September 7, 2009

The AIO Ambassadors Program:

Filed under: Dialoguing — Editor @ 8:04 pm

The AIO Ambassadors Program:

Nurturing Leadership, Building a Network for Indian Country and the Indigenous World

Stephen M. Sachs. IUPUI,

The Americans for Indian Opportunity (AI0) Ambassadors Program has operated since 1993 as an educational undertaking of broad importance for American Indians, with implications and benefits for Indigenous people around the world. AIO’s two year Ambassadors leadership nurturing program is equivalent to an applied Masters degree program, but without the academic entrance requirements for a standard Masters. It was launched to help young Native community leaders increase their inner strength to enhance the development of their own leadership styles through experiences that reconcile their traditional Indigenous values with contemporary global reality, with an eye for moving effectively into the future.1 At the core of the Ambassadors program is interactive education with the four widely held Indigenous values: relationships, responsibility, reciprocity, redistribution, These are discussed as living traditional principles applied to guide contemporary life. Ambassadors are selected on the basis of a track record of giving back to their community, having the potential to grow from their experience in the program, and having demonstrated leadership qualities.

Ambassador Community Projects

One aspect of the program is that each participant develops a project designed to help their community. Recent examples include Michelle Anderson’s research to address the issue of personal violence committed against Native women living in the Ahtma region of Alaska. Following that Ambassadors project, Anderson (Athabascan), while continuing her work at the Denali Commission representing the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, created a website on the 33 Alaska Native regional non-profits, at:, as part of her Masters in of Fine Arts in Rural Development project at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Darius Smith developed a financial literacy curriculum combining Native beliefs and values with successful economic principles. Lisa Brown undertook a project to preserve six Chickasaw burial sites in Oklahoma; and Judy Winchester worked with Western Michigan University and a series of Pokagan Band of Potawatomi town meetings to institute a half way house for tribal members to live in after completing substance abuse treatment programs. Miranda Belarde-Lewis (Zuni/Tlingit) evaluated the arrangements of museums that loan items from their permanent collections to Native groups for use in ceremonies, developing policy guidelines for other tribes and museums interested in entering into similar agreements. Joshua Brown (Salish/A’aninin), a language teacher, created a program with tribal communities to produce a critical pool of effective teachers of the Salish and Kootenai languagues. Chrissie Michelle Castro (Dine) as the organizing coordinator of the American Indian Children’s Council, in Los Angeles, CA, established a Native studies curriculum within the Los Angeles public school system to reduce the high Native student droop out rate, and improve academic performance. Marcy Hawpetoss (Menominee) took “a creative approach to reclaiming traditional Menominee traditional governance,” by researching the historical perspective on Menominee tribal governance, to develop a community play that would increase awareness of traditional elements of governance. Dustina Gill (Sisseton Wapeton Oyate), research assistant, Sisseton Wapeton Oyate Planning and Economic development Department and the University of Lincoln, NE Research Center, identified and prioritized Sisseton Wapeton Oyate needs and resources, as a basis for an evaluation of all tribal programs and entities. Nicole June Maher (Tlingit), Executive Director, Native American Youth and Family Center, in Portland, OR, created a regular meeting among leaders of American Indian and Alaska Native Organizations in the Portland metropolitan area, so they could have safe and productive conversations about how to work collectively and unite to best serve their community.

Other examples2 are Shawna Shandiin Sunrise, who, as a result of a UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues fellowship to the World Summit on the Information society, in Geneva, Switzerland, joined in developing a global indigenous media group, Indigenous Reporters Without Borders, reporting on what is important in their local indigenous communities and the positive news that impacts their local and global communities via their new web site:; while Teresa Peterson, Emmett “Skeme” Garcia and Missy Sanchez joined the Emergence Production Team, organizing a cultural youth exchange in partnership with the Acoma Boys and Girls Club sending 12 students from Acoma Pueblo, in New Mexico to Granite Falls, MN to meet with 12 students from the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe. Linda Ogo’s (Yavapai) AIO Ambassador’s community initiative of creating a Junior Board of Directors across her nation’s three communities, later expanded into a one year Yavapai Ambassador’s program for people of Yavapai ancestry, 15-20, throughout Arizona, with the inaugural class participating in UNITY in San Diego, and the World Indigenous Peoples Conference on Education (WIPCE) meeting in New Zealand.

Participatory Learning

Each Ambassador’s class usually undergoes a crash course on the inner workings of the policy making process of the U.S. government, with a week in Washington, DC, embarking on meetings with U.S. Senators and Representatives, the White House, and an embassy. AIO Executive Director Laura Harris states, “It is important for Tribal America to maintain its political and cultural autonomy within the federal system.” “That’s why Native Americans seeking to advance the well-being of their communities need a thorough understanding of the special relationship with the U.S. Government and how one specifically goes about influencing national and international policy.” The work in the nation’s capital focuses on learning the ins and outs of Washington culture – from how to effectively lobby representatives, to how to utilize the city’s resources. This part of the program emphasizes developing practical skills through hands on experience, by interacting with a range of policy makers, spanning numerous government sectors, including those dealing with international affairs.

