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Creating fertile ground for Native leaders

I spent much of an extended Fourth of July week in my hometown of Bemidji, Minnesota, which is situated in the northwoods of the state. Thick forests define this landscape. Maples, birch and aspen blend with pines, including spruce, balsam firs, jackpines, and the great red and white pines. 

A resilient red pine stands amid storm debris near Bemidji, MN in early July 2012.My original plans for the week included helping my dad with some home improvement projects. However, a once-in-a-generation storm on July 2 changed those plans. Hurricane-force winds snapped and uprooted thousands of trees in the region. The aftermath left a mangled mess of timber.

My parents’ yard was hit hard. Dozens of the trees that dotted their property fell. Starting on the Fourth of July, my dad and I began cleaning the debris—he delimbed splintered trees and sectioned off the trunks into firewood-sized pieces; I tried to organize his work into manageable piles for burning or firewood splitting.

My dad, a retired forester, was worried the downed trees had crushed a small red pine he had watched closely since planting it several years ago. He cut through the swaths of branches to get to this tree. Buried in the chaos, the small red pine still stood among its fallen predecessors. I looked at the pine, impressed it had endured.

Two days later, on Friday, July 6, I attended the inauguration of the new members of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe tribal council. Among those being sworn into office was LeRoy Staples Fairbanks III, a member of the first cohort of Bush Foundation Native Nation Rebuilders. He began the program in 2010 as one of the youngest members of that cohort—a member of my generation. Throughout the program, he showed obvious promise. Now he stood before hundreds of his fellow Leech Lake citizens as their newest District III Representative to Tribal Council. I was inspired that one of my peers had accepted such enormous responsibility.

LeRoy Staples Fairbanks III takes his oath of office as District III Representative to the Tribal Council of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe (July 5, 2012).As LeRoy took the oath of office, I thought of that small red pine in my parents’ yard.  Leaders, like trees, spend years growing strong, drawing upon fertile ground to rise up. They eventually fall, but others will take their place, nourished by the same fertile ground.

Fertile ground is key to the success of forests and to the success of communities. In the case of Native nations, the fertile ground is a tribe that cherishes its sovereignty, builds culturally matched rules and institutions, and continuously holds high standards for its elected leaders to maintain these norms. This fertile ground yields the next generation of leaders, such as LeRoy.

At the request of the elected leaders who manage their tribes’ fertile ground, the Bush Foundation created the Native Nation Rebuilders Program as our attempt at supporting the next generation of Native leaders. If you want to help shape your community, I encourage you to submit your application for the next cohort of Rebuilders. Applications are open July 23 to August 30.

Talk Back to Bush
What is your tribe or community doing to nurture its future leaders? If you’re part of the Rebuilders program, how has it made an impact on you and your nation? How do you imagine Rebuilders and other leaders creating change in your community? We want to know what you think.

Read more posts by John Fetzer

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