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Ruth Buffalo ~ University of Mary Engineering Dean Dr. Terry Pilling

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Ruth Buffalo became the first Native American Democratic woman elected to the North Dakota Legislature.

Former State Representative Ruth Buffalo will be featured in an upcoming episode of PBS' series "Native America." During the visit, we'll discuss indigenous wisdom and leadership. ~~~ The University of Mary had previously offered engineering science through a partnership with the University of Minnesota. However, in 2016, the university launched its own engineering programs. Today, the Hamm School of Engineering proudly holds full accreditation for its Bachelor of Science degrees in Civil, Mechanical, and Electrical Engineering. We are joined by Dean Terry Pilling to talk about this milestone.

Ruth Buffalo Transcript

Ashley Thornberg: This is Main Street on Prairie Public. I'm Ashley Thornberg. Coming up in the second half of today's show, expanded options for engineering students in the state. But we are going to start today with…the current season of Native America. This is a PBS special that focuses on indigenous wisdom and indigenous leadership, specifically episode three which is coming up on Tuesday, November 7th at 8 p.m. Central and features a woman you might likely recognize - and that is a former state representative, Ruth Buffalo. Ruth, thank you so much for joining us today.

Ruth Buffalo: Yes. Thank you for having me.

Ashley Thornberg: So the episode is called “Women Rule”, and it is all about leadership. I want to know what leadership means to you, but before we even get to that, we should address the issue that often comes up in conversations like this - is that some people prefer the term Indigenous, Native, Indian - might be other terms that I'm not aware of. What do you prefer and why?

Ruth Buffalo: Myself, I prefer Hidatsa, Mandan, and Apache. That is just my preference. A lot of the translations refer to us as the People, and then internationally, of course, Peoples. So I prefer Hidatsa, Mandan, Apache woman.

Ashley Thornberg: Okay. What does the word leadership mean?

Ruth Buffalo: Leadership to me means a very loving, nurturing, approach that really is rooted in our traditional values and grounded in the community.

Ashley Thornberg: Yeah. In talking of you being Mandan, Hidatsa, and Apache, is there a more specific definition that is maybe because of those specific people groups that might look different to a Haudenosaunee leader, for example?

Ruth Buffalo: Yes, definitely. But I would say even more so with the Haudenosaunee people who have a very striking example, I would say, for leadership. The Haudenosaunee are very unique, but very similar to Hidatsa - Mandan people specifically, and because of our matrilineal/matriarchal roots. So…I'm, like, really excited that you mentioned Haudenosaunee, because to even be mentioned in the same conversation as the Haudenosaunee people is amazing. So much history there…Their women choose the leaders, and they still follow those leadership styles, those leadership…protocols to this day, which is something so very amazing. [I] have been invited to actually sit in on some of…the meetings…that they have for their leadership. I've been invited…to sit in on those. So I'm looking forward to the day that can happen.

Ashley Thornberg: And if I'm not mistaken, season one of Native of America introduces us to a powerful clan leader of the Haudenosaunee people who was basically written out of history, despite the many contributions that the example set by those people really led to what is now called the United States.

Ruth Buffalo: Yes, completely. They had such reverence and influence on even the United States Constitution. So, yes, and what you shared too - the power of story and narrative - is so important, but also very telling in that whoever controls the narrative, so to speak, can actually control what people are learning decades later. So it's so important that we, each of us, has a responsibility to tell the truth and to be good stewards of the land. But also good neighbors to each other and to share this information freely so that future generations will know.

Ashley Thornberg: What did it feel like to you to find out that you were selected to share this narrative, of your leadership and your people on this series?

Ruth Buffalo: I was really excited. I was actually just - I guess shocked because of the other women. I just was so humbled to be a part of this group of women. So it was very humbling….

Ashley Thornberg: Did you struggle to think of yourself as a leader?

Ruth Buffalo: Not so much as a leader, but I think oftentimes as women, we think that we are not enough.We're not good enough. Only sometimes. Yeah, so all of those internal struggles of thinking, “Me? Are they sure?” …I think…each and every one of us are leaders, but in our own different ways and styles and from lived experience. But I just was really humbled by being asked to be a part of this amazing project.

