Leadership in a crisis: resiliency
In our inaugural episode, we focus on the leadership journey and resiliency of tribal leaders and discuss how COVID-19 has impacted the daily lives of tribal leaders and communities.
Jason Schlender is joined by Minnesota Department of Natural Resources tribal liaison, Bradley Harrington, Jr. (Nazhike-awaasang). He takes us through a journey filled with obstacles, trauma, and sorrow. His story showcases the resiliency in his life that brought him hope and motivation to live a better life and become an asset to his tribal community.
- Jason Schlender, Extension leadership and civic engagement educator
- Nazhikeawaasang/Bradley Harrington, Jr., tribal liaison, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources
- Learn more about the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe response to the COVID-19 Pandemic on their web page, COVID-19 Information.
- Read about some of the efforts by tribes and other organizations during the pandemic in New efforts help American Indians in Minnesota during COVID-19 pandemic.
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 also by 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 Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, a former chemical dependency coach and former commissioner of natural resources for the Mille Lacs Band. He is currently the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources tribal liaison. Please welcome Bradley Harrington, Jr., also known as Nazhike-awaasang to the podcast. I know our focus as I've mentioned is resiliency. So tell us about your leadership journey?
Bradley Harrington/Nazhike-awaasang: Looking back, you know, you could connect the dots on how you came to be in your current situation, right? But like right now, it's really tough to see what those dots are. But 10 years from now, we're all going to be able to look back and see what we're doing right now that contributed to ourselves. So, you know, a number of things contributed to mine, looking back. Of course, growing up on the reservation, the way my grandparents were and everything that I learned from them — the male role models was a little bit of a tough one for me, but I did have a positive male role model in my uncle. But you know, eventually society and my self-identity faltered, and I succumbed to addiction and criminality, but I like to start my leadership journey in 2010.
I was about one year into a five-year prison sentence where I was serving three and a half years and had a little awakening in air and then switched to an Ojibwe culture and spirituality approach while I was in treatment. So really tried to find out who I was as an Anishinaabe person. Of course I knew the language was important. So I spent time on language; history was another important one, and I knew the cultural teachings were going to be pretty important too. So I knew I needed to figure that out. So I worked on myself, my inner thought process and beliefs of who I am as a human being. And as I was moving that stuff out, I was trying to replace it with Anishinaabe thoughts and perspectives. It's fun. I got out August 1st of 2012. I had got out and my only motivation was to do better in my community.
Bradley Harrington/Nazhike-awaasang: So I went to places I normally wouldn't, like community meetings, hung out at the government center ceremonials because I was trying to learn Ojibwe, so I had to go to where the language was. So I went to ceremonies and I started getting involved with cultural revitalization, Ojibwe language revitalization, and kind of found my way in there, learned some and started getting ideas. I was trying to go to college at the time too. I knew that I had to do something different. I had to do different and be a part of different things that I normally would in my community. I stopped hanging around with a lot of my family. A lot of my family still uses. They actually had a bet going on when I was going to violate and [end up] back in prison.
Bradley Harrington/Nazhike-awaasang: I got out August 1st. The longest somebody had me going [back in] was by Christmas. So that was what about like four months. A lot of the people closest to me thought I would be back in prison within four months. I didn't find that out till after, but being a part of different things, meeting new people, taking part in leadership programming, such as the blended reservation/community leadership program. I was also a Native Nation Rebuilder dropout. I didn't make it, it’s one of the things that I really regret not finishing off was that training. But you know, I got what I got and I have to use it to the best that I can. But since then and everything else leading up on my leadership journey was when I started formulating ideas on what was Anishinaabe natural resources, [and] also going to college for natural resources. At the time I was learning Anishinaabe language and culture also.
Bradley Harrington/ Nazhike-awaasang: And what I was learning in college was really conflicting with what I was learning in the cultural area from the elders. I hung out with four elders: Larry Smallwood, Doug Sam, Joe Nayquonabe and Lee Staples. I spent a lot of time with them because all my homeys thought I was going back to prison, so I stopped hanging out with them. When I started hanging out with these old guys they must've seen something in me enough to spend some time with me and teach me a few things. But I started approaching our chief executive, Melanie Benjamin. I’d go visit with her, pitch to her ideas on Anishinaabe natural resources, “This is what our DNR should be doing.” I wish we had more programming for re-entry. We can spend our net revenue a little bit better if we invest more cultural programming in the youth, so in 20 years when they grow up, we wouldn't [need] so much in a band member legal aid or chemical dependency. And I was a big, you know, cultural pusher with our band assembly too. And I started getting noticed in the community for my recovery work and the pushing of culture and language. I got a grant before to do a language class and that went pretty good. It was a one-time deal though. I remember 2017, I think it was Larry Smallwood passed away, and he was my second teacher to pass away in about a year and a half. So Doug Sam walked on about a year, year and a half beforehand, and then Larry Smallwood would pass. And so I went out and fasted. And you know, before that time, within about six months of that time, I’d just talk with the chief about natural resources — Anishinaabe natural resources. I went and fasted, got out, came out from that.
