From prison to Harvard: John Poupart's journey to becoming founder of the American Indian Policy Center

Connect The Dots John Poupart
John Poupart is the founder and president of the American Indian Policy Center in St. Paul.
Courtesy John Poupart

How’s this for a resume?

  • Dropped out of school in the 7th grade

  • Three stints in juvenile detention at Red Wing

  • Four-year sentence at Minnesota Corrections-Stillwater

  • Worked at the Minnesota Department of Corrections for 23 years

  • A Bush fellow (a program that invests in accomplished leaders get to the next level)

  • Master’s degree from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Business

  • Founder and president of the American Indian Policy Center

  • A champion boxer

John Poupart, who is Ojibwe, has lived a rich life.

MPR’s senior economics contributor Chris Farrell recently sat down with Poupart.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

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Audio transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] CATHY WURZER: All right, how's this for a life and how it can change? Dropped out of school in the seventh grade, three stints in juvenile detention at Red Wing, four-year sentence at Minnesota Corrections Stillwater, worked for 23 years at the Department of Corrections, a Bush fellow, a program, of course, that invests in accomplished leaders to get to the next level of their lives, master's degree from Harvard, founder and president of the American Indian Policy Center.

There is much, much more. Did I mention that he was a champion boxer? John Poupart is Ojibwe, has lived a very rich life. And in our series Connect the Dots, we're asking community elders to share their wisdom and lessons learned about what really matters in life. MPR's senior economics contributor Chris Farrell recently sat down with Poupart with his story. This is amazing. My goodness. I don't even think I've ever met this man. Tell us about him.

CHRIS FARRELL: Oh, it's such an incredible background, Cathy. He's 85 years old. He's been retired for the past four years. And he grew up in the Lac Du Flambeau reservation in Wisconsin. And they were poor. And he says if you read John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, you'll have a sense of how little they had.

JOHN POUPART: When I was born and raised on a reservation, and we were in a really remote part of the reservation-- there was only one other Indian family living close by. So I was born and raised deep in the sticks.

CHRIS FARRELL: And when he went to school, all the teachers were white. The same was true of the shopkeepers. And they rejected the culture and traditions of Native Americans.

CATHY WURZER: So he really lived in two worlds, huh?

CHRIS FARRELL: Yes. And he was really aware of being treated differently and badly.

JOHN POUPART: As I was growing up, I knew that some white people didn't like me, but I didn't quite understand. But I knew I was treated differently than other white kids. And I understood after a while that it was the color of my skin.

So that caused me a lot of resent, anger, fear, all those kind of feelings that bring out the worst in you. So when I grew up, I grew up as a fighter, as a person who acted out in a not so nice way. And that caused me a lot of problems early on in life.

CHRIS FARRELL: So he spent time at the state juvenile correction facility in Red Wing, and he went to prison. But, Cathy, there were these moments in our conversation that have really stuck with me. And one was he said his harsh experiences had a way of working out for the better-- sort of an intriguing balance of yin and yang.

JOHN POUPART: I was bullied a lot in school, and yet I turned out to be a champion boxer. I was a dropout in school at 7th grade level, yet I achieved a master's degree at Harvard University. I was an alcoholic, and yet I experienced 57 years of sobriety.

I was unemployed, a skid row bum, but I've been employed for the last 65 years. So everything has yin and yang about it, you know? I was a prison inmate, but yet I retired from the department of corrections. Eight of those years, I was the ombudsman for corrections, like the inspector general.

So there's good and bad in my life-- that's darkness and the sunshine of life.

CATHY WURZER: Wow. How in the world did he end up working for the department of corrections and going to Harvard after being in prison? This is not a straight line here.

CHRIS FARRELL: So, Cathy, the core to his journey was embracing his Native American culture, traditions, and community. So in prison, he was leader of a Native American group that met. And he continued helping Native Americans and working with tribal leadership when he got out. So let's make a long story short-- he was hired to run the new Native American desk at corrections.

