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Look for the similarities among us: Dr. Russ McDonald

By: Dr. Russ McDonald, president, United Tribes Technical College

Dr. Leander “Russ” McDonald is an enrolled Spirit Lake Dakota Nation member and a proud descendant of the Sahnish and Hidatsa Nations. He shares his journey to spirituality.  

There are four communities on the Spirit Lake reservation: Crow Hill, Fort Totten, the Woodlake District, and St. Michael District. Russ grew up in Fort Totten. As a teenager and into adulthood, he became involved in drinking and drugs, but he was really good at school. 

“Part of our culture, and other cultures, is that we are not supposed to brag about ourselves. We are not supposed to draw attention. Other cultures, like the Norwegians I was around in Grand Forks, are like that. There are similarities between us. You learn that by interacting with one another and building relationships,” said Russ.

“We honor our veterans and our elders for the wisdom and the freedoms they offer our families and our culture.,” said Russ.

Another culture McDonald was part of was the U.S. Army. He found access to bars was easy with a military identification card. Many of the members of his family were veterans. Russ shared Native Americans have the highest rate of military enlistment and veteran rate than any other race in the nation. 

When he returned from the military, he fell into addiction. After ten years and 16 treatments, Russ leaned into his culture and spirituality to recovery. He attended different churches and Native American ceremonies and found himself in treatment again. 

“We were raised Catholic. My dad is the first Native American Catholic in North Dakota. So, I went to visit a priest. I shared my list of the good things and bad things with the priest. He asked me to leave and think about my list. I received a sign from God in the form of an Eagle flying over. God said I had a choice to be sober. I believe that God works with us wherever we are,” Russ said. "There are similarities among all people." 

Being a good relative and neighbor and treating them well is foundational to Native and rural people. Offering food, water, and hospitality is how we relate and interact with each other. It is part of the similarities we share as Christians. 

“Look for the similarities, not the differences, and be good relatives to one another, “shared Russ. 


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