Charlie Vig admits he was “pretty green” when in 2012 he took over as chairman of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, following the death of longtime tribal leader Stanley Crooks.
But Vig mastered the steep learning curve quickly, forging strong relationships with neighboring cities and developing resources like the recently opened Hoċokata Ti, the tribe’s impressive cultural center in Shakopee.
Vig, 60, who will turn over the job on Friday to newly elected chairman Keith B. Anderson, said he decided not to seek re-election in order to travel, fly his plane and spend more time with his family. In an interview, he said he plans to stay active by serving on a tribal advisory group and making himself available if Anderson needs advice. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Did you want to be the chairman?
A: I had no aspiration to be the chair. I’ve worked in the community most of my time here since 1969. People knew me, they trusted me. And then one day, our chairman of 21 years [Crooks], his health was failing. So we probably had our largest group of people run for positions at that time, because they knew somebody was going to have to take over. I ended up getting the vice chairman position, and about seven months later [Crooks] passed away.
Q: When you first came in, what were your goals?
A: I wanted to bring the voice to the people. What I said was, “How can we grow the community and have the people help us?” That’s what I ran on and that’s what I pushed from the day I got elected, and I believe we did that. We started a youth council to get younger members involved. We broke our community into nine different groups [such as] education and health, economic development, land and natural resources. We asked for volunteers to sit on the groups.
Q: Would you say [community engagement] has been your biggest accomplishment?
A: As far as making change, that probably is the biggest success. But I come from construction. So normally if somebody asked me, “What’s your biggest accomplishment,” it’d probably be this building [Hoċokata Ti] that we finally have now for the people. Or else I’ll say roads ... expansions, widening the roads and making them safer.
Q: Other people have said you did well working with local government to build bridges, making connections that maybe weren’t always as strong or positive.
A: I think I didn’t realize until after I got elected the talent I had, or whatever you want to call it, the charm — my wife calls it the charm. When I worked construction, I worked with a lot of different people ... [and] I think I built a lot of relationships with them. I like to build consensus and move whatever it is forward. A lot of times I just kind of stop and say, “What are we trying to accomplish here?” And then, “How are we going to do it together?”
Our community is surrounded by other communities — Shakopee, Prior Lake, all in Scott County. So we’re all kind of fighting for the same things and it’s mostly about growth. We have to learn how to grow together, whether that’s roads or infrastructure or just getting along. That’s kind of been my goal.
Q: Is there anything that you wish you’d been able to do?
A: I wish I could have made a little bit more movement on some of the social service ends — maybe instead of reacting to problems, trying to find solutions. But I think we did a lot of that, too. It’s just hard when the tribes are dealing with historical trauma. I think we’re always going to deal with that just because of what happened. But some families might have been hit a little harder, they don’t have that trust or they don’t want help.
Once we got this building [Hoċokata Ti] up, this might have been my turning point because it really gives us a grounding place for our members, a place to learn, teach, be together, talk and learn our language. I think that, for me, was the icing on the cake.
Q: What is the biggest change you’ve seen in your time leading the SMSC?
A: One of the things I was shocked at when I got elected is how many people didn’t even know we existed, even the local officials next door. Their elections come and you get a new person that wants to change the world, but they didn’t know who we were and why we do things the way we do. I think the biggest change would be seeing their eyes open up. ... We’ve seen a lot of movement on that, and I think a lot of it comes from our programs and through our grants and donations.
Q: Are you going to offer advice to the new chair?
A: Listen to the people. They’ve elected you for something, so I think just listen to them and then build those relationships. I think that’s been my success — building relationships and trying to find common ground.
Q: Is there anything you want people to know as you’re leaving this role?
A: I’ve had to tell people, I’m not leaving. … We don’t have a word in our language to say goodbye. The common thing we say is, we’ll see you again.