Bradley Harrington/ Nazhike-awaasang: And about a week later, Joe Nayquonabe’s wife passed away. So, you know, to support my niijii, one of my teachers, I still have left. I went to the funeral. I was at the funeral, sitting near Melanie Benjamin and started talking to her more about, you know, Anishinaabe natural resources. That was on a Friday. She called me in on a Monday, if I would bring a plan together for the DNR. And if I was interested in being the commissioner for natural resources for the Mille Lacs band, I asked her if I could take the weekend to think about it. You know, I thought I was going to be spending 10 years just being a cultural student. I thought it was just going to spend 10 years doing that, you know, coming straight out of fast.
Bradley Harrington/Nazhike-awaasang: So Monday I went and visited her. I brought a plan. I brought my aspects of Anishinaabe natural resources: 1) It's given by the manidoog (spirits); 2) It enhances and sustains life; and 3) It contributes. It's a part of the spiritual belief system. It works if you believe it works. And even in some instances, you know, there's like an ecosystem, it's own spiritual ecosystem. So those are my three criteria for Anishinaabe natural resources. So talking to her about it. And I was like, obviously there's deer, wild rice, maple sap, fish. And then I'll ask a question. I was like, the language has to play a part in it too, because we can’t even transfer the energy without the language. So I think I said something “like the language is the wifi that connects everything all together, encompasses everything and holds the shape of a spiritual ecosystem.”
Bradley Harrington/ Nazhike-awaasang: She must've bought it because she nominated me the next day. The following week, I had about a two and a half hour confirmation hearing. So I went in front of our band assembly, which is like our legislature. And they had a whole packet of questions that they're just going down. And I answered to the best of my ability. I didn't try to act like I knew everything. I just went in there as myself, because if I didn't make it, I'd still be me. I'd still learn the language, contributing to my community. If I did make it, I'd still be me, but I'd have a little bit more authority and responsibility. And at that point in my life, I was all still spiritually charged from fasting that the manidoog are going to have their way anyway. So it's really not up to me.
Bradley Harrington/Nazhike-awaasang: I just got to occupy space for a little bit. Well, the manidoog got me through the system. So I was nominated and confirmed all within about a week and a half. So from when I was asked, which was on a Friday; nominated on a Tuesday; confirmed, I think the following Thursday; and then sworn in two weeks later--really rapid kind of took me by surprise. I wasn't expecting that like a month before, but I believe that the manidoog put me in that position and I was going to be well guided through it. So I served for two and a half years. Oh, here's some good things, you know, make some mistakes. No one's perfect. We’ve still got to occupy a flawed human existence. I believe that it wasn't without reason, you know. I learned from it, my community learned from it, then hoping other people learn from some of the mistakes that I made.
Bradley Harrington/Nazhike-awaasang: And then when we started talking--when Peggy Flanagan got in as lieutenant governor, I was on that consultation for the DNR’s tribal liaison. And I was worried about who they were going to hire in that position, like who is the DNR going to get? Right? It's really not our [decision], they say that we're friends and everything, and we're supposed to be a partner in preserving this, but I’ve always seen them as adversarial. And then some other tribal liaisons, I get really concerned when the tribal liaison is not a tribal member. So that's always concerning to me. The other one was, if it is a tribal member, are they from the area? Because I view that a tribal liaison to connect with a tribe of this region would work better. If it was a member of a tribe that as being affected, they got some skin in the game, right?
Bradley Harrington/Nazhike-awaasang: So when the talk came up that if I was interested, we hemmed and hawed and, and worked ideas out from October through December until I kind of agreed to it at the end of December. And then we worked out the details and I resigned as the commissioner of the Mille Lacs Band Department of Natural Resources on January 24th. The state was trying to get me to take a couple of weeks off and then we'll transition over. But I said, no, my resignation date is on a Friday, I'm coming straight to you guys that Monday. So I'll down there, so on the January 27th, I started with the state. A month after that we got hit with a COVID pandemic, right when I was getting into it. People were getting used to me. They're still getting used to my character.
Bradley Harrington/Nazhike-awaasang: The way Anishinaabe make a point I noticed is a lot different than the chi-mookomaan. The way the Anishinaabe work holds interpersonal relations is a lot different than how the chi-mookomaan does. So right when they're getting used to me, had us start hollering at them, talking to them through emails and Skypes and Zooms. So that's kind of my leadership, just like a quick timeline of my journey. Been since 2012, from a recent released convicted felon, coming back to my community to holding some air, some weight by 2015. By 2017 I must have established myself long enough to be worthy of trust again. Didn't use, didn’t drink; helpful and about as nonjudgmental as someone can get, you know, not saying that it's completely not there because there's times where I find myself diving into that. But yeah, it seemed really fast, really fast.