Ashley Thornberg: Are there times when you do feel like, “Yeah, I am enough.”?

Ruth Buffalo: I think my kids, my children bring me so much joy and love and that's the biggest reward. Quite honestly…seeing my children and the work that they're doing or the leadership that they are emulating lets me know that, wow, I actually I'm proud to be their mom...I think being a mother you often struggle too - Am I doing a good job? Am I doing enough?- but in certain spaces that you find yourselves in life, you often wonder, is this the right space for me to be in? Am I good enough to be in here? …Women have to be asked at least a dozen times to run for office, they say, or…I often say, wait till I get five more years, 10 more years under my belt of experience or, X, Y, and Z, but really the time is now.

Ashley Thornberg: How many times were you asked before you said yes?

Ruth Buffalo: Probably about that amount. I was asked early in life to run for tribal council back home on the Fort Worth old Indian reservation, but I always had prior obligations. And then 2016 I wanted to help get the native vote out. And then boom! I was running in a statewide race, running for office for the very first time, and then in a statewide race for insurance commissioner, and then later in 2018 and 2022.

Ashley Thornberg: Yeah. A little busy you are.

Ruth Buffalo: Yeah, but I think not unique. I think everybody's busy and wants to help make the world a better place.

Ashley Thornberg: Could you talk a little bit about what your proudest accomplishments are from when you were elected? You held the position to represent, on a state level, District 27.

Ruth Buffalo: I think some of my proudest accomplishments were bringing people of diverse backgrounds and beliefs together to find common ground; to have bipartisan support on a number of bills that are now new laws. But also one of the proudest accomplishments behind the scenes is helping other women and men, or those who identify as men and women or are trans relatives, helping individuals run for office and to provide, like, technical assistance wherever it may be needed. Because when I first ran for office there were a number of people who helped me behind the scenes, because it is scary and daunting at first. And so it's…refreshing to see that a number of the individuals I was able to help behind the scenes are now serving in office.

Ashley Thornberg: Yeah, give us a piece of advice if you could for those people who have been asked six, eight, ten times to run for office and are still saying “no”. You've done it, you were successful.

Ruth Buffalo: Yeah, thank you. I think just following your heart and your gut, first and foremost, checking in with your family and your support network to make sure that it's the right time. Timing is everything. It was recently shared, over the weekend…at some meetings that we were at that…if you're asked you should explore that opportunity, because you might not be asked again, or that ship may have sailed…Timing is everything, and if you are asked, you should really consider it.

Ashley Thornberg: What's something that you wished you'd have been able to accomplish in that office?

Ruth Buffalo: I don't know. I don't really look at it like that. I think there's lots of opportunity to make change. I do wish that there were more conversations on the protections of our most vulnerable people during the times of COVID, especially border towns, towns that are near Indian reservations, because we know that, unfortunately, our Native American Indian population has some of the highest, off-the-chart percentages in preexisting conditions. And to not take COVID-19…the necessary safety precautions during the time of COVID to our neighbors was really heartbreaking to see firsthand.

Ashley Thornberg: Much of those preexisting conditions are the direct result of 400 years of systemic racism. Are there times, Ruth, when it just gets to be really hard to try to be hopeful or even pleasant in trying to do the work that you're doing?

Ruth Buffalo: I think it is heavy work. I have friends that say you do such heavy work because I work, I serve on a national board that focuses on the Indian boarding school era or residential schools area era…I'm on the Not Invisible Act Commission. It's a federal commission - piece of legislation, a legally mandated body. Our final report just dropped…a few days ago. It's live on the Department of Interior's website. Just putting a plug in there. So that has taken up a lot of my time these past two years, focusing on getting sound recommendations forward for Congress, Department of Interior, Department of Justice, to tackle the missing and murdered indigenous peoples and human trafficking crisis. But it is heavy work. I appreciate you asking the question, because…at the beginning of your question, I thought you were going to say, “because poor health is a result of poor policy”, which is exactly it. It's all the things of dealing with the systemic issues, the history of bad policy that was put in place by design to disenfranchise. Not only disenfranchise, but completely wipe us off the face of this earth, this planet, because we were in the way of the land, we were of and are with the land. And so we were in the way, and it was all of these harmful federal Indian policies that were enacted to, to basically disseminate us: Completely annihilate our family structure. Hence the boarding schools and X, Y, and Z. But yes…it's heavy work, but this is who we are, and our very existence is…a miracle for us to even be here today.

