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Dennis Olson Jr. became executive director of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council in November. (Staff photo: Bill Klotz)
Dennis Olson Jr. became executive director of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council in November. (Staff photo: Bill Klotz)

Breaking the Ice: Indian education inspires council director

Name: Dennis Olson Jr.

Title: Executive director, Minnesota Indian Affairs Council

Education: B.A., American Indian studies, sociology, communications, University of Minnesota Twin Cities; master’s degree in liberal studies and education, University of Minnesota, Duluth

Dennis Olson Jr.’s role as executive director of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council enables him to continue pursuing his longtime passion for American Indian education while working on a broader range of issues with tribal leaders.

Olson, appointed to the council post in November, previously served as director of the Office of Indian Education for the Minnesota Department of Education. An enrolled member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Olson’s experience also includes working as commissioner of education for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.

Olson said he and his mother, formerly assistant director of the American Indian Learning Resource Center at University of Minnesota Duluth, graduated on the same day in 2005 as she received a doctorate in education after decades of study and he got his master’s in education.

“What set me on a career path was her tireless advocacy for American Indian students,” Olson said.

Q. What’s the best way to start a conversation with you?

A. I’m really approachable. A simple hello. I’m usually one to initiate conversation and try to find something that I think we have in common.

Q. What books are on your bedside table or e-reader?

A. I’m just now diving into both for work and pleasure, “Warrior Nation” by Dr. Anton Treuer, a Minnesota native author and professor at Bemidji State. A history of the Red Lake nation, it looks at the resiliency of the nation over the last 400 years.

Q. What is a pet peeve of yours?

A. My biggest pet peeve is someone who is closed-minded, who isn’t willing to hear opinions or views or beliefs from another.

Q. What’s a favorite activity outside your job?

A. Anything outdoors. I’m an avid golfer when I can carve out time. I try to have an activity for each season. I really enjoy hunting. I really enjoy fishing. Ice fishing is probably my favorite of the two fishing seasons. Just doing anything outdoors. I definitely like when I get the chance and it’s not often but to fish the big lake in Lake Superior.

Q. If someone visits you in your hometown, you always take them to see or do?

A. I consider myself to have two hometowns. Born in Cloquet. In Cloquet it would have to be Gordy’s Hi-Hat restaurant. I grew up not too far from Gordy’s High Hat and it’s a Minnesota staple. If I was seriously bringing someone around town, it would be a tour of the Fond du Lac reservation. I’m incredibly proud of what the reservation looks like. My dad was the construction projects manager for the Fond du Lac reservation for a number of years and was at the forefront of the development of their infrastructure. Growing up I was able to go to job sites with my dad and watch the first health clinic be built and the first community center and the first school, all of the buildings that support programs and services.

For Duluth if someone was going to visit me, I’d take them anywhere to the shore of Lake Superior. There’s nothing more beautiful than the big lake.

Q. What was the last arts or cultural event you attended?

A. Just prior to starting the post at the Indian Affairs Council, I attended the Minnesota Indian Education Association annual conference, hosted by the Prairie Island Indian Community. They have a powwow every year that’s one of the coolest because of the number of youth that are involved.

Q. Where do you like to eat lunch?

A. I hate to admit it but out of convenience I probably run to McDonald’s more often than I should. I do take advantage of the cafe in the MnDOT building quite often as well.

Q. If you’re not at your desk, you’re probably where?

A. I’m more than likely on the road traveling to one of the state agency buildings off the capital grounds. If not locally, then I’m usually in Indian country, visiting with our tribal officials or tribal staff. I’m on the road quite a bit.

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