Native people and our issues must be brought to the forefront. We are invisible in mainstream society. Few people know about us, our challenges, and how the history of colonialism still impacts us every day. To help, each and every single person living in North America must ask themselves, “How do I benefit from Native Americans today?” The answer is that all of American wealth was built on the theft of Native land, so every dollar you’ve earned and inherited comes in some way, shape or form from Native peoples. The next question to ask yourself is, “What am I doing to help right this ongoing injustice?”
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Wizipan Little Elk, CEO of Rosebud Economic Development Corporation (REDCO)
Wizipan is an enrolled citizen of the Sicangu Oyate (Rosebud Sioux Tribe) and received his B.A. from Yale University and his law degree from the University of Arizona. He embarked on a political and legal career in Washington, D.C. before returning home in 2012. Under his leadership as CEO of the tribe’s economic development arm, revenue has grown from 4.5 million dollars to over 20 million dollars and profits have been reinvested to foster additional business development. As the head of an ecosystem of changemaking organizations, Wizi and his team have led the local movement for Food Sovereignty and are looking to expand and amplify that impact in the coming years.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
We should all consider ourselves lucky when our job aligns with our life calling. In 1999, at age 19, I came home for Thanksgiving break during my freshman year at Yale. After our family dinner (we don’t celebrate the massacre of Native people who shared food with the colonists, but we do give gratitude for the gifts of the Unci Maka, Grandmother Earth) I went out by myself to drive around our reservation late at night. I was struck by the contrast in my life. To come from one of the financially poorest places in North America to one of the wealthiest and most privileged and back again was a shock to my system. At the same time, our home is one of the most spiritually rich places on earth. Our connection to Tunkasila, the Grandfather Creator, is as strong as any nation in the world. The emotions ran through my body and it became hard to breathe.
My goal in attending college was to become an architect. I came up in the construction industry and wanted to get into design. I was lucky enough to be influenced by people who valued culturally appropriate, affordable, and environmentally sustainable design. My thought was we had the Tipi, a design and building technology integral to our identity. Imagine living in a home completely aligned to your cosmology, values, and culture! I wanted to build the modern Tipi, where every family could have a home designed and built for them. What I came to realize that night though, was that this was not possible because of our economic situation. It’s hard for people to think about designing, building, and living in a home when they are just barely getting by, struggling for the basics. Right then and there I dedicated my life to improving people’s overall quality of life so that maybe someday every family could have an great home.
Healthy food, buffalo, affordable homes, energy, healthy relationships, job and vocation alignment, great educational and healthcare systems, knowing your culture and history, plus being able to pray in your spiritual tradition are all a part of a healthy, meaningful, quality life. Remembering to be grateful for food, your relatives, and the blessings in life can lead to not only insight, but actual moments of epiphany and eureka. Every human has a vision and part of life is finding and living that vision.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
A few years into my work we went through a community planning process. We were imagining what a 21st century Lakota community could look like. There were many group meetings, drawing sessions, and surveys, and more meetings. As part of the process, we asked people about the community elements they’d like to see or know exist as part of the community. I wasn’t surprised when people said gardens, playgrounds, exercises spaces, or even a horse stable. What struck me most though, is when people said they wanted to live next to a small buffalo pasture. I had never imagined living close to Tatanka (buffalo) and that thought has always stayed with me. The idea that we can have Tatanka in our daily lives is amazing medicine and a lesson for all humanity that anything is possible. This past month we just received 50 buffalo from the Badlands National Park as part of our Wolakota Project, which will be the largest Native owned and managed herd in the world. The 28,000-acre regenerative buffalo range will eventually be home to 1,500 buffalo.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
There’s so many! In my first job out of college I wrote a lot of letters, often sharing links to resources. One day my supervisor called me to his office and said go to this link, which turned out to be an unsavory website. I had mistyped the weblink! He was good about the honest and very embarrassing mistake. Always cut and paste is the practical advice, but the larger lesson is about attention to detail. When you put your name on something, make sure it’s something you can stand by.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
There is a lot we can talk about here. This year we opened a Lakota language immersion school and started what will become the world’s largest Native American owned and managed buffalo herd. These are examples of deep personal, hearts and minds working together with international industry defining projects. Our school is called Wakanyeja Tokeyahci, which means children first. Our Native Nation must improve educational outcomes so more people can attend and finish college. At the same time, we have zero conversationally fluent speakers under the age of 18. We are starting with a class of nine kindergarteners. The primary language of instruction is Lakota. The impact of our school on those nine kids and their families can’t be measured. It’s part of an effort to save an entire language.
Our work around buffalo is historic and game changing. We often talk about local solutions to global challenges. We are modeling what the new multiple bottom-line economy will look like, where we do good for people, the planet, the bottom line, and Native Nation restoration. Our buffalo range is revitalizing our relationship with our buffalo relatives. We believe buffalo and Lakota are the same people and our fates are intertwined. We’ve developed a financially sustainable business model. The environmental impacts of reintroducing a keystone species to the prairie ecosystem are tremendous. Finally, we have a say over what happens on our lands and defining what kind of future we want for our people and the region. This is all funded through the emerging social impact investment industry and as part of a first generation of these generation-defining work.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
We can tell many stories of employment, creating opportunity, being an industry leader, or practical programming. But, I think intangible stories are the best. Several years ago we started offering scholarships to students attending their first year of college. As part of the application we asked students to discuss their career plans. One of the students said he planned to work at REDCO. What do you do when someone says that they are planning their life around your organization’s very work? It’s a huge responsibility and honor. We can’t ever really put a price to hope, ambition, and time. That’s where the magic is though.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
First, Native people and our issues must be brought to the forefront. We are invisible in mainstream society. Few people know about us, our challenges, and how the history of colonialism still impacts us every day. To help, each and every single person living in North America must ask themselves, “How do I benefit from Native Americans today?” The answer is that all of American wealth was built on the theft of Native land, so every dollar you’ve earned and inherited comes in some way, shape or form from Native peoples. The next question to ask yourself is, “What am I doing to help right this ongoing injustice?”
