Wise Men and Elegant Speakers: Reflecting on traditional Assiniboine leadership

Aug 15th, 1993 | By | Category: 5-2: Leadership, Features

James Shanley (top) and Ken Ryan

As reservations work to strengthen their communities, they are learning to draw inspiration from traditional conceptions of leadership.  Many tribal colleges, including Fort Peck Community College, have taken on the task of retrieving and examining this knowledge.

The following is an edited transcript of a conversation between Jim Shanley, president of Fort Peck Community College and His Black Horse (Ken Ryan), chair of the Fort Peck Community College Department of Native Studies.

Shanley: Were there concepts regard­ing leadership in preservation Assiniboine life?

Ryan: Leadership among the Assiniboine people developed much as it did among other Northern Plains tribes. When a tribe was established, there was established a council of proven war leaders, wise men, religious leaders and elders, all of whom were elegant and thought­ful speakers. The manner in which the traditional Assiniboine form of government developed provided for a recognized, established and time worn, efficient method for the peo­ple to select their leaders.

For a person to be eventually selected as a leader of the Assiniboine, there was established a route of leadership development which all subsequent future leaders had to follow. (The chart later in this article is a representation of that process.)

In the early days, tribal leadership was a male function. The Hunga (Chief) was selected by the Hungabi (Little Chiefs). The Hungabi were an established deliberative body that was composed of what we earlier identified as proven war leaders, able hunters, brave, courageous men, recognized religious leaders and elders. It was possible to have people who met all criteria.

Though being appointed as Hunga, or Chief, seemed simple, the journey in fact was long and arduous. A person began this journey by first going upon the path of war and being a successful warrior. The first jour­neys to war began when you were an early adolescent teenager. This happened when you were a Koshga.

When you were successful at war, you were then classified as an Agichida, or warrior. Successful warriorship meant that one of the war­rior societies (Okonayichiyabj) would induct you into their membership. By being a very able leader and good at what you were doing, you would in your middle age be selected as an Okonayichiya Itacha, or warrior soci­ety leader.

As a warrior society leader, you would probably be invited to sit as a member of the Hungabi (Little Chiefs). The Okonayichiya (Warrior Societies) played or performed important tribal roles ranging from village defense, camp security, police work, to leading and coordinating tribal Buffalo hunting. Each warrior society, (there were about four or five) had its own unique induction ceremonies and ritual.

Tribal government functioned out of a Tibi Haska (Long Lodge) which was pitched up in the middle of the camp. This Tibi Haska was the meet­ing place for the Little Chiefs and the Chief. The long lodge’s care and daily function was provided by older men who worked under the direction of the Wohenas (Cook of the Soldier’s Lodge) and the Agichida Wioti Hunga (Chief of the Soldier’s Lodge).

The Cook of the Soldier’s Lodge was charged with the responsibility of providing food and tobacco to the Soldier’s Lodge (Tibi Haska). The Wohenas or Cook of the Soldier’s Lodge was selected from the warrior society leaders by the Chief and the Little Chiefs.

The term Cook of the Soldier’s Lodge was a misnomer. The person who held this post didn’t physically cook. The people of the tribe gave him prepared food or unprepared food which he then ensured was prepared and served in the Soldier’s Lodge.

The Chief of the Soldier’s Lodge would have most likely served as Wohenas before he was selected as Agichida Wioti Hunga by the Chiefs and Little Chiefs. The Chief of the Soldier’s Lodge was the second most powerful person in camp. This per­son would have been the war leader, hunt leader, and the warrior soci­eties who performed tribal functions would function under his direct command. When a Chief of the tribe or village was selected, the Hungabi selected the Chief. The Chief was not a king or despot. The Chief’s children were not princes or princesses.

A person was appointed Chief because of his recognized and proven ability to lead and take care of the people. As an example, as a hunter, you never ate what you killed. You could drink the soup but you never ate what you killed. You killed your game for someone else. Someone else would have to provide for you and feed you. The tribe was interdependent.

A last criteria of leadership was that the leaders had to have the ability to speak for the people. The people would invite a person to make public announcements for them. This would lead you to make public announcements for families at public functions. As a person’s skill at public speaking grew, the speakers would be invited to speak at larger and more important gather­ings. Soon a truly good speaker would act as a spokesperson for the entire tribe.

In a good speakers later life, that person would be appointed as a Bagewichakiyabis (He Yells at them in a Loud Voice) or the Camp Crier. That was the road to Assiniboine tribal leadership.

Shanley: What impact did religion have on traditional tribal leadership?

Ryan: Religion was a way of day-to-day life. All leaders were religious people in that sense, because every­body was involved with religion.

Shanley: The concepts of leadership as they are used today commonly are equally used for men and women. From a traditional perspective, what are the roles of men and women in terms of leadership?

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