University of Minnesota Alumni Association


Elevating Native Voices

During a long, influential career, John Poupart championed putting American Indian voices at the center of important policy issues. But before that, he needed to change the arc of his own story.

Photo by Caroline Yang

John Poupart's  life has included poverty, violence, reflection, redemption, service, and even a brush with “the Greatest.” It could be a novel, except that the facts at times outstrip what an author might dare.

Poupart (B.S. ’77), a member of the Ojibwe nation, grew up on the Lac Du Flambeau reservation in northern Wisconsin. “Success was not part of the conversation,” he recalls drily. His family was poor and lived in an isolated—and at times hostile—environment. “No other Indian people lived for miles and miles around us, and we had a tough time understanding what you would call racism and that kind of thing,” he says. “We didn’t understand why white people didn’t like us.”

Photo by Caroline Yang

Poupart excelled in school through seventh grade, but began to struggle with feelings of rejection. He started fighting. Then, he got fed up. “The night before school one day, I thought, I’m going to come here on the bus tomorrow, and when I get off, I’m not going into the classroom. I’m going to go downtown and just keep on walking. And that’s what I did.”

He left the reservation and went to live with his sister nearby, later moving to Albert Lea. He worked in logging and other jobs, got into trouble, and was sent to a juvenile corrections center in Red Wing three times. “This part of my life was crime and delinquency, prison, alcoholism, street fighting, and just a whole lot of failure,” says Poupart. “I kind of grew up fast that way.”

One bright spot during this period was boxing. Perhaps from skills developed in street scraps, coupled with natural talent, Poupart became a prize-winning amateur boxer. He competed frequently and won the Upper Midwest Golden Gloves light heavyweight title at the Auditorium in Minneapolis in February 1960. As the regional champion, he went to the Chicago Golden Gloves competition later that month, where he ran into a soon-to-be-legendary heavyweight. “I weighed in right in front of Cassius Clay, later Muhammad Ali,” Poupart remembers. “He won the national Golden Gloves championship that year.”

Outside the ring, Poupart lived an itinerant life, working at carnivals, circuses—wherever he could land a job—and meandering through Texas, up the West Coast, and back to Minnesota. One day in south Minneapolis, he and two other men robbed a store. “We were having a party after that, and one of the guys shot the other one, and he died.”

Poupart was arrested and served four years at the state prison in Stillwater. While there, he listened to the lectures of Albert Ellis, a psychologist. “He said some things that were logical to me, that you have to be accountable to yourself, and you can’t blame anybody for what happens to you,” Poupart recalls. “I looked at my own life, and everything that happened to me, and it was really kind of an awakening. I took to heart everything and I realized that I was the guy that was doing that [to my life].”

Poupart recalls lying in his cell, looking through the bars on the window. “I looked at the big wall of the prison outside and the guard towers out there. But beyond that, I could see the stars and the moon, the freedom to think beyond just wherever you were at,” he says. “I just really created my own world, a reality of how you could reason with your own ego, your own being, the essence of the world you’re in. It was a spiritual awareness, and there was no end to it. It was created by the self, and our own Creator, and our own Indian spirituality.”

Around then, Poupart also made three vows to himself: “I wasn’t going to drink again; that was creating a lot of issues for me,” he says. “Second, I was going to finish my education, and go as far as I could reasonably go. Third, I was going to be employed every day after I left that place.”

“I came in as a little Indian baby. And somewhere in the mix in the early years, I lost that identity,” Poupart told Chris Farrell in a February interview with Minnesota Public Radio’s Connect the Dots series. “And that’s where all my troubles started. And when I went back to that little baby, that’s when my recovery occurred—when I went back to who I am or who I was.”

SHERYL LIGHTFOOT (M.A. '94, M.A. '07, Ph.D. '09), the Russell M. and Elizabeth M. Bennett Chair in Excellence in Public Affairs at the U of M's Humphrey School of Public Affairs, met Poupart when she was growing up. Lightfoot is also a member of the Ojibwe nation, and chair of the United Nations Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“I must have been 6 or 7 years old, and I have this very vivid memory of running into him at a powwow, and he was in his regalia,” Lightfoot says of that early meeting. “He is a large man, and I remember being kind of scared of him, but my mom told me he was a wonderful person. I was told by others later about John’s past, but even as a child, I was very surprised, because that was not the John I saw, or that others talked about,” she recalls.

