Shelly Diaz teared up a little when she talked about her appointment as Commissioner of Education. “When the chief called me, how could I say no? I was just honored and astonished,” said Shelly. “I’m here for a reason, and I just have to trust that.
“Melanie has placed her faith in me to carry on this responsibility, so I will be sure to do my best every day. I have always looked up to Melanie, and she was even the subject of one of my papers in grad school. We were asked to interview an elected official. All the Chimooks picked local government officials, but I went right to the top and selected our Chief Executive. That made quite the impression in my class!”
Shelly also expressed gratitude to the Band Assembly for ratifying her. “It means a lot that they trust me to help make Mille Lacs a place where people are happy to work.”
Shelly is a lifelong member of the Band’s Urban community with roots in Aazhoomog, where her grandmother, Emma Sutton, raised her mother, Isabel Skinaway. As the name implies, she also has relatives in District I through her grandfather, Richard Skinaway. “When I came up here to work three years ago, it just felt right, like I was coming home,” Shelly said. “I take comfort in being around all my relatives, and it feels good to serve them. I meet new cousins up here all the time.”
Shelly has fond memories of visiting District III. “We would go up to Hinckley, and before the casinos were built, my uncle had his house right there. I was the cousin from the Cities, so I got picked on a lot. I remember going blueberry picking and working in the fields with my grandma, Emma, and her sister Nina. I’d listen to them converse in Ojibwe. I took my mom ricing once, but we tipped, so I was quickly demoted to jigging rice!” Shelly joked.
Shelly describes herself as a product of the relocation act. “I always had a hunger for learning about my background, but I grew up in an era where, unfortunately, there was a shame to be an Indian, when Mide and Big Drum were out in the woods because it was illegal to practice our religion.” Shelly learned more about her culture in college, and after her mom died in the mid-1990s, she took every opportunity to learn from aunties and uncles.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in Business Management from Augsburg and a master’s in Nonprofit Management from Hamline, Shelly worked for a Native nonprofit in Minneapolis before she was approached by former Education Commissioner Suzanne Wise, who was looking for a Band member from the Urban Area to serve on her Education Advisory Committee. Shelly came up for the graduation celebration and Melanie offered her a position in her office.
Shelly has taken on several duties over the last three years, working on housing, education and special projects — “whatever the Chief wants me to do.”
When the Chief asked her to apply to become Commissioner of Administration, Shelly was intimidated at first, but her experience working on a variety of projects gave her a good introduction to tribal government, and a course from Native Nations Rebuilders complemented that experience.
Shelly’s role, she said, is to carry out the Chief’s vision. “I believe and share in her vision for the Band, and I’m here to do whatever I can to bring forward her vision,” she said.
First and foremost, that means empowering Band members. “We need to come up with programs and policies that will encourage more self-sufficiency and get rid of that dependency that colonialism has embedded in us,” Shelly said. “The culture of poverty is hard to escape, but we can do it. We are not poor; we’re rich in culture and fortunate that our language is still alive. The new generation wants to keep that going, and is interested in our culture. We want to change policies to break down those barriers, so they don’t have to choose between their job and their culture.
“Brad Harrington, Commissioner of Natural Resources, made a great point: ‘We give more hours off to learn Western education than we do to learn our ways.’ We need to work on ways to creatively save our resources, keep our culture alive, keep our community tight, and get rid of the divisions and separation. Geographically, we can’t stop that, but we need to make sure that people know wherever they live they are important and are Band members.”
As she’s learned the ropes of her new position, the greatest trial has been the budget. She came in at the end of the planning process for the two-year 2018-19 biennium and has quickly learned that she’s working with a large budget and a complex organization — which creates opportunities as well as challenges.
“With casino revenues flattening out, we need to be more creative,” she said. “We need more collaboration, pooling of resources, working together, and breaking down of silos.”
Shelly gives credit to permanent staff for helping her with the transition. “All my administrators and directors, they’re an outstanding team working hard and making my job easier,” she said. “With the exception of Percy, our Commissioner of Community Development, we also have a whole new crew of commissioners, and I think we’re all going to work well together.”
Don’t expect her to change due to her significant role as Chief of Staff and supervisor of commissioners.
“I just want everyone to know I’ll always be Shelly,” she said. “My door is always open. You can reach out to me anytime.
“I’m here to serve Band members. I see our children in the community, and I want to be here for them. I want to make an impact and leave a legacy for my community. I want to be remembered in a good way.”