July 20, 2020
Join us for a conversation with Lower Sioux Indian Community President Robert Larsen. President Larsen talks about the impact of COVID-19 on his tribal community and the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council. He also shares the legacy of leadership in his family, which inspired his own leadership journey. Our conversation covers that journey — and much more — in this episode of Indigenized Connections On Air.
- Jason Schlender, former Extension leadership and civic engagement educator
- Robert Larsen, Lower Sioux Indian Community, president; Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, chairman
- Learn more about the Lower Sioux Indian Community response to the COVID-19 Pandemic.
- Read about the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council.
- Dive more into leadership and civic engagement through resources on growing leaders and strengthening leadership.
Read this episode's conversation below.
Note: Our Indigenized Connections On Air episodes are audio-based interviews. Written transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before referencing content in print.
Jason Schlender: Welcome to Indigenized Connections On Air, a podcast brought to you by the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Community Vitality in the area of Leadership and Civic Engagement; and the Minnesota Indigenous Leadership Network, which explores the issues that impact tribal communities and leadership throughout Minnesota.
I'm your host, Jason Schlender, and I'm the American Indian Leadership and Civic Engagement educator. My guest today is from the Lower Sioux Indian Community. Previously, he has held different managerial positions within the tribal community. He has also served as vice-chairman of the tribe. He currently serves as chairman of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, and also as the chair of the Lower Sioux Indian community.
President Larsen is a homegrown talent with a powerful vision and passion for his people. Many would say he possesses an old soul with his characteristic patience and humility. He and his wife, Holly live in Redwood Falls, Minnesota with their children. In his spare time, he enjoys golfing, driving his Harley motorcycle and spending time with his kids and family. Today our topic is navigating change. Please welcome President Robert Larsen to the podcast.
Robert Larsen: [Spoken Dakota language] … the Minnesota Indian affairs council. Hello my relatives. Good afternoon. Good day, my Dakota name, which is [spoken Dakota language], which realistically takes over a day to get the real meaning of that name. But when I do my introductions, I shorten it up to loosely translate it. It's “rolling bull.” It's that super short version. You have a herd; you have that lead bull. When the storms come in, he gathers the herd and they huddle up, but that lead bull faces that storm. And when the storm is over and he sees the herd is okay, but he's kicking up dirt and wallowing, happy, celebrating. So that's loosely what my name means.
It comes from [Spoken Dakota language], which otherwise known as Lower Sioux Indian community in the State of Minnesota. [Spoken Dakota language] is our name for it. It's where they make the trees red. We’re in south central, southwest Minnesota. And I also have [served as] president there and I chair the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, which is comprised of and governed by the board, which is a leader from each the 11 communities, if they so choose to participate. Right now, we have 10 of the 11 that are always involved. Just like to thank you for the time; appreciate reaching out. I'll give you background on me. Robert Larsen is my English name, sorry. [Laughs]
This is my second term. As president, as a council member here at Lower Sioux, we do things a little different than others. We don't run for specific positions. We have staggered elections that every two years, there's an election of two people. And then the other three, we run for a general spot on council. And after that is determined, the five of us have a meeting and decide who's going to take what position. So this is actually my second time being president here in six years, seven years. The other two times I was vice president.
I'm also in my second term as the chair of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, which is also I guess, determined by the other chairs, the other tribal leaders in the state. So humbly, I accepted the positions. This isn't something I ever aspired to do. This wasn't something that was on my bucket list, to be a council member.
To me, this was always something that the old ones … a position for them, that leadership role. I remember growing up, my grandpa, my grandma and my uncles, my auntie and my dad … they were all council members. My aunts, I do come from the Wabasha line. So I'm eighth generation from Wabasha I. Our hereditary chief, Leonard Wabasha right now, is my dad's first cousin. So just a little background on that. Like I said, this wasn't something I ever set out to do, but as I was managing our convenience store here for a couple of years, seeing all the members come by, all our citizens, that some of them stopped in and said, “You should put your name in for the election, vetting for me, but they kept on asking ‘em. So finally, I just said, “If you want to make the nomination, sure, that'll never happen, but you can make the nomination.” And lo and behold, here we are. (laughs) Well, that's my journey.
