Four Lac du Flambeau residents and tribal members are taking a new master’s program that will benefit not only themselves, but – more importantly – their community as a whole.
The Master of Tribal Administration and Governance (MTAG) was approved Feb. 10, 2011, by the University of Minnesota Board of Regents, and Jeanne Wolfe, Brooks Big John, Jeaninne Brugier and Anne Radtke are part of cohort two – the second class ever to participate in the University of Minnesota Duluth’s program.
“The main reason for wanting to get involved with the MTAG program is because I’ve made that commitment to my tribe. I’m not going anywhere. I want to be here,” Big John said. “With all the other things I’ve been involved with – being on the council, being tribal chairman, working as our education director and prosecutor – and I have my family here. I’m grounded here.”
The program’s purpose is to train future American Indian tribal leaders and managers through coursework based on ethics, sovereignty, management, budgets and leadership.
“Having grown up here all my life and seeing the tribe doing well and then not doing well, this program will help us,” Wolfe said. “It teaches a different approach to economic development in Indian country to make it sustainable.”
Many students in the program already serve their communities as tribal administrators, council members or tribal leaders. And it’s no different for Wolfe, Big John, Brugier and Radtke.
“All of us are employees of the tribe. Jeanne is our human resources director; I am the Tribal Employee Rights Office (TERO) director, Jeaninne is our tribal administrator and Anne works for the natural resources department,” Big John said.
Introduction to the program
Two years ago Big John heard about MTAG through a presentation at the Great Lakes Indian Tribal Council by Tadd Johnson, professor and chairman of the Department American Indian Studies, who will be directing the graduate program.
“One of the things that stuck out in my mind is that Tadd said, ‘We are going to go out in Indian country and we are going to consult with tribes to develop this program to help people that want to be involved with administration and governance,’” Big John said.
But at that time he was tribal chairman and in no position to take on a master’s program.
“I don’t want to make excuses, but honestly, my time was pretty valuable and I really couldn’t do it,” Big John said.
Going back to school as a non-traditional student is difficult to do, especially while trying to balance a full-time job and raise a family.
Wolfe faced similar challenges when she learned about the program through the educational department. Though she started filling out an application, life soon got in the way and she was forced to shelve what she had started.
“I would have been in cohort one if I would have followed through,” Wolfe said.
But when their schedules slowed down a bit and with a little support from each other, they decided to move forward with MTAG.
“So we were talking at work, she’s kind of pushing me and I’m pushing her,” Big John said. “Eventually I was the first one accepted out of us four, and I’m telling Jeanne, ‘I’m in. What’s going on? Don’t be waiting around.’ The next thing you know she’s got all her stuff in and she’s accepted.”
And it happened about the same way with Brugier and Radtke, Big John added.
“We kind of all coaxed each other into, ‘Let’s go. We’re going to do this thing,’” Big John said.
The four non-traditional students now have two weeks of school under their belts, and they say it’s not going to be an easy road to their master’s degree.
“I’m on tribal council and with TERO, and I run our baseball program and I have a bunch of kids. We’re on the move. Jeanne’s got a family she’s got to take care of, too. So we’re spread thin,” Big John said. “Trying to be committed to our job during the day, in the evenings we’re going to bust on this homework, and trying to be good parents yet, active family members.”
Though the road to getting their master’s degree in tribal administration is a daunting one, it still holds some excitement for Big John.
“I almost felt a little giddy getting back into school after all these years – excited, but yet apprehensive because we know it’s going to be challenging. So we’ll see with our busy lives how we juggle this.”
But both Wolfe and Big John agree, it’s all a matter of getting into a routine.
“I think after this first semester here we’ll have it down then,” Big John said.
Students of the MTAG program
As students of the MTAG program, they meet once every three weeks at UMD for the weekend.
“The rest is done on a very aggressive online course where it’s pretty structured. We’re very busy with that,” Big John said.
Because of the difficult workload and online courses, they formed a study group that will take place Thursday nights, 5-8 p.m.
“There’s going to be some aggressive, active courses we’re involved with on the Web. So Thursday nights we’re going to be there to encourage each other,” Big John said.
Traveling to the UMD campus makes for a long weekend for the four students.
“That first Friday when we had that long day, we had to be at coffee and donuts at 8:30 in the morning and our last class ended at 9 o’clock at night,” Wolfe said. “The interest though – I was expecting to be burned out, wanting to get out of there and being bored, but I wasn’t.”
The first classes they are taking in the MTAG program are Principles of Tribal Sovereignty I, Tribal Administration and Governance I and Foundations of Leadership and Ethics in Indigenous Community Life and Organizations. Down the road, classes will focus on topics that include finance and accounting, leadership, self governance, ethics and law.
“I’m looking forward to the financial part. I’m really inexperienced in understanding how the money is trickled down,” Wolfe said.
After learning more about finances and accounting, she hopes to find a more efficient way to allocate funds that are appropriated to the tribe and establish a system similar to the tribes in Minnesota, who are under self governance.
“Some of the things I look forward to about this program is the tribal sovereignty courses,” Big John said. “As a tribal leader over the years, we’ve had to wrap ourselves around that term ‘sovereignty’ and what it means to us as a tribe and to me and the rest of my colleagues who sit here as tribal leaders.”
With his degree and the knowledge he gains, Big John has the goal to strengthen their tribal sovereignty.
“We could become more self-determined not having to be dependent upon the bureau for any type of hep. And that’s kind of the tribe’s goal all along here is to become self dependent,” Big John said.
Based off tribal input, the MTAG program studied tribes that were successful to see what they were doing differently than other tribes.
“Once [these strategies] get out there and practiced in Indian country, I see us being able to function at a top level with our neighbors,” Wolfe said.
Extensive consultation with Midwest tribal leaders took place from 2009-10, which was used as the foundation for the program.
“That’s why I was drawn to it. Without consulting the tribes, you don’t know the real needs of the tribes. And who knows better than your tribal people. We live and breathe our needs every day,” Big John said.
All the while they are learning more about tribal administration and governance, they will also be making important contacts with their classmates.
“That’s the way it benefits the tribe, too, with us making these contacts,” Big John said. “We’re going to know 26 different people from tribes across the country.”
What the future holds
Because Wolfe, Big John, Brugier and Radtke are part of the second class to go through the MTAG program, they will help to shape what it will be like in the future.
“Being there as the second class, we’re able to help iron the kinks out, help it have a little more stability and add accountability to the program to make it better for the people coming behind,” Big John said.
And as soon as they receive their master’s degree, Wolfe and Big John have plans to further their education even more.
“We’re going to have a master’s degree in two short years,” Big John said. “Right after this program’s done, from the talks that I’ve had with Jeanne, we’re going to hop right into their doctoral program.”
As difficult as it is to balance a master’s program with a career and family life, the four Lac du Flambeau MTAG students are doing it more for their community than themselves.
“I’ve always wanted tribal council members to keep the big picture in mind to help the community to be vibrant and sustainable and provide jobs for the people,” Wolfe said. “I think this program is going to help me get credibility on advocating for that kind of stuff.”
On top of that, it’s also setting an example for younger generations.
“Even though we’re older non-traditional students, I want the younger people to know that somebody from their reservation did this,” Wolfe said.
“Role models – We can reach out and help the ones behind us,” Big John said, agreeing with Wolfe. “And we’re going to do that – we’re going to push more people to do this program next year and we’re going to keep fueling the fire.”
Sarah Hirsch may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org