A university that was founded on tribal land and has a history of injustices against Native Americans is now finding ways to reckon with that past.
Tadd Johnson has been the face of that work. A member of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, Johnson was the University of Minnesota’s first senior director of tribal relations and this year became the first Native member of the Board or Regents.
Years before Johnson became senior director of tribal relations in 2019, he worked on addressing the Native community’s mistrust of the university. In taking on that role, the university and tribal nations began meeting regularly, at least three times a year – something that hadn’t been done in the U’s history, Johnson said.
The history between the university and tribal nations is complex and riddled with occurrences of inequity and injustices, according to the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council.
Johnson, who has worked with both the affairs council and the university, said the university’s founding is a big contributor to the Native community’s mistrust of the university today.
In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, which took large sums of Indigenous lands and turned them into endowments for colleges and universities. Through the land grant, in 1868, the University of Minnesota was assigned 94,631 acres of land, which belonged to Dakota and Ojibwe tribes.
Considering that history and deep mistrust, the tribal nations and the university did not have formal relations until President Joan Gabel’s administration. Instead, it was tribal consultation, which didn’t involve regular meetings, Johnson said.
University of Minnesota Regent Darrin Rosha said Johnson has been instrumental in further developing the relationship between the university and Minnesota’s tribal nations. “A lot of progress has been made, which has helped with advancing those dialogues between the university and Minnesota’s tribal nations,” he said.
Johnson previously was a faculty member at the University of Minnesota Duluth, where he created courses for a master’s program in tribal administration and governance. He also led Tribal-State Relations Trainings, which became mandatory for all employees of Minnesota state agencies.
In his role as senior director for tribal relations, he started conversations and relationship building with the Tribal nations.
He also facilitated conversations with the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, which includes Minnesota’s 11 tribal nations. Taking the council’s lead, he worked to improve trust by getting the university to acknowledge past wrongdoing, with future hopes of reconciliation.
First tribal member regent
In mid-July, Gov. Tim Walz appointed Johnson to the University of Minnesota Board of Regents. Johnson is the first tribal member to serve on the board but isn’t the first Native American to be considered for the role.
In January 2021, D. Brandon Alkire, an attorney and citizen of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation, was recommended by the Regent Candidate Advisory Council, along with two other St. Paul residents to represent the Fourth Congressional District on the board. In March 2021, the Minnesota State Legislature voted to elect four new regents, and Alkire was not one of them.
Johnson’s appointment came after representatives from the student association at the University of Minnesota Morris drafted a letter petitioning for Walz to appoint a tribal member from the 8th Congressional District. In the petition, the association cited the need for tribal input when appointing a regent, specifically because the 8th district covers large swaths of tribal land.
The Minnesota Student Association on the Twin Cities campus co-signed the petition. The Minnesota Indian Affairs Council also advocated for his appointment through a resolution sent to Walz nearly two years ago following the passing of former regent Kao Ly Ilean Her.
In the resolution, the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council pointed out that the tribal nations of Minnesota are the only historically underrepresented group in Minnesota to have never been represented on the Board of Regents, calling it “a historical injustice” that was “long overdue.”
The resolution also noted that having a tribal member regent would help the university build relationships with the tribal nations, which was a previously stated goal of Gabel.
“The appointment of Tadd Johnson is, I think, one of the biggest progressions that have come out of the (affairs council’s) resolutions,” said Shannon Geshick, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council. “And that was really a recommendation that came from the elected tribal leaders.”
In addition to the resolution, the council sent the university a letter in July 2020 with a list of barriers to strengthening their relationship.
The letter cited a need for injustices to be acknowledged. Among the injustices listed was the medical school’s experimentation on children in the Red Lake Nation in the 1950s, attempts by the university to replicate the DNA of wild rice without involving tribal governments, and the university’s use of Fond Du Lac land at the Cloquet Forestry Center.
The letter also pointed out the university’s failure to teach about tribal economies and their history as a land-grant institution, in addition to a historical lack of effort in meeting with the tribal nations.
Johnson took those items and brought them to Gabel’s attention. That year, he and Gabel met several times with the tribal nations to begin working on the list from the letter.
Johnson is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Law School. He was also the director of graduate studies for the Department of American Indian Studies when serving on the University of Minnesota-Duluth faculty.
His work toward opening dialogue between tribal nations and the university includes the TRUTH project, in which the university, in collaboration with the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, are researching several historical facts, such as the financial loss of tribes through the land-grab. Many of the issues that had not been looked into or addressed in the past.
“We uncovered a lot of very tragic things that occurred in Minnesota history and the inner relationships between the university and the tribes,” Johnson said.
The project findings are expected to be shared in the fall, according to Geshick.
Because of Johnson’s role, the university has made some strides in tribal relations. One is acknowledgment and the promise to repatriate objects from a collection of Mimbres-affiliated cultural artifacts, something that the Indian affairs council has long demanded, Geshick said.
“We know that he’s gonna advocate in the best way for tribes because he’s shown that. He’s proven that throughout the years of his work,” Geshick said. “We trust Tadd; the tribes trust Tadd. He’s proven that he has the best intentions. So we’re in good hands.”
His relationship with the tribes and the university is a unique perspective that the board hasn’t had before.
“He’s got a tremendous history between the university and the Native American tribes in Minnesota, which I think is a very valuable component to his service on the board,” Rosha said.
Johnson was a tribal attorney for more than 30 years and also served as a tribal court judge and a tribal administrator.
He spent five years with the U.S. House of Representatives and became staff director and counsel to the Subcommittee on Native American Affairs. In 1997, President Clinton appointed him to chair the National Indian Gaming Commission.
“With a background in leadership, education, and deep understanding of government on all levels, he (Johnson) brings a wealth of higher education expertise to this group,” Walz said at the appointment to the Board of Regents.
What’s to come?
The same day of his appointment, Johnson attended the board’s annual retreat in Red Wing. While there, he met the rest of the regents and got a sense of some dynamics.
Because he’s now a regent, he will maintain his relationships with the tribal nations and the university, but he will do so a couple of steps removed now.
“As a regent, I’m particularly supposed to create a distance between myself and the university. So I’m doing that,” he said.
He also cannot continue his role teaching tribal state relations courses in a professional capacity but would like to volunteer in that realm.
While his presence on the board means a lot to many Indigenous people, he wants it to be clear that he wants the best for all university students, not just Native students.
“I want to do an excellent job as a Regent and make sure that students at the University of Minnesota are getting the best possible education they can. That’s my main goal,” he said. “I’m hoping I can keep up with the other regents, and I’m confident that in other jobs that I’ve taken during my lifetime, whether it’s congressional staff director or running a small federal agency, I somehow managed to rise to the occasion, and I’m hoping to do that this time.”
Geshick thinks his position on the board will make a tremendous difference.
“Just having Tadd there at the table is a reminder not to forget native people, not to forget to include us. Because oftentimes we’re invisible, we’re the smallest percentage of the population,” she said. “Just having that presence is (something) I know is gonna be impactful.”