Organizational structure refers to the arrangement of authority, rights and responsibilities of an organization, all of which are directed toward the pursuit and achievement of its goals. It specifies rules, procedures and operations, and determines who the decision makers are. In Indian Country, the examples of governance and organizational structures are as diverse as the people themselves.

“Indian Country has grown through its own resourcefulness, driven by survival and adjustment,” says Blue Stone Strategy Group advisor W. Ron Allen, Chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe. With four decades of experience in Tribal governance and administration, Chairman Allen is committed to empowering the next generation of leaders.

He points out that Tribes and organizations that seek stable leadership and operational structure are primarily driven by the need to advance business in the interests of citizens or constituents. “Sometimes the need to revisit is based on challenges to the direction or needs of an organization. If there isn’t a clear structure, policy and process, then it can become dysfunctional,” says Chairman Allen.

Tribes and organizations that have discarded paternalistic influences often discover that modernization and positioning itself to become self-reliant has its own challenges. Handling both self-administration and self-governance is a tough, but necessary, task. Questions and doubts may rise. Is the Tribe a good candidate for a structural update? How can the organization resolve competing interests? Will the updated structure align with cultural values and priorities, yet enhance the Tribe’s opportunity for a diverse economic foundation?

Our Blue Stone management team has positioned itself with a wide range of talent, expertise and experience to collaborate with an organization at each phase of its life, whether it’s a new or existing entity. We have assisted with the conceptualization, formalization and initiation of operations of an existing and new organization. We provide an objective review of the current state of enterprises, services, programs and resources to help identify opportunities and areas for improvement. That exercise provides a solid base from which to develop an actionable strategic plan. Blue Stone can leverage our national network of subject matter experts to help connect and market organizations poised for growth. By creating a sound structure framework for development and economic growth, an organization can position itself to address social and community priorities.

Our core team of experienced leaders makes us especially equipped to meet the real challenges of updating today’s Tribal governments and organizations.

Tim Keller came to Blue Stone five years ago with a background in corporate organization. Experienced in academia and the corporate sector, Keller has great respect for the Blue Stone’s traditional, best-cultural-practices approach, he says. “It’s the best of both worlds.”

Updating organizational structure is essential, says Keller, given the tremendous growth in Indian Country in recent decades. “The scale of Tribal governance has increased tenfold in the last 30 years. Whenever scale increases, you have to have a more thoughtful governance structure.”

He suggests Tribes have three main challenges with respect to their organization: First, current structures are usually outdated, a reflection of a BIA or federal influence that was imposed on them when they become self-governing.

“Their original ways of governance is often diluted with outsider notions of how government should run,” notes Keller.

Secondly, governments all across America (including Tribes) are behind on updating their structures. Finally, governance structure always evolves as a reflection of competing interests with a Tribe. The idea, says Keller, is that a thoughtful update should help resolve those competing interests.

Senior Strategist Jackie Old Coyote has deep roots in education and policy. A citizen of the Apsaalooke (Crow) Nation, she once served as the Director of Education and Outreach for the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development. Research from this project highlighted the importance of capable institutions in rebuilding economically and culturally strong Tribal societies.

Outdated Tribal structures that do not prioritize maintaining community and culture struggle for a reason, suggests Ms. Old Coyote.

“Sometimes the institutions are built to protect positions rather than promote people into their highest capacities,” she says. “Blue Stone builds this knowledge of Tribal systems into the work we perform for clients.”

Preparing for the future is a big-picture strategy. According to Chairman Allen, strengthening Tribal legal and organizational systems is a duty of leaders who “walk the walk” toward strong, sustainable self-governance and self-reliance.

“Leaders understand how to take responsibility for the trust of those who put them in charge,” he says. “Success breeds higher expectations. You might find people who express appreciation for what their Tribe is doing … they’re out there. But the majority of our people are folks surviving each day, concerned about their kids or elders. They wonder what the Tribe is going to do next, or better.”

“That’s the strength of Blue Stone,” says Ms. Old Coyote. “We take the traditional approach and blend expertise from our teams to provide a more global picture, specific to Indian Country. We try to build a system that reflects the Tribe’s vision.”

The Takeaway
• If an organization has no clear structure, policy or process, then it can become disorganized and dysfunctional.
• The process of modernizing Tribal or organizational governance structures has its own inherent challenges.
• Blue Stone’s management team is able to collaborate with an organization at each phase of its life, whether it’s a new or existing entity.
• An objective review of organizations, enterprises, services, programs and resources helps to identify opportunities and areas for improvement.
• Strengthening Tribal and organizational systems is an investment in sustainable self-governance.