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Alumnus leads the Ho-Chunk Nation

There is no “typical day” for the man who leads a nation.

Jon Greendeer, ’04, Stevens Point, the president of Wisconsin’s Ho-Chunk Nation, serves 7,250 tribal members and more than 3,300 Nation employees (about 70 percent of whom are not Ho-Chunk), but also feels a responsibility to the general public served by Ho-Chunk businesses.

“Ours is politics like nowhere else,” he said.

So Greendeer takes to the road quite a bit, driving from his home in Point to the Ho-Chunk headquarters in Black River Falls, to Madison to work with leaders in state government, to the various communities across the state where members of the Nation live or even to Washington D.C. to work with the federal government.

Elected on June 7, Greendeer took the oath of office on July 6 in Black River Falls. He was presented with an eagle feather by a Ho-Chunk veteran after taking the oath, representing his protection as he leads the executive branch of the Nation.

His duties also include working closely with the Nation’s other units of government, the Legislative branch which appoints among itself the Nation’s vice president, Greg Blackdeer, ‘04, Black River Falls.

 Other branches include the General Council, a group made of all voting members over the age of 18, and the Judiciary, as well as directing 11 executive departments, such as Housing, Education, Health, Heritage Preservation, Business and Social Services.

“I’m usually the last to leave the office,” he said.  But he would not have it any other way, he added. “To say my work is a privilege is an understatement.  I’d do anything for the Ho-Chunk people.”

An enrolled member of the Ho-Chunk Nation with additional Oneida heritage, Greendeer previously served the Ho-Chunk Nation for three years as the Executive Administrative Officer, the essential “right hand” of former President George Lewis who asked him to join his staff shortly after Greendeer graduated from Point.

So while he’s served as an administrator before, this role is very different. “It’s actually about the responsibility. When things go wrong, it’s your call to duty to take care of it.”

Greendeer considers himself a hands-on, blue collar guy. He would like to take the unique structure of the Nation and bring the government into the laps of the people, but he won’t do anything that gives the sense of being progressive at the expense of their culture.

“My first priority is to preserve the Ho-Chunk way of life as best as we can,” he said. “To be a strong leader I have to be compassionate but not be afraid to step up and make tough decisions. I have to create solutions and be a better person. The university gave me the confidence and understanding of how to implement change.”

Greendeer’s journey to Point was not a straight one. Denied admission, he decided he would not give up but rather begin his college career at UW-Marathon County, where he excelled as Student Association vice president and also started a Native American student organization. After earning his Associate’s Degree there, he was able to transfer to UW-Stevens Point and finally reached his goal of becoming a Pointer.

Intending at first to study natural resources, Greendeer instead developed an affinity to political science and was soon deeply involved in the Student Government Association and the University Council.

“The whole Department of Political Science is amazing,” he said. “You could not pick a better one. The professors are as much students of their discipline as the people they teach. That’s an incredible quality—to learn from your students. It made me feel like a peer and it nurtured my desire for a career in political science.”

Despite his rocky start, Greendeer is very proud to be a Pointer, and even his six-year-old daughter, Rio, knows when they drive by the campus “there’s Daddy’s school.” He has served on the Alumni Association Board of Directors since 2008 and his family, which includes his wife, Christine and eldest daughter Brittany, returns to campus often for games, parades and other activities.

The Ho-Chunk Nation also values education, he said, as it is the only tribe that he is aware of that requires their representatives to have four year degrees. Given the expectations of the academic capital, Greendeer says, the Nation must stimulate scholastic growth. He is connecting with educators and integrating college courses at schools with large percentages of Ho-Chunk students and bringing them to UWSP, acting as a role model himself by attending these visits with them.

There are several UWSP alumni working in the Ho-Chunk offices, he said, due to its location, reputation and majors such as natural resources, anthropology and sociology, which are of special interest to the Ho-Chunk Nation.

“The university does prepare people for leadership, if they so choose to want it,” he said. “UWSP creates ways for people to make decisions. In my position, I have to be able to handle the volatility of tribal politics. I have the confidence to know that I may not have the answer but coming from UWSP, I know how to find it.”

 “My grandmother said it best when I was deciding to run,” said Greendeer. “She asked me, ‘Do you know how lucky you are?’ referring to my education. Then she said, ‘You tell me who would be better than to run the Nation than my grandson?’ So it’s good to have that education behind you. There’s a whole world of experience beyond that classroom.”

Jon Greendeer and Black River Falls school district superintendent Ron Saari.

Ho-Chunk Nation District 1 Legislator Doug Greengrass, District 5 Legislator Patrick Red Eagle, President Jon Greendeer, Congressman Ron Kind, and District 5 Legislator Greg Littlejohn and tribal elder Lila Blackdeer during Rep. Kind’s visit to Ho-Chunk Nation.