Jason Schlender: Yeah. I mean, I think you're a strong example of especially tribal people, you know, people that have been impacted by things beyond their control. Sometimes we're victims to the environment that we're within. And so it's your journey, the things that you've encountered, but also your resilience, and this is kind of like where, we're focused on resilience here today, but when we think about resilience, it's something that we hold up in our communities and in our people. And so you've mentioned, you know, some key people in your life, some elders that instilled in you knowledge and teachings. But if you could maybe just elaborate on them and especially, when we think of a lot of our elders who have passed away, you know, rest in peace to Doug and to Larry Smallwood who made huge foundations of knowledge and language and culture. If you could just speak to just a little bit about their influence more specifically to resilience and how those key times in your life where you needed to draw upon that inner resilience.
Bradley Harrington/Nazhike-awaasang: Well, with Doug, Larry, Joe Obizaan, I've known them for a long time. You know, Joe is one of the elders in my community, so it was Doug and Larry who were one of those community elders who made their way around every place. And you know, pretty quick to cast a teaching or a joke or dirty story, a lot of the two, but they all had a reason…something to learn from. So Doug, I remember him when I was a kid. As a kid, you know, they'll see me, like…we're just not really ignored, but you know, the old people were out doing old people's stuff. And then the young people were doing all the kids' stuff, but I remember Doug, he would always be one to you know, say hi to me for whatever reason, right.
Bradley Harrington/Nazhike-awaasang: There was this really cool man who’d always say hi and what not. And I was like, cool. You know I didn't really think about that until I was hanging out with him a lot. And I was like, man, this guy's a pretty cool guy. And without the four of them, you know, spending time with me [during] one of my most vulnerable times … [if I hadn’t] had any success in anything I probably would have eventually gave up due to a lack of any connections. Loneliness plays a big role. Purposeless[ness], because you don't have any connections, you're not doing anything. So you’re wondering what your purpose is for, or without them being there and filling some time and making it extremely worthwhile. I think that some of the stuff I do remember is only a small amount of what I was told by those guys and I wish I had a recorder going, but then even more than that, I wish I had had my own mind right. Going for the 15 years or so [that] I was acting up. Because now, now I'm missing out on a lot of data that could have been introduced and then reinforced through my own thought process without having to hope that I get something recorded or written down. Remember my first time [with Obizaan] seeing him the late nineties and I can't remember whose funeral it was, but, you know, it was one of the first times I picked up on Obizaan. I can remember the way he talked was a little bit different than how some of the Mille Lacs guys spoke. And then in 2005, I was in prison for the first time. And still, while I didn't care about not a god dang thing back then, but I wanted to be cool and do my intro, right?
Bradley Harrington/Nazhike-awaasang: And so I didn't know what my name was. I forgot it for a long time. I just knew some syllables of it. So I went up to him. Obizaan was coming into the prison in Rush City and doing some sweats for us. I went up to him and I was like, “Hey, I forgot my Ojibwe name, but it's something like Nish-gay-wasa, something like that. I can't remember the exact syllables I used. And then I remember he starts nodding or something. It was, Oh, yeah. “It’s Nazhike-awaasang.” I know that name. I was like, all right, cool. And he was like, yeah, there's a couple of them over in the Mille Lacs area that was named that. I started using that name and then the tobacco. So this kind of goes back into Anishinaabe natural resources.
Bradley Harrington/Nazhike-awaasang: Right. I was using my name, which is given by the manidoog and sustains life as supported by a spiritual belief system. I was using the same model, which is the act of Asemaake. Is a given by manidoog, enhances and sustains life and is supported by spiritual belief system. So I was doing that right. And I kept on doing that. By the time I went to prison, again, it was 2010, five years. I've been using my name and tobacco on and off. And I think that gave me enough inner strength, enough support, enough connection to where I had the revelation in 2010, I was able to recognize it, and I was able to act on it. So I don't know. And then getting out in 2012 and hanging out with Obizaan more, expanding my idea on Anishinaabe spiritual wisdom, connected with all the practical applications that Joe Sr. talks about.
Bradley Harrington/Nazhike-awaasang: And then Doug's cultural practices that he would talk about. It all kind of wrapped up and came together. So without having that connection introduced me and when I was a kid by my grandparents-- reinforced a bit by some of the elders in the community meeting with Obizaan in 2005, get my name figured out, get my connection a little bit stronger. It feels like I jumped from jumped from dial up speeds straight to 5G in the last five years. So it's pretty amazing. I'm glad that those guys spent time with me. I probably wouldn't have been able to do anything without it.
