- Issue: Summer 2021
WWF president and CEO Carter Roberts talks with WIZIPAN LITTLE ELK, CEO of the Rosebud Economic Development Corporation (REDCO), about reintroducing bison to native land and how to be an ally.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
CARTER It’s my great pleasure to speak with you today. You’re a remarkable leader who’s been part of one of the most moving stories of restoration.
WIZIPAN LITTLE ELK Thank you, Carter. I appreciate the opportunity to share our story. We really believe in our work and believe we have something to offer the world. Thank you to WWF for all of your partnership—and especially to Dennis Jorgensen and Noelle Guernsey [on the Northern Great Plains team] for their work and dedication. You have a great staff; you should be proud of them.
CR I am. Thank you for the shout-out. The Northern Great Plains—where you live—is one of my favorite places on Earth. Not everyone’s had the opportunity to visit, though, so it would be great to hear about it in your words.
WLE When we talk about place, from our community’s standpoint, we always say that we’ve been here for at least 2,000 years. The Black Hills and the area surrounding it is our homeland. This place was home to 60 million buffalo. Our ancestors’ bones are buried in the soil. We have been here since time immemorial, and we’re going to continue to be here. Looking back on the history of this place provides us with an incredible sense of grounding and inspires us to do great things.
CR Can you say a word about how you grew up and what you learned from your parents?
WLE Oh, I hit the lottery. I grew up in a home where both my mother and father were present. I also had the privilege of living with my grandmother. I always tell folks that we were doing all the cool stuff before it was cool—we built our own home, had big gardens and chickens, and had solar panels and renewable energy. That was a part of my life from about age six. Growing up with my grandmother was really special. She was a knowledge keeper for our Native nation and highly respected. She spoke Lakota to me, and it was my primary language until I was four or five and started with formal studies. My childhood was filled with love, encouragement, and respect for hard work. Those are things I’m trying to give to my kids as well.
CR Last October, 100 bison were released into the Rosebud Sioux’s territory. I’d love for you to talk about that moment, and what it meant to you, the leaders of your community, and the leaders of REDCO.
WLE Absolutely. It was spectacular. The Lakota word for buffalo is tatanka. It’s a combination of two words—tanka, which means large or magnificent, and ta, which makes it possessive. Literally, it means “their greatness.” Buffalo and humans, or buffalo and Lakota, are the same. We come from the same common ancestor. Buffalo have so much to show us and so much to teach us.
CR A few years ago, I was cleaning out a box and rediscovered something I’d lost many years earlier. It was a list I’d made when I was 28 years old, and it detailed those things I’d hoped to accomplish in my life. And when I found it I mostly felt gratitude, to have been given so many opportunities to realize so many of my dreams. When I told this story to a mentor, his response was simple: “You know what this means, right? It means you now have to make a new list!”
Can you talk about your life goals, and the progress you’ve made against them?
WLE When I was 19, I said, “I want to do four things with my life,” and I wrote them down. I wanted to do something significant with education, buffalo, housing, and renewable energy.
This past year was incredibly profound for me because we started the Wolakota regenerative buffalo range project, which is going to become the world’s largest Native American-owned and -managed herd. We also opened a Lakota language immersion school here. And we have some great ideas about housing and renewable energy. But I want to get to where you’re at, where I can look back and say, “It’s time to make a new list.”
CR Well, making progress on such things is often accompanied by no small amount of pain and effort. I’ve managed to acquire quite a few scars along the way, and I’ve also somehow managed to lose almost all of my hair ... so be careful what you wish for!
Starting something is magnificent, but carrying through on those commitments is everything. How do you make sure this important work succeeds?
WLE I always tell people, I’m not that good at anything—I’m just really stubborn, and I don’t quit. My job is to empower the people who are good at things to fulfill their purpose. For example, the head of the school we started was born to be an educator. And I can help him realize that vision.
All of these buffalo we’re raising have a purpose, too—to heal the land, to create more buffalo, and to sacrifice when necessary. I can help provide a space for them to live their authentic lives as buffalo. The word Lakota means “to be an ally.” For us to be our full and authentic selves as Lakota, we need to be able to work
CR What’s your advice for allies?
WLE First, listen. What do Indigenous people have to say? What do people of color and women have to say? But being an ally is not about privilege guilt. As a man, I should not feel guilty for being a man. However, I do have a responsibility to use my privilege to empower others and, when necessary, to have hard conversations and hold others accountable.
Second, when we need you to step up, do it. Do something, every day. If everyone did that, we could address global inequity, climate change, and so much more. There’s nothing we can’t accomplish if we take that approach.
CR It’s obvious through your work on the language immersion school and your thoughtfulness about your own kids that you are devoted to future generations. When young people ask you for career advice, what do you tell them?
WLE Do what needs to be done. That’s the way I was taught. You have agency and a personal responsibility. What the rest of the world is doing doesn’t matter. What matters is, what are you doing?
CR I couldn’t agree more. Last question: If you could be any animal, which one would you be?
WLE [laughs] I would probably be a horse. To be able to run and move with the magnificence of horses would be amazing.
CR All right. The man whose career advice is to step up and make things happen has told us that the animal he’d want to be is the one that moves fast. Thank you for this time, and thank you for your leadership. It’s a privilege to work with you.
WLE Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity and the partnership with WWF.