Ashley Thornberg: We are visiting today with a former state representative, Ruth Buffalo. She is featured in this week's episode of Native America. This is a special series from PBS. Episode three is called “Women Rule” - and again, it is airing on Tuesday, the 7th, at 8 o'clock Central on PBS stations across the country - of course, including ours. Ruth, talking about being on the receiving end of genocidal policy, off of the top of my head here we are talking smallpox blankets being passed on to indigenous people groups, and the Mass killing and destruction of the buffalo and important food sources, the taking of Native children from their traditional food, religious and family ways - raped, beaten, killed, taken to these boarding schools. That policy lasted into my lifetime here. Do you think…that most people have an understanding that these policies were there? Because so much of what I read in history books made me think, “Oh, Indian, that was back in the day.”

Ruth Buffalo: No, I don't believe that the everyday American is aware of these harmful federal Indian policies…Quite frankly, the United States federal government has a very sound model in place to the point that other countries have replicated these policies, unfortunately. And with that being said, it's unfortunate, but with that comes the very strong propaganda and rhetoric to erase an entire population…It, again, was put in place by design and very strategic, very thoughtful, very thought out process to make sure that the everyday person is not fully aware of these harmful policies that bring us to where we are today. I think if people knew the absolute truth from the beginning, I think we would be - we would see more compassion, more empathy. And that was exactly what was behind SB 2304. Yes, I'm going there, but, it's the….

Ashley Thornberg: Explain to our listeners what that is.

Ruth Buffalo: Sure. It's a bill that I was the original bill author on, but I'm not listed on it on paper. But did the legwork, the homework, the background on it and…presented it over to a fellow legislator at the time, but during COVID, so it's a very crazy time. But yeah. So that's a new law that went into place as of August 2021 that requires all schools, public or non, in North Dakota grades K-12 to teach Native American history.

Ashley Thornberg: I wonder Ruth, if you could go back to a word that you used at the very beginning of this conversation, and that was matrilineal, and help us to understand the power structures and what it really means to be matrilineal versus matriarchal versus what we are living under.

Ruth Buffalo: Yeah. Again, I, for our listeners, I am one person and…one opinion. And yes, I don't want…what I say to be the be all and end all for all Native Americans.

Ashley Thornberg: All 573 federally recognized tribes. You speak for all of them.

Ruth Buffalo: Yes. But for me, matrilineal, matriarchal, to me, it just is a - and it's nothing to, diminish our counterparts: it's nothing to diminish our men or those who identify as men -it's being equal, seen as equal. Nothing more, nothing less, but equal…how we were raised, a lot of the wisdom of my grandpa, my mom's side of the family, has been carried on over the years through my mom. She would share how he would encourage her to - if she wanted to ride horse, go ride horse. If you want a barrel race, go barrel race. “You can do anything your brothers can do,” is something that my grandpa used to always share with my mom when she was growing up out in Independence - the area that they were forcibly relocated after 94 percent of our agricultural land was flooded due to the making of the Garrison Dam, which is a result of the Pick Sloan Act in the early 1950s. But, so matrilineal, matriarchal, it's a good balance, but it's also means that our women lead and our women are held in high regard. We are not below our men counterparts. We are equal, if not even more lifted up. We protect each other, but our men also protect us. I'll give a quick example.