Jason Schlender: Well, I mean, it's, you know, it's just a testament to those others too. I knew Doug through FLIFWC his work was on the Voigt task force, in a tribal task force. But, you know, obviously, you know, we all had our own connections and relationships with Amik and Obizaan and Joe, you know, the one thing I think that really stands out with them, it's just their patience. Because I think that's the biggest, one of the biggest things is being able to…it's intimidating to try to bridge the connection between our peer group, our generation to older generations. Like what do we have in common? You know, and how do we even maintain relationships? Because I think about the first time I ever met Obizaan, he was at our big drum ceremony back home and he had a Pelle Pelle jacket on.
Jason Schlender: And I was thinking, I’m a hip hop guy too. And I'm thinking, what's this old man wearing this old Pelle Pelle jacket? Or, you know, and it's like suddenly there's no way it could be like, listening to rap music or anything like that. And I just thought it was just something that just kind of caught my eye, you know. Obviously he’d been there with people we know and stuff like that, but it was just, that was the first thing that drew my attention. And then obviously he just makes probably one of the coolest looking Ojibwes ever, you know, with his hairstyle and cowboy boots and the way he dressed, the way he talked, obviously influential in the way that he you know, just took the time. It’s hard to really speak from his work before, but I think with the group that he worked with before he passed away, I think he was really proud of the progression of language revitalization.
Jason Schlender: So yeah. And then there’s Joe. We're fortunate to still have Joe with us. And, you know, Joe was always traveling everywhere, combat veteran and his quiet demeanor and patience, you know, he's just obviously someone that those are all those trades and things that many of us have benefited from. So when we think of those teachings, those elders, the one thing I want to do is probably should explain to our listeners here too, a lot of times we you know we're so immersed in our culture, some of the words that we share that are common to us may not be common to our listeners though. So a word like “niijii” just kind of is just a common reference to someone like your fellow person or your fellow man, or a fellow woman, like a friend commonly known as a friend. “Manidoo” is a reference to the spirit, you know, a spiritual entity or a spiritual being, and manidoog, as Brad had referenced, is just a pluralization collection or a group of spirits that, you know, play a part in overseeing and kind of playing their part in taking care of the creator’s children in their environment.
Jason Schlender: And so, just some clarity on that, I guess. So, if some people are listening, may not understand some of the Ojibwe terminology that we've used here today. So moving on, we kind of as you mentioned, you know, you're one month in, and then all sudden the COVID-19 quarantine, you know, with Governor Walz issuing those executive orders to kind of shut everything down. People stay at home, practice social distancing, you know, wash your hands, take care of yourselves in the best way that you can so it can stop the spread; but it has impacted many of us in how we work. It's affected our spirituality, too in some way, because we're not able to gather ceremonially like we usually do. But thinking of those of that COVID-19 quarantine it's, it's brought amongst us some challenging times. So how have you coped with challenges during this quarantine?
Bradley Harrington/Nazhike-awaasang: So fortunate enough for me is right at the beginning of the quarantine, started the beginning of sapping season. So I sap just roughly half a mile from my house, so easy enough for me. [I] dedicated my time to gathering sap. A lot of my work also is remote. So I was still able to work off my computer and Zoom meetings and Skype meetings and definitely more phone calls because I like to try to be present physically as much as I can, especially when trying to build, you know, like a strong working relationship with somebody. So somebody that I know that I'm going to be working with for a while, I'll try to spend physical time with them, people that just like bounce in every once in a while, requesting a little bit of info--we can do that through email and phone calls. But people that I'm going to be working closely with us, I like getting in there with them. Because I guess I'm introverted in some sense, but one that part of it goes that where I'm working in an area of interest, then I let that go a little bit.
Bradley Harrington/Nazhike-awaasang: So if I'm working with somebody that has a common theme, common focus, common goals, it's a lot easier to open up. So sapping season, we went and tapped 20 trees--me and my boys and one friend. I didn't allow a lot of people to come over to my place to boil. So it was just me and my two boys and a friend of mine spent the time out there boiling. And then as we were boiling, we'll tell stories to the boys and talk and try to demonstrate, you know, good man-to-man interpersonal skills, right?
Bradley Harrington/Nazhike-awaasang: Because when I got grown up, all dudes were an adversary not to be trusted. And you know, it was really tough times around here when I was growing up. But in order to demonstrate good working with your friends, my boys are there of course, seeing that. And hopefully that's demonstrated through that. And I think that's why the Anishinaabe culture was able to function so well over a long period of time, because let's say if I were to pick a fight with my buddy, his name is Mike. If I were to pick a fight with my buddy and we stopped hanging out over some little stuff that our egos are a little bit too big to reconcile. Now I got to split all the wood, right? I got to boil all this stuff. God dang, self, he's not coming over to help somebody.
Bradley Harrington/Nazhike-awaasang: It gives a little bit of clarity on adjusting your relationship, picking your battles and being able to have your own opinion, but still working on our common cause, which was sapping. Our goal is to produce as much syrup and candy and sugar as we can with what we get. And we stayed aligned on that. And the other part of it is the funerals haven't stopped here also. So I take part in that part of the ceremonial aspect in my communities. We go and do the [ceremonies]. The crowds [have] gotten smaller, encouraging people not to come fill up a whole gymnasium and got conflicted there for the big drum coming up. And our drum chief said that we're going to continue on and have the big drum ceremonies. So my faith says “go” because that's what the big drums are for to protect us and get that teaching from Joe.
