The Colville Tribe blazes the trail

NESPELEM, WASHINGTON--The Colville Confederated Tribes are facing the same problems the rest of the world faces: the increasing difficulty of sustaining ways of life on a deteriorating resource base, and the resulting conflict. In response, the Colvilles are changing something so fundamental that most people aren't aware of it. They are changing the way they make decisions.

"There are little bits of the reservation that are looking better," notes Tribal Fish and Wildlife employee Chuck Jones. "It's not like all of a sudden we have massive change. That's not going to occur, and expecting it is kind of unrealistic. When you're talking about thousands of people it's not going to happen that way."

"The biggest change has been breaking down the paradigms in some of the people," Jones says.

Colville resource planner Dave Tonasket notes that crisis management, treating symptoms, and turf battles have been the norm on the reservation for decades. BIA foresters and range managers have been managing tribal lands, and there has been bitterness over forestry practices such as clearcutting, fire suppression, roadbuilding, and spraying.

George Abrahamson, coordinator for the social program Healthy Nations, says, "There are still people on this reservation for whom the huckleberries have meaning. My mother has fond memories of this mountain right up here, Moses Mountain, and when she was a little girl she used to go up there with her grandmother to pick huckleberries. She goes up there now to some of their old places and she says it's like a jungle there--all overgrown, maybe they don't burn it off anymore like they used to, and it's changed so much."

"Sometimes I go through areas where they've logged, and the land is all torn up, and it's just kind of left like that. And that bothers me. A lot of decisions were being made that really didn't take my feelings, or my values, or what is important to me, into consideration."

"We hire experts to come in and manage for us--they know best, and we shouldn't question that. It hasn't been that successful." Under this regime, year-round springs and streams have been drying up, and traditional food and medicine plants have been disappearing. Tribal members report losses of wildlife and increases in problem insects.

Some Colvilles regard the decline in traditional languages, cultural identity, family values, and health as inseparable from the deterioration of the land and water. Says resource planner Lois Trevino, "We have lost so much. We have a lot of anger and grief over what has been taken away."

In 1992, the Tribe's Natural Resources department hired Jeff Goebel, who had considerable familiarity with the concepts and practice of holistic management. Goebel began to move the department from interdisciplinary management--which he said was management of parts and so was destined to fail--to holistic management. He also involved other sectors of the tribal organization.

Holistic management was developed by Rhodesian wildlife biologist Allan Savory in response to the failure of conventional solutions and thinking to stop or reverse desertification and biotic loss. In the 1980s many people assumed that holistic management was a grazing method for arid regions. Since 1993, Savory has emphasized that it is a new decision-making model, one that integrates ecosystem and human values rather than isolating them or setting them in opposition.

Abrahamson says of the holistic approach, "the principles are really close to what was in place in our own culture before it was so disrupted. Respect for the land, understanding the whole and taking that into consideration, was a part of our culture. I'm really hopeful for it."

"Holistic management is a different way of making decisions," says Dave Tonasket. "That's the big change--people are looking at wholes. Whatever they're managing, they're stepping back and seeing the big picture."

Most people, Savory has observed, decide what to do on the basis of past experience, research results, expert opinion, short-term gain, peer pressure, laws and regulations, single criteria, or the problems or opportunities of the moment. Most soil erosion, desertification, and other losses of biodiversity are the unintended consequence of this kind of decision making, he says.

Though many decisions are still being made on that basis on the reservation, a holistic goal is now the reference point for decisions at most levels of the Colville tribal organization. This is a coordinated statement, compiled from the words of hundreds of tribal members, of where they want to be in terms of their quality of life, their means of producing it, and the resource base needed to support this production indefinitely. The one-page statement was adopted a year ago as a resolution by the tribal council, and it is widely posted in tribal offices.

Says council member and former tribal chairman Mathew Dick of the holistic goal, "It's a step toward involvement of the community as a whole in some of the decision-making processes--which hasn't been done for as long as I can remember."

Washington State Range Conservationist Jerry Rouse notes that holistic management came to the Colvilles not as a system of practices on the land--as it was introduced on the Navajo and Laguna Pueblo reservations in the 1980s--but as a decision-making process that fits with the Tribe's traditional values. Because of this, the Colvilles seem to be following through, and making better decisions. "I've been really impressed with the ability of the Colvilles to stay with this," he says, noting that many policy shifts in Indian country are short-lived. "This thing is starting to have some legs."

