Dennis Ickes: Michael Jandreau was humble servant to his tribe

Ed. Note: The author of the tribute is R. Dennis Ickes, not Joseph L. Falkson as incorrectly stated in the first version of this post.

Michael Jandreau, 1943-2015. Photo from Lower Brule Sioux Tribe

Tribute to a legend, Michael B. Jandreau
By R. Dennis Ickes

This is a message to you that I hoped I would never have to write. Michael B. Jandreau, the great visionary leader and humble servant of the Lower Brule Lakota Sioux died on April 3, 2015 – Easter’s Good Friday. He suffered a serious heart attack last week, which his body could not repair. He was 71 years old.

This is a loss of a legendary leader who called upon All Mighty God, the best of Lakota wisdom and the counsel of unselfish men and women of good will of all races to transform the Lower Brule Reservation into a place of rising hopes. The Lower Brule electorate elected him every two years since 1972 either as a council member or as chairman. In spite of the maliciousness fostered by the Human Rights Watch (“HRW”) report in 2014, he won reelection.

We will not allow HRW or political enemies define who Mike was. Mike believed that HRW had no authority to judge him or the Lower Brule government or the Lower Brule people. HRW was not a government agency with authority to evaluate anything or anyone at Lower Brule. He refused to dignify HRW’s baiting with responses before the report was published. He wondered why HRW would select Lower Brule to vilify out of 564 federally recognized Indian tribes. Lower Brule had the lowest unemployment of any reservation within South Dakota. It developed the most successful reservation-based farming operation in the United States. It was one of the world’s largest growers of popcorn. It vertically integrated its popcorn production into a wide variety of popcorn products known for outstanding taste.

The Lakota Foods popcorn operation provided jobs for local tribal residents and pride of the brand. The tribal government had created enterprises within the reservation to employ local tribal member labor to build infrastructure, protect wildlife, provide housing, secure subsistence hunting and fishing, preserve the culture, improve health, provide local education for children, provide higher educational opportunities, and improve the delivery of services, among many other things. Mike concluded that reservation politics gave HRW entry into the internal affairs of the Tribe. He could not help wondering if HRW was representing a philosophy that was out to stop the Tribe, and all aspiring tribes, from rising above dependency.

It was apparent that the HRW report’s solely relied on information derived from political opponents who conveyed falsehoods, misrepresentations, and inaccuracies. The report’s lack of objectivity was evident in its failure to note the numerous achievements of the tribal government under Mike’s leadership. The recklessness and unfairness of the report weighed heavily on his mind and heart. It is not an exaggeration to conclude that the report contributed to Mike dying of a broken heart.

The tribal government under Mike’s leadership aspired to raise the standard of living of tribal members, to lessen dependency upon the federal government, and to enable members to achieve their personal potential. Although the reservation was a beautiful place to live, treaties and federal promises to provide healthcare etc. were only being provided at minimum or substandard levels as compared to the surrounding non-Indian communities. His positive reputation with the South Dakota congressional delegation, state and local governmental leaders, other tribal leaders and tribal organizations, cabinet officers, federal agency heads, White House staff, and other influential persons, enabled the tribal government to obtain hard-to-get government support for various reservation and tribal member needs.

The evidence of his effectiveness with the federal government is most evident in these major improvements to reservation life: (1) Grassrope Irrigation Project has produced the Nation’s most successful reservation-based farming operation; (2) low power rates from the Western Area Power Administration improved farm and other enterprise profits and provided cheap electric power for residents; (3) congressional appropriations for the Corp of Engineers stopped shore erosion, improved wildlife habitat, protected recreational uses, and restored some of the woodlands; (4) congressional increases for infrastructure have built much needed public facilities; (5) permanent establishment of the reservation’s boundaries at the maximum point on the Missouri River gave assurance of permanency; (6) ongoing contracts with various federal agencies to provide water services, health services, education, judicial support services, and other services too numerous to mention maintained essential services and provided numerous jobs; (7) the land buy-back program restored lands to tribal ownership that had been lost through the Indian Allotment Acts; (8) 91 acres of prime land along US I-90 have been legally deemed to be held in trust for the Tribe, which opens economic development in the I-90 corridor; (9) BIA support for improving the road to the Big Bend farming operation, and other road improvement projects to improve transportation; (10) converting numerous federal programs on the reservation to Public Law 93-638 contracts; (11) locating a modern federal detention center of the reservation; (12) ongoing political and financial support for the tribal farming operations; (13) advocating for the Indian farmers and ranchers who had been overlooked by their previous legal counsel in the Keepseagle v. Visack case. There were many more accomplishments that few know about because he did them without fanfare.

