While it can often be difficult to sum up a person’s life and work in a few phrases, it is especially so for Ronald L. Libertus.
Here’s a start: University lecturer on American Indian art, history and film. Founder of the Minneapolis American Indian Center. Community liaison to art museums around the Twin Cities. Preserver of the state’s wild rice crop. Russian interpreter and analyst in the U.S. Air Force. Runner and basketball player. Fisherman. Storyteller.
There was a common theme to many of the roles he held through the years: being an advocate for American Indians and an intermediary between their communities and other Minnesotans.
When museums from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts to the Walker Art Center to the Weisman Art Museum put together art exhibits of native artists, Libertus was often who they turned to for advice, contacts and interpretation.
“He was easy to talk with,” said Lyndel King, director and chief curator at the Weisman. “I felt like I could ask a dumb question and he wouldn’t laugh at me. … He was willing to share his knowledge in the spirit of wanting people to really understand native art and culture. He was proud of it and he wanted to share it.”
Libertus (Gitchi-nibi) died on April 24, a little over a month after being diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. He was a few days away from his 80th birthday.
A lecturer for 16 years in the University of Minnesota’s Department of American Indian Studies, Libertus used his classes to help demystify perceptions of native peoples.
“For most people in the United States, their only connection to Indians is through Hollywood,” he told the Star Tribune in 1991. “I take a poll at the start of my class each quarter, and it’s always the same: Everyone has seen movies about Indians, but they have not been to an Indian village, seen an Indian ceremony or had any other firsthand contact with Indians.”
A member of the White Earth Nation, Libertus grew up mostly on the Leech Lake Reservation.
“My father was quite the storyteller,” said his daughter, Sarah, of Minneapolis. “He would always talk about how he was a one-man track team in school. And he would run across the lake to get to school in the winter time.”
He joined the U.S. Air Force and studied Russian. He was a translator and analyst while stationed in Germany.
He received a bachelor’s degree in Russian Studies from the U in 1964. He became the employment coordinator for Hennepin County’s Office of Economic Opportunity, working on anti-poverty initiatives such as youth programs and helping ex-inmates find jobs in the 1960s.
Libertus headed up planning and development of the creation of the American Indian Center on Franklin Avenue, the first center of its kind in the nation devoted to urban American Indians.
In the 1970s, he served as tribal liaison officer for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and later worked as the community coordinator for the Minneapolis Institute of Arts where he ran a drop-in arts program for schoolchildren, gave lectures on American Indian art and helped organize some of its first native art shows.
He and his wife, Judy, collected a lot of art, too, filling their Minneapolis home with pieces from artists they knew. They often gave artists struggling to pay their bills a place to live on their third floor.
In the 1980s, he served as wild rice director for the DNR, working to help preserve a crop he loved to harvest.
In 1999, he retired from his position teaching at the U and was awarded an honorary degree from the university a couple of years later. Besides his daughter Sarah and wife, survivors include his son, Ron and two grandchildren.