Changing the way decisions are made, Goebel says, is not a matter of administrative restructuring--it requires fundamental changes in beliefs, assumptions, and behaviors. These changes have not occurred overnight, or without struggle.

In 1992, Goebel attempted to create some small successes to show what holistic management was about. The Natural Resources department was in the process of developing a management plan, including timber harvest, for the Six Mile watershed.

"We went out to the Six Mile Springs--three white guys and ten elders," Goebel says. "We three said very little during the day--we just were quiet and listened. We picnicked in this watershed area that was going to be harvested. After dinner I asked the question, how do you feel in your hearts about this land around the reservation? What came out was tremendous, deep sorrow--you could feel the pain as they talked about it, how much they hurt, you could see it on their faces. These old people were thinking about how they were going to pass that on to future generations."

"Then I turned that around by saying, how would the land need to look in order for you to feel pride, to feel good inside your heart, and feel like you could leave this for your children in a good way?"

"They talked about the open, grassy parklike pine forests, diversity of wildlife, diversity of cultural species, clean water, stable soils. That became part of the goal for that watershed plan."

Bill Gardiner of Tribal Fish and Wildlife says, "We tried to find out from people what they would like to see in the future. That's a very difficult thing for most people. Most people will tell you what they don't want, not what they do want." Gardiner also heard skepticism based on past experience. "People said that, given the changes and the degradation that we've seen in the resource base in our lifetime--it's inconceivable to us that we could have productive natural resources a hundred years from now."

Another project, at Owhi Lake, offered an opportunity to get the community involved in the formation of a holistic goal, which consists of positive statements about what people want.

Community meetings were held to find out what was important to people. Lois Trevino remembers people saying, "Tell us what you're going to do, and we'll tell you what we think." People had been so well-trained by the system of environmental impact statements and preferred alternatives that they concentrated on what bothered them, rather than on what they really wanted, Goebel says.

Hearing people complain about overgrazed streambanks and spraying, the planning team wrote down healthy riparian areas and clean water as things people wanted. The holistic goal derived from the public's comments specified that the water cycle in the Owhi basin should be effective, with most areas covered by healthy vegetation to facilitate percolation of water into the soil. Long-term productivity of the soil resource, a low road density, and concentrating solar energy flow into marketable tree species were also goal statements for the watershed. The holistic goal did not specify how these conditions were to be achieved--it was a statement of what people wanted, not how. The quality of life statement read in part, "Tribal communities are empowered to make things happen and are actively involved in management of human and natural resources."

Once they had a rough holistic goal for the watershed, the planning team proceeded to mentally test proposed actions according to whether they would lead toward or away from the goal. Every action, Goebel says, had to be environmentally, socially, and economically sound. Most of the important things that people wanted were in the holistic goal, and Goebel says that helped build trust and security. The planning team also identified early warning signs that would indicate that they were moving away from the holistic goal.

One of the bigger challenges, Goebel says, was that the wildlife, forestry, range management, hydrology, cultural resources, Geographic Information Systems, and parks and recreation specialists who made up the planning team clung resolutely to the objectives of their several disciplines. "Each discipline was so well trained in the reductionist approach that we could not begin to manage the watershed toward a holistic goal for two years. Once the team understood that we were going to create profit, and clean water, and cultural opportunities, and happy tribal members, we really began to become creative."

When the Six Mile project was completed, 50 percent more timber was harvested than was estimated by the foresters working on the project. Though Owhi has not yet been logged, the same thing will happen there, according to Gardiner.

"By doing it together, with the various departments, we ended up cutting more trees, and harvesting more wood, than we typically would in just a forestry operation," Gardiner says. "There was just more wood available for harvest if we looked at it from the point of view of the water cycle, and trying to simulate vegetation patterns that were more in line with the natural system before we started suppressing fire and doing timber harvest."

"We're trying to create large-tree, old-growth forest stages. That never would have occurred before." In the past, he says, the practice was to cut the big trees down and send them to the mill.

"We spent some time trying to manage the understory in the Owhi project, not just the trees," says Gardiner. "Cultural plants like roots and berries actually became part of the management emphasis. Trying to replicate the conditions where Indian potato thrives, for example. They thrive best in open areas. As the forest has gotten thicker, and decreased the amount of sunlight to the ground, the potatoes have declined."

