What Is Indigenous Leadership?

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There are as many terms for Indigenous people as there are Indigenous languages. There is no single definition for what makes someone “Indigenous.” Common characteristics include self-identifying as Indigenous; a unique culture, language, and traditions; and minority status within post-colonial states. Indigenous people make up around 6.2% of the world’s population. What does leadership look like within these myriad communities? Again, there is no one definition, but Indigenous leaders around the world share common values, qualities, and challenges. If you would like to learn more about indigenous communities have a look at the online courses here.

Values

Similar core values guide the various Indigenous leadership structures around the world. Here are four key examples: decolonization/indigenization, bridge-building, community service, and sustainability.

Decolonization and indigenization

Decolonization is the process of dismantling colonial systems and Western-leaning biases. At the same time, Indigenous thinking and values are revived. Decolonization is a part of indigenization. This means bringing Indigenous knowledge and Western approaches together. Western thinking isn’t simply replaced, but the two systems aren’t blended into one form either. According to “Pulling Together: A Guide for Curriculum Developers” by Asma-na-hi Antoine and co-writers, the image of two braided strings is a more accurate depiction of indigenization.

Across the world, decolonization and indigenization include protecting and reclaiming Indigenous cultures threatened by the post-colonial status quo. Indigenous leaders teach the community ( and non-Natives) about history, its impacts, Indigenous traditions, and more. Young people are encouraged to get involved in leadership and work to dismantle systems that harm Indigenous culture. This promotes self-determination and Native nation-building.

Bridge-building

In a post-colonial world, the role and responsibilities of Indigenous leaders are challenging. Very often, it’s because the non-Indigenous state ignores or misinterprets jurisdiction. In 2017, a fire in British Columbia threatened Tsilhqot’in territory and communities. Questions of jurisdiction were raised when one Indigenous community chose to not evacuate. According to the law, First Nations reserves have the authority to develop their own emergency response. The RCMP threatened to take away the community’s children anyway. Other communication and legal issues across the region hampered access to supplies. The fire destroyed a significant amount of land and three Tsilhqot’in communities.

Intersecting federal, provincial, and Indigenous structures make things complicated for leaders. To navigate this often confusing and frustrating terrain, Indigenous leaders take on a bridge-building role. They have to work both within their community and with the non-native state. In several articles, this is referred to as living “between two worlds.”

Community service

In a study with Aboriginal leaders (“Between two worlds: Indigenous leaders exercising influence and working across boundaries,” Jenny Stewart and James Warn, Australian Journal of Public Administration, Volume 76, 2017), participants expressed a strong belief in collective identity. This identity is formed by relationships and encouraged through peer networking. For Indigenous leaders, their role is a gift. Leadership is driven by service to the community. “Servant leadership” is a phrase that often comes up. While it’s common for leaders to feel isolated, strong community support helps ease a leader’s burden and keeps them encouraged.

Sustainability

Indigenous leaders around the world have warned society about the impacts of pollution and climate change for decades. While they make up a small percentage of the global population, Indigenous communities manage around 20% of the earth’s landmass. Sustainability and respecting the earth are core values. Their ability to care for the land has been severely threatened. Land rights and conservation are a major issue for Indigenous leaders. In areas like the Amazon, Congo, and Australia, Indigenous communities are nearly always at the frontlines protecting the environment.  With centuries of knowledge and experience, Indigenous communities and their leaders are uniquely equipped to address issues like pollution, climate change, and deforestation.

Qualities of Indigenous leadership

What makes a good leader? Knowledge and a self-assured identity are very important. This includes knowing the history of the land and community. Good leaders are also confident in their Indigenous identity. Understanding and following traditional practices are a part of this, as well as having respect for others, Indigenous culture, and self-respect. Good relationships within the community and outside of it support the leader’s role as a bridge-builder. To facilitate strong communication and mentorship, good leaders are available. Gratitude, humility, and bravery are important traits, as well.

Challenges of Indigenous leadership

Indigenous leaders encounter many challenges. Some are consistent with challenges that all leaders face while many are unique to Indigenous leaders. A lack of reliable funds and resources, the consequences of generational trauma, and balancing traditional values in a modern world make leadership difficult. Indigenous communities around the world have established programs that support current leaders and mentor future ones. The Indigenous Leadership Initiative, based in Ontario, Canada, is one example. It empowers Indigenous organizations, communities, governments, and Nations and supports governance, land use planning, and resource planning.

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About Author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.

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