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New tribal college president has extensive experience

The White Earth Tribal and Community College in Mahnomen. DL NEWSPAPERS/Paula Quam

Terry Janis, the new president of the White Earth Tribal College, grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

“I grew up riding horses and running around and being free,” he said fondly of his childhood on Pine Ridge. There were difficulties there, he says, but also a lot of beauty.

After high school he went on to Macalester College in St. Paul where he earned degrees in anthropology and pre-law.

For two years he helped develop a new program there for Native American teen fathers.

“It was designed to help support those teen fathers and show them how to pursue their academic careers in order to support their families and not leave, but to stay and help confront the issues in their lives,” said Janis.

Although rewarding, he knew social work wasn’t his “gig.”

Janis went on to earn a master’s degree in education from Harvard and a law degree from the University of Arizona.

There, he took his studies of indigenous treaty law with him, studying under and along with famed Indian law researcher, Vine Deloria.

Janis stayed at the University of Arizona, running the tribal law program there.

He later worked for six years as an attorney at the Indian Law Resource Center, which focuses on indigenous rights and international law.

Then it was on to Northern Arizona University, where he was the first director of a Native American institution there.

Janis came back to Minnesota roughly 10 years ago to work for the Northwest Area Foundation in St. Paul, a private organization that was providing grants designed to ease poverty in pockets of the region.

The massive land-loss for Native Americans is a big reason for that poverty, Janis says, and his work in international law and treaties has been a big talking point throughout his work in poverty-reduction.

But his name began hitting the local media last year when he was hired by the White Earth Reservation to help navigate the constitutional reform process.

Charged with interpreting the newly drafted constitution (that was voted into law last fall) for the people of the reservation, he held dozens of informational meetings on and off the reservation.

“But I didn’t take a position for or against it, and I still don’t to this day,” he said. “My job was to help people understand what it meant, what the issues were and then see that people assert their sovereignty of making up their own minds and voting their conscience.”

When that job was done, Janis was free to apply for the president of the White Earth Tribal and Community College – an idea that others had brought to his attention as struggles in leadership there jeopardized the school.

“The work I’ve done as an attorney and in philanthropy, I’ve gained a lot of insight into the process of educating community and institutions, in helping institutions in figuring out which way they want to go, organizing and moving in a good direction.”

And tribal colleges hold a special place in Janis’s heart. Although he didn’t attend one, his older sisters did where he grew up, and that was life changing for him.

“When I saw them go, it helped me know that if I wanted, I could go to college… because my sisters did,” he said, “and that tribal college made it possible.”

He says tribal colleges are special places where the students attending are almost always there because they want to make a real difference in their communities.

“Knowing in your bones what opportunity feels like because of the role that a tribal college plays — not only in your community but in your own family — that is my vision for this college… recognition that it represents that kind of hope.”