In spring 2008, the participants also undertook a journey to New York City to visit with the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, and interact with the many Indigenous participants. This followed sessions in Washington, DC aimed at building a better understanding of the international dynamics of Indigenous rights, encompassing Ambassadors addressing the topic with relevant officials at the U.S. Department of State, and representatives at the Embassy of New Zealand, a country then in an election year with a large population of Indigenous peoples. Other Ambassador events have been an Intertribal gathering in Hawaii, and a meeting with Merrill Lynch in New York, as part of a broader effort to increase the number of Native Americans working on Wall Street.3 An important aspect of the program has been actively involving Ambassadors in AIO’s current projects, boosting AIO’s thinking and impact, while increasing the Ambassador’s practical knowledge, skills, confidence and teamwork capacity.

Developing a Sense of Identity and Relatedness

In the course of the work, the Ambassadors Program also facilitates participants developing a sense of identity. It is critically important for people to know who they are, how they relate to their tribal cultures, to the larger society, and the world as a whole, if they are to be internally balanced and externally effective. Development of a sense of identity and relatedness is often particularly important for Native people, who’s cultures have been denigrated by much of the larger society and its institutions, often causing them to feel caught between two worlds. The Ambassador experience works to instill the understanding that there is one world, with many interrelated contexts and ways of seeing and acting, through which one can move confidently, centered in their own cultural roots, respectfully sensing their relationship to all others. An aspect of enhancing identity with relatedness is increasing Ambassadors’ ability to join in inclusive participatory decision making. This is undertaken particularly with the Indigenous Leaders Interactive System (ILIS). ILIS is a participatory consensus decision making, strategic planning system designed for working with complex issues, in culturally appropriate ways for Indigenous people.4

ILIS is the primary format for discussion of important issues by the Ambassadors, and by AIO. It has the advantage of drawing all the participants into the process, consistently with traditional participatory values of mutual respect, honoring everyone’s contributions and concerns, to relatively rapidly develop broad and deep understanding of issues. The result is that the strategic planning system produces high quality decisions and courses of action, appropriately including the interests of all concerned in an integrated manner. This instills a holistic approach to issues, broadening the thinking and enhancing the confidence of the participants, while expanding attitudes of respect and understanding of others, in the course of building a collective esprit de corps. Thus ILIS increases the ability of participants to approach issues in a constructive, creative, broad, problem solving way, dealing well with all those involved, to facilitate developing appropriate action, encompassing all aspects of a situation and the concerns of everyone effected by it. Janeen Comenote (Quinault/Hesquiaht/Kwakuitl/Oglala) Ambassadors Class of 1999, has commented, “I believe that my story illustrates the type of deep development and advocacy for both personal leadership and institution building that AIO has come to represent in Indian Country. It’s my opinion that if you look at many of the innovative programs and initiatives in Indian Country, that you will find an AIO Ambassador behind it.”5

Building an Inclusive Circle: The Ongoing Network of Ambassador Alumni

Ambassador alumni, who are now working in nearly every major national Indian organization and every federal agency with significant Native American activity, remain in the Ambassador network, helping AIO in decision making, and providing information and ideas for Indian country, generally. The network was formalized in 2006, with the formation of the Ambassadors Alliance. At the end of 2008, the network consisted of 187 participating members. Through the network the Ambassadors remain continually in touch with each other, with AIO, and with their tribes and organizations, providing a sharing of information on arising developments and concerns, and an interchange of ideas on what needs to be done, and how best to approach critical issues.

Most Ambassadors have gone on to make considerable contributions to Indian country. Recent projects of Ambassador alumni include: Madona Yawakee (Turtle mountain Chippewa) serving as President and CEO of Turtle Island Communications, Inc., providing telecommunications, engineering and technical consulting services to tribal governments and organizations (, for which she was one of six women honored as rural leaders by Minnesota Futures in April, 2006. Ivan Posey (Eastern Shoshone), has served as chair of the Wind River Shoshone nation, and was appointed Wyoming’s first tribal Liaison between the state’s Indian tribes and state government. Elizabeth Woody (Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs/Wasco) has served on numerous boards and councils. Among them are Lewis and Clark College Graduate School of Education and Counseling Indigenous Ways of Knowing Project. She has been an advisor to the Ford Foundation’s feasibility study and the Evergreen College Native Arts Council, as well as directing the Buffet Award for Indigenous Leadership. Woody also founded the Northwest Indian Policy Center for the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians. Leroy H. Miranda, Jr. (Pala Band of Mission Indians) has served as Vice Chairman of his Nation and as Chairman of the Sherman Indian Boarding School, in Southern California, as well as an advisor to the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles. Jerod Tate (Chickasaw) has worked in the Office of Special Trustee at the U.S. Department of the Interior, in addition to helping Chickasaw youth compose their own music at the Chickasaw Summer Arts Academy.  Jamie Goins (Lumbee) has been involved with her tribe’s opening Boys and Girls Clubs and is on the tribal youth council, while Richard Blue Cloud Castaneda (Pima/Maricopa) has created an American Indian Youth Art Program in San Francisco. AIO 2006-07 Ambassador, Neolani Lee (Native Hawaiian) initiated development of Advancement of Hawaiian Opportunity (AHO) to work to improve conditions for Native Hawaiians.