What might be fitting to answer your question…more directly, is that in Mandaree - where I'm from, which is located on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation - you'll often see before any community gathering or meeting…a prayer is offered and the men will stand and the women will sit and it's - that's just the general protocol that takes place back home…It's out of respect for our women who are life givers and the men who are protectors, but we protect each other and we have a big responsibility to also protect visitors and current residents of our original homelands, throughout the state of North Dakota.

Ashley Thornberg: You know, in your answer you used a phrase we've heard a lot; You can do anything that the men can do. Is anybody saying to the men, you can do anything the women can do? Besides, perhaps, the biologically most obvious, that they will not bring the next generation into the world.

Ruth Buffalo: Yes... we heard it over the weekend, just in friendly banter of having the husband being called “Mr.” within the maiden name of the wife's name…just things like that…It's working together and not diminishing each other's power, basically. That's how I see it. Everybody carries their own individual power. And are you going to use that for good or for bad? Are you going to harm people or are you going to help people?

Ashley Thornberg: We are visiting today with Mandan, Hadatsa, Apache woman Ruth Buffalo, who is featured in the upcoming episode of Native America showing on PBS stations tomorrow at 8 o'clock Central. The episode is called, “Women Rule,” and Ruth, you were chosen because of being elected to represent North Dakota District 27…At one point in the episode. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, cries in thanking you for running and for being elected. How does something like that feel?

Ruth Buffalo: That - it goes straight to the heart. It goes straight to…the tear glands. Yeah, and even worse, so when she said it live, I mean in person, being in that moment I was trying my best not to, to get teary-eyed in that moment during the - it was the first MMIW congressional hearing, the missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Ashley Thornberg: ...It is interesting this idea of leading and being able to lead based on a deep feeling and love and connection, but then still feeling like you can't cry.

Ruth Buffalo: And some of those spaces you're expected to not show emotion, and - and yeah, that's an interesting catch that you pointed out for sure.

Ashley Thornberg: You're not currently holding that position. Do you think that you will run again for that, or another office?

Ruth Buffalo: I'm not sure. I'm not sure. Before I won my election in 2018 I was still helping make change and we had introduced a bill on the Senate side. We had found a champion on the Senate side to carry forward a bill for us in 2017…and we know full well that there's always work that needs to be done, and you can also do work outside of those spaces, those legislative spaces. I definitely support our legislators who are serving our state to the best of their ability right now in that legislative assembly space, but I don't know that I will ever run for office again. I will for sure…continue to support others and help them win because I have won…So I do have that experience and knowledge and I've also lost, so I also have that experience and knowledge. But, yeah. It's so important that we help others and lift one another up and share this information that might not be readily available to people like me who aren't necessarily coming from a quote/unquote “political family”...I'm a member of a federally recognized tribe. We are born into this unique political relationship with the federal government, so we are political by default anyhow. But aside from that, as far as like, an office of elected leaders…my grandpa and an uncle that did serve…in our Tribal Business Council for the MHA nation back in the day. But yeah, I don't know that I will ever run for office again.

Ashley Thornberg: Is there anything that stands out when you were running that…somebody did or said, maybe even unexpected, wasn't specifically, “Hey, you need to buy TV spots and not just radio spots,” formulaic stuff, but that was surprisingly impactful for you?

Ruth Buffalo: Surprisingly impactful in a good way?

Ashley Thornberg: I guess you can answer either way.

Ruth Buffalo: I think, yeah, the good way, Just the comments… the words of encouragement were always very uplifting. And those conversations you have with people on a one-on-one basis are some of the big, impactful, fuzzy moments that I'll always remember throughout the campaign trail and even while serving in office.

Ashley Thornberg: Ruth Buffalo of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Apache people featured on this upcoming episode of Native America airing on PBS stations across the country. Episode 3, Women Rule, airs Tuesday, November 7th at 8 o'clock Central and also features a musician, a climate activist, and an award winning designer. There are also two upcoming screenings that you can join on November 16th at 6:30 p.m. at the Bismarck Library, or Friday the 17th at the Sacred Pipe Resource Center - and that one is at 6 p.m.

Main Street transcripts are AI generated and corrected on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of Main Street programming is the audio record.