These practices and results, notes Goebel, were not the outcome of research, new technology, or controlled experiments. They were the outcome of the holistic decision-making process.

The transition between paradigms has been threatening for many who have been trained in the specialist approach, but the membership is behind it, says Tonasket. Because habits tend to determine the way people make decisions, training in the new approach has been and will continue to be crucial. The Tribe has allocated $100,000 for in-depth training of tribal members who will in turn train others in holistic management.

Lack of listening with respect to one another "was probably our biggest problem," says former Natural Resources director John Smith. "We had a lot of non-Indians we hired to work for us. Because of their culture and their upbringing, they always talked the most, the fastest, and the loudest. A lot of times our tribal members who had good ideas were never heard."

"Everybody needs to be heard. Everybody's important. A lot of us who went to the non-Indian schools and had to figure out how we were going to help our people, we got very aggressive like the non-Indians." A consensus process in which people sit in a circle and take turns speaking is now widely used in deliberative meetings.

A consensus workshop was held in Keller, on the reservation, in 1994. Bob Chadwick, a former National Forest supervisor in Oregon, helped seventy people learn to listen to each other with respect.

One of the features of Chadwick's consensus building is that people sit in a circle, everyone takes a turn at speaking, and they concentrate on feelings as well as thoughts. "Go slow to go fast," says Chadwick.

Colville planner Myra Clark says that a circle where everyone speaks was the traditional way, and survives in healing circles and funeral and religious observances. In a work setting or in management, it is a renewal or a revival of older ways, she says.

"That's what I liked about Bob Chadwick," says John Smith. "He put everybody in a circle and tried to go back to the way a lot of our people used to meet, where you all take turns in talking, so one person isn't dominant.

"Our people were being called into big longhouses or buildings, and they were set up like non-Indians would set them up. Most of our traditional people were there, but they weren't able to structure, because we had superintendents who were non-Indians running those, and we tried to look like white people instead of Indians. Unless you went to a powwow or something like that you didn't experience the circles."

"If you go a couple of generations before me, the circle was very much how they did business. They listened to each other before they made decisions, and they didn't make quick decisions. They took their time up front so they made good decisions."

Myra Clark says, "the Keller community was really divided on the issue of whether to reopen a tavern in town--having to do with property rights, people's right to have an income, and people's right to have a choice whether or not to drink if they're of age, and also community concern about people who drink too much, and the accidents, and the deaths--so there were a lot of real emotional and strong feelings there. Because of those, people weren't really talking to each other. They were talking at each other but not to each other, and with each other."

"We had a little more than seventy people. The night before, they'd called in the police. They really expected violence."

The process consists in part of empathetic listening, of putting aside interpretation, criticism, and thoughts of reply in order to really hear what others are saying. Compromise, negotiation, or mediation are not the result, but new ideas and perspectives are. According to Chadwick, learning to listen is necessary for trust and learning.

Myra Clark says, "People were understanding each other's viewpoints by the end of the evening; they were all talking to each other. People who came in really angry and ready to fight were shaking each other's hands when they left. The outcome was that they did not reopen the tavern."

Dave Tonasket noted that "the ripple effect from that one stone thrown in the pond at Keller spread across the reservation."

Abrahamson says, "The consensus process, the circle and all of that, brings people together on equal terms. It brings them together beyond job titles, beyond expertise, beyond educational levels. It promotes listening with respect to all the different perspectives that are shared. It promotes learning and teaching one another. If we can continue to do that, and continue to build trust, then the creativity and everything is right here, within our own people, to take care of things for ourselves, to build sustainability, to build a future for our young people and for our children that are yet to come."

Without the consensus training, several people noted, the development of a genuine holistic goal for the entire Tribe would not have been possible. "We went into communities and did what we call visioning sessions," says Abrahamson. "We decided that the starting point would be with our elders--that being appropriate within our culture. We went first to the senior meal sites and had meetings with our elders and asked them a series of questions. Then we went to the community at large and met with the adult population. Then we went to the schools."

Meetings were also held in Spokane and Seattle to get input from off-reservation tribal members. Among the questions asked: What is the situation now and how do you feel about it? What would be the worst outcome of change? What are the best outcomes of change? What would the land and life be like if you could have it any way you wanted for your kids and grandkids?