Expanding the Ambassador Leadership Nurturing and Networking Model

to Encompass the World

The Ambassadors program includes an international component. The 2006-2007 class went to Bolivia to participate in an international Indigenous gathering focused on collaborating with Bolivian Indigenous groups to enhance their capacity to undertake their own development and improve their interactions with government and private organizations. Building upon Ambassador interchanges with Maori in New Zealand, in 2001, an AIO group held a meeting with Maori contacts in New Zealand, hosted by Wananga o Aotearoa, the largest Maori tertiary education institute, to share ideas for the formation of Advancement for Maori Opportunity (AMO).6 The assembled Maori found that they held the same core values as their American colleagues, as that general way of seeing is almost universal among Indigenous thinkers around the world.  AMO was established, and now runs its own Ambassadors program. AIO and AMO have since launched Advancement of Global Indigeneity (AGI) to: 1. Assist local Indigenous communities in maintaining cultural identity in the face of globalization; 2. Actively participate in the globalization process in order that Indigenous peoples can control how it effects them; 3. Influence policy and public opinion; 4. Contribute Indigenous wisdom, values and world view to the emerging world order. LaDonna Harris states, “These self-determined communities will be able to rely on a world wide network of Indigenous leaders who successfully weave their core cultural values into their decisions and institutions and who recognize that they have something unique and vital to share with the world.” “It is important to remember that although there is a great diversity among Indigenous communities, there is a strong, spiritual inter-connectedness that is key to our collective vision,”7


1. For more information on its Ambassadors program, contact AIO, 1001 Marquette, NW, Albuquerque NM 87102 (505)842-8677,, www.aio.og. The Ambassador’s alliance is at: Other sources on the Ambassadors program and its alumni can be found in issues of AIO’s newsletter, The Ambassador; Lillian Beams, “Americans for Indian Opportunity ambassadors meet,” News From Indian Country, Mid June, 1995, p. 17; and in AIO press release, “1984 University of New Mexico Graduate Takes Over The Helm of a Thirty-Two Year Legacy,” December 1, 2002. Reports of the AIO Ambassadors Program are in the “On Going Developments” column of Indigenous Policy, fall 2003, Spring 2004, Fall 2004 and Fall 2006. Some Ambassador observations here are the result author Stephen Sachs working with Americans for Indian Opportunity since 1990. See also, AIO, The American Indian Ambassadors Program, at:

2. “Ongoing Activities:” “U.S. Activities,” Indigenous Policy, Vol. XV, No, 2, Fall 2004; Vol. XVI, No, 2, Fall 2005, and Vol. XVIII, No. 1, spring 2007, For more information contact Americans for Indian Opportunity, 1001 Marquette Ave., NW, Albuquerque, NM 87102 (505)842-8658,,

3. “Ongoing Activities:” “U.S. Activities,” Indigenous Policy, Vo. XV, No, 2, Fall 2004.

4. See; LaDonna Harris, Stephen M. Sachs and Benjamine Broome, “Harmony Through Wisdom of the People: Recreating Traditional Ways of Building Consensus Among the Comanche,” American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 1, Winter 2001; and Benjamin J. Broome, “Collective Design of the Future: Structural Analysis of Tribal Vision Statements,” American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 2, 1995, pp. 205-228, ILIS was originally called Tribal Issues Management System (TIMS).


6. Information on AMO is available at:; and in the “On Going Developments” column of Indigenous Policy, fall 2003, Spring 2004, and Fall 2004, plus, Stephen M. Sachs, “Circling the Circles: Indigenous Movements Towards an Alternative Appropriate Globalization,” Indigenous Policy, Summer 2004, pp. 14-35. Since AIO and AMO collaborate regularly, and each has three of its members on the other organization’s board, reports of AMO are regularly found in AIO publications, as well as in the “On Going Developments” column of Indigenous Policy,.

7. Sachs, Ibid. The quotes are on p. 29. See also, Kenneth C. Bausch, Alexander N. Christakis, Diane S. Conway, LaDonna Harris, Laura Harris and Bentham Ohia, Designing A Transitional Indigenous Leaders Interaction in the Context of Globalization: A Wisdom of the People Forum (Co-Laboratory of Democracy), Final Report (Bernalillo, NM: Americans for Indian Opportunity in Collaboration with Institute for 21st Century Agoras and Advancement for Maori Opportunity, October 2002). Author Stephen Sachs was an observer/participant in the meeting. See, also, The Ambassador: Newsletter of the American Indian Ambassadors Program, Winter 2002, including. LaDonna Harris, “Letter from the President,” The Ambassador, Winter 2002, p. 2.


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