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University of Minnesota Extension

Native American leadership work starts with listening

When three indigenous colleagues set out to find ways to deepen University of Minnesota Extension’s connections with the state’s tribal communities, they knew the first step: listening.

Dawn Newman
Dawn Newman
Fawn Sampson
Fawn Sampson
Jay Schlender
Jason Schlender

Dawn Newman, Jason Schlender and Fawn Sampson came together in late 2019 to help form Extension’s Minnesota Indigenous Leadership Network. Working in Extension’s Center for Community Vitality, one of their tasks is to engage tribal leaders and key stakeholders to enhance tribal economic development capacity. Their efforts began with visits to tribal leaders, starting with the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. 

“We wanted to start things in a way that reflected respect for tribal traditions so in our first meeting, we came bearing gifts, including maple syrup and blankets,” says Schlender, Extension educator in American Indian Leadership and Civic Engagement. 

He and Sampson work through an economic development grant to help build relationships, not only with the state’s 11 tribal nations but also with urban Indians, where Sampson, American Indian Leadership and Civic Engagement liaison, has long-standing connections. 

The formation of an inter-tribal economic development summit is a growing area of interest. Such a gathering could open doors to cost savings through measures like combined purchasing agreements, as well as sharing steps to diversify the economies of tribal communities. They’ve created a series of open conversations online focusing on areas including tribal retail economies, as well as a growing catalog of podcasts focused on Native American leadership. 

In addition to collaboration with her colleagues, Newman is also focused on an online leadership program, tentatively set to launch later this fall. 

“Tribal leadership has been generous with their time, especially considering the challenges they face in dealing with COVID-19,” says Newman, Extension Leadership and Civic Engagement educator. She is an enrolled member of the Ho-Chunk Nation. “To succeed, we need to design and offer programs through an indigenized lens, not checking boxes.” 

A need for repair

The University’s lack of consultation with tribes in the state was among historical wrongs cited in resolutions from the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council (MIAC) in July. While the council credited President Joan Gabel for initiating greater outreach, it also called upon the University to acknowledge past injustices. In her response, Gabel wrote “it is indeed time and long overdue that we develop a regular consultation process,” adding the University and tribes have “much work to do together.” 

Earlier in 2020, a lengthy analysis in High Country News chronicled how the expropriation of Native lands cleared the way for land grant universities, including Minnesota’s, via the Morrill Act. High Country News is a nonprofit investigative news organization whose mission is covering “the important issues and stories that define the Western United States.”

Both those developments have cast greater focus on the University’s need to strengthen relationships with tribal nations. For the Extension team, a welcome development has been their weekly meetings with Tadd Johnson, the University’s senior director of American Indian Tribal Nations Relations. As the first to hold this role, Johnson is the liaison between the University and the tribal nations; he was appointed by Gabel in 2019. 

“This has been an important step for us,” says Sampson, an enrolled member of the Leech Lake Nation. “Working with Tadd has refined our perspective and visibility, especially with his extensive experience with tribal governments and policy analysis.” 

A new sense of urgency

Face-to-face programming with stakeholders is a hallmark of Extension. Throughout the organization, COVID-19 has been a springboard for alternative outreach. The team’s Facebook page features updates on Native issues, business and leadership. 

Maroon and gold icon reads Extension Minnesota Indigenous Leadership Network

Schlender, an enrolled member of Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, hosts “Indigenized Connections on Air,” a podcast focusing on issues that affect tribal communities and leadership throughout Minnesota.

In the wake of the George Floyd homicide, the work has taken on new urgency. Schlender and the team recognize that racism and anti-racism work has to be done broadly and inclusively. “This happened in our backyard. We have to become better students of racism and its impact in order to make change,” Schlender says. 

The podcast is a way of sharing stories that focus on topics including resiliency and navigating change. “We’re in somewhat of a holding pattern because of COVID-19 and this is a way to kick into gear with a virtual platform with our podcast,” says Schlender, whose previous experience as a radio host shines through in his interviews. “What’s nice is that it’s accessible to anyone, anywhere, anytime.” 




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