Brett Larson Inaajimowin Staff Writer
Wally St. John has been preparing for a life in leadership for a long time, and that preparation has paid off during his first months as District III Representative.
“Thirty years ago I decided I wanted to do something for the people, so I started shaping and molding my life, meaning I had to shed the old skin, so to speak, and put on a new way of caring and loving,“ said Wally. “It takes time for that to happen. It doesn't happen overnight.“
For Wally, that meant learning his traditions, with an emphasis on obedience to spiritual teachings. That focus on the spiritual life is what made the Anishinaabe ancestors happy and gave them long lives, Wally said.
Wally's spirituality is intertwined with his duties as a leader and his method of addressing problems.
“I've seen a lot of danger coming with drug abuse, physical abuse, and sexual abuse in our communities, and as these things progressed, I pushed even harder to be given the means and the ability to see the answer,“ Wally said. “Every problem has a solution, and sometimes your spiritual beliefs will reveal the answer to you.“
At the top of his agenda as District III Representative is the problem of addiction, and the solution for Wally is spiritual as much as physical. “The biggest problem facing us now is the heroin, the methamphetamine, the opioids, and all the abuse that comes with that,“ he said. “You've heard me say it before, but love is the key. The love we know is limited. It comes with limitations, expectations, conditions. And it isn't working, so you gotta rise above it and think beyond the physical realm. That is where the answers lie.“
As representative, Wally hopes to create transitional housing to help keep people safe and sober when they leave treatment. “Addicts have triggers, and we need to remove those triggers and put them in a safe home,“ Wally said. “It will take time, but it can be done. It's a matter of people working together. The only thing stopping us is us.“
He believes addressing the problem will take a unified effort from the elected leaders and government officials in every department, because they are all affected, from education to community development, health and human services to tribal police. “Everyone wants our people to be better — the Chief Executive, the district representatives, commissioners, and non-Natives as well. When we unite as a people, we become a well-oiled machine. We can really make things move. We can move mountains when we understand the full spiritual potential of the people.“
He also wants to put land into trust as a legacy that will help today's young people in the future. “These young people coming up need hope, and they need a template to follow,“ he said. “The people in power today need to have that template, which includes love and hope and caring.“
Wally's childhood and youth helped him learn compassion, spirituality, and love. He was raised by an abusive father, and his older brothers and sisters bore the brunt of excessive discipline. “I felt so sorry for my brothers and sisters,“ he said.
“I always tried to help them with their chores when they got hollered at, and I foolishly tried to step in to help protect them when they got into fights. From a young age, I had a lot of compassion.“
As a younger man, Wally toured the U.S. and Canada with a mentor and learned about the connections among tribal people. “When I got older, I realized that all Natives are my family,“ he said.
“Up there,“ he added, indicating the spirit world, “we're one people. There's no tribes, just one spiritual people governed by the Great Spirit.“
Wally's years of work experience have also helped prepare him. “Way back in 2000, I got onto the school board because I wanted to know about procurement and policy,“ said Wally. “I wanted to learn all the aspects of the tribe, so I would be ready one day.“
Since then he has worked in housing, natural resources, and athletic regulation. Wally said he also learned a lot from his predecessor, Harry Davis, including the importance of listening to others’ opinions. The two visited regularly during Harry's terms as District III Representative, and Wally was honored to learn from him.
That preparation has not made Wally arrogant, however; he knows he still has a lot to learn about Band policies, procedures, laws, and other topics. “I might have understood 70 percent of it, but now I'm still learning the remainder.“
Wally enjoys the challenge of learning, and as it often does in conversations with Wally, it all comes back to his spirituality. “The Creator gives you tests repeatedly to back up what you say,“ said Wally. “I said one time I wanted to sacrifice my life for the people, and Creator communicated to me by adjusting my life to fulfill my words. The life I once knew had to be left behind.“
The sacrifice has been well worth it, and he sees his new role as the fulfillment of a promise made long ago. “I am enjoying everything about it,“ he said. “At first people were saying it was going to be stressful, it was going to be hard, but it's not. It's second nature to be in a position to provide for the people. I look forward to coming into the office every day and trying to make things work for the people, and it's rewarding to see people smile, to know somebody wants to help them.“