Regent Tadd Johnson discusses new role, UMN improvement with Indigenous communities

Johnson said he wants to prioritize Indigenous education amidst his campaign for reelection.


Image by Liam Armstrong

The Board of Regents convene for their September meeting at the McNamara Alumni Center on Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021.

by Lara Boudinot

The University of Minnesota’s first Native American regent, Tadd Johnson, must decide which issues to prioritize as he begins his temporary term on the Board of Regents this fall.

The Board inducted Johnson during their September meeting, however, he will not serve a full six-year term. Johnson is filling the vacancy created by the resignation of David McMillan, who stepped down to become interim chancellor of University of Minnesota-Duluth (UMD). With only six months guaranteed on the Board, Johnson said he wants to be a voice for the Native American community while also demonstrating his capabilities in hopes of reelection in February.

Multiple people coming together to advocate for Native American representation resulted in the new regent receiving the position, according to Johnson.

Since the University’s establishment in 1851, there had never been a Native American regent.

“I saw how important the Board of Regents were in policy making and I thought, ‘That’s a place where a Native American should be,’” Johnson said.

Johnson, an enrolled member of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, attended the University’s Law School. He previously served the University as director of graduate studies in the American Indian Studies Department and as a full professor at UMD.

“UMD is thrilled to see our friend, former colleague and professor emeritus Tadd Johnson join the Board of Regents,” UMD Public Relations Officer Lynne Williams said in an email to the Minnesota Daily. “He brings a wealth of knowledge and experience across higher education and in tribal relations.”

More recently, Johnson was invited to join the Twin Cities campus as senior director of American Indian Tribal Nations Relations by University President Joan Gabel in 2019 before being appointed as Regent.

“[The University is] deeply committed to addressing our complicated history with Minnesota’s 11 sovereign nations,” Gabel said in an interview with the Minnesota Daily on Tuesday. “Regent Johnson’s leadership … positions him to be a very effective member of the overall governance structure of the institution.”

While a professor, Johnson helped to establish the Towards Recognition and University-Tribal Healing (TRUTH) Project, which seeks to improve relations between the University and Minnesota’s Tribal Nations.

“I trust he will shape and guide the University with tribes and Native communities in mind during his tenure as Regent,” Misty Blue, project coordinator for the TRUTH Project, said in an email to the Minnesota Daily.

Johnson said he wants to address the University’s responsibility to Native American communities as a land-grant institution because of how much the 11 tribes contributed to the University’s development.

“That should not be forgotten, that’s got to be remembered on a daily basis,” Johnson said.

Johnson also discussed further education for University faculty, staff and students on Native American history and tribal affairs.

“I have trained more state employees than University employees, professors or staff combined,” Johnson said. “I feel like that is my purpose, to educate the non-Indian population on Native Americans.”

Johnson also said he wants to create a tribal law program in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs to serve the Native American community and provide education to the non-Indigenous population.

Although there are many aspects he seeks to improve, Johnson said he feels Gabel takes his ideas very seriously and the University is moving in the right direction toward Native American inclusion. According to him, Gabel has taken steps to add Native American voices to her cabinet with the addition of Karen Diver as Senior Advisor to the President on Native American Affairs and began the University’s first regular tribal consultations with Johnson’s help.

While working on these topics, Johnson must also campaign to keep his new role as Regent.

“Next February is really the big test as to whether or not I get to keep this [position],” Johnson said. “This appointment, if it is all I get, is the great honor of my lifetime.”