Excerpt from Platinum Rule # 1—Shedding the Bureaucratic Image


“Be direct, be straight, and tell the truth.”

–Points of Protocol for Working with Tribes
Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation
January, 2008

No one likes a bureaucrat, if you think about it. Bureaucracies connote large, authoritative but faceless entities that don’t care about the individual. Many of you work for government or corporate bureaus, but that doesn’t mean that you have to look like a bureaucrat. Eddie Tullis, past chairman of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Alabama, offers this to help us all understand how the bureaucratic image is interpreted:

“If you look at it in the worst sense of the word, to me, if I’m going to say what my kind of extreme negative point of a bureaucrat is, it’s some person that comes in here, always [has] on a coat and tie regardless of what the weather condition, always [has] a briefcase with them, and most of the time [has] an attorney with them so they make sure they say everything proper … and to me that’s a real negative perspective of it because that [doesn’t] serve them or us. You know you sweat down in a hurry in our country here if you come here with a coat and tie on and try and lug a briefcase around full of paper and everything else. And you waste a lot of time getting past those perceived notions because while apparently most politicians come here and think, “I’m here from the government and here to provide service,” whereas the people that are here say, “Well, here’s someone coming to check on me.”

As is evident by Eddie’s account, our bureaucratic behaviors are dictated by our organizational culture: how we dress, the words we use, acronyms common to our profession, the way we greet a person, or how we conduct business. Many American Indian leaders will tell you, “I have to know you before I can trust you and I have to trust you before we can do business.” That means the relationship comes first and business second. In the non-Indian world, I can sit down with someone from another organization and begin doing business almost immediately, or at least after a little small talk. But the American Indian way of doing business is different and is often dictated by historical distractions of government and corporate behaviors. As a result, we must slow down and focus on shedding that bureaucratic image…

In your initial meetings, the key behaviors that I believe will help you become successful are being genuine, authentic, personal, and passionate. Many times tribal leaders have asked me to attend one of their meetings “just to meet me” before any discussion or commitment is initiated on my proposal. In these instances, I usually bring a gift (more on this later, too) to thank the tribe for their time and engage in small talk. I am prepared to answer questions and follow the lead of the tribal leaders in the discussion. Most importantly, I am myself—genuine, authentic, personal, and I display a passion for tribal issues. And, I do a lot of listening. Only at the end of the discussion will I ask if we can schedule another meeting to discuss specifics of what I might have to offer. Many times these informal meetings can be accomplished with one or two individuals over lunch or coffee. In most cases these tribal representatives will be more than willing to provide advice about working with the tribal government or even offer to support your program or project when presented to the full council later on.

Marguerite Teller from the Paiute Tribe of Utah sums it up most appropriately:

“First …Indian people, if they don’t know you, they are going to just observe and ask some questions. But, if you come off too pushy … you come in there and just want to take over or … put this program into place … you’re not going to get a reaction. You’re going to get the reaction like, “Whoa, I don’t think we want to work with him.”

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