And then, as he mentioned, for eight years, he was a corrections ombudsman for the state of Minnesota. He earned his GED while in prison. He later got his undergraduate degree from the University of Minnesota. And the Bush Fellowship sent him to Kennedy School at Harvard for his master's degree.

So he retired after 23 years in corrections, and he created the American Indian Policy Center. It's an organization that was dedicated to informing policy by providing accurate information about Native Americans in Minnesota. And he was deeply involved in many Native American programs, ranging from initiatives to preserve the language to helping Native Americans released from prison rebuild their lives.

And so a vibrant Native American culture and community are vital, he says. Identity is critical. And that experience informs what he believes is a key insight.

JOHN POUPART: Instead of me, it's "we." That's the most important thing I can never say. And that's the philosophy of Indian people as I can think of. I don't know whenever it happened, but I just returned to what I came into this world as.

I came in as a little Indian baby. And somewhere in the mix in the early years, I lost that identity. And that's where all my troubles started. And when I went back to that little baby, that's when my recovery occurred-- when I went back to who I am or who I was.

CATHY WURZER: Ah. Hey, Chris, you mentioned earlier that there were several moments that stood out to you in your conversation. What else was a big highlight?

CHRIS FARRELL: So, Cathy, I've been thinking about his answer to the question about-- I asked him, what matters in life? And I keep thinking about what he says. There was so much wisdom in his reflection.

JOHN POUPART: One of the big upshots of all of this stuff that goes down is that I've always been trying to reach out somehow, to give-- not necessarily to give dollars, or to give gifts, or to give time, but just to be generous in some way, to be helpful, to be available.

As I look back into my life, my family's life, I've always tried to live as one community, taking care of each other. And that's what I'd like to instill in others-- take care of one another. And that goes back to the Native or to the Indian values of generosity, of having love, and respect, and keeping those as a way of life. That's the way my people have lived since time immemorial.

CATHY WURZER: So the importance of community, being generous, helpful to others-- all good. All good. What else did you learn?

CHRIS FARRELL: Well, Cathy, there's just a whole lot of nonsense out there these days about the war between the generations. Now, it's mostly pushed by business consultants, ideological think tanks. So I asked him what inspires him? And, like so many people who have lived long lives, he immediately turned to younger people.

JOHN POUPART: One thing is young people-- to see how smart they are, to see their willingness to learn, you can see the potential leadership, the future.

CATHY WURZER: Yeah, I know. 85 years old, you get to meet a lot of people in younger generations, obviously. So he talked about the importance of a we over me, right, and generosity and community. What else does he think folks should know or embrace?

CHRIS FARRELL: So this idea is directed more at individuals. In essence, he says, believe in yourself. Know yourself. And learn. Don't be afraid.

JOHN POUPART: Confidence comes in different forms and different amounts. But confidence itself, to know your own strength, how to have confidence in your own confidence that you have, the ability to accept losses as well as gains, that's a good trait.

CATHY WURZER: Although, yes, good, but not always easy to embrace.

CHRIS FARRELL: No. And part of it is really learning from experience and then acting on that knowledge-- and as you say, not easy to do. And perhaps as important, Cathy, maybe even more important is knowing that you aren't alone. Poupart says he has no regrets because the hard times are what brought him back to his cultural practices and to his community.

JOHN POUPART: No, I don't regret anything. I think I was just in training. If I hadn't done all those things when I was younger, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now. I think I was supposed to do those things.

Taught me what to do and what not to do. So all those days in carnivals, and circuses, and bum jungles, and soup lines, there's probably some reason for that. Life is life, but it's a good story to tell.

CATHY WURZER: He does have an amazing story to tell. Chris, I just love this series of yours. Thank you so much.

CHRIS FARRELL: Thanks a lot, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: Chris Farrell's MPR's Senior Economics Contributor. You can find all the conversations in our Connect the Dots series on our website, mprnews.org.

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