Bradley Harrington/Nazhike-awaasang: The other part of the faith is we're being warned that there's something dangerous out there. Do we just jump out there and hope on faith alone, or do we try to understand our physical limitations? And the other one is, is just because the warning is coming from the white man doesn't mean that it's not dangerous. So to err on the side of caution, because I got babies at home, a pregnant woman that's on the verge of giving birth, do I want to go out there and be exposed to something unnecessarily, knowing that I have physical limitations as a human being? I've been staying out of the dance hall and the best I can out of large public areas.
Jason Schlender: So how are you staying busy at home? And I know for myself, you know, my kids are kind of getting antsy, you know, like they can't just go to the, you know, go outside and play basketball and congregate with their friends. So they get kind of restless. So I'm sort of just trying to be creative in trying to utilize their energy in a positive way. Sometimes we'll get outside for a little bit. And it's like, you know, I've already been out, you know, gone spearing and some things already. But you know, with your kids, you got some young ones there too with a lot of energy. And how are you adapting to some of those stay at home orders?
Bradley Harrington/Nazhike-awaasang: Yup. So we got…not a schedule going, but there's a rotation, so if that the kids say that they need to go someplace else, they go to places where they know, and I know that they're isolating. They're not just out recklessly running around town. So today I got four of them at home. They're doing their homework, so that helps keep them busy a little bit. Well, we just finished sapping too. We just had our last boil. Well, it feels like a month ago, but it was just a few days ago we boiled down there. So we got a new evaporator. My big kettle broke. So man, I think they dropped it. Oh. And then they told me about it. They told me about it and I put it away. And then I forgot about it.
Bradley Harrington/Nazhike-awaasang: The day we went and set taps, I started getting my kettles and my fire pit ready. You know, it's still snowing here, and then went to my big kettle. And I was like, Holy crap, man. There was a big crack on it. And then I was like, ah, goddang it. They dropped it last year when they're finishing rice. So I have another kettle. So my big kettle will hold 30 gallons. My small kettle is 15, so it's half the size. So I was like, man, we only got 20 taps that we should be able to do all that in a small kettle. So we did the first couple of runs in the small kettle and it was dumping SAP that I was keeping us busy a lot, was going out and collecting SAP. And then we were having a boil a lot.
Bradley Harrington/Nazhike-awaasang: So I was like, ah, I need to find another kettle. No one's selling kettles at this time. I couldn't find one, when I found one [it was] down in Iowa and I was like, am not going down there for a goddamn kettle. So I was like, man, let me check out these evaporators. And you know, because I try to stay close to what the ancestors did. But the other part of me says, man, my ancestors would have been, “Why didn't you get the evaporator, man? It works so much more efficiently saving on wood, cuts your time down in half.” And so I found an evaporator in my area up by Crosby; it was about 30 miles from here. Got the evaporator and was never able to do twice as much, twice as fast. So what we're able to do in two days, we're able to do double that in one day. So our last boil we really pushed the limit. Our last collection was like one of the biggest collections. We got 50 gallons of SAP in about a day and a half on 20 taps. So the frogs are croaking that day when we went to get the sap. So the frogs are finally croaking and we thought they'd never be here. So we pulled the taps that day.
Bradley Harrington/Nazhike-awaasang: Yeah. So brought it all home and then we're like, all right, well tomorrow let's go for it, man. That's boil all this. And we did, we made it. We started a fire about, oh nine in the morning. And then we're got it down to some really dark tea, but like nine at night, 50 gallons.
Jason Schlender: Maybe expand a little bit on what you said about the frogs. Like explain to our listeners what that means.
Bradley Harrington/Nazhike-awaasang: Yeah. That was a teaching I got from Doug. So a lot of my cultural practices, the activity themselves I learned from Doug--ricing and sapping. Because there, when it starts getting late in the season the sap spoils really quick, and even it'll come out of the tree, like already warmed up and not really spoiled, but a little bit milky.
Bradley Harrington/Nazhike-awaasang: So I asked him, I was like, is there a timer Anishinaabe knew to pull the taps without having a sit there and wait and collect a whole bunch of…if you've got a hundred taps set out and that's all lost. Right. You see it dripping and it's cloudy, then you going have to go and dump everything. So I asked, is there, when did the Anishinaabe, when did they know when to pull their taps? And they said, well, when the frogs croak, that means that the earth warmed up enough. All the roots are warm enough for the frogs to wake up, which means that your SAP is going to be iffy. So whenever the frogs croak I'll pull it. And then he also said the frogs croaking in this area would also signify that the ice is getting ready to pull away from the shore. So you pull your taps and you get your spearing stuff ready when the frogs croak.
