Remembering Dr. Robert Powless

“The thing that has made a difference for me has been the encouragement I got from my mother, she said, ‘Make sure wherever you go they always know you’re an Indian.’ One time a student asked me, ‘Do you always talk about being an Indian?’ I replied, ‘Yes, as a matter of fact, I always do.’ Yes, I am an Indian.”

Dr. Robert Powless.

Story and photo by Ivy Vainio, AICHO's Art & Culture Coordinator

The American Indian Community Housing Organization is deeply saddened by the passing of Dr. Robert Powless. Dr. Powless has always supported AICHO’s mission, programs and initiatives. He and his wife Linda graciously financially supported our Gimaajii Mino Bimaadizimin permanent supportive housing program and helped in its development.

According to Linda, one of his greatest accomplishments/recognitions was having Trepanier Hall renamed in his honor as the Dr. Robert Powless Cultural Center in 2017. Dr. Powless for years would come visit with Gimaajii residents, AICHO staff and visitors in the lobby a couple times a week. We stand with Dr. Powless’s family in their time of mourning. What an incredible and remarkable man Dr. Robert Powless was.

He will always be close to us and countless American Indian families will
continue to benefit from his stewardship and community minded actions. Miigwech Linda, Blair and family for sharing him with us – our thoughts and love are with you at this time.

Dr. Robert Powless, (The Sunset Man), a tribal member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin and life-long educator, passed away on April 25.

Dr. Robert Powless was a man who came from poverty and was raised by his Oneida mother. He obtained his Bachelor’s degree in Secondary Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1956. Shortly after graduation he enlisted with the Army and served as a medic in the Korean War in Korea. Returning to Wisconsin after the war, he became a high school coach and social studies teacher. He would go on to receive a Master’s degree in Counseling from his alma mater University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also spent a year studying for the ministry and decided against it.

In 1971, his first job at the University of Minnesota campus was in student personnel and eventually became the Director of the American Indian Studies Program. In 1971, American Indian veterans coming back to UMD on the GI Bill told the UMD administration that there should be some programs for American Indian students and through that, Bob was brought to UMD and started to build the American Indian Studies Program from scratch. There were no American Indian-focused classes before that when he started at UMD started in 1972. He worked there for five years.

Then he worked at College of St. Scholastica for 4 years in American Indian Studies. They had an American Indian program already however Dr. Powless further
developed their program. He then got his PhD in 1977 from the University of Minnesota in Educational Administration. He became the President at Mount Senario College in Ladysmith, Wisconsin in 1981. In 1988, he started back at UMD as a full professor and the Director in American Indian Studies Program where he stayed till his retirement in 2000.

Starting in 1982 and during this time at UMD, CSS, and Mount Senario, he brought his American Indian students to do outreach with federal American Indian inmates at Sandstone State Prison.

After his retirement, he held a second career in volunteerism. He was a founding member of the National Indian Education Association. He served as a member of the Minnesota State Arts Board. He participated in the development of the Duluth Citizens Review Board and was on the Board for Center City Housing and was part of the development of San Marcos. He was on the first City of Duluth American Indian Commission (currently named Duluth Indigenous Commission) and Community Action. He was instrumental in the development of the American Indian Community Housing Organization’s Gimaajii Mino Bimaadizimin housing program at AICHO by securing a $50,000 donation from him and his wife Linda’s retirement funds to kick
start the housing development program. Up until his death, he would visit AICHO once or twice a week and visit with housing residents and AICHO staff in the lobby.

In the 70s, he and Ray Murdoch co-produced a weekly half hour television segment “Indian View Point” from 1972 – 82 for WDIO and WDSE.

● Blayheart teaching award at UMD in 1996.
● 2010 Clayton, Jackson, McGhie Foundation Award (3 rd CJMM award given)
● In March of 2017 AICHO renamed Trepanier Hall Building to the “Dr. Robert Powless Cultural Center which according to his wife Linda was “one of the greatest joys of his life.”