Spring 2017
Photography by Brady Willette
Cover Story

Tribal leaders

Meet three American Indian U of M graduates who are determined to give back to their communities

Minnesota is home to 11 federally recognized American Indian tribes, so perhaps it’s not surprising that the University of Minnesota has the nation’s oldest program in American Indian studies. Established in 1969, it immerses students in native history, literature, music, politics, law, culture, and more.

But not everyone who wants to study the American Indian experience can afford to do so. Residents on many reservations are poor and lack the needed support to even consider college. 

Thanks to philanthropic support from the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC), that’s changing. Since 2008, the community has funded a scholarship for American Indians, allowing recipients like Vanessa Goodthunder, Darrell “Tiger” Brown Bull, and Chilah Brown to use their education to make life better for tribes across the Midwest.

As a child growing up on the Lower Sioux Indian Community reservation in southwestern Minnesota, Vanessa Goodthunder noticed something strange: A number of the students at her school were Native American, but none of the teachers were. “That always bothered me,” she says.

Each year, Vanessa Goodthunder takes part in the Dakota 38+2 ride to commemorate the hangings of 38 Dakota and two others that occurred on December 26, 1862. The ride also raises awareness of Dakota history and promotes healing. Hear Vanessa as a U of M freshman talk about the ride and about teaching youth about the Dakota culture.
Photography by Brady Willette

Last May, Goodthunder, now 23, graduated from the U of M with a bachelor’s degree in history and American Indian studies. She spent the spring co-teaching world history, human geography, and Latino and Chicano studies to ninth graders at Minneapolis’ Roosevelt High School, and recently began working on a master’s in education at the U. Ultimately, she hopes to teach the Dakota language and high school social studies in the Twin Cities or on the Lower Sioux reservation.

Goodthunder’s passion for education reflects her own experience. “Education really helped me thrive,” she says. When she arrived at the U in 2013, she found the pace and population of the Twin Cities campus overwhelming, but her parents encouraged her to persevere. “They said with education, I could grow myself to grow the community,” she says. 

Over time, with the help of the Circle of Indigenous Nations and other campus groups, Goodthunder found her voice. She also benefited from the SMSC Endowed Scholarship. “Having that scholarship was a huge financial burden lifted off my shoulders,” she says.

Goodthunder’s passion for teaching is intertwined with her love of the Dakota language. Statewide, only five people who grew up speaking Dakota remain, but Goodthunder is part of a group of roughly 30 who have learned the language as an adult. 

She says she cares about keeping Dakota alive because it’s the language of her ancestors and embodies so much of her tribe’s identity and sovereignty. “It’s who we are and without it, we aren’t whole,” she says. 

Goodthunder calls her home Cansayapi, for example, which means “where they paint the trees red.” She believes vivid images and ideas get lost in translation: “Language always reflects a world view, geography, and place. It also tells us who we are and lets us communicate who we want to be.”

Darrell “Tiger” Brown Bull was leaving for law school when his phone rang. The caller informed him that he had been appointed executive director of the Oglala Sioux, a position that oversees 80 tribal government programs and requires the management of nearly 900 employees on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Brown Bull had applied for the position on a whim. “It was a shot in the dark,” he says. He was 29 years old. 

Since becoming executive director of the Oglala Sioux, Darrell “Tiger” Brown Bull has seen a decrease in the number of suicide deaths among young people. “Thankfully today, we’re not in an epidemic any more.”
Photography by Scott Streble

Brown Bull put his studies on hold and went to work, following in the footsteps of his great-grandfather, who served four terms as tribal chair in the 1940s. Brown Bull oversees programs that shape housing, health care, education, and other matters that affect the Oglala Sioux. 

His education helps him navigate policy and politics. After earning bachelor’s degrees in American Indian studies and psychology from the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD) in 2010, he stayed on to do a master’s in tribal administration and governance. The SMSC Endowed Scholarship helped fund his studies, which he completed in 2013. “My tribe didn’t have the resources to help me with my education,” he says. “I probably wouldn’t be where I am today without that scholarship.”

At Pine Ridge, Brown Bull is focusing on young people. Hoping to make an impact on the tribe’s future, he has installed roughly a dozen young adults in director positions. “I’ve taken some flak for that,” he says. 

“The older generation has pushed back, out of fear and because they’re set in their ways. But we have to make changes.” Brown Bull has also put significant resources into fighting teen suicide after an epidemic took hold on the reservation a few years ago.

“When I started, we had three to four suicides per week,” he says. “Ours is the second-poorest county in the country. There are a limited number of jobs and lots of challenges with substance abuse. But we’ve made headway—there hasn’t been a completed suicide for a long time.”

Brown Bull plans to return to school one day to study federal Indian law. “Ultimately, I want to help our community in any way I can,” he says.

Political caucus meetings in Minnesota can be long and tedious affairs, but in the spring of 2016, Chilah Brown decided to attend the one in her district. Brown, 39, was born in Oklahoma, but now lives in Isle, a small town on the southeastern corner of Lake Mille Lacs. She is a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.

Chilah Brown continues to advocate for issues such as water quality, the environment, and education.  “My gift is my voice,” she says. “I can’t sit quiet any longer.”
Photography by Scott Streble

Brown was curious about the political process. “I wanted to hear what people had to say,” she recalls. “I was just going to be a fly on the wall.” 

She was surprised to learn that one of the candidates running to represent her district in the Minnesota Senate intended to challenge tribal treaty rights. Brown voiced concerns and suddenly found herself nominated to attend the DFL’s District 15 convention. She was even more surprised when nearly 100 DFLers assembled at Milaca High School and named her as their candidate for State Senate. Both humbled and amused, Brown told the crowd, “I look forward to knocking on your doors and hugging your children over the summer!”


In 2008, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC) created an endowed scholarship for U of M students. Designed to recruit and retain talented American Indians, the scholarship has helped more than 200 learners from various tribes get the education they need to advance their careers. Recently, SMSC gave an additional $500,000 to support the fund.

 “We know there isn’t a lack of talent in Indian country, just a lack of opportunity to access education because it’s expensive,” says Rebecca Stratton, an SMSC community member who was appointed to the U of M committee that awards the scholarships. “Our goal is to improve access to quality education.”

The scholarship is given to undergraduate students as well as newly admitted graduate and professional students in specific disciplines. 

A major supporter of the U, SMSC also has provided funding for a Native American nutrition initiative and TCF Bank Stadium and the adjoining Tribal Nations Plaza. 

Among the issues Brown promoted in her campaign was education—in part, because she knows the transformative power of learning. A high-school dropout, she eventually got a GED and landed a job dealing blackjack at Mystic Lake Casino. The job was good, but Brown often found herself unable to converse with players at her table. “I was 24 and realized I didn’t know how to do anything except count to 21,” she recalls. 

Determined to change her course, Brown enrolled at Haskell Indian Nations University in Kansas and became the first person in her family to earn a bachelor’s degree. The degree helped her land a job in tribal government and, in 2014, aided by the SMSC Endowed Scholarship, she went on to pursue a master’s in tribal administration and governance at UMD.

Brown ultimately lost her Senate bid, but during her run, connected with state representative Peggy Flanagan and other Native American politicians. Although she isn’t sure what lies ahead, she remains interested in government and policy. “We need more people with an understanding of tribal issues to get involved in politics,” she says.

Joel Hoekstra is a Minneapolis freelance writer.