When Darrell “Tiger” Brown Bull was sworn in as Assistant Commissioner of Administration on Sept. 5, Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin told the story of his nickname. “When he was a baby, instead of crying, he growled,” she said.
His grandmother dubbed him “Tiger,” and it stuck.
Tiger is a member of the Oglala Lakota nation and was raised on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Pine Ridge is the eighth largest reservation in area in the nation, and there are over 40,000 enrolled Oglala Lakota.
To put it in perspective, Pine Ridge is larger than the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined, which gives Tiger an understanding of the distance separating Mille Lacs from Minisinaakwaang (District II) and Aazhoomog (District III).
“I was from ‘the districts,’” said Tiger. “I had to drive an hour to work. From the tribal office on southern side of the reservation to the farthest village it’s 2-1⁄2 hours, so we face some of the same issues getting services to people.”
Tiger knows the issues well. Prior to taking the job with Mille Lacs, he served as Executive Director of Pine Ridge, operating 80 programs and working closely with the tribe’s elected officials.
Tiger’s hometown of Kyle is the headquarters of Oglala Lakota Tribal College, where Tiger spent his first year of college. From there he attended the University of Minnesota at Morris before transferring to the University of Minnesota Duluth and graduating with bachelor’s degrees in American Indian Studies and Psychology.
That’s where he first learned about Mille Lacs, when he took classes from Tadd Johnson, Chair of the American Indian Studies Department.
While Tiger was an undergrad, Tadd was putting together a Master’s program in Tribal Administration and Governance. Tiger was part of the original cohort, along with Secretary-Treasurer Carolyn Beaulieu, Corporate Commissioner Joe Nayquonabe and other Mille Lacs Band members.
“The MTAG program was just what I needed,” Tiger said. “What I liked most was the diverse mix of tribal perspectives. At Pine Ridge we think all our problems are unique, but that’s not the case. To hear other tribal members and leaders with the same issues, that was revealing.”
While Tiger was in the MTAG program, he was working in the education department at Pine Ridge, attempting to get nine reservation schools to adopt a uniform curriculum as part of an attempt to deal with high transfer rates, truancy, behavior problems and expulsions.
If you’re getting a sense of Tiger’s credentials, you haven’t heard half of it. He has also been a Udall Intern in Washington D.C., attended the pre-law summer institute at the University of New Mexico, and spent a year in law school at Michigan State before heading home to Pine Ridge to help his tribe.
After finishing MTAG and starting law school, Tiger went home for summer, feeling burned out from school. His reserva- tion was in crisis, with an epidemic of suicides and problems with child protective services.
Tiger decided to throw his hat in the ring for the Executive Director position at Pine Ridge. “I’m young and educated; they’re not gonna pick me,” Tiger thought. They did, and he became the youngest person to ever serve in that position.
One of Tiger’s goals at Pine Ridge was to make it more like Mille Lacs. Instead of directly managing 80 departments, Tiger brought in six associate directors to serve in roles like Mille Lacs Band commissioners. It took two years to get the restructuring approved.
Tiger doesn’t hold back when talking about the challenges of Pine Ridge government. The reservation has nine districts with two or three representatives from each, plus a five-member executive council. They all serve two-year terms, which aren’t staggered, so every two years there’s a whole new government with new priorities and relationships.
By comparison, Mille Lacs’ government, with its five elected officials and separation of powers, is simple and stable, Tiger said.
“There’s no separation of powers, and it’s just chaotic without that,” Tiger said. “Micromanaging by the council or any member of the executive board is rampant.”
After three years, with another new council, Tiger could see the writing on the wall. His advice wasn’t being heeded, his accomplishments were being undone and elected officials were going behind his back.
When he heard about the opening at Mille Lacs, it seemed like a good opportunity to experience a new environment while bringing some of his knowledge to another tribe.
As Assistant Commissioner of Administration, Tiger will manage Human Resources, IT, grant writing, the Depart- ment of Labor, Child Support Enforcement and Government Affairs, in addition to managing three Mille Lacs District Community Centers and the Urban office.
One of his short-term goals is related to his experience growing up in “the districts” at Pine Ridge: to ensure that Band members everywhere have easy access to programs and services.
At Pine Ridge, he implemented monthly “program fairs” in each district to bring those services to the people, and he thinks something similar might work well at Mille Lacs.
Tiger’s office is on the upper level of the Government Center in the Administration Department. He will work closely with Commissioner of Administration Shelly Diaz, assisting in supervision of the Department of Education, Natural Resources, Community Development and Health and Human Services.
Photo: Tiger Brown Bull, third from left, was sworn in Tuesday, Sept. 5. Also pictured: Chief Justice Rayna Churchill, Secretary-Treasurer Carolyn Beaulieu, Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin, Elders Joe Nayquonabe and Lee ‘Obizaan’ Staples.