Former Ho-Chunk President Shares His Story Of Struggle And His Search For A Positive Life

by Joel Waldinger
| October 20, 2016

Wisconsin Public Television

Jon Greendeer is a self-taught man. After struggling with addiction and an unhealthy lifestyle, Greendeer looked to his Ho-Chunk roots to turn his life around.

His current lifestyle stands in stark contrast to the life he explored and experienced as a young man in a rock band. 

“I was a musician. I played the Fox Valley Circuit. Typical rock star life - drinking, drugs, cigarettes, rock n' roll, not much sleep,” Greendeer said.

He also had a job dealing cards at the Oneida Bingo and Casino in Green Bay. That’s when he realized he didn’t like the cards life was dealing him.

“In 1998 I took my last drink. After some time away from alcohol and drugs and tobacco, the appropriate thing to do would be go to school.”

Greendeer applied at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and was denied. He called the admissions office enough times they asked him to stop contacting them. Life had reached a low point for Greendeer.

“I was struggling with having a child, having not been in school for 10 years, being a person of color. Things were getting tough financially. Being 360 pounds,” Greendeer said.

That’s when UW-Marathon County gave Greendeer what he wanted most, a chance.

“I still hold that two year campus in the highest regard. They admitted me. They took the risk,” Greendeer said.

Two years later Jon transferred into UW-Stevens Point, the same school that had denied him admission. He originally wanted to be a DNR Ranger, but his interest grew towards politics and public administration.

After graduation he went to work for the President of the Ho-Chunk Nation and was appointed to the UW-Stevens Point Alumni Board.

Within a few short years, Greendeer was hearing a steady stream of voices encouraging him to run for tribal president. 

He was elected Ho-Chunk President in 2011 and had the opportunity to meet world leaders, including President Barak Obama. By this point Greendeer had turned his life around by overcoming his addictions and losing more than 140 pounds.

Motivated by his success, Greendeer set new goals and took advantage of the 75 mile commute from Stevens Point to tribal headquarters in Black River Falls to teach himself the Ho-Chunk language.

In 2012, his language and skills as a statesman were put to the test as he stood before the Wisconsin State Legislature to deliver the State of the Tribes Address. Greendeer represented Wisconsin’s 11 sovereign tribal nations.

After just one term as Ho-Chunk President Greendeer decided to leave tribal politics and not seek re-election.

From past to present, Greendeer hopes to empower Native American communities with his life lessons about family, health and education.

“The strongest nations are those that have families that are standing up on their own, are taking care of themselves, that are getting educated, that are working and that are doing their best to follow their way of life,” Greendeer said. “That's it. That is what sovereignty will look like in our future.”

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Tags: Native American / ho-chunk / weight loss / obesity / addiction / sovereignty / drone / wood working / President Obama / tribal politics / UW-Sevens Point / UW-Marathon County / State of the Tribes / Wisconsin

Joel Waldinger is a reporter for the "Wisconsin Life" project and considers a sunset over the “big island” on Manson Lake to be a perfect ending to a day of fishing and fun in the Northwoods.