Second, each and every person must demand that their elected leaders follow the treaties made between the U.S. and Native nations. Specifically, it’s important that the U.S. Congress follow the recommendations of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Report, Broken Promises: Continuing Federal Funding Shortfall for Native Americans. The report outlines the beginning of a path forward for the federal government to begin doing right by Native peoples.
Third, we need society to embrace the morality-based and systems-based thinking of Indigenous peoples. I call this 7Gen thinking. We believe that anything is possible. Therefore, the question is not what can we do, but should we do it. For example, Indigenous thinking would have led human society to the achievement of clean, renewable energy instead of the atomic bomb. If we are going to address climate change and global inequity it must be understood that every human is connected not only to every other human but the entirety of creation. Thus, our actions have consequences far greater than the human brain can possibly comprehend.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is simply doing what needs to be done. All of us, in both public and everyday moments, are called to leadership. It’s not about titles, positions, or anything formal. I’ve never considered myself a leader or even think of myself as worthy of leadership. All our work, like creating jobs and opportunity, building an economy, education, and housing, is simply stuff that needs to get done for our people and the planet. Someone has to do the work, and I’m called do that work right now. Leadership means stepping back, helping others find their calling, and creating platforms for others to fulfill their passions.
Leadership is also about succession. The traditional Lakota leadership training grounds were our formal societies, similar to public and civic organizations that fulfilled societal needs such as hunting, law and order, and caregiving of the arts. Membership was based on merit demonstration of values such as generosity. An operating principle in every society was that each leader formally trained their replacement. I’m hoping to train my replacement and I want them to take our organization to places I can’t even imagine. I want people to say, “Wizipan did good but his replacement was even better.”
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
This is a tough one. First, don’t expect everyone to understand your point of view or values. I’m a cerebral introvert, so I spend a lot of time reading, researching, thinking, and talking in academic terms. I gave a speech to high school seniors one time and talked about robotics and the future Lakota work in 100 years. No one cared because I was using all these fancy TED Talk like concepts, thinking I was smart. I should have told a story to better connect.
Second, make time for people. Success of anything is dependent upon healthy relationships with others. All of my failings — defined as not doing something I could have done but didn’t — come back to not making the time for a conversation. I had to let an employee go one time and it was a negative process for everyone involved. If I’d made time for the employee during the year leading up to their termination, I know the entire process could have been much better and more than likely avoided in the first place.
Third, invest in your health, meaning put the necessary time aside each and every day to something specific for you physical health. Working out, walking, and eating healthy are all good investments. Trust me, it will pay off in so many ways over the long run such as greater physical stamina, less aches and pains, and good habits you can pass on to your children.
Fourth, make time for the fun things in life. I’ve prioritized work over vacations, travel, family time, and experiences that add joy and depth to life. Work will always be there. I still regret the time I could have spent a day in Alaska salmon fishing simply by extending my travel for a day!
Finally, go all-in with your spiritual journey. I waited until my late twenties to authentically pursue my full spiritual self, and it is one of my few actual regrets in life. It’s within all of us to have a relationship with the Creator and it’s something we need to work at. It’s the most important part of journey here. Never compromise on pursuing your spiritual beliefs and traditions, whatever those may be. All the money in the world and a great career mean nothing without strong spiritual grounding.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
The future of human society and the planet depends on listening to the advice, direction, and example of Indigenous people. Our knowledge about values-based decision making and systems-based design thinking are the keys to creating a better world for all and tackling the climate crises. We’ve known this for thousands of years and have been telling western civilization for hundreds of years. Western civilization has forgotten its heart. Indigenous people are human civilization’s heart and conscious.
Indigenous people, Lakota people, have been and continue to lead on social equity, social justice, a just transition, and climate change. The key is what we call 7Gen thinking, which is simply the idea that our decisions must be made with the best interest in mind of our great grandchildren’s great grandchildren. If society follows our lead there is no problem we can’t fix. We can create an economy benefiting all of humanity and the planet.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My grandmother told me, every day, “don’t lie, cheat, or steal.” This was the foundation for my moral and ethical development. I made it part of my life code. When we pass on to the other side the Creator will ask us what we accomplished and learned during our time on earth. I want to be able to say I did my best to live a moral life and that I did more good than wrong. The older I get the more I think about legacy and what I’ll be leaving behind for my children and future grandchildren. These values should be reflected in society as well and I think I’ve aligned some of my work to them as well. The treaties made between the U.S. and Native Nations are contracts where obligations were made. If we believe in never lying and telling the truth than we need to honor the treaties, which is honoring our word. Cheating at a society level is using unfair advantages, knowing using inequity to gain advantage. If we believe in never cheating and a fair playing field than that needs to be reflected in how we govern and how uplift communities who’ve have and are continuing experience discrimination. If we believe in not stealing than we need to begin honoring the treaties and acknowledging the generations of wealth that was extracted from Native communities. Returning land that was stolen from Native people would be a good start.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
There are so many people I’d love to meet. Recently, I was fascinated by the Netflix documentary, Inside Bill’s Brain. Bill Gate’s desire to solve basic global challenges like clean water and sanitation is inspiring. I’ve also been following his COVID-19 recommendations. I’d love to sit down with Bill and learn more about his thought process and predictions for society. I think he has something to learn from us Native people as well.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
LinkedIn: Wizipan Garriott
Facebook: Wizipan Garriott
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!