02 October 2006

Robert's Rules

The argument has been made before that the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act insidiously harmed and changed Alaska natives by making them act like white people. That is, making them shareholders in corporations, making their goal profit, and making them owners of private property. There are a number of ways in which I absolutely agree with this argument.

But I think the effect of ANCSA goes deeper than that. In my job as a news reporter, I cover a lot of board meetings. These meetings are governed generally by Robert’s Rules of Order and like any other setting, people who know the rules are generally the people who have the power. The problem is that Robert’s Rules are antithetical, in my experience, to the Inupiaq way of life.

Inupiaq, as I understand, make decisions by looking at the situation, listening to elders and others, and reaching a consensus. Robert’s Rules, by contrast, can seem like an intimidating system. You have to know that in order to get anything done, you need to make a motion. In order for that motion to be discussed, you need a second. When a motion is on the table, it can be discussed before a vote takes place. When “question” is called, that doesn’t mean discussion ends – it just means someone wants discussion to end but anyone can object to that. When the vote happens, anyone can assent, dissent, or abstain from the motion (the number of meetings I’ve been to where some people only say “aye” and nothing else for the entire meeting is literally innumerable).

(Of course, people of any race say only "aye" at meetings. Perhaps the problem isn't racial but with Robert's Rules and its difficulty to all people everywhere.)

Over the years, Alaska natives have been drawn into the process that makes decisions about their lives through various boards and committees. But if the presence on those boards is merely to assent to what is recommended to them, then how important and effective are those boards for giving Alaska natives a say in the important decisions that affect their traditional way of life?

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