Big change on the Colville Reservation

In eastern Washington, the Colville Confederated Tribes are facing the same problems 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 of us aren't aware of it. They are changing the way they make decisions.

Like most people and organizations, the Colvilles have been acting on expert opinion, problems and opportunities, multiple and conflicting goals, availability of funding, and compromise. After decades of forest and range management by outside experts, year-round springs and streams have been drying up, and traditional food and medicine plants have been disappearing.

Many Colvilles regard the decline in traditional languages, cultural identity, family values, and health as inseparable from the deterioration of 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, pressured by dissatisfaction among tribal members and led by a dedicated employee, the Tribe began moving from interdisciplinary to holistic management. Colville planner Dave Tonasket says, "Holistic management is a different way of making decisions. That's the big change--people are looking at wholes. Whatever they're managing, they're stepping back and seeing the big picture."

Holistic management was developed by Rhodesian wildlife biologist Allan Savory in response to the worldwide 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. In the 1990s it has become clear that it is a new decision-making model, one that integrates ecosystem and human values rather than isolating them or setting them in opposition.

All too often, the quality of life we desire is compromised by our means of producing it, as is our resource base. Major decisions at most levels and departments within the Tribe are now made according to 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 Colvilles recently compared 250 tribal policies and programs to their goal statement, and 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. Contrast this with conventional budgeting, in which money is allocated to multiple and conflicting goals.

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. Previously competing departments of tribal government are now working together.

These changes have not come without struggle. Because people habitually treat problems as goals, and act on opportunities, expert opinion, and peer pressure, training in the new approach has been and will continue to be crucial. It has taken years for forestry and other resource specialists to begin to see beyond the objectives of their disciplines. Another obstacle was the tendency for people to act on fear rather than hope. The Colvilles are now planning for, and beginning to get, clean water and profit and satisfied tribal members.

A critical step in empowering the membership was learning to listen with respect, to value everyone's ideas. A simple consensus process, in which people sit in a circle and take turns speaking, is often used for deliberative meetings.

Councilman and former tribal chairman Mathew Dick says, "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 decision-making model has been used by some ranchers and farmers for over a decade. The Colvilles are proving that there is a practical way for governments and large organizations to move beyond the management of crises, symptoms, and turf battles--a way to manage process rather than events, wholes rather than parts.

This diverse and often divided confederation has defined a comprehensive, inclusive, but single destination--in provisional terms--and is moving toward it. The new approach builds on existing human and natural assets, fosters creativity and hope, and is paying its own way. Says Trevino, "we are changing from a system for failure to a system for success."