My Bush Fellowship has enhanced my understanding of, and deepened my appreciation for, leadership in Lakota society. Traditionally, Lakota leaders were selected for their ability to make sound decisions for the safety and prosperity of their people. They served as both providers and protectors. I recently was introduced to the concept of what it means to be an Ikce’ Wicasa (man) or Ikce’ Winyan (woman). Ikce’ is a Lakota term that means “common.” which means to stay humble and remain a part of the circle as a common person, do the work, and care for all. An Ikce’ person works to ensure the community can survive. And thrive. My Fellowship experience has confirmed that this is the type of leader I hope to be even though I I have much to learn about this concept.
I have attended many Western-oriented leadership workshops and professional development opportunities, and often, their leadership values are in conflict with those of our Lakota society. Most often western leadership models teach about growing yourself; moving up in your position; and definitely about a hierarchy. In processing what I’ve learned to determine how can I adapt this information and make it relevant in my community, I’ve come to the conclusion that I have to find balance to be most effective. In my role as executive director of the Cheyenne River Youth project, I must interact with the mainstream world, from funders and partner organizations to peers and professional counterparts. Yet I must be so much more than this within my community, so I strive to be compassionate, generous and humble as I work to give future generations a community that is better than the one I inherited.
I want to do good work that has a lasting, meaningful impact. I have no desire to be an elected official or a tribal leader in the contemporary sense. Rather, I want to provide critical opportunities to the youth I am so fortunate to serve. As my staff and I pursue our mission, I can maintain my integrity and continue to honor my value system, which energizes me as a leader. I seek to be an Ikce’ Winyan, a common woman who is recognized, humbly, for the work I do to secure a more vibrant future for my community and build a more culturally reflective organization. By culturally reflective I mean that that Lakota culture surrounds all that we do - our medicines should be present, our language should surround us, our Lakota values guide us in how we engage - its the most important aspect of this journey for me.
To ensure my effectiveness, I am using this Bush leadership opportunity to expand my Western leadership skill set and also to strengthen my connection to Lakota values and teachings. This is more than a personal investment. It’s an investment in my community’s future, as I incorporate what I learn into our daily youth work, the development of our staff, and the structure of our organization. In the long run, this will transform CRYP into a more culturally inclusive and responsive entity. Already, we’re witnessing how our programs and activities integrate — and rely upon — Lakota culture. This is a reflection of my own personal growth and ongoing leadership development.
During my Bush Fellowship, I’ve also learned that it’s acceptable and even desirable to slow down and replenish my inner resources through self-care. Although I am not completely comfortable with the idea I am learning and am now trying to teach my staff that they must do the same. The demands of the work is great but its vital for the long-term success of our work that we take care of ourselves, otherwise we will be unable to properly care for our young people and provide the enduring, rich programming that fosters their long-term holistic health and well-being.
Admittedly, I have struggled with boundaries over the years. I deeply feel others’ sadness and trauma, and I’ve always tried to help find solutions for them — quite simply, to fix it. I now understand that I cannot solve everyone else’s problems, and I’m learning to recognize users and takers. As a leader, I need to establish and maintain boundaries, otherwise I risk my own well-being in terms of emotional and physical health and even financial stability. Caring for people doesn't mean we have to give up everything we are, or everything we own.
As a leader, my role is to do the work that is most relevant for the youth and community I serve, work that makes a real difference and validates the Cheyenne River Youth Project’s dedication to providing Lakota youth with access to the opportunities they need for a more secure, vibrant future. After all, among them are our next leaders and culture bearers, who will make their own lasting impact on the community.
My Bush Fellowship journey is not about me. It's about investing in me so I can help my community. In the end, I simply want to be a Good Ancestor, whose legacy endures in a healthy, strong Lakota Nation.