"Our history as Western Shoshone is to work in consensus to build communities." Photo of Keith (left) with other Active Citizens trainers  ©

Rebecca Zylberman

Can people everywhere benefit from the same advice on how to develop strong local communities?

The British Council is working with the mining company Barrick Gold to run its Active Citizens programme with the Te-Moak tribe of Western Shoshone people of Nevada. Keith Honaker, a facilitator on the programme, explains the impact he’s seen it have.

I was born and partially raised on a reservation in Duckwater, Nevada. As a child, I lived my life in two cultures. I grew up speaking nothing but Shoshone, then learnt English at school. I had difficulties in school because of the language barrier as well as the cultural barrier, but I persevered. I trained first as an auto mechanic, and since then, you name it, I’ve done it: everything from being a cowboy driving cattle, to being a milkman. When eventually I became an assistant in a small school, I felt like I’d found my calling. I went back to college and majored in teaching. I spent several years teaching special needs education, working with hard-to-handle kids and adults, and then worked as a tribal schools administrator. Then a few years ago, I started consulting for Barrick Gold when they were looking for someone to facilitate their meetings with the Western Shoshone, of which I’m a tribal member, as part of their corporate social responsibility.

The Western Shoshone people have a rich history of self-sufficiency and self-reliance

A popular notion in Western movies is the romantic notion of a ‘noble savage’ on the plains. But our story is not so pretty. As our Creator, Coyote, told us ‘You may not be the most beautiful Indians that there are, but you’re going to be the toughest. You’re going to persevere and do well’. We are a tough people, and we live on a tough land, and we are still here.

My ancestors, the Shoshone, were nomadic hunter gatherers who lived in small family groups in the valleys and mountains of Nevada. It’s high desert, about 5,000 feet above sea level, and very arid and dry. It’s a hard place to eke out a living.  In the summer months they would hunt, trap fish, and gather roots and berries, moving from one place to another in the valleys. In the fall, they would move into the mountains and wait for the pinyon pines to come to maturity. They would roast the pine cones over coals and pop them open and store the pine nuts over the winter, with dried meats and berries. Families would build wooden structures on the lee side of the hill so the north wind wouldn’t blow into them, cover the cracks with mud and spend the winter up in the mountains.

Our tribe is not a chiefdom, and we were always ruled by consensus, not a chief. We would come together in the spring to make alliances, find husbands and wives for young adults, and catch up with family, get together, talk and socialise. Even though our language has been on the verge of dying out, a lot of cultural aspects of the Shoshone life have continued to this day – going into the mountains to hunt, getting together, picking pine nuts and sharing them.

Travelling outside the US for the first time to see Active Citizens in Uganda was fascinating

I got involved with Active Citizens after a colleague from Barrick Gold heard about the programme. He was looking for a sustainable community development model to work with in Nevada, where Barrick Gold mines gold, to address problems like mistrust between the tribal government, federal government and local people.  

What I saw and experienced was incredible.

At the last minute, I flew to Uganda to see some Active Citizens master facilitators’ training on Lake Victoria, near Entebbe. It was the first time I had been outside the US, and it was an eye opener.

When I arrived in Uganda, I was totally clueless and didn’t know what I was getting into. I was in a room full of Ugandans and Kenyans, all of whom had received training in the Active Citizens programme at some time in the past, and who were learning how to share their knowledge with other members of their communities.

Communities around the world often grapple with similar issues

Watching the interactions, I was stunned. The things people were talking about – mistrust, and the perception that government is corrupt and won’t listen to its constituency – were so similar to some of the issues we were dealing with in Nevada. We may not have the level of corruption in tribal government that I was hearing about, but I was still very surprised with the similarities of the issues they were talking about.

I was also interested in the cultural similarities. In terms of values, belief systems, and perspectives on the world, the African tribal groups were similar to the tribal group that I’m part of. The problems they were describing, the hardships and obstacles in their paths, were often the same as those in our community.

By empowering people, you can create positive changes within a community

Among some of my people, there’s a cycle of poverty where they don’t see their lot being improved. Some see their governments as thieves and think their fair share isn’t getting down to them. The people I met in Uganda had gotten past that. They were very much taking control of their destiny; they understood there were certain things they could actually change within their communities. Rather than tenaciously hanging onto inaccurate assumptions, they were holding their assumptions about the world lightly.

Instead of waiting for the tribal and federal government to improve our communities, we can start to improve them on our own. It doesn’t have to be about money. People understand that they are the ones who are going to be doing the work and taking control through social and entrepreneurial action.

When we started the programme, we needed to let people know that Barrick Gold had no influence on the content of the Active Citizens programme, even though they were in partnership with the British Council. That was really important, because there are some factions within the Native American community where people think the company might be trying to manipulate the training or control it.

The Active Citizens training can be adapted to different communities’ needs

One of the projects that the community wanted to take further was ‘hoop houses’. These are simple green houses where people can grow fruit and vegetables. The local people taking part in the Active Citizens training learnt how to take this idea forward by getting advertising and financial support, and how to encourage other people in their community to get involved. Another project was an after-school activities programme to support youth education and teach skills like how to interview for a job.

Taking part in the programme was like someone turning on a light and saying: you don’t have to wait for local state or federal government to be the panacea that’s going to solve your ill. All you need to do is get together and work as a group.

If you’re working with people in a tribal community, speaking the language shows and brings respect

People of my generation, in their 50s, are typically the last speakers who are still fluent in our language. There are some young people who speak it, if both their parents speak it at home, but that’s not the norm.  Those who can speak the language don’t speak it out of embarrassment, because they have been conditioned not to.

A lot of parents were told not to speak to their children in Shoshone because they were told by the powers that be that if their children spoke Shoshone, they wouldn’t speak good English and wouldn’t succeed. When I was a child, you were punished for speaking the language at school. Now we know from the research that it doesn’t help your academic success at all if you don’t speak your native language too – in fact, it hinders. But sadly, there is a whole generation of parents younger than me who weren’t brought up speaking Shoshone, so they don’t speak the language to their children. And their children are still struggling, because culturally and language-wise, the white experience is not their experience. Their cultural experience is that of being a Western Shoshone and a foreigner in their own land, so they don’t speak standard English, they speak their own version of English. But we are trying to revitalise the Shoshone language, through language programmes and a big language conference this year with the Comanche. Barrick Gold supports a number of these programmes too. We just have to accept the fact that we live in a dual culture.

The language binds us together in a sense. So whenever I have the chance to speak it, I do.

During the training, whenever I could, I spoke in our native language. That gave me respect with the elders who were there in the programme, and with the younger adults who understood that our language is important and want to learn it.

The other outside facilitators would ask me how to say something in Shoshone. When they tried to use Shoshone and say words and phrases, people were like, ‘wow’. They loved it.

Working together is part of the Western Shoshone heritage

This programme is such a powerful thing to put into people’s hands, so they are not dependent on other groups for their wellbeing. Our history as Western Shoshone is to work in consensus to build  communities. Consensus for us always just meant like-minded people working together for each other’s collective benefit, which is what Active Citizens is about. I hope that the entrepreneurial component I saw in Uganda ultimately makes its way to tribal groups living in poverty in the US. If their eyes are opened, I think that it’s going to be even more powerful; we’ll see people striving to do things for their community.

The Active Citizens partnership between the British Council and Barrick Gold launched at the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting in New York.