Jason Schlender: Miigwich [Spoken Dakota language] Obviously, you know, for your story, sometimes it lets you think about those are our journey. It's always reassuring to be brought in by the people, obviously not a personal thing. As you've mentioned, like a bucket list. You know, it obviously speaks to, you know, kind of your family connection. Your family probably has contributed a lot to your community too, and also, a lot of those teachings, and then it's already ingrained in your own personal philosophy. So it's a great story. Now we're in these challenging times, with this recent COVID-19 pandemic. And so with these challenging times, what is important for tribal leaders to keep in mind? You know, right now.
Robert Larsen: I think one of the most important things during this pandemic to remember is that this is temporary. We will get through it. I think [for us in] our elected positions, our job is to look out for the needs, find out what the needs of our citizens are, how we can fulfill those needs, and then to go get it. I would say, that's why we're here. We're looking out for the best of all our community. This isn't [about] what do I want? That's not why we're here. We got elected by the people. So we need to listen to them. That's our job.
Now they're telling us what they need. Let's go find it for them. I mean, during this pandemic, that was one of the things that we did was we, we started our emergency operations center, so a 24-hour manned hotline, anything, any member needs, they call there. That's what they're here to do. We put together a good team that we have a range of issues and questions and calls that come from anything about needing food to what about insurance? Where's my … you know, this went out … can I get some help? They've been answering those calls all the time.
Jason Schlender: With this change, how have you navigated change within your position? Obviously prior to March life was regular and you probably had a pretty normal routine with how you maybe conduct the meetings and conduct your life within your community. Then all of a sudden this pandemic hits the United States. And then the governor issues this “safe ride home” initiative, you know, these executive orders to keep people at home. So how have you navigated change within your position?
Robert Larsen: Well, we looked at this as yes, with fear, but it's also an opportunity to have positive changes going forward, how we conduct business, how we have relationships, make relationships and partnerships, our strategies. We declared a state of emergency on March 18th. We closed our casino that same day, Jackpot Junction, which is the main source of revenue for our government administration.
It was a hard decision. Tears were shed. I mean, that's all those employees that we have jobs for them. They're like family. So it was not an easy decision to make, but to keep ourselves, our citizens, our employees safe, that was the right thing to do. We decided at that time that that's when we got our emergency operations center fully staffed and created our four commanders that helped make those decisions. That went on March 23rd, with 24-hour coverage. We issued our own shelter in place order on the 27th.
We have daily briefings with the ELC and we scaled down our employees to essential staff. We looked at how do we keep the government going during this time? When we know our economic engine is closed. So we have to look at the money that we have at this point. How do we stretch that out, because we had no idea how long this is going to go. We still don't. But that was all the strategies that we had to look at. We have daily conference calls with the other leaders in the state. We supply this line, this conference line, that started out as a phone call.
Every morning we call, sometimes we have every tribe on. Sometimes we have four or five, but we keep that conversation going. What are you guys doing? What do you need? How can we help? We share ideas. We share strategies. We share resources when we can. So that's been going on ever since the last week of March. We decided, you know, yeah, we're in this alone, but we're in this together. We can help each other. That was our main focus. Like we don't want to be sitting here isolated. We are keeping ourselves safe that way.
We've closed our roads. We don't want unnecessary travel, but through technology, we can help each other still. We have figured out that since we suspended our per capita to the members, that food might be an issue. So there was a group that got together and April alone, we had four food distributions through Second Harvest and through Ruby's Pantry. At each one of those, 600 plus people were given those shares of food. If they couldn't afford it, we covered it.
