A university founded on tribal lands with a history of injustice against Native Americans is now finding ways to account for that past.
Tadd Johnson was the face of that work. Johnson, a member of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, was the University of Minnesota’s first senior director of tribal relations and became the first native member of the Board of Regents this year.
Years before becoming senior director of tribal relations in 2019, Johnson worked to address the Indigenous community’s mistrust of the university. By taking on that role, the university and the tribes began to meet regularly, at least three times a year — something that hadn’t happened in U.S. history, Johnson said.
According to the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, the history between the university and the tribal nations is complex and riddled with instances of inequality and injustice.
Johnson, who has worked with both the business council and the university, said the university’s founding is a major contributor to the Indigenous community’s mistrust of the university today.
In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, which seized large sums of Native land and turned it into college and university grants. The land grant granted the University of Minnesota 94,631 acres of land in 1868, which: belonged to the Dakota and Ojibwe tribes.
Given that history and deep mistrust, the tribes and the university had no formal relations with the government of President Joan Gabel. Instead, it was tribal consultation, which didn’t involve regular meetings, Johnson said.
Regent Darrin Rosha of the University of Minnesota said Johnson has been instrumental in further developing the relationship between the university and the tribes of Minnesota. “A lot of progress has been made, which has helped foster those dialogues between the university and the tribes of Minnesota,” he said.
Johnson was previously a faculty member at the University of Minnesota Duluth, where he created courses for a master’s program in tribal administration and governance. He also led Tribal-State Relations Trainingwhich became mandatory for all employees of Minnesota’s state agencies.
In his role as senior director for tribal relations, he started conversations and building relationships with the tribal nations.
He also facilitated discussions with the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, which includes the 11 tribes of Minnesota. He took the lead on the council and worked to improve trust by getting the university to acknowledge past wrongdoing, with hopes of reconciliation in the future.
First tribesman regent
In mid-July, Governor Tim Walz appointed Johnson to the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents. Johnson is the first tribesman to serve on the board, but is not the first Native American to be considered for the role.
In January 2021, D. Brandon Alkireca lawyer and citizen of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation, was recommended by the Regent Candidate Advisory Council, along with two other St. Paul residents to represent the Fourth Congressional District on the board. In March 2021, the Minnesota State Legislature voted to elect four new regents, and Alkire was not one of them.
Johnson’s appointment came after representatives of the University of Minnesota Morris student union drafted a letter requesting Walz to nominate a tribesman from the 8th congressional district. In the petitionthe association mentioned the need for tribal input in appointing a regent, especially since the 8th district covers large areas of tribal land.
The Minnesota Student Association on the Twin Cities campus has co-signed the petition. The Minnesota Indian Affairs Council also advocated for his appointment through a solution Sent to Walz nearly two years ago after the death of former regent Kao Ly Ilean Her.
In the resolution, the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council pointed out that Minnesota’s tribal nations are the only historically underrepresented group in Minnesota that has never been represented on the Board of Regents, calling it “a historic injustice” that “should have been a long time coming.”
The resolution also noted that having a tribal regent would help the university build relationships with the tribes, which was a previously stated goal of Gabel.
“Tadd Johnson’s appointment is, I think, one of the biggest advancements that have come out of (business council) resolutions,” said Shannon Geshick, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council. “And that was really a recommendation from the elected tribal leaders.”
In addition to the resolution, the council sent a letter to the university in July 2020 with a list of barriers to strengthening their relationship.
The letter cited the need to recognize injustice. Among the injustices cited were the medical school experiments on children in the Red Lake Nation in the 1950s, attempts by the university to replicate the DNA of wild rice without the intervention of tribal governments, and the university’s use of Fond Du Lac land at the Cloquet Forestry Center.
The letter also pointed to the university’s failure to teach about tribal economies and their history as a land grant institution, in addition to a historical lack of effort to meet with the tribal nations.
Johnson took those items and brought them to Gabel’s attention. That year, he and Gabel met with the tribes several times to work on the list from the letter.
Johnson is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Law School. He was also the director of graduate studies for the American Indian Studies department while on the faculty at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.
His work on opening a dialogue between tribal lands and the university includes the TRUTH projectin which the university, in conjunction with the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, examines several historical facts, such as the financial loss of tribes through land grabs. Many of the problems that had not been explored or addressed in the past.
“We’ve uncovered a lot of very tragic things that have happened in Minnesota history and the inner relationships between the university and the tribes,” Johnson said.
The project findings are expected to be shared in the fall, Geshick said.
Due to Johnson’s role, the university has made some progress in inter-tribal relations. One is recognition and the promise to repatriate objects from a collection of Mimbres-affiliated cultural artifacts, something the Indian Affairs Council has long demanded, Geshick said.
“We know he will advocate for tribes in the best way because he showed it. He’s proven that over the years,” Geshick said. “We trust Tadd; the tribes trust Tadd. He has proven that he has the best intentions. So we are in good hands.”
His relationship with the tribes and the university is a unique perspective that the administration has not had before.
“He has a great history between the university and the Native American tribes in Minnesota, which I think is a very valuable part of his service on the administration,” Rosha said.
Johnson was a tribal attorney for over 30 years and also served as a tribal court and a tribal administrator.
He spent five years with the U.S. House of Representatives and became a staff director and advisor to the Subcommittee on Native American Affairs. In 1997, President Clinton appointed him chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission.
“With a background in leadership, education, and a deep understanding of government at all levels, he (Johnson) brings a wealth of higher education expertise to this group,” said Walz upon being appointed to the Board of Directors. regents.
What’s to come?
On the same day of his appointment, Johnson attended the Red Wing board’s annual retreat. While there, he met the rest of the regents and got a sense of some dynamism.
Since he is now regent, he will maintain his relations with the tribes and the university, but he will now do so a few steps away.
“As a regent, I have to create distance between myself and the university. So I do,” he said.
He also cannot continue teaching professional courses on tribal state relations, but would like to volunteer in that field.
While his presence on the board means a lot to many Indigenous people, he wants it to be clear that he wants the best for all university students, not just Indigenous students.
“I want to do an excellent job as regent and make sure that students at the University of Minnesota get the best education possible. That’s my main goal,” he said. “I hope I can keep up with the other regents, and I’m confident I’ll be in other jobs I’ve taken during my lifetime, whether it’s Congressional Staff Director or a small federal agency, on one occasion or another, and I hope to do so this time.”
Geshick thinks his position on the board will make a huge difference.
“Just having Tadd at the table reminds us not to forget the indigenous people, and not to forget us. Because we are often invisible, we make up the smallest percentage of the population,” she said. “Just that presence is (something) that I know will have an impact.”