Tribal chairwoman's vision of self-sustainability begins journey to fruition

Shannon Marvel

The new chairwoman of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate on the Lake Traverse Reservation plans to use her leadership to ensure a more sustainable way of life for everyone in her community.

Ella Robertson is just the second woman to lead the tribe. She was elected for the two-year term Nov. 6, defeating incumbent Dave Flute with 1,063 votes to his 891.

Lorraine Rousseau was the first woman to be elected chairwoman in 1992 when she defeated incumbent Russell Hawkins.

Robertson, who was raised and lives near Peever in the Big Coulee District, made time for a lunch break interview with the American News on Feb. 1, despite the day’s hectic schedule.

Dangerously low temperatures and winter storms closed the tribe’s administrative offices for the last three days of January, forcing Robertson and her team to play “catch up” in planning and legal consultations.

It’s clear by how others interact with Robertson that they respect the new tribal leader and are anxious to get a start on the new year.

And Robertson is already working to ensure her visions for a healthier, self-sustaining community progress.

Longterm, Robertson’s plan is to minimize negative impacts to the environment and create a more sustainable and sovereign way of life.

In order to do that, she has been focusing on climate impact reports.

“Myself and my family are involved in hunting and fishing — we’re seeing the impact,” Robertson said of waterfowl migration routes. “The flyway used to come right through here, but now it’s moved to the west and east of us because we’re drying up here.”

Robertson sees opportunities to take steps toward becoming less reliant on nonrenewable resources, such as installing green energy systems in new housing units or using hemp products for construction.

She directed her attention toward a dry erase board in her office that listed various subjects, with hemp and the Farm Bill being near the top of the list.

The new Farm Bill gives tribes the ability to self-regulate, develop and expand hemp production. Robertson helped start hemp production on the North Dakota side of the reservation last year, which has since proved to be a successful operation, she said.

Now she’s working on plans to expand the hemp business and exploring hemp products, such as hempcrete, which is a hemp-based alternative to fiberglass insulation.

She also is exploring whether the hemp could be used to create biodegradable bags at the Dakota Western bag factory in Roberts County.

“Last year our bag factory celebrated their 30th anniversary, which is a pretty awesome milestone,” Robertson said.

“Incorporating hemp to create another biodegradable bag would be so amazing,” she added.

Taking small steps towards self-sustainability might not seem like much, but Robertson said it’s progress either way.

“You look at the question, what is self-sustainability and all the different aspects of it? Culturally, we’ve been stewards of the land. We’re being conscious of the resources we have and not depleting those resources. If we didn’t think like that, we wouldn’t have anything,” she said.

She noted her desire to ramp up production of food products that would provide locally grown, chemical-free produce to feed the community.

Robertson also plans to revive a honey bee project and expand the tribe’s walleye breeding operation.

“Right now, we only breed walleye for stocking our own ponds, but we could potentially look at it as a marketable item,” Robertson said.

“Each of our three casino entities have walleye on the menu, but we don’t sell our walleye,” she said.

Revitalizing cultural traditions is also important to Robertson, specifically the tribe’s efforts in revitalization of family language nests, immersion classrooms at tribal schools, and the sale and publishing of Dakota language materials in multimedia.

“It takes time to get some of these things off the ground, but they’re already right here,” she said.

Women taking the lead

November’s election wasn’t the first time the 44-year-old mother, grandmother and business owner had sought the position of chairwoman.

“I threw in my hat for chairwoman (in 2016), and of course, I wasn’t successful,” Robertson said.

A portion of the feedback she received was tinged with sexist views.

“Some of the questions were, ‘Why didn’t you run for secretary first?’ and I feel that women are always expected to only run in certain positions. So for us — I’m the second chairwoman of the tribe — it’s kind of a historical thing,” Robertson said.

“Culturally, we really value our women. Women are the backbone of the tribe. Mothers and grandmothers are held in high regard and given a lot of respect. The majority of our homeowners, people employed, (heads) of household are women, so there’s definitely a change in the trend of who are the breadwinners in our tribe,” Robertson said.

She has a master’s degree in tribal administration and governance from the University of Minnesota-Duluth and previously worked as the planning and economic director for the tribe.

Her previous work experience and her caregiving nature were what led her to run for the chairman position.

“Because I worked in planning, we had our fingers in all these different areas — transportation, self-determination, sovereignty. Because we’re in charge of the census, you get to see the numbers reflecting the needs within our community,” Robertson said.

Not only did Robertson recognize the needs of her community, she felt the urge to do something to fulfill those needs for others.

“Culturally, family and our kinship system is very important,” she said.

“As a mom and a woman, you want to fix things, right? That’s how I feel as we see issues and problems arising within our community. It’s just having a love for your people and wanting things to be better,” Robertson explained.

She said her family’s strong support system while growing up allowed her to see the bigger picture for everyone in the community.

“It’s not just for yourself — you’re looking out for everybody. We have a number of homeless. We have a number that are struggling with addiction or even simple things like financial struggles,” Robertson said. “You’re seeing the housing shortages and our transportation needs because our communities are seven districts spread out throughout the reservation. And you see the struggles they go through trying to get to home, go to work.”

She also has an open perspective that strives for cooperation and open communication with nontribal residents.

“I went to the public school system. I have a strong sense of who I was as a Dakota person. I feel that when you’re strong in that, you don’t have conflicts as far as creating those relationships with non-Indian people in your community,” Robertson said.

“I feel that, overall, what impacts one impacts us all, especially when you’re living in a small community.”

Ella Robertson is only the second chairwoman of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate.