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Native Nation Rebuilder: Brian Dillon

Brian Dillon is a Cohort 9 Rebuilder, an enrolled citizen of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, and the Community Liaison for the Vice President of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. We sat down with him for an interview to learn more about his experience in the Rebuilders program, his views on economic development strategies for the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, and his passion for youth development.

Native Governance Center:Tell us a little bit about your background, family, and community.

Brian Dillon: My name is Brian Dillon. I’m a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. I live in Parmelee, South Dakota with my wife, Janice, our daughters, Dari and Jesyka, and our granddaughter, Haelyn. Parmelee is one of the 20 communities on the [Rosebud] Reservation. I also have daughters, Jory and Halana, and a grandson, Aiden, that live in Rapid City, South Dakota (off-reservation, but within our historical lands). My wife and I both work for the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. I work as the Community Liaison to the Vice President, and my wife is the Tribe’s Insurance Officer. Together, we’ve worked 36+ years for our Tribe and our members. I was elected in 2014 to a three-year term on our Tribal council as a representative for the Parmelee community. Shortly after that, I became the Community Liaison, which is the position I hold currently.

Native Governance Center: Do you see any intersections between the Native Nation Rebuilders curriculum and your work? If so, please explain.

Brian Dillon: Every day, I reflect upon the nation building training I’ve received thus far and the ideas and support that I’ve gained from my fellow Cohort 9 members. The most important aspect of nation building for me is the identification of the key players involved in the development of ideas, approaches, and direction in my work. It’s really helped me to understand that a top-down approach is not going to work. The standard approach is not going to work. It can help you arrive at a decision, and it can set a direction, but I think that’s one of the reasons why a lot of the Tribes have so much change every time there’s an election year. The continuity doesn’t stay intact because we didn’t get the buy-in from the local community—the grassroots people, the highly-educated people, the people with a lot of knowledge, and the people with a lot of work experience. We’re not reaching out to them, currently. We’re trying to make a decision and say, ‘Here, now you figure out how to get it done.’

As a previous elected leader, I had a few people who would quite explicitly state, ‘We’re going to make sure that you don’t get re-elected because you didn’t do what we wanted you to do.’ All I had to do was find out what they wanted me to do in the first place! But I didn’t have that thinking process. I really didn’t, prior to coming to [the Rebuilders program]. For a lot of the Native Nation Rebuilders in our cohort, the first training that we had was such an emotional release. It was, ‘Oh my God. Why was I so neglectful?’ And after we got done with the first training, I talked with some of my cohort members over email. We knew this stuff. We just didn’t allow ourselves to do it because it’s not the norm.

Native Nation Rebuilder Brian Dillon

Cohort 9 Native Nation Rebuilder Brian Dillon (Rosebud Sioux Tribe)

Native Governance Center: If you could name three economic development goals for your nation, what would they be?

Brian Dillon: I’d like to see REDCO (Rosebud Economic Development Corporation) further broaden and develop their government contracting ventures. We’re one of a few Tribes that have a government 8A status, so we’re able to intercept some of the work that’s going to be done in the federal market with federal programs before it’s put out to bid.

Another thing that I’d like to see us do more of for economic development is to broaden and increase our food sovereignty initiatives. We started out with a small garden, and as we’ve broadened, we have now a farmers’ market back home in which people can participate and bring their goods for sale. It shows that we have the ability and capacity to do this here at home, rather than to rely 100% on the store.

Finally, I’d like to see our e-commerce project get off the ground. When I was on the Tribal council, we joined a coalition with about seven other Tribes; we all came together and wanted to start our own consortium for e-commerce because we were generally unhappy with the way that it had been structured with other Tribes. We did it formally—our coalition is recognized in Washington—so we’re able to speak as a unified group. The idea was initially to have a call center where we could do a couple of things. One was to do short-term loans, and the other was to be able to sell goods and products that are done on our reservation, whether it’s star quilts or anything to do with arts and crafts.

The crazy spin on it is that according to current federal law, we’re not able to provide these services to anybody within our state or on our own reservation. Let’s say you made a call. It would come to us initially, but the activity that you’d be requesting would be done by another Tribe. And you wouldn’t even know that you were talking to somebody somewhere else. And this ability is only available to Tribes. I really think that if it went through, we’d probably increase our workforce by about 100 positions. If we followed the model used by the other Tribes we’re working with, we could potentially be at about 350 employees in five years. When our Tribe has a fluctuating poverty level and unemployment rate—our unemployment rate currently sits at about 85 percent—that’s very important.

Native Governance Center: What issue facing your community are you most passionate about addressing?

Brian Dillon: There are many social and behavioral issues that our youth and young adults face back home. And I think it’s collectively the same on many reservations. We have a high degree of utter hopelessness felt by our youth and young adults. They oftentimes do not have a safe environment to escape to, so the hopelessness just keeps growing—it becomes contagious to the point where they start harming themselves. I’d love to see a youth wellness center complex built on our homelands. This would give our youth a nucleus, a facility that they could call their own. A safe place with 24-hour access for those who need a positive environment for whatever reason. This would decrease the hopelessness that often leads to dropping out of school, joining gangs, running away, and committing self-harm, including suicide.

My wife and I for the last 15 years have been heavily involved in youth activities. It’s an individual passion of mine. I can just imagine what our society might look like and what our members might do if their negative and extra energies were channeled into activities in a productive and nurturing environment. This facility could provide that for them. Their outlook on life would most definitely improve.

Brian Dillon (left) and Levi Brown (right) at a Native Nation Rebuilders session in Spearfish Canyon, South Dakota

Native Governance Center: Looking ahead, what are you most excited about accomplishing in the next year? In the next five years?

Brian Dillon: When I was a program director for the Tribe, I was involved in strategic planning. It wasn’t really strategic planning—it was just my ideas. At the time, five years seemed like an eternity to me. But it’s not. It takes about five years for any initial action to have a real value assigned to it. You can gauge success anywhere along the way, but if you don’t give it about three to five years, you’re probably stuck in that same standard approach-type thinking.

In the next year, I’ll be working with my fellow Cohort 9 [Rebuilders] from Rosebud. All five of us have decided to come together and work on one activity. I’d like to take what I’ve learned as a Native Nation Rebuilder and convey that to the youth in all 20 communities. We’re going to focus on getting buy-in from the youth. And it’s not to say that we’re not going to get buy-in from the elders, but we’ll take kind of a different approach. First, we’ll get the youth buy-in. And the youth are going to go home and talk to mom and dad. Mom and dad are usually the ones that are my age or younger and are kind of the missing link in this thing. And they’re not going to know what to say, so they’re going to usually reach out to the elders in their family to gain that information.

It’s going to work its way up so that it’s not the older people—the elders or the adults my age—telling the youth, ‘This is what you need to do.’ I know that when I was a youth, I hated it when they’d say, ‘You need to do this.’ But if our youth can grab ahold of this information, rationalize and internalize it, and then spit out a product for us to hear, that will be mind-blowing when we do it on a broad scale. Then, just maybe, we can start cultivating nation building-minded young men and women, and they’ll eventually be in those leadership roles.