You know, some of them ask for donations for some summits, some just free, but we made those. We have, like I said, we have a good team that we put together and doing all this good work. Now talking about strategies, you know, when you're faced with a crisis, generally you have three options. Three things come to me or one of three things come to mind: either you're going to fight it or you're going to flee, or you're going to do nothing; fight, flight or flee. I mean, you could sit there and take whatever comes.
So we sat down together, we got our whiteboard going and we said, which one are you? We need to know, first of all, council level, where are you at with it? And we all determined we're going to fight this. We're not going to sit back and see what happens. We're not going to run. We can't run away. This is home. So we brought up …
Jason Schlender: Just to interrupt you for a little bit there … have you seen an uptick as far as any you know, any traditional harvesting or anything like that? So for some of these other tribes that are impacted, they know they're getting out fishing and maybe hunting. They wanted to stay out of the grocery stores. So Walmart or any local grocery stores, they wanted to kind of stay away from that. So some tribes have noticed an uptick as far as just some of the traditional harvest and getting out to get wild onions and things like that. Have you seen that within your community?
Robert Larsen: I don't know if that's been widely talked about, but I know the folks that have the knowledge of where these things are have been doing it. We did start a community garden type, virtual. We delivered different seed packages and they have the tutorials. You know, if you haven't been a gardener, this is how you can do this. This is how you do that, to try to help, so we can be a little bit more self-sustaining to stay out of them stores.
We don't have a huge land base here. We're just over 1800 acres of trust land now. We do border the Minnesota River. So people do go down and fish, everything that we do, we get that message out that you need to keep that in mind that the social distancing, you know. If multiple people know where the medicines are, where the food is, don't be bunching up there. Take your turns. The [Spoken Dakota language] way isn't to take more than you need. So we're not worried about running out of it, but there is a bit of an uptick with that.
We've been in the situation before, not as personally, but it's in our blood. You go back to 1862. That happened right here. This is where the War of 1862, the Dakota War started. It was along here and to our community, the Upper Sioux Agency that our people were starving. Our way of life changed. Our lifestyle changed. We were forced into it and we waited too long until we were weak before we did anything about it, but that's in here. So we keep praying for that guidance and that help because we know we don't have all the answers. Nobody ever does, but it's there. They're here to help.
When I even look back to share this story with my coworkers here, that Sundance. That was one of my things personally, I'll share with you that, that I didn't feel I had any business doing this job, taking this position, but if that's the way it was supposed to be, then I asked for the help.
I mean, I know I don't have a huge education. I know I don't have all the answers, but what I asked for their help and, and those prayers were answered because when this came, we looked around and we had good partnerships. We had good people in the right positions before we even needed them, you know, before this hit. So we could call on their expertise and their knowledge to help us get through this in a good way. We make this a community approach.
This isn't about making the rules and people can't do this and can't do that. We made this emergency operation center to help our people. So that's why, like I said, we, we keep asking for … we haven't had a [negative] thing, thank Creator, for that at this up to this point, but we're not fools. We know it spreads. We know most likely it’ll come here inside our borders, so we're ready to help our people. If that comes, we don't want to shame them. We don't want to know who it is to shame them. We want to see what they need. We want to keep them safe at home so that the rest of the community can stay safe as well.
Jason Schlender: That's a good point. So obviously we're in the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic. Thinking of it, looking ahead, you know, obviously you mentioned that this is a temporary action in our lives. What do you see as changes within your community post COVID-19?
Robert Larsen: When this is over, I see a celebration, unless you're talking about the changes of the babies that are coming in December, February, no, just kidding. Might be coming out of this. You're stuck with somebody in that space for a while. That might not be what you thought! But no, I see this as work. We had to cancel our powwow second week in the June. We know that's not safe to put our people or anyone else that comes in harm's way. So we had to cancel our [Spoken Dakota language], but when this is over, we know we're going to have a celebration and that's our nature.
