Oglala Sioux Executive Director celebrates 3 years at job
By ABBY PETERSEN
Jul. 29, 2017
PINE RIDGE, S.D. (AP) — At first glance, Darrell Brown Bull's office resembles a college dorm room.
The walls are painted bright orange; a mini fridge buzzes in the corner; whiteboards hold lists of important names and tasks; and a Darth Vader bowl filled with Jolly Ranchers candies rests comfortably on his desk.
But behind his chair, there's a dead giveaway that Brown Bull is not a student anymore: Three framed degrees from the University of Minnesota Duluth hang on the wall (though even the degrees are hugged by Star Wars movie regalia).
At 32, Brown Bull is the youngest executive director the Oglala Sioux Tribe has ever had. With July 24 marking his third year in the post, he's also the longest serving director in tribal history.
Brown Bull's office sits in the middle of Pine Ridge, the largest community on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which is the second-largest Native American reservation in the nation. As executive director, Brown Bull's job on paper is to ensure that 75 tribal programs comply with tribal policies and get their jobs done. He answers to the tribal president, Scott Weston.
Informally, however, Brown Bull also listens to complaints, meets with department heads and does what he calls "firefighting" to ensure those in tribal administration and elected government get along.
They often do not, Brown Bull told the Rapid City Journal (http://bit.ly/2v9Zgxb ).
Brown Bull was born in 1984 in Kyle but traveled around the U.S. for the first few years of his life because his father was in the Marines. His mother, Edwina, is the head counselor at Little Wound School in Kyle, where Brown Bull attended school as a child.
He's affectionately known as "Tiger" by family and friends, after his grandmother gave him the nickname when he would growl instead of cry as a child.
After graduating from high school in 2003, Brown Bull applied to Black Hills State University. He signed up for classes and hiked up to campus, only to leave a few days later when he got a call from the financial aid office. No one had ever told him he needed to apply for it.
Brown Bull headed to Oglala Lakota College in Kyle for a few semesters. He hopped around the country, taking online classes while his girlfriend attended a fellowship at Dartmouth College.
In 2010, he graduated from the University of Minnesota-Duluth with degrees in American Indian studies and psychology.
Brown Bull had gone into college wanting to be a clinical psychologist, like his mother. After taking a few electives in American Indian studies, he learned about things he'd never been taught in high school: The Dawes Act, the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. By his senior year, he was a teaching assistant for professor Tadd Johnson, who was just beginning to plan for a new master's program to teach future tribal leaders.
When the master's in tribal governance and administration program in Duluth was accepting applications for its first cohort, Brown Bull applied. Through funding from the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Tribe Community Endowed Scholarship, Brown Bull could go through the program debt-free. He graduated in 2013.
Brown Bull headed back to Pine Ridge to see how he could help the tribe, which was experiencing a rash of teenage suicides. He applied to be executive director of the tribe without really expecting to get it — he was 29 at the time. He got it anyway, and he's been there ever since.
Brown Bull sports his education proudly and even jokes about competing with his mother, who has a Ph.D. He's also thankful, because he knows his tribe could never have afforded to send him to the master's program with the scholarship.
Johnson, his professor, is an enrolled member of the Bois Forte band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. He had worked on a reservation for more than 25 years and realized that there was really no place to go to learn how to run a reservation — tribal administrators typically learn by doing.
Johnson created the program he wanted to see.
Around 2009, he began asking various tribal leaders and administrators what they would put in a course for future leadership if they could build one.
"So we created this curriculum, and we kept bouncing these ideas off of people," Johnson said.
Since the masters of tribal governance and administration program was designed for current tribal leaders, classes were offered in the classroom and online. Their first year, they expected about three or four applicants. They got 30, most of whom were people Johnson had consulted on the way.
Brown Bull was among the 22 that graduated from the first of five graduating classes.
"Being a tribal executive director is one of the hardest jobs on the planet," Johnson said. "He has the political and personal skills to pull that off, and I think it's a unique mixture of the right personality and the right skill set to do that job."
Being the youngest and longest running executive director is something Brown Bull is proud of, but it's also what he calls a "big experience." He said he rewrites his resignation letter every week. He's gotten two job offers from other places with better pay and better benefits.
"The idea of being here and knowing what our people struggle through and knowing the avenues available so we don't have to (struggle), that's one of the things that pushes me and keeps me here," he said. "We have so much potential to be progressive and get things done, but we don't."
He's frustrated with the lack of coordination between elected tribal government and tribal administration, as well as the corruption he sees in the way that government operates. He's frustrated with an outdated tribal constitution, the absence of term-limits for council members, and a lack of opportunities for younger generations. Sometimes, he feels like a high school teacher fighting classroom gossip.
"People are literally dying, people are literally killing themselves," Brown Bull said. "And here we are, trying to fight over who has this job or who is in what position. That's not the point. The point is that we need to focus on these services. We shouldn't be such a failure as a government that people are taking their own lives because of it."
Battling back against those negative patterns keeps him motivated to stay.
He takes pride in the fact that the tribe has been taken off high-risk status by the federal government, which previously meant the tribe received its federal funding in small chunks to ensure it wasn't mismanaged. He sees hope in younger people, many of whom he's hired into administrative positions.
"The number of people that just want that chance, that just want to try and feel like they're helping, that's what I've been doing here," Brown Bull said.
For now, Brown Bull still drives the hour from Kyle to Pine Ridge every morning to his office, but he holds higher aspirations, including to one day become a U.S. senator.
"At the end of the day," Brown Bull says, "our people need to understand that what happens in this tribal government, what happens with assistance, what happens with economic development, with everything here, it all rests on the shoulders of our people, because they make that vote."
Information from: Rapid City Journal, http://www.rapidcityjournal.com