I believe in sovereignty through service. During the past thirty years I have lived on or near the Navajo Nation and during that time I have been active in American Indian education as a principal, director, and most recently co-founder of community schools based in the concept of Indian self-determination. This experience has taught me that true sovereignty- the ability to speak and act with moral authority about a place and its people – is not in the hands of governments: it is in the hands of each of us who care for the land and people and acts on that caring.
This I learned from years of watching many Navajo youth grow up and be educated only to wish they could move away from the reservation… away from their communities… because they felt disconnected from the workings of their community. They didn’t feel they had any personal power to do anything to improve things. To counteract this, our school established a program to provide service to the elders in the community. With the help of teachers, students cut firewood for them, cleaned around their houses, hauled water for them. Noticing the tears of joy in the eyes of the elders when this help occurred, students began to care about their community. They wanted to help more, they sought to understand how the governments could do a better job of helping these elders. We also involved the students in efforts to heal the desert surrounding the school, that had been over grazed for many years, by planting native plants, shade trees, and fruit trees. As the elders and the environment responded to our caring and our action many of us, students, educators, and parents began to feel the urge to speak to leaders in the community about our concerns and dreams for the community and how we wanted to be part of the solution. We developed our sense of sovereignty through our service.
I believe that this same approach works on a national and international level. The communities in our country that are the most vibrant are those in which enough of the people living there act on their caring and concern for the land and the people. They serve the common good. And through this service they develop a voice with passion and authority about what is needed in their community; they develop true sovereignty, whether it is acknowledged by the legal system or not. I believe that our nation’s efforts in Iraq could have been much more successful after the occupation if our government’s policies had focused more on our providing service to the land and the people- providing reliable electricity and water, helping people find jobs, and getting the youth involved in helping their communities. Indeed, I believe the future of Iraq depends upon the Iraqis who serve the common good in spite of the danger. We develop our voice to lead people by showing how we care through our actions.
The beauty of sovereignty through service is that it can start with just a simple gesture, it can start with the youth, and it can expand to empower everyone. This I believe.
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