We're communal people. We shake hands. We hug. We gather, we take care of each other, feed each other, share stories. So when this is over, the powwow grounds will be full with our members. We know that council has already talked about that. We're going to put on a feast. When it's safe for everybody to gather, that's what we're going to be doing. I see this, like I said, it's an opportunity to look at those “new normals” that are going to be here.
Those different partnerships, different relationships that we make within our family hits. This is time to have that strong family outside of here, in the past. Everything seems so busy ... I gotta be here … I got to go there. The shelter in place, it's time to reconnect.
Jason Schlender: When you talk about connection with your community, how is the tribal government communicating with [Spoken Dakota language]?
Robert Larsen: Well, in the past, we've had quarterly information meetings, that truthfully haven't been well attended. So last month the crew worked hard to set up a Zoom meeting for members, and they could call in that option if they wanted. You know, we don't want to share a lot of personal information [that might] to get to who don’t need it, but we want to inform our members. So they worked hard to see how to keep that just the members. They figured it out. And it went well. The quarterly meeting that we had back the end of last year, our attendance was two members that weren't employees of the government or of the casino. So this is an opportunity.
This was a good opportunity to try something new. And it worked, because we had over 80 participants in our first quarterly meeting. And it was so well received that we decided we should do this more often. We can keep this using technology. We're going to have one next Wednesday, the 27th, just information just to get it out. But we use social media, we use our website. We have mass texting through our appointed public information officer for the community and for outside our community. So daily, we post things, whether it's passing on CDC information or MDH information or personal information we need to get out. We have daily communication.
We have our EOC that they can call and ask the questions. And once we get them, we get the answers back up best we can. Like I said, this was opportunities to look at things differently. It's not always, well, this is the way it's been, so this is the way it's going to go. We don't like that mentality. We keep those things that are good from the past, but we want to look forward to what can we do better.
Jason Schlender: Yeah. I was think of [how] you mentioned the 1862 conflict and I always think that sometimes you appreciate those things that have happened, that everything happened for a reason. There's a reason some of these things came and happened and obviously some of them tragic, but I think there's some resiliency, some endurance, some perseverance that a little bit in our community, in different communities, people would say kind of gave us a little layer of teflon and you can build on that. So I was thinking [of how] I mentioned like a post, a COVID-19 change within your community, thinking about just the overall tribes in the state, through economic development, how do you see tribes working together or connecting through economic development post COVID-19?
Robert Larsen: Yeah. Well coming into this position or before I was in this position, I always had the thought in the back of my head that, well, since I saw grandpa and uncle, dad and aunties and them being council members, and they always talked about other council members from different tribes. I thought everybody knew each other and worked together all the time. But when I came in here in 2013, I realized that wasn't necessarily the case, but that was one of the things that I thought should be the case. So one of my goals, I guess, was to get us to try to communicate more and work together. Subsequently, like I said, we have daily calls now.
Robert Larsen: We used to get together every quarter. Some of us, you know, the four Dakota communities we get together, different times of those borders that we started working together the last few years, collaborating on different things, trying to get our healing center going for tribal members. Having these daily calls now, like I said, it's not everybody on them all the time, but it's enough on them that we trust each other.
We share good information with each other. Like, I would get calls here and there from different tribal leaders, either not saying, asking opinions, but you know, just talking, bouncing ideas off each other. And I love that, but now we get to do it all together. It's not just one. So we get all these other different aspects and the thought processes. I mean, our council is made up of five. There's a reason it's made up of five, and not one.
You got to have those different aspects, those different thoughts, different perspectives on issues to come up with what's right. I think economically, we have been working together, but I think when this comes through, once this is over, it's just going to be better. We talk about it every day, we're not only taking care of ourselves, but I'm not forgetting about you, or you. You’re always in our prayers. But once this is done, we can't wait to get back together and get [into] real work. Like you're talking about economic development, sharing ideas, collaborating together. We talk about it daily. It's a good feeling going forward.
