is the cunning spider (or to some the coyote) whose misdeeds are recounted in legends and stories that entertain as they caution against trickery and deception.

My Iktomi Paradigm followed that theme to describe the bureaucratic decision-making process that results in suffocating layers of control in tribal affairs. In the post-World War II era, the Bureau of Indian Affairs established the system of area offices, with area directors controlling Indian programs in eight geographic locations around the country.

Even the most routine business decisions and transactions are subject to a lengthy process of bureaucratic review. Initiatives must first go through the agency office, then to the area office. The area office sends it up the line to the BIA in Washington, D.C., and back down it comes before a decision is rendered. It can take months to make its way through the layers.

If a matter involves agencies outside of the BIA, such as the Corp of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation, Bureau of Land Management, the FBI, the courts, or with a state entity, it’s a wonder that anything gets done at all. Some decisions affecting Native People take years, even decades.

Often the questions involve land, water or other resources. A system that was created as a trust responsibility to protect tribal interests from the avarice of outsiders’ acts to stifle initiative and delay progress.

When the layering reaches the level of the Interior Department, at the cabinet-level above the Secretary for Indian Affairs, an objective might lack support in the oversight process. There might be hidden agendas in Congress blocking the way, bureaucratic inertia, outright incompetence, or ethnic bias. The recent successful class-action lawsuits over mismanaged Indian trust accounts and discriminatory government services to Indian ranchers and farmers prove the pattern.

Any of us, who’ve had business with the BIA, be it local, state or regional, know the Iktomi Paradigm. We are painfully aware that progress in Indian Country is, and always has been, a long-go. In sports they would say it’s not a sprint; more like a marathon.

Many of today’s concerns were entered into long ago and still remain unresolved. Those in positions of leadership are well advised to have the long-view in mind as they navigate the deterrents of bureaucracy, seeking solutions, and ways of making it more responsive. The Iktomi Paradigm suggests the need for tenacity and persistence. You must guard against issue fatigue, disinterest or paralysis. You are involved with a model that requires fortitude, a quality we value as Native People.
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Harriett Skye (Standing Rock) is Vice President Emeritus of United Tribes Technical College, Bismarck, ND. She is retired and lives in Walnut Creek, CA. harriettskye@hotmail.com.
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