Robert Powless, Native American educator and housing advocate, dead at 87

He was the 'soul' of housing project in downtown Duluth, a consultant said.

Robert Powless smiles with his former student Ivy Vainio in this Nov. 12, 2014, photo in the Anishinaabe Club Room. Vainio had Powless as a teacher when she was a student at the University of Minnesota Duluth. (Submitted photo)

Linda Powless told the story with a chuckle in her voice.

“When we drove across Oneida Street here in Lakeside, we had to toot the horn,” she said of her husband, Robert Powless. “And he would say, ‘And I am an enrolled member of the Oneida tribe.’”

A Korean War veteran, educator, housing advocate and proud member of the Oneida Nation of Indians of Wisconsin, Robert Powless died Saturday, surrounded by family members. He was 87.

Friends and family are remembering him as a compassionate and generous man who played a role in a Duluth housing project for American Indians that is seen as a national model.

“Dr. Powless, what he did getting that started, is reverberating all over the country right now,” said Zoe LeBeau, a supportive-housing consultant in Denver who formerly directed the Women’s Community Development Organization in Duluth.


She was referring to the Gimaajii-Mino-Bimaadizimin building, which opened in 2012 in a converted YWCA on Second Street. It’s a community center with 29 units of supportive housing for Native American women and children. For the past three years, the adjoining hall has been known as the Dr. Robert Powless Cultural Center.

Robert and Linda Powless kickstarted the project, LeBeau said, by putting up $50,000 of their own money.

“He was the soul of this project,” LeBeau said. “And he was also the voice of calm.”

That was only part of what Powless did as a retiree after a long academic career.

After serving with the U.S. Army in the Korean War, Powless earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and eventually his doctorate in educational administration from the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus.

He taught in Wisconsin, then came to the University of Minnesota Duluth in 1972 to head the American Indian studies program. Five years later, he was named chair of the corresponding program at the College of St. Scholastica, staying there until he was named president of Mount Senario College in Ladysmith, Wisconsin, in 1981.

Powless was lured back to UMD in the late 1980s, where one of his students was Ivy Vainio. She’s now coordinator of the art, climate and culture program for the American Indian Community Housing Organization, which operates the Gimaajii Mino-Bimaadizimin building.

“Dr. Powless was the first American Indian person who had the letters ‘Dr.’ or ‘Ph.D.’ associated with his name that I had ever met,” said Vainio, a Grand Portage Band of Ojibwe direct descendant. “It was very powerful for me to see him hold that stature in the college and in our community.”


He took his retirement in 2000 as an opportunity to embrace new projects, Linda Powless said.

“He had a dedication to the work of serving underserved people,” she said. “From housing issues, or issues of drug abuse, or issues of incarceration. He just quietly said, ‘I see the opportunity to work on it,’ and then he drew people to work around him.”

Though he was afflicted with dementia in recent years, Linda Powless still would bring her husband to the Gimaajii-Mino-Bimaadizimin building for visits. Both Vainio and LeBeau talked about seeing him there recently, the latter when she came to consult with AICHO on a future project.

“He was coming to AICHO every week at least to sit and be with the kids, and I got to see him,” LeBeau said, becoming emotional. “I’m so glad I got to see him before he passed.”

As important as his work in the Native American community was to him, her husband was most proud of his family, Linda Powless said. In addition to his wife, he is survived by two children and five grandchildren.

A memorial service will take place when it’s possible to do so, the family announced. His obituary can be found here .

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