Jason Schlender: That's nice, that’s awesome. That's reassuring too. I appreciate your kind of positive outlook. Thinking about it, a lot of times, people are really scared and if there's a lot of you where we get information from, a lot of it's really steeped in a lot of fear. So I really want to commend you for your positive outlook on that. I liked your goal of having a celebration when this is all done. That's something that I think you probably wouldn't be alone in doing, because a lot of tribes in this area have had to cancel their celebrations. Right? So just waiting for that opportunity to do that. Obviously trying to make sure that they are socially responsible, but at the same time, at some point when things clear, we're going to get out and obviously celebrate with one another, but also be thankful for our lives.
Robert Larsen: Right.
Jason Schlender: That we've made it through another winter. You know, it's always looking forward to it like that.
Robert Larsen: Exactly right. That's always been my thought of what our [Spoken Dakota language] or [Spoken Dakota language] is. Sometimes back in the day, that was the only time you saw some of those relatives. And that was exactly what it is. All good. Happy to see you made it through another winter, back in the day. And now it's, Hey, I'm glad to see you … talk about different stories now about the powwow, but that's what it's always been about.
It's that celebration. And I'm not knocking anybody that has their contest powwows or anything like that, but that's what we've always wanted. It was that's the time you get to see them folks, sometimes it's the only time you see them.
Jason Schlender: Right.
Robert Larsen: A meal, you share those stories. We hug, we laugh, we cry, that's family and they may not be blood-related, but it is family. Once this is done, they know on these calls every day with the other tribal leaders, it's always sad when you hear, we had to cancel ours. I mean, ours was one of the earlier ones, like I said, second week of June, we had to make that call. We went back and forth for weeks because maybe it'll maybe it'll change by then. It's just not safe, but it's very sad that we had to do it.
But when this is over, it may not be an official powwow, but people are going to be welcomed back with open arms. They're going to throw that feast.
Jason Schlender: Absolutely. So that, I just have one more question for you. I want to thank you for your time. Obviously, you know, the tribal leaders are on a call with the state and every day and the tribal leadership has their obligations and responsibilities to their community. So with that, do you have any parting wisdom that you want to share with our listeners here today?
Robert Larsen: Well, in this day of wearing masks, I urge everybody to practice “safe breath.” (laugh) No, but I’d just like to say, to follow the recommendations, you know, we were all young. You feel invincible when you're young, but keep spreading the message that it's not about you. It's about your loved ones that wouldn't be able to fight this off. So be safe, think about them with every decision that you make during this, because one mistake, I mean, this isn't worth one life to me.
That's our talk all the time. We loosen this up yet or loosen that up yet? No, a dollar is not worth a life to me. So I just urge everybody to be safe, to practice those handwashing, the masks, social distancing, because it's about your loved ones that couldn't fight this off, that maybe you can.
Jason Schlender: Miigwich, pidamayaye, [Spoken Dakota language]
Robert Larsen: That, yeah, we were urged by one of our spiritual leaders here that every month, until this is over, we're going to have a four-day fire and we practice our social distancing then, but all our prayers go into that fire. It ain't just about us. It's about all of us. So you guys are in our prayers too. Miigwich.
Jason Schlender: Miigwich, Pidamayae to President Larsen for joining today's podcast. To learn more about the Lower Sioux Indian Community's response to COVID-19 pandemic, please visit www.lowersioux.com and to learn more about the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, go to mn.gov/indianaffairs/.
To learn more about leadership and civic engagement, go to extension.umn.edu/community-development/leadership-and-civic-engagement, where you will find more resources on growing leaders and strengthening leadership. Make sure to follow the Minnesota Indigenous Leadership Network on Facebook, www.facebook.com/umn.indigenous.leadership.network to stay up to date on research and resources for tribal communities and tribal leadership.
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