The leadership of Ross O. Swimmer, 1975-1985 : a case study of a modern Cherokee principal chief



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The following study examined leadership characteristics of a modern leader of the Cherokee Nation, Ross O. Swimmer, during his three elections as Principal Chief, 1975-1985. Few Western scholars paid attention to the Cherokee Tribe after the break-up of institutions legislated by the federal Indian policy of Allotment. The position of the government was, the Cherokee Tribe no longer existed. For almost seventy years, no form of Cherokee leadership was visible; no Cherokee government existed. Federal Indian policy changed again, allowing tribes to elect their own leaders. This study began filling in gaps of missing information on modern Cherokee leadership by examining Swimmer’s leadership characteristics. The study attempted to add to the body of leadership knowledge by mining minds and memories, searching for the meaning of leadership from a modern Cherokee perspective. The three questions guiding the study were: what were the leadership characteristics of Principal Chief Ross O. Swimmer; to what extent did these leadership characteristics reflect traditional Cherokee leadership characteristics; and from a tribal perspective, did these make a difference, and to what extent? The data indicate seven Swimmer leadership characteristics: Visionary, Goal Oriented, Bureaucratic, Top-Down, Authoritarian, Delegator, and Communicator. There was inconsistency with Swimmer’s use of traditional leadership practices. Swimmer used a combination of traditional Cherokee, traditional Native American, and Anglo-European-American leadership characteristics during his three terms as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. Two possible explanations for Swimmer’s blending leadership characteristics from varying models were suggested. First, given his bi-cultural heritage, Swimmer could navigate back and forth between the mainstream White culture and the traditional Cherokee culture, to pick and choose various types of leadership characteristics. Second, adaptability has always been a unique characteristic of the Cherokee people. Cherokee leaders frequently applied the feature of borrowing from White culture in order to adapt and survive. Swimmer accomplished many of his goals for the Cherokee people and set the Nation on a path of growth and stability. His methods were not without criticism from traditional Cherokees. However, Swimmer built the foundation for a corporate government that instilled pride in the Cherokee people and provided opportunity for self-sufficiency.