“[He] was not the only person in my circles who had such a rough upbringing, and has been through alcoholism, through the system, and had a big turnaround,” Lightfoot says. “In my circles, the result of that turnaround is always because of a return to traditional ways—100 percent of the time.”

Poupart would complete his GED in prison and be released. He kept his second vow to himself, going on to earn a bachelor’s degree from University College at the U of M in 1977. He received a fellowship from the Bush Foundation, which sent his applications to Harvard and MIT; Poupart won admission to both. He opted for Ivy and earned master’s degrees in public policy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 1980, and in state and local government at Harvard Kennedy School the following year.

PROFESSIONALLY, Poupart has dedicated his career to service. In 1970, he began work as an administrator at the Minnesota Department of Corrections, later serving as the appointed ombudsman for corrections from 1983 to 1991. (The ombudsman role was established in 1972 by Gov. Wendell R. Anderson to help provide inmates with a way to resolve grievances about the system and incarceration.)

Poupart worked helping offenders get on course, especially American Indian inmates. He knew where the problems were, because he had lived them. For instance, at the halfway house for offenders that he established in North Minneapolis, residents were given responsibility and agency, instead of censure, for small transgressions that could lead to a downward disciplinary spiral and endanger a resident’s progress towards reintegration in the community.

“We listened to what they wanted to do, and we trusted people,” Poupart says. “That was one of the Indian values of trust, love, and respect. We cut recidivism in half, and we wanted to show the Department of Corrections that if we could do this with the men, maybe they could learn how to do that too.”

Poupart also founded the American Indian Policy Center in 1991—an organization dedicated to preserving American Indian culture and oral history, as well as addressing social and economic issues—which he ran until his retirement in 2017. (At that time, Poupart says, the board was unable to find someone else to take over his role and AIPC was ultimately dissolved.)

Lightfoot came in on the ground floor of the AIPC, having been recruited to the board soon after the group’s founding, and served as its longtime chair. One of Poupart’s most important contributions, Lightfoot says, is his insistence that American Indian communities have agency over their own research and policies.

“If we go back to the 1990s, the idea of research—to American Indians or Indigenous people—was kind of a dirty word, because most of the time that research was being done by nonindigenous scholars or researchers,” she says. The AIPC would be a venue for self-empowerment and self-determination. “It was a paradigm shift, that the ideas for projects and advocacy tools had to come from the community, using culturally appropriate research styles and research methods. In academics we now call it Indigenous research methodologies, but John was doing it before it had a name. It was revolutionary at that time, and a crucial piece of his legacy.”

"We have no pathways back and forth between Western European thought and American Indian thinking. I have been struggling with this all of my career. We far too often think about it in a competitive way, and I don't like to do that."

AIPC worked to center American Indian insights, while preserving culture, oral history, and addressing social and economic issues from a Native perspective.

For instance, in August 2005, AIPC produced a 66-page document for the nonprofit Minnesota Council on Crime and Justice. Titled Searching for Justice: American Indian Perspectives on Disparities in the Minnesota Criminal Justice System, the report was prepared under the direction of Poupart with the help of several researchers, including John Red Horse, who retired from the Department of American Indian Studies at U of M Duluth in 2010.

Acknowledgments in the document “extend sincere gratitude to the American Indian participants of the talking circles” interviewed for the project, noting that the circles are “a more time-honored manner for gathering information from American Indian people, where standard quantitative or qualitative research approaches have fallen short.” (The report further notes that circles “are highly regarded among Indian people because they reflect the circle of life … like the changing of the seasons, the phases of the moon, the shape of the world, and the shape of the universe. All things in the circle are equal.”)

In 2009, Poupart became one of five individuals to receive the McKnight Foundation’s Virginia McKnight Binger Award in Human Service, given annually to people who selflessly serve their communities.

“We have no pathways back and forth between Western European thought and American Indian thinking,” Poupart says today. “I have been struggling with this all of my career. We far too often think about it in a competitive way, and I don’t like to do that. I don’t like to see Indians be compared to another way, because it’s just our way of doing things. Nature has taught us how to do that,” he explains.

“I think there should be a good way of looking at those two ways of thinking. And they can be supportive of each other. I’ve been trying to write something where we can get our heads together and be creative and use our imagination and talk about this middle ground, but we haven’t done a very good job of that. So, I’m sitting here in my retirement, still trying to close that gap.”

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