Other significant achievements during his leadership included the enormous expansion of the Lower Brule Farm from hundreds of acres to nearly 47,000 acres of cultivated and grazing lands. The Farm has contributed substantial cash to tribal operations annually, enabled the purchase of former tribal lands, including what is now the tribal ranch, facilitated the vertical integration of popcorn production into manufacturing and marketing, and positioned the Farm to vertically integrate additional farm production.

Perhaps Mike’s greatest achievement will be his recognition of the innovative use of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 Section 17 corporation as a powerful tool to raise new sources of revenue for tribally owned enterprises. Mike saw that major dependency upon the federal government for essential government services was robbing the Tribe of quality healthcare, quality housing, quality education, quality infrastructure, and more meaningful employment opportunities. Dependency also robbed the Tribe of self-sufficiency and full self-determination, as well as depriving tribal members of self-actualization.

The tribal government that Mike led understood that the federal government would never be willing or able to raise the standard of living or quality of life of Lower Brule people to at least the same level as the adjacent non-member communities. If essential services to tribal members were to be improved, he and the tribal council saw that the Tribe would have to find other sources of income. He found that the IRA Section 17 corporation could be designed so that the Tribe took no economic risk.

As a separate and independent entity from the tribal government, the Section 17 the corporation could take some degree of economic risk without exposing the tribe to liability, or accept no risk at all in exchange for less financial return. The private sector was willing to take the economic risk if the allocation of the rewards justified it. This business model has greatly opened up possibilities for substantially increasing revenues to the Tribe to supplement essential governmental services and employment opportunities. Although this economic initiative was in its infancy at the time of Mike’s death, the business model has created a nationwide property services business, an information technology company, a financial services company, and has become the business structure for Lakota Foods.

Additional opportunities for economic development are constantly being reviewed. The corporation’s financial service arm is continuing to successfully raise capital for tribally owned economic development opportunities, including for the popcorn company.

The HRW report either ignored or was ignorant that in all instances where the private sector has invested with the corporation or any of its subsidiaries, the Tribe has been completely shielded from financial risk. The Tribe has not lost money. Further, in no instance has the federal government lost money. Private investors have absorbed any financial losses. Even where private investors have lost money, the corporation is committed to finding ways to make good on the investors’ faith in the corporation. Building a business takes many twists and turns on its way to success. Ask Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, and every successful businessperson whom either went through bankruptcy or near bankruptcy before their business achieved enormous success.

Each of these efforts improved reservation life and created jobs. These achievements were so obvious that HRW had to have closed its eyes in order to miss them or ignore them in order to support what appear to be predetermined conclusions.

Michael Jandreau is one of a kind. In spite of his extraordinary talents as a visionary leader, he humbly gave credit to previous tribal leaders for setting the stage so that progressive ideas could take root. Likewise, he thanked the Lower Brule people for allowing him to serve them all these years. Similarly, he applauded others for their ideas and contributions that helped the Tribe and/or the corporation progress. He always spread the credit around. His thoughts, prayers, and actions were always directed to the welfare of his wife, Jackie, his children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and the Lower Brule people.

All of us who have had the blessing of serving with Michael Jandreau will never forget him. We will remember his vision, his humility, selflessness, intellectual brilliance, talent for attracting people of special ability to serve with him, his probing questions of experts, and his special ability to inspire. May the future not undo the immense progress that the Tribe has made under his leadership.

R. Dennis Ickes is the founder of Native 17, LLC and serves as its President. Mr. Ickes has a wealth of knowledge and experience in tribal relations, government relations, mining and private capital ventures to the board. At the time of his appointment, Mr. Ickes was serving on Passport's advisory board where he was integral in obtaining the cooperative agreement with the Hopi tribe in March. Mr. Ickes founded Great Basin Industries, a mining company. Mr. Ickes is an internationally known lawyer, legal scholar, trial attorney and business leader.

Human Rights Watch Report:
Secret and Unaccountable: The Tribal Council at Brule and Its Impact on Human Rights (January 2015)

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