A Musical Note on Indigenous Leadership

Dad & Pop Before the War

No one essay, one book, nor even the life work and understanding of one human being, could ever encompass the reality and theory of Indigenous leadership. I will not make the attempt. Some preliminary observations do occur to me, though, which I will share.

In respect of Indigenous leadership, understand that I am talking from the Canadian context, a more or less arbitrary geographic category which loops itself around diverse nations of people who collectively speak fifty-something different Indigenous languages.  Still, in all of this diversity, among many inescapable differences, there are some ways in which the original nations of Canada converge.  One is in the nature of Indigenous governance.

To a greater or lesser degree, depending on the particular culture and its circumstance, the Indigenous peoples of Canada, prior to the institution of colonial rule, were guided by leaders rather than by administrators.  That is, their governance tended to be persuasive rather than coercive, and depended for its influence on the continuing acceptance of the leaders by the community.  By and large, Indigenous leaders remained leaders only so long as their communities were satisfied to follow them, and even when someone was the undoubted political leader of a community, the leader’s word was often still not law unless the community was satisfied to accept it as law.

Any damn fool can tell someone else what to do, and many damn fools do so, as anyone with wide employment experience could tell you.  But it takes a gifted leader to lead without coercion. A nd – here’s one of the points I want to make – the Indigenous experience shows that leadership is possible, can even flourish, without a power structure.  It shows that an effective leader doesn’t have to be a boss.

Let me give you an example from my own knowledge.

I remember my father used to talk about this fellow he knew in Port Essington – then a flourishing village at the mouth of the Skeena River, now a ghost town – who had a tin ear.  My father talked about how the fellow practiced and practiced, after a while he played a pretty good guitar.  He no longer had a tin ear.

That’s all I knew of the story until my father died.  Then somebody shared with me how my father had put up his own Gibson guitar (inevitably a very sweet instrument as any guitarist will tell you) for a prize which he would give to the first person in Port Essington who could play a real song.   I guess he was a little tired of hearing strummers and unambitious amateurs, and thought he would up the ante a little for music around town.   According to the person who told me this story, with the Gibson guitar as the goal, my dad had every guitar player in Port Essington practicing madly on their instruments.

The music got better. People with tin ears became musical.

That’s what I call leadership.

And not a threat or authority structure in sight.

Photo courtesy of Arthur Collins.

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~ by fathertheo on July 24, 2009.

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