Donovan Sather had $10 to his name. Throwing caution to the wind, he used a large chunk of it to buy a newspaper and a hearty breakfast. He was celebrating, after all. He had just graduated from Bemidji State with a degree in American Indian Studies and a minor in Ojibwe Language but he wasn't sure of his next move. While nestled into the booth at the diner, he spotted a job posting, “Work at a nonprofit, work with Native Americans.”
“OK, perfect,” he thought and applied. “Except I didn’t answer any of the interview questions the way you’re supposed to. I just said ‘this is how I feel.’" It worked. A few days later, to his surprise, he got the call congratulating him on his new job.
He’s been the Reentry Program Coordinator at Northwest Indian OIC for two years now, helping clients who’ve been in prison merge back into society. He shares what he learned about Native American history and assimilation with his clients as a way of giving them some context. It's a job he landed fairly recently, but he's been preparing for it since he was a little boy.
The Voice of the Elders
After his parents divorced, Donovan spent a lot of his childhood on the Red Lake Reservation. He enjoyed getting to know his extended family, “I loved visiting my grandma’s,” he remembers. “She had fresh bread and would let me choose snacks from the cupboard.” He also appreciated the introduction to the Native way of life, something he wasn't exposed to while his parents were together. Those were the good things. But there were tough times, too. He remembers lying in bed listening to too much country music and partying. Donovan was often left to care for his brother before his mom got treatment for addiction.
When he was 10, Donovan got very sick and nothing seemed to help. His mom called a medicine man who prescribed a new name for a new direction, Mikinaakoons, which means Little Turtle. "He told me that whenever I saw a turtle crossing the road, I needed to stop and help them. It was a metaphor for helping my people," explains Donovan. So, after his first decade of life, Donovan was reborn with a new purpose.
“I had to make good choices. I knew that I either had to leave home or I’d end up like everybody else,” explains Donovan. He made the decision to enroll in Circle of Nations, a 4th through 8th grade boarding school in Wahpeton, North Dakota. After graduating from Circle of Nations, he continued to the second oldest boarding school in the U.S., Chemawa in Salem, Oregon. “It was a great experience,” says Donovan. “I was the first person in my family to graduate from high school, and I thought I’d accomplished the world. My grandma was so proud.”
He was a baseball star at Chemawa, and Donovan was offered scholarships at Oklahoma and Arizona State. (When recruiters told him he would get a “full ride,” he thought they were talking about transportation.) Unfortunately, the full rides didn’t happen. Three days before the start of his senior year, the three-wheeler he was riding on got hit by a truck. Two months of rehab helped him relearn how to walk and he had medal inserts in his arm. “I tried to keep playing baseball but I didn’t have confidence anymore. I told the recruiters that I couldn’t play for them. Arizona State ended up being in the College Baseball World Series. I could have been there. You never know the result of the choices that you make.”
"How am I helping my people?"
In the years to come, Donovan had to make many more choices with the medicine man’s message as his guide. He would ask himself, “How am I helping my people?”
After graduating, Donovan worked at casinos in Wisconsin and Washington, got married, became a dad, got divorced, and moved back home. Back in his community, he was able to reconnect with his purpose.
He enrolled in Red Lake Tribal College and AmeriCorps, “I started volunteering at a women’s shelter and community centers, kind of like the turtles, I was helping my community,” says Donovan. While going to school he sold patty rice for Red Lake Foods, a job that took him all over the world. “Not bad for a kid who, at 14, didn’t think he was going anywhere.” Wherever he went, he’d share the story of the Anishinaabe people.
Today Donovan's working on his master's in Tribal Administration and Governance (MTAG) at UMD. "I want to teach. I love federal Indian law, strategic planning, and leadership. MTAG has helped me know how to help my people at home." Those who can, are mindful of the message.
Story by Lori C. Melton