Jason Schlender: Yeah. That's pretty much similar for us to, you know, it's like we once we hear the spring peepers, you should already be ready to go. You should have your gear ready to…you know, that's, right along the same lines as what you're saying, you know, things are starting to warm up, water's warming up, the earth is warming, so that's a change and change in season. So I wanted to kind of reflect back on your past. I think you know, your experiences, the things that you've endured speak a lot to your resiliency, and also contributed to your leadership style. Right? But thinking of like those things that you've encountered, how have you dealt with adversity?
Bradley Harrington/Nazhike-awaasang: Well, what I'd like to say is that I met adversity with all my force and all my weight and everything behind it. And I knocked him flat on his butt, but you know, it's almost like a case-by-case basis, you know. Adversity being in prison and trying to doing things different while in there, you know, you catch some flack for trying to trying to be good, right? And this environment that's just full of negativity. You go try to start and be good and have a different perspective. It's like having to hold back the pride and the ego and an area where the pride and the ego leads everything. So while I was in prison, those ills were still there. So up until April…it's just been about 11 years. It was 11 years on April 5th where I haven't been high or used any drugs since.
Bradley Harrington/Nazhike-awaasang: So it's been 11 years, but I say it's really been 10 years because I actually chose to stay that way. April of 2010, up until then I was going stay the same. I was going to just continue on doing what I'm doing, finish my time, get out and, you know, just kind of happy I made it to 30. But when I changed, I met with the adversity and the native group in the prison, getting called a “soft” and you know, just a whole bunch of other names and in that case I was, but I was still ready to just throw it down. So it wasn't really nothing to it. When I came home--from your own family, it's tough. Having to turn your back on them and stay away from them. And then they call you names.
Bradley Harrington/Nazhike-awaasang: One of my brothers, I remember meeting up with him and, you know, I was avoiding almost everybody, you know. It's tough when everybody…we all live within like a mile and a half of each other here. I remember seeing them, I was being short with them, you know, I wasn't trying to hang out. I wasn't trying to be buddy-buddy anymore, because I still knew what he was up to. But when I remember one time at with them and being short with them and then he was like, “You know what, man, you forgot where you came from.” And I was like, “Oh man.” You know, I still care about them. You know, they're still my family. But I remember when he said that to me, I immediately got angry and sad and questioning myself. I was like, man, am I really turning my back on [him]?
Bradley Harrington/Nazhike-awaasang: Because this dude was my brother. Well, you know, it was my cousin, but we grew up as brothers. And he's saying that I forgot where I came from. So I got mad at him and I was like, “No, man. I remember exactly where I came from. That's why, I'm the way I am today.” No, I just spun around. And I was like, whatever, thinking on that, you know, that's the adversity. I was getting it from my family when I changed and thinking that I did the right thing, you know. I was protecting myself, my own sanity, my own recovery, my own family, you know, the family unit I was trying to build. I knew he couldn't have a place in it. But then we buried him like a year and half ago, was it? He died of an O.D. and I'll say, looking back, I was like, what if I didn't avoid him so much?
Bradley Harrington/Nazhike-awaasang: What if I didn't avoid my family so much? What if I try to be a positive part of it? You know, this is the only stuff you could think, looking back. Yesterday, I buried his brother—O.D.’d, and you know, fresh off of that thinking, “Whoa, was there more that I could do?” So I reached out to our other brothers and sent them a message saying, “You know what, I really care about you guys, but just send me a wave or a little message or something. Just let me know that you guys are all okay out there if you need anything.” Because burying all these guys and all that I grew up with is tougher than seemingly anything else right now. And so when people talk to me about my work with the state, yeah, it's tough.
Bradley Harrington/Nazhike-awaasang: Right? It's all tough, but nothing's tougher than burying your brother. Nothing's tougher than staying away from all these people who are questionable in your life. And then you're burying them. That that's the toughest part of it. But I rely back on all the old guys they're really consistent in saying that everybody's here for a reason and it's not anyone's place to try to figure that out for them. They're there and the manidoog are helping them, regardless of what condition that you're in, where they're all they're using the manidoog are still helping them. They're straightening up the manidoog are helping them. There's seemingly not getting any help, but you know, maintaining. And although the worker that's working day to day, but still out living a tough life there, the manidoog are still helping them.
Bradley Harrington/Nazhike-awaasang: So bringing all that to my state job, I'm there. I'm not there to cater to their perspectives and agree that thinking that they're right. I'm definitely not there for that. I'm there because of what I know up in my head and what I share, you know, and what I can express to help guide them. And that's the next adversity. On the tribal side, I'm actually in it with them because there's an ordinance and a couple of policies tribally that prevents me from working in any recovery field [because there is a] background check there. We have a treatment center at the Mille Lacs Band and it is called the Four Winds Treatment Center. It's in Brainerd, Minnesota. They took over in 2017 or 2016. When it was with the state, it was a state treatment center. I was allowed to work there. They gave me a waiver of my background and allowed me to work there. The day that the Mille Lacs Band took over, my tribe--the day they took over, I couldn't work there anymore.
