ChangeMakers: Indigenous Minnesotans making history
Native American Heritage Month celebrates and honors the culture and heritage of Native Americans through time.
This November MPR News introduces you to Indigenous Minnesotans who are making history right now across the state. Each will discuss what being Indigenous in Minnesota means to them, a bit about their background and their hopes for the future.
Nicole Matthews, ending sexual violence is ‘part of my purpose’
Nicole Matthews, 48, is the executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition, a statewide tribal coalition working to end sexual violence against Indigenous women and children.
“One of the things that is really important is that Indigenous people, we are everywhere. We don't just live on the reservation. We're your neighbors. You know, more than half of us live off the reservation. So I always want to raise the visibility for our Indigenous people, for our Indigenous relatives. That's really been the issue about the missing and murdered Indigenous women and Indigenous relatives: there's been such an enormous invisibility of our people.”
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David Glass challenges appropriation of Native imagery, culture in sports
David Glass, 69, has been fighting for the dignity and rights of Indigenous communities for decades. He has been working with the National Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media for more than 30 years to lobby sports teams to drop racist and offensive names and to stop using depictions of Indigenous people as mascots.
“We are going to continue to progress, and we are going to continue to positively impact our communities. In our community, we talk about making decisions that impact seven generations — not just ourselves. Everybody's cognizant of that and that's always at the forefront of our minds.
Vanessa GoodThunder, revitalizing the Dakota language
Vanessa GoodThunder, 26, is the director of the C̣aƞṡayapi Waḳaƞyeża Owayawa Oṭi, the Lower Sioux Early Head Start and Head Start Dakota language immersion program in Morton, Minn.
“My vision is that everybody will have the access and ability to speak their language. Thus, that will help heal them, their community, and thus tribal sovereignty as a whole. And with that, that means we are going to be able to have better health systems because we're remembering, reclaiming, and reconnecting — or recovering, as I heard it recently.”
Sean Sherman, teaching Indigenous food traditions as cultural preservation
Sean Sherman, 46, founder of the Sioux Chef and Indigenous Food Lab, is working to teach Indigenous people about ancestral food traditions. Sherman’s approach to education incorporates foraging, ancestral recipes and business training, in hopes that someday soon, there will be more people creating Native cuisine in Minnesota.
“When we're looking at Indigenous foods, we're just thinking about what people were surviving with for so long, bringing that knowledge into the modern day and having fun by creating and evolving that knowledge and creating something new for these new generations.”
Maggie Lorenz, preserving cultural heritage through land conservation
Maggie Lorenz, 37, spent a significant part of her childhood exploring the green spaces in east St. Paul with family members. Now as the head of Lower Phalen Creek Project and the director of the Wakan Tipi Center, Lorenz is reconnecting with those parks and natural places she described as “magical.”
Her vision for the future generations of Indigenous people in Minnesota is that “they'll have access to high quality heritage programming like we'll offer at Wakan Tipi Center to reconnect with our ways, our food ways, our stories [and] our history. And have places like Wakan Tipi Center where they can come together with community and fully be themselves as Dakota and Anishinaabe people in Minnesota.”
Peggy Flanagan, Minnesota’s lieutenant governor
Peggy Flanagan, 41, is the first Indigenous person elected to executive office in Minnesota’s 162-year history. She started her political career in 2004, being elected to the Minneapolis School Board, before becoming a state representative and sharing a ticket with Gov. Tim Walz in 2018.
“My hope is that we don't have to