A couple months ago, Tadd Johnson took the reins of a new position within the University of Minnesota system created to ensure an ongoing dialogue exists between the 11 tribes of Minnesota and all five University of Minnesota campuses.

"If we do that we can do a lot of things together and avoid conflict," Johnson said. "The university needs to get there and it's not there yet. So that's my job."

Both the state and federal governments have gotten used to consulting with Native American tribal governments under policies that require them to do so, said Johnson, who's also a professor in the American Indian Studies Department at the University of Minnesota Duluth and an enrolled member of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa.

"Right now the University of Minnesota is lagging far behind the feds and the state and I can't think of two slower entities to be third place in a race with than the federal government and the state government," Johnson said.

In his former career as a tribal attorney, government-to-government communication became a way of life for him.

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So when UMD asked Johnson to develop a master's program in the American Indian Studies Department a decade ago, he made it a point to consult with tribes for a couple years first.

After spending his first few years in academia consulting with tribal governments, he helped devise a series of courses that make up a master's program in tribal administration and governance. Johnson continues to direct the program while serving in his new position as senior director of American Indian tribal nations relations.

Currently, Johnson is working on re-consulting with all tribal governments to make sure they still agree with an existing Board of Regents policy that outlines the best way to engage tribal nations with the university.

He hopes to wrap that process up soon so tribal governments can start naming delegates to serve on an advisory board to communicate with the top leaders of the university system.

"My goals at this job are to put the Native nations advisory board in place and staff it at the beginning and allow the tribes to create it in their own image and likeness and run it themselves," Johnson said.

In his consultation with tribal governments, he found nearly every one had a problem that the university could conceivably solve if only ongoing dialogue was in place, which is why Johnson said his one piece of wisdom he can offer to colleagues is to spend twice as much time listening when working with tribes.

"I think the university will find it extremely valuable to talk with the tribes," Johnson said. "I always have."

UMD professor Tadd Johnson poses for a portrait in front of tribal flags Friday, Feb. 28, 2020. Johnson recently took on the role of senior director of American Indian tribal nations relations in the University of Minnesota system. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
UMD professor Tadd Johnson poses for a portrait in front of tribal flags Friday, Feb. 28, 2020. Johnson recently took on the role of senior director of American Indian tribal nations relations in the University of Minnesota system. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

Melanie Benjamin, chief executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, said she would like to see the partnership with the university allow more band members to earn a higher degree which they can, in turn, bring back to the reservation, building its capacity as a government.

"I would also like the state of Minnesota to realize that we're not a special interest group, but we're a government. We have political status. We determine our own destiny," Benjamin said. "I believe Tadd Johnson's the right person for the job to help facilitate those kinds of discussions."

A former student of Johnson's, April McCormick, now the secretary-treasurer for the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Indians, also said Johnson is an obvious pick for the position.

"Tadd embodies a servant leader who I believe has made an indelible mark within Indian Country and the nation," McCormick said. "I think he has inspired us all in our own ways to be that type of leader in whatever capacity we serve in our communities."

Kevin DuPuis, chairman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, said in a statement to the News Tribune that Johnson's "exceptional" background and expertise in federal Indian law and Native American history make him an "excellent" pick.

"Often times, tribal voices and perspectives are overlooked in big educational institutions," DuPuis said. "I commend the University of Minnesota for this effort and believe it will go a long way to strengthen relations that benefit everyone in Minnesota.”

DuPuis said the effort aligns with with the executive order Governor Tim Walz signed into law in April that requires more state agencies to have a tribal consultation policy. On Friday, the governor's office announced the hiring of two directors to be tasked with implementing the policy between the 24 state agencies and 11 tribal nations in Minnesota.

One of those agencies includes the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, led by Commissioner Dennis Olson, an enrolled member of the Fond du Lac Band with graduate degrees from UMD's American Indian Studies Department.

Johnson's new position within the University of Minnesota system is one of only a few that exist in the country, Olson said. While the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system has had something similar in the past, Olson said liaison positions now only exist at some individual campuses.

"The difficulty with positions like this is that it is an incredibly large job and huge responsibility to work across an entire university system or a state college and university system as one person or as a small team," Olson said. "It takes a special person to first come in with some well established relationships, but then also with the understanding of how to do it and do it right."

In order for those relationships to be productive, Olson said the university has to build trust and acknowledge past mistakes, which has included using and tokenizing Native Americans for research purposes and filling museums with Native American human remains and items of cultural and spiritual significance.

"A lot of tribal nations remember that time in the university's history very well," Olson said, later adding: "I would just say for those that are maybe a little critical of the work or a little cautious about what's to come ... 'Give it some time. This work takes patience to get it right.'"

Olson said the university's decision to create Johnson's position signals real progress surrounding how higher education institutes serve Native American students, something his office is committed to improving.

The decision to create the position came from the university's vice president for equity and diversity, Michael Goh, who was appointed to the job in 2018.

When Goh and Johnson first met around that time, the two began discussing the lack of ongoing consultation between the university and tribal nations. It was a point of conversation that stuck with Goh.

"He's been the one putting the issue in front of us," Goh said.

After Joan Gabel took over as the University of Minnesota president in the summer of 2019, Goh created the position and urged Johnson to apply.

Ultimately, Goh said he would like to see the position lead to increased access to higher education for Native American communities.

"I think it starts conceptually with the recognition that American Indians are not a multicultural or a racial ethnic category, but they are really a political entity that arises from a history of being mistreated and treaties that are not always fully complied with," Goh said.

After several years of Johnson urging the university to establish open and ongoing communication with the 11 tribal nations of Minnesota, it's doing so, but that doesn't mean he believe's it's ready.

"I'm going to be awfully pushy on a lot of things," Johnson said.