As the head coach for the Killdeer Varsity Girls Basketball team, an educator, a father of six and a rancher, Chad Dahlen is known to wear several hats. Among the several hats he wears is that of his heritage as a Southwest North Dakota Native American.
November is National Native American Heritage Month and Dahlen, of Halliday, celebrates his native background as being part Mandan, Hidatsa and Lakota.
Dahlen, 51, who is part of the Three Affiliated Tribes — Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation — tries to sprinkle his native culture into his family by centering it around the art of storytelling and learning life lessons from elders. Maintaining the status of oral torchbearer of generational family history is something Dahlen is proud of.
Though some natives and non-natives have forgotten their heritage and have become more of a “melting pot,” Dahlen said it’s important to understand where a person comes from.
“I think heritage should be important to everybody just because of the fact it’s that history that you have. You got to know where you’re coming from; you have to learn as much of the stories of how you got to where you’re at right now,” he said. “Storytelling is just so important that you pick that up so that you have a sense of identity. I think a lot of people don’t have that identity anymore.”
Like every race and culture, there are misconceptions and realities to what makes up an identity. Dahlen noted that some people don’t realize the true meaning behind Native Americans, and it’s important for him to teach others what was passed onto him.
“There’s different ways of experiencing your culture so I wasn’t much of a dancer, so I didn’t do a lot of the pow wows but I loved going to the pow wows and being around that part of the culture,” he said. “But the other parts of the culture [include] being around family. The Three Tribes were really family eccentric so our cousins are like our brothers; my aunts and uncles are like my moms and dads — my other moms and dads. Everybody is real tight, it’s not the nuclear family now. It’s a real extended family.”
Along with being Native American, Dahlen also has some Scandinavian ties. Many of his life lessons, Dahlen learned from his 5-foot-tall Norwegian grandmother. As a father, Dahlen tries to tap into both his Native American heritage along with his Norwegian background by attending pow wows, sweat lodges while also practicing Scandinavian traditions.
“We still try to walk that line of native and take them to church. We’re Lutherans too so we take them to church but we also try to teach some of the other things and kind of blend it all together,” he said.
Growing up on a 200-head ranch in Halliday, just off of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, Dahlen was taught discipline at a young age. When he was a fourth grader, his parents got him a milk cow to milk before and after school. But it was being around horses, cows and ranch life that taught him direction.
After high school, Dahlen won himself a scholarship to play basketball and played a couple years at Lake Region State College. Following that opportunity, he received a scholarship to run cross country and track at Minot State University, where he finished up his four-year degree.
While running at a high competitive level at Minot, Dahlen had big plans to go onto nationals and hopefully become one of the top five in the area. But at 20 years old, Dahlen was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma cancer. Being solely focused on sports, getting that diagnosis took away his athletic ability for the rest of his college career but it opened his mind.
“Life is always full of setbacks and I think the only way you can get ahead is if you have those setbacks and embrace it,” he said. “That was probably a blessing in disguise because then it gave me another moment of clarity whereas said, ‘Well, I better get at it in the education area and get my degree.’ After that for the next three years, I never missed another class at all.”
Following graduation, he went to New Town and taught social studies and physical education for 13 years while also coaching basketball, volleyball and track. He eventually became the athletic director and principal of that school, and with New Town being the hub of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, it was a privilege to give back to the native community, he added.
To be Native American and a pillar leader of the Killdeer and surrounding communities is truly an honor for Dahlen.
“(It’s) humbling… I got my Ph. D in leadership from the University of North Dakota and the more I dove into it, the more I learned that I don’t know much,” he remarked. “So it’s really humbling that a lot of times when you walk (and) just because (I) have a Ph. D, I’m still learning — from my boys even. They teach me things; the kids that I’m working with, they have some good teachings as well. So I think part of being a leader is being able to accept teachings from other people and accept teachings from the younger generation that’s coming up. And you’ve got to really humble yourself that way.”
Even though he’s been the head coach for the Killdeer Basketball team for three years, there is always time for growth, he said, adding that when he’s not on the court, he’s out helping out on his 450-head black angus ranch he works with his sister’s family and his father.
“I’ve always had a love of sports and if anything, basketball will teach you humility whether you’re winning or losing. If you’re in the game long enough, you’ll eventually be taught humility and (it’ll) keep you humble and grounded. So basketball has always done that… In almost every aspect of life, there’s always somebody that’s smarter than you or has a different way of doing that and I really appreciate those types of people.”