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15 years after his death, Paul Wellstone's legacy lives on

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Lori Janatopoulos, Nevada Littlewolf and LeAnn Littlewolf at memorial.
Lori Janatopoulos, Nevada Littlewolf and LeAnn Littlewolf gathered at the Paul Wellstone memorial near Eveleth, Minn. on Oct. 23, 2017, two days before the 15th anniversary of his death.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

Tucked among slender pines and aspens off an out-of-the-way road near Eveleth, Minn., there's a small memorial to Sen. Paul Wellstone about a half-mile from where his small campaign plane crashed 15 years ago. 

                                                                                                                  It's quiet and simple, featuring a ring of polished slabs of rock, in memory of Wellstone and his wife Sheila, his daughter, and three campaign workers who also died in the crash. Both pilots were also killed. 

"I come to this memorial site when I experience despair in my life, and I question hope, and also when I'm trying to get my bearings, when I'm trying to figure out what is it that I need to be doing with my energy and with my life," said LeAnn Littlewolf as she walked among the stones. 

Littlewolf, 44, is a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and works for the American Indian Community Housing Organization in Duluth. She wrote the poem that's featured at the entrance to the memorial. 

It was inspired by eagles that circled the crash site after Wellstone's plane went down. 

"That just gave me a chill, because in our culture when someone passes, the eagle comes and helps their spirit continue on," she explained, before she quietly read the verses aloud:

The eagles circle
In a ceremony
To guide their kind friends home.
Though our time here is brief,
An ancient truth circles with the eagles:
That spirits never die.
They stay alive
In love, in hope, 
In eagles' wings touching the sky,
In people extending hands to one another
To circle like an eagle
And bring everyone home.

A gravel trail traces a circle around the memorial. Signs detail different aspects of Wellstone's life: college professor, social activist and organizer, fiery campaigner and iconic liberal Senator. 

Nevada Littlewolf, 41, is LeAnn's younger sister. She met Wellstone in her early 20s when she was working with Native American youth.

Sen. Paul Wellstone
Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., makes a point as he talks with reporters in Minneapolis on June 7, 2002.
Ann Heisenfelt | AP 2002

"Like many, many people, he said you should run for office someday," she recalled. "And so, standing here today at the Wellstone memorial, 15 years later, it's incredible for me to think that 10 of the last 15 years I spent as an elected official."

Littlewolf became the first Native American elected to the Virginia City Council.   

"Having a senator say to a young Native American girl that you should run for public office, that has an impact," she said.

Littlewolf has also led training through Wellstone Action, the political organization founded to carry on the late senator's legacy, and conducts women's leadership training through an organization she founded called Rural American Indigenous Leadership.

She recounts a story she remembers, of a man who told Wellstone, "I'm a Republican, and I'm supporting you." And Wellstone replied. "I'm a Democrat, and I'm supporting you."  

"Right now we're living in such a divisive political world," Littlewolf said. "I have really looked to the teachings of Paul Wellstone to help center me in the work that I do in community, with other people who aren't like me or who don't have the same perspective as me."

It's appropriate in many ways that the memorial honoring Wellstone isn't at Carleton College, where he taught political science, or at the state Capitol, but on the Iron Range. 

That's where he launched his first underdog campaign, while touring the state in his green bus, at the home of Gabriel Brisbois, a social studies teacher who mentored both LeAnn and Nevada Littlewolf. 

Wellstone memorial site
There were many additions to the stones lining a walkway at the Paul Wellstone Memorial and Historic Site Oct. 25, 2012.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News 2012

"Iron Rangers are the Paul Wellstone-type people," said Lisa Radosevich-Craig, Wellstone's northern Minnesota director for seven and a half years. "They came to work the railways, the mines. It was tough, they all had to fight and to organize and to work with each other to improve working conditions, to have good school — all those basic beliefs that Paul had identified with." 

Plus, she says, it didn't hurt that  Wellstone wasn't afraid to speak up for what he believed in. 

One of Wellstone's favorite quotes, that Radosevich-Craig, Brisbois, and the Littlewolfs all brought up, unprompted, was "We all do better when we all do better." 

"I believed in what he believed in, that people should have affordable health care, a quality education, a good job," said Radosevich-Craig. "We need to all take care of each other. He lived his beliefs and ideals every day."

LeAnn Littlewolf attended a conference in Maine last week, where someone, to loud applause, invoked the late Senator.  

"His quote, 'we all do better when we all do better,' was said there," she recalled. "Fifteen years and that's still resonating with us. I think that speaks to the magnitude of his impact."