United Tribes News Speech Archives

North Dakota First Nations Day

By Dr. Eric Longie (Spirit Lake Tribe)
North Dakota Heritage Center

October 8, 2010

Dr. Eric Longie

I’m really honored to be here. I appreciate being asked to speak here at First Nations Day. My theme is “Striving for Excellence While Maintaining Culture and Tradition.” It’s an important topic that we all have to understand. I don’t mean to insult anybody and say you don’t understand the culture and traditions, but in my view, we really need to look at what is culture and what is tradition and how it works in today’s world.

I want to thank my daughter Angie and my granddaughter Marne for coming here with me today. I’m always nervous speaking to groups and it’s good to have some support. Thank you, Angie. I also want to thank the drum group [Wise Spirit Boys] for the good Flag Song. It’s good to hear the Flag Song; it’s good to hear young Indian boys singing.

I want to start with an obvious example of culture and tradition and excellence, and those are the tribal colleges. If you look at the tribal colleges today, you can see how successful they are – all the while promoting culture and tradition. It wasn’t always that way. In 1987, I was appointed to the board of Little Hoop Community College. An accreditation agency had become tired of us; they were tired of our 13 years of candidacy. They told us either get accredited or they’d kick us out of the group. So we hired an experienced administrator, Dr. Merrill Berg. He got us out of candidacy status and we received accreditation. But it took a lot of hard work. And back in those days the funding was only about $2,500 per student. I think it’s almost double or triple that today. When I eventually replaced Dr. Berg and became academic dean, there was no USDA funding, there was no President’s Executive Order, there was none of that funding and it was tough to run those colleges on a shoe-string budget. But we did it, and we did it because we stuck to our traditions and our culture.

I remember at a panel around 1991 at UND there was a discussion about giving up our sovereign status so we could get more grants for the tribal colleges. But all of us [from the tribal colleges] insisted, no, we will not give up sovereignty to make us eligible for more grants. So, the tribal colleges are the obvious example of excellence and truth maintaining culture and tradition.

But, I want to talk about something a little more personal today. I want to talk about what might be the forgotten part of our culture, and that’s our values. All Indian tribes have the same values; we just state them differently. For the Dakota we say: courage, honesty, perseverance and generosity. Other tribes have similar ones. We just state them differently. We’ve done a fairly good job of maintaining the language, even though in a lot of places the language is disappearing fast. We have revived a lot of songs. We have revived a lot of the ceremonies. And it’s a good start. But if we are going to survive as Indian people and keep our culture we need to go back to those values. We need to go back to our traditional values. And in my case, the traditional values are honesty, courage, perseverance and generosity.

I know for a fact, if you are a leader, or if you’re a tribal worker, or whoever you are, if you don’t have courage and honesty, you’re going to be mediocre worker; you’re going to be a mediocre supervisor; you’re going to be a mediocre board member; you’re going to be a mediocre tribal council member. You need to have those two values; they’re really important. Perseverance is also important, often underrated. If you’re a leader and you can’t persevere when things start going rough, you’re not going to be very successful. So, we as Indian people need to go back to those tribal values.

If you look at the headlines today at the national level you see all the scandals. And if you go into Indian newspapers, like Indian Country Today, and search for corruption, you see all the stories that come up. The reason for that is because we haven’t kept to our traditional values. We have lost our honesty in a lot of cases. We have lost our ability to persevere. We give in too easy. We take the easy way out, which is often the unethical way and sometimes the illegal way, because we have lost those values. We need to take all aspects of our culture, the singing, the ceremonies, the dances, and incorporate those with the values. In my view – and I get into trouble back home for speaking like this – but in my view, the people who go to ceremonies, some of them need to practice our values more. So, we can’t just keep our culture alive by picking a segment, a part of it, and forgetting about everything else.

If you look at tribal nations today, you see rampant unemployment, you see the suicides, you see every dysfunction there. One of our ancestors, Charles Eastman, said that a person who lied was considered evil, and he was killed to prevent the evil from spreading throughout the village. Our ancestors looked at lying as evil, and if you lied you were put to death. How many of us would be alive today if we followed that tradition? I’d probably be the first one shot [a smile and a laugh].
About 10-15 years ago Dr. Scott Peck wrote the book, “The People of the Lie,” and he said the same thing. He said evil is a tangible force in the universe and it manifests itself through people who lie. Lying is a way of life; living your life in truth is a way of life. And if you live your life with a lie, according to Dr. Scott Peck, you are allowing evil to enter your life. And when evil enters your life it destroys your life. On the outside it may look good; if you’re a Christian maybe you’re going to Church every Sunday but your personal life may be in shambles. If you’re a traditional person you may be going to ceremonies, but if you’re living the life of a lie, your life is still not the best. So you have to live a life, as Dr. Peck says, a life of truth.

If you wonder why our reservations are in the state they are today, that’s probably the reason why; because we are not honest, in what we do and what we say in how we go about doing things. We always point our fingers at our leaders, and rightly so, because they are in a leader position; they should be leading us. On the other hand, workers and tribal members should take the responsibility too. Live those values too. You should go to work every day and on time. You should actually work while you’re at work; don’t sit there and look out the window.

If you don’t have the courage – like a parent disciplining their child or a leader telling their tribal members to do the right thing and come to work – if you don’t have the courage to do that, then what’s going to happen? Your child’s going to become spoiled; your workers are going to become bad workers; it’s as simple as that. And yet, we all seem to put up with that.

I am convinced that if we return to our tribal values and live the way they were lived by our ancestors 150 years ago, our reservations will be excellent places to live. If you examine how they lived, they could leave things out without the fear of them being stolen. When they talked to one another they believed a person, because they knew that person wasn’t going to lie to them. If there was danger, they knew the person would be next to them; he wouldn’t turn tail and run; he wasn’t going to sell you out for something; he was there to stand beside you. When the going got rough you knew you all pulled together. Those are the values we need to return to today. And I think if we do that, a lot of our problems will disappear.

We have reached a point in our existence as reservations that we have to stop blaming everybody else. We have enough resources, we have enough opportunity, we have enough good people, we have enough educated people where we could take our reservation and make it an excellent place for our children. We can do that on our own. We don’t need outside help. But we don’t do it because we don’t follow those values.

So, I want to encourage each of you to look at your life – I don’t want to sound like a preacher here but I’m pretty passionate about this – look at those values of your tribe and practice them. Practice them the way your ancestors practiced them. And I guarantee you, if you practice them the way they did, you will like yourself a lot better. Your family will like you a lot better. Your neighbors will like you a lot better. There may be some who won’t like you. But so what? Follow those values and you won’t worry about people liking you.

I want to thank everyone for coming today. Thank you to United Tribes for giving me the opportunity to speak and the drum group for the good songs. Thank you very much.