Bradley Harrington/Nazhike-awaasang: I was there as a spiritual advisor, you know, I'd help out the guys. And I'd worked with the gals a little bit, but I tried to encourage the treatment center to bring in a gal that worked with the girls. So I could just work with guys, but there's that adversity, you know, being a felon, trying to work and trying to help my own tribe. There's some positions that my experience, my passion, and some of my knowledge can really help, but I can't do it because of a background check. And the other one is I can't run for public office in an election, because you can't have been convicted of a felony and hold a chairman or a representative or a treasurer spot for my tribe, but I can for the American government. And so I say that and I was like, so, so I'm good enough to be a state rep?
Bradley Harrington/Nazhike-awaasang: I can run for governor. I could run for president of the United States, but I'm not good enough to run for a representative of my own tribe? Why, because you guys want it for whatever reason they put that in place, but it's limiting the community's voice on leaders, determining what leader the band members can vote for. So I fall into that one as well. Fine. I'm currently running for an American government seat Mille Lacs County commissioner in district five, which is pretty much my whole reservation. It's just having that idea out there that having a felony means you're less of a member to the point you can’t even represent people. I'm sure there's going to be very few people that actually get the urge to run for tribal government. But just knowing that it's there stunts people in general.
Jason Schlender: In our conversation today, you talked about the influence of your elders and you know, their impact. Someday, you'll be there too, you know, thinking about the importance of transferring knowledge, you know, to the younger generation. So as you reflect on your own leadership journey, what advice do you have for those aspiring young leaders out there?
Bradley Harrington/Nazhike-awaasang: Oh, I like to think about it. I wish I did, but you know, everything they did help me become who I am today, but it's stuff that I wish I knew or stuff that I wish I, I pursued a little bit more for aspiring young leaders out there. Whenever I talk to a younger group, I always tell them to seek out the teachings. And, you know, in times like today that's a bit tough because there's few people that have teachings to give now, right? We're getting to a point to where some of our more able elders don't speak Ojibwe, don't practice the customs. Some of them really don't even believe in Ojibwe spirituality. So it's really tough today to say go to your elders. We have to be pretty specific…go talk to Joe.
Bradley Harrington/Nazhike-awaasang: If you want to know that, go talk to Obizaan. I would tell them also their education that they're getting now it's all going to work if they have the cultural knowledge to tie it to. There was a time where I was like strictly going straight college. And I was like, yup, I'm going to go college and come back and help my people, which is some people's paths. I was aware enough and able to make a decision, when I think it was springtime of 2016, maybe? Where I decided I'm not going to go to college anymore. I'm going to spend all my time pursuing Ojibwe language, culture, and ceremonies just about everything I can't get in college. Because college is always going to be there, but these elders weren’t, and that's some people's paths.
Bradley Harrington/Nazhike-awaasang: That's not everybody's [path], but just to rely on language and general cultural teachings, use your tobacco everyday, use your name every day with it, connecting the dots backwards. If I didn't start doing that in 2005 to show off, I probably wouldn't have gained a connection strong enough to recognize a door opening in my favor, five years later, while sitting in prison. Use your name, use your tobacco, language and whatever teaching you’ve got. So right now there's a lot of things going on. We're trying to figure out how to stay connected digitally from far away, how to continue on with programs with initiatives when everybody's being asked to stay home and stay away from each other. How to plan throughout the day for a family the size of eight. Sometimes here there's a tent and then there’s 10 of us.
Bradley Harrington/Nazhike-awaasang: So how do we plan out our time? But I think when all this has been all demonstrated for us, the Native American story, how to survive basically. How to use what you’ve got to continue on and maintain a sense of sanity. So I looked back on leaders from long ago, how were their thought processes? Had they been having to make crucial decisions and critical times since like 1700, through generations and centuries, and what did they always maintain as important? Have they always maintained that they have rights that they have as a people that were given by the Creator, by the Great Spirit? The other one is you can see it in their discussions is that they had values. They always referred to energy. They always referred to their people. It's very rare that you'll find tribal leader saying, all right, I'll give you this much of my people's land.
Bradley Harrington/Nazhike-awaasang: If you kick me over a house or kick me over money or whatever. They're always making decisions for the community as a whole, with these values and these teachings attached to it. And, today we're seeing that popping up right away. You know, like the, the manidoog teaching us something, you know, it's not that China went and started this big, huge outbreak, and it's all the chi-mookomaan’s fault for doing industry or whatever. I believe that we're, being put into a situation to learn, to get into a new sense of a new sense of resilience. Like how do we be contemporarily resilient with traditional values? There's more people out there seeking out traditional medicines now. I think that has a lot to do with lack of things to do, but they're all seeking some sort of knowledge.
