St. Cloud woman finds her authentic self through her Ojibwe and Muslim beliefs

Megan Kalk stands for a portrait.
Megan Kalk stands near Lake George in St. Cloud on an unseasonably warm winter day in January. She is a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and a convert to Islam.
Aaron Nesheim | Sahan Journal

As an Ojibwe woman with Muslim faith, Megan Kalk is a minority within a minority.

The 31-year-old from St. Cloud has spent the past 15 years discovering the intersections between these two identities in her own life. Turns out, there’s more than you might think.

Kalk joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer to share a glimpse into her life as an Ojibwe Muslim woman. Sahan Journal has the full story.

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

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Audio transcript

INTERVIEWER: As an Ojibwe woman with Muslim faith, Megan Kalk is a minority within a minority. The 31-year-old from Saint-Cloud has spent the past 15 years discovering the intersections between these two identities in her own life. Megan's story was the focus of a recent Sahan Journal article that intrigued us. So we have called up Megan Kalk. Welcome to the program, Megan.

MEGAN KALK: Hi. Thanks for having me today.

INTERVIEWER: Thanks for being here. The obvious first question that pops into my head is what drew you to Islam? Did you seek it out?

MEGAN KALK: So for me, exploring faiths in my family was a very normal thing. My dad grew up Roman Catholic, as a lot of Native Americans from the mid-20th century do. So he grew up Roman Catholic, and also with those tribal traditions. And then I had a southern Baptist mother, who started dabbling in some new age religion stuff. So I would say that my parents dabbling in different religions, was something that inspired me to look around for what was important to me, so I would say around 16.

Just reading, I just read about every religion that was out there in the world. So I kept coming back to Islam because of the simplicity of it. And as I got older, I've started to integrate both my tribal beliefs and Islam together.

INTERVIEWER: So you have a background of seeking and exploring in your family. I'm wondering, what are the connections between Islam and Ojibwe beliefs.

MEGAN KALK: So I would say the main connection is that both of them believe in a single a single God that controls everything. One really interesting thing that I like, that is a parallel between a lot of Native American beliefs and Islam is, environmentalism. It might be considered a stereotype that Native Americans are very environmentalist, but in a lot of their cultures, the environment is very important. A lot of people don't know that in Islam, the environment is also very important. So the strong environmentalism in both of them is another crossover.

Taking care of the Earth is something that really also drew me to Islam, and was some of the first things that allowed me to start drawing those connections.

INTERVIEWER: So some connections, but any conflicts between the two?

MEGAN KALK: Yeah, I would say there's a lot of conflicts. In Islam, God is more involved in your life, watching everything you're doing. In the Ojibwe religion, God is there, but he's a little more detached, I would say not detached, but it's a bit different than the Abrahamic religions where God is watching your every move.

A big conflict, and one of the most visible things about the Islamic religion for women is the hijab, which is, it can it can be very in conflict with the Ojibwe religion. So in the Ojibwe religion, your hair is considered an extension of your soul, it's considered sacred. So to display your hair is to be proud of yourself, and to be proud of your culture. In Islam, it's a sign of modesty to cover your hair.

So the hijab, it has been a very calm-- it's a lot of conflict, I would say. So for me, I would say, you would probably call me a part-time hijabi. There are times where I don't wear it for certain, I guess, tribal, cultural events on my reservation where I'm from the Mille Lacs Indian reservation. So for funerals, in certain sweat lodge, I wouldn't wear something like that. I would say the older generation can be a little bit more offended by it, so it's one thing I try to keep separate.

INTERVIEWER: What's been the reaction from the Ojibwe community when they learned about your Muslim beliefs, and vice versa for that matter?

MEGAN KALK: Yeah, I would say, for the Ojibwe community, for Native American communities they've been destroyed for the past two centuries, in some way or another. For our reservation, we weren't allowed to do any hunting, gathering, anything like that until the '80s or '90s, and do our traditional things. So anything that was foreign, whether that was catholicism, or anything European way of doing things was, not necessarily shunned, but if it was in conflict, it was shunned.

So I would say it's been a little more difficult with the Native American community, especially as we're in an age of trying to revitalize our culture, we're trying to preserve our language, our culture. So Islam, in some ways, represents all of those things that came across the Atlantic ocean that destroyed the cultures as over the years. So I would say it's been a little bit more difficult finding acceptance within the Native American community than it has been with the Muslim community. The Muslim community has always been very welcoming, I guess, to anybody, because Islam, it's a faith that, I guess, I would say, it encourages conversion of people, so, therefore, they welcome converts of any background.

However, I know that there are things that I do in my Ojibwe religion that would be of conflict, so certain tribal things, certain tribal rituals would probably be in conflict with Islam. I'll just give the example of the Ojibwe prayer we use. We take tobacco, and we go and put it out under a tree, and we say a prayer.

So using that tobacco as an in between, as a prayer, is something that is not allowed in Islam, but it's something that it's important to me to preserve. So I guess I will never find total acceptance, I think, in either one of them. But that's OK with me, because there's always a subsection in each of those groups that will accept you for what you do.

INTERVIEWER: I don't want to put words in your mouth, but I'm listening to you talk, and it sounds like, and I've never met you before until today, that you found maybe you're living your authentic self, because you do have your feet in both of these worlds. And it sounds like you feel comfortable.

MEGAN KALK: Yeah, it took many years of trying to feel comfortable. If we talk about Islam, Islam looks different from country to country, it looks different in Morocco than it does in India. And the way that the clothing, and the foods that people eat.

And in my early years of becoming a Muslim, it was, what is the community around me, which was particularly the Somali community here in Minnesota. And is that what Islam is, and is that what I have to conform to and for many years, it was trying to conform to that way of dress, eating those foods. And then I started to realize that Islam is very diverse, not only throughout cultures, but throughout the hundreds of years that it's been around, Islam has evolved in different communities and different places around the world, different customs. So I would say it has taken some time to find my authentic way, and practicing of both of those. But I have found, it it's taken a long time, but it's doable.

INTERVIEWER: Final question for you before we go. I know you have a daughter, are you raising her with both belief sets?

MEGAN KALK: I am raising her with both belief sets, but I would not say that I'm pushing one or the other onto her. So if she follows the same path that I did, at 18 exploring religions, and trying to find out what works for her, that's just fine with me. Although I would like her to remember where her roots and where she came from. So I would like her to go up to the reservation, and continue to do wild ricing, and continue to do sweat lodges, and continue to do fishing, and all of those traditional activities.

Also to remember her Islamic-- the whole reason she was born, the whole reason she is alive today, is because I converted to Islam, if I did not convert to Islam, I would not have her today. So I would like her to remember her roots.

INTERVIEWER: All right. Interesting conversation, Megan. Thank you so much for sharing.

MEGAN KALK: Yeah, thank you so much.

INTERVIEWER: Megan Kalk's been with us, sharing how she combines her Ojibwe and Muslim identities. You can read more about her story, by the way, at sahaljournal.com.

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