Abrahamson says, "Some of the most creative ideas came from young people. Some of our most creative ideas came from elders. We listened to them--that was the key."

"All of this information that we gathered, we compiled. We made a strong effort to record it in a way that represented what the people had to say. In some cases we recorded it word for word, if we could write fast enough. We made a real effort to make sure that we were getting their perspective and we weren't putting our interpretation on their perspective--by paraphrasing or abbreviating what they said."

"The holistic goal that the Tribe is using now was derived from all that information we collected from people. That was the guiding tool that we used to honor and respect the information that people shared with us--because a lot of it came from their heart."

"Sometimes I wondered if I really believed in my people or if this is just an idea. Sometimes it would have been easier just to do some things myself--make decisions, write goals and objectives without going out and having to gather a lot of input. Some of the input that came in conflicted with what I thought we should be doing," Abrahamson says. "But then a lot of it enhanced my thinking. I learned a lot from listening to people, realizing that there are a lot of good ideas out there."

Once they had a holistic goal, the Colvilles compared 250 tribal policies and programs to it. They found that 75 percent were dealing with symptoms rather than causes. The Tribe is now in the process of turning its 1200 employees and $200 million budget toward the common vision. Expenditures are judged according to how effectively they create progress toward this vision. Goebel contrasts this approach with conventional budgeting, in which money is allocated to multiple and conflicting goals.

In spite of federal cuts, the Tribe will have record profit this year because of this goal-oriented financial planning. Tribal administrator Diana White notes that departments are excited about putting dollars where they think they'll do the most good. She also sees holistic management as a way to avoid being pressured into things that aren't good for the whole. This year the budget was passed well before the end of the Tribe's fiscal year, signifying an unusual agreement about the direction the Tribe is taking.

Previously competing departments of tribal government are now beginning to work together. Natural Resources director Tony Atkins says that through the holistic and consensus processes, "we're going to be one Tribe, where everybody functions as one unit, not as a series of programs and departments."

Several people noted that the holistic approach will lead to a more critical review of outside funding and incentives. From the 1970s on, grant writers greatly increased the amount of outside funding available to the Tribe, often in accordance with the priorities of funders and with little reference to specific local needs or goals.

The holistic goal is also driving a reservation-wide natural resources plan. "We've got libraries full of plans that nobody has ownership in," says Dave Tonasket. "Our reservation-wide plan is open-ended. We're going to continue to involve the membership."

"I don't expect everyone to buy into it," says Mathew Dick of holistic management. "I expect the majority of tribal members to at least go along with it for the first few years to find out what it's going to do for the Tribe. I think after they see how this process is going to work and see the similarities on how they heard their parents talk about how things ran a long time ago, that they're really going to begin using it, not only within our tribal public structure but within the family structure, too."

"That's something that we've been trying to find ways to do, is to reinstill those old values, those family values that we had a long time ago. They've been deteriorating for a long time because of the competitiveness of how people have to be. We've lost those strong family values that we had a long time ago. Through this process, I see us having an avenue to return to that if we want to use it."

"Maintaining the traditions that we have is part of the holistic goal. We view that as important because of the hardships that our ancestors went through to be able to bring that down to us. Probably the most important thing to us as native to this land is our identity, of maintaining that tie with our past."

John Smith says, "There is no doubt in my mind that the holistic approach is a good way to maintain our cultural identity. The way we were managing before, when we didn't listen to people like my mother or other full-bloods because they didn't have high school educations or college, was leading us right down the road that everybody else was going, trying to believe that science had all the answers. Well, science has got us where we're at today, and we're in a lot of trouble in a lot of areas. A lot of our elders have a lot of wisdom and we need to be able to use that with the good science. That's what the holistic approach can do. I think we've come a long ways."

Says Mathew Dick, "Holistic management is getting all the people involved. That's the way our chiefs did it a long time ago. Before they went anyplace, or made any decisions, they went and talked to all the people. That's what holistic management does, it involves everybody. Any representative government should do that."

This diverse and often divided confederation has defined a comprehensive, inclusive, but single destination. Says Lois Trevino, "We are changing from a system for failure to a system for success."


See also Jeff Goebel's thesis on this subject (about 1.3 megabytes in pdf form).