Bradley Harrington/Nazhike-awaasang: I think when all this is done, yeah, the virus is going to be a story, but there's another time in another time in Anishinaabe history where this virus came and we got a jingle dress out of it. So 100 years from now, what are we going to save? You learn. That's going to be impactful for a century during this time of some contemporary traditionalism.
Jason Schlender: What's the next way you see tribal communities connecting through economic development?
Bradley Harrington/Nazhike-awaasang: Economic development? So I've tried and started some businesses. I used to have a tree trimming, grass mowing, home repair, home maintenance type of business. So 2006, 2007, 2008, I cut down trees, installed doors, patched walls, you know, just home maintenance type of guy. But I lacked the administrative knowledge. And so I didn't know how to apply and prepare and keep accurate records, but I was also an addict and into criminality at the time too. So that really didn't help today. I'm launching two businesses. One is a media [company] and it's stemming from what I learned in Blandin and then ultimately what I did get out of the Rebuilders Program is that tribes have the authority, but they need to seize it.
Bradley Harrington/Nazhike-awaasang: Right now our only business authority is to have a casino. There's some tribes out there that you know, that do housing. We get involved with other government businesses, right? The tribal government gets a business in order to generate revenue in order to take care of the people. But what I see here in Mille Lacs is we had a big boom in the early nineties. So I remember where I live right now used to be the woods where I used to play and my grandma lived just up the road here.
Bradley Harrington/Nazhike-awaasang: So I'm in a new community. There were dirt roads here. I think they said 80% poverty when I was in the eighties, up to 1990, 91, 80% poverty. I didn't feel impoverished. And, you know, I didn't think it was bad, but businesses popped up, all the focus went on the casino and it's served its purpose. But now we built up this whole new group. What if you're born in 1990, you know, getting to be 30 years old and all you knew was casino revenue? So now you're getting a more laid back, give-it-to-me type of person you know, waiting for the government to take care of everything type of person. But I think for economic development now is one, connecting people back to who they are as Anishinaabe, their roles, strengths, character, spiritual energy. Knowing who they are would help them be a more productive member of the community, whether or not they do work, or they do come over and cut your grass or fix your house, paint, sing, speak the language, do some sort of arts.
Bradley Harrington/Nazhike-awaasang: The other part of it is, and I see it today in our businesses the Mille Lacs Band businesses. We got the casinos, of course, hotels, gas stations, printing companies. What else? But they'll those types of businesses I think, would be better off if they were owned and managed by a tribal member, as opposed to a tribal government. It might have a little bit more effect, giving opportunity for one of our members to be a business owner and start putting that idea out there. The band bought a little resort. Let's see if some of our members are that would take on the lease, take on the responsibility and take on the authority of having this business here, as opposed to letting it have the coming from the same overhead system that a really large casino does. Because then, then you're eating up a lot of profits and putting on a lot of responsibility for this small resort or this little gas station to maximize profits, which is probably really only meant for either a company that owns a hundred or so gas stations, or an individual person that owns one gas station. The opportunity for the band member to be a business owner, as opposed to the government being a business owner.
Bradley Harrington/Nazhike-awaasang: I think we can get involved in…then again, you're building up members. You need members to have a stake in the game other than election season. You need them to have something going on to where they're responsible for something. Agriculture wouldn't be a good one right now, our climate is shifting. And by the time we get a few agricultural families to get some intergenerational knowledge passed, because of climate change, we will be poised to really maximize our ability in that area. If we get a couple of decades head start on it, because having it in the family gives it more gumption, a little bit more responsibility to your family and to your people. And there can be a trade-off there because then we start looking into tribal economics.
Bradley Harrington/Nazhike-awaasang: Again, the Mille Lacs Band doesn't have enough land base to grow the variety of crops needed in order to feed the Mille Lacs people, yet that's given that we're still able to hunt, fish and gather also; that's the other part of our economic engine, where we're just talking about growing food now at this point. So that's where I think some inner tribal work can be done is providing a variety of crops, but then at the same time, figuring out how so we can get an abundance of fish. If our fish population holds. Whereas up in the north, they'd probably get a lot of good rice. So I wasn't able to rice last year because the water was too high, but other places were able to rice. I was able to fish last year because there was enough fish to go around, but in some places there wasn't. How are we able to get some sort of tribal economic programming going based off of our own cultural harvesting?
Jason Schlender: As always, I appreciate your journey, appreciate your work that you've done and look forward to days of the future. So miigwech nijii, appreciate it.
Bradley Harrington/Nazhike-awaasang: Ahaw miigwech niij, see you again.
Jason Schlender: Miigwech to Bradley Harrington Jr./ Nazhike-awaasang for joining today's podcast to learn more about the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe response to the COVID-19 pandemic, please visit millelacsband.com/services/covid-19-information 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.
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