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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. 

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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. 

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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. 

Historically underrepresented

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.

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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.

His accomplishments

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.” 

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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.”

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Bills Veteran RB Not Expected to Make Final Roster: Insider

Getty Duke Johnson #28 of the Miami Dolphins catches a pass during warm-ups before the game against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium on January 02, 2022.

The Buffalo Bills could have a three-headed monster at running back this upcoming season, which may mean bad news for veteran Duke Johnson.

The Bills signed the former Houston Texans and Miami Dolphins running back this offseason to bring some competition to the running back room, especially after second-year back Zack Moss struggled at times in 2021. But Moss has had a resurgence in training camp and rookie James Cook appears in line for a significant role, which one insider believes could block Johnson’s chances of making the final roster.

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Johnson on Outside of Roster Bubble

The Athletic’s Joe Buscaglia gave an early projection of Buffalo’s final 53-man roster, predicting that Johnson will be cut along with undrafted rookie free agent running back Raheem Blacksheer.

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Buscaglia noted that the roster makeup was going to depend on what the Bills planned to do with Moss, who started slowly in 2021 after having broken his ankle in the playoffs the previous season. But Moss has looked strong in training camp, especially in short-yardage situations, and gotten a significant amount of reps with the first-team offense.

“The only question here was whether the Bills would show any signs of disinterest in Moss,” Buscaglia wrote. “The exact opposite has happened as Moss has continuously worked with the Allen group daily in practice. There is a legitimate chance this backfield has three players, Moss, Singletary and Cook, all getting a role on game days.”

Bills camp is over! How do things stand heading into the preseason?

How many WR? OL? Any surprise cuts?

Here is my post-camp 53-man roster projection.

All @TheAthletic:

— Joe Buscaglia (@JoeBuscaglia) August 11, 2022

Moss flashed quite a bit of potential in his rookie season, rushing for 481 yards with four touchdowns and a 4.3-yard-per-carry average. He struggled to follow up that strong campaign, rushing for just 345 yards with a 3.6-yard-per-carry average last season.

As The Athletic’s Buscaglia noted, Moss has now played his way back into the conversation at training camp.

“The general expectation surrounding the Bills’ backfield is that it will be the Devin Singletary and James Cook show, with Zack Moss being a game-day inactive,” he wrote on July 26. “In practices like these, actions speak loudest, and Moss receiving ample time working with Allen through the first two practices shows he isn’t as far behind as some might think.”

Johnson Could Have Value Beyond Playing Field

Johnson may have a few aspects working in his favor. At age 28 he is the elder statesman of the Bills’ running back room, and has taken a hands-on role in helping Cook adjust to the NFL. Though Johnson acknowledged that he’s fighting with Cook for a roster spot, he still wanted to help out in any way he could, which could give him some added value when it’s time to make the final roster.

“You look at it as competition, but we also look at it – the older guys – as being able to mentor,” Johnson told the Buffalo News. “We get it. We know it’s a numbers game. We all know that, but it doesn’t stop us from helping each other out, because at the end of the day, we want this team to be successful, because this team gave all of us an opportunity to play football and we want to make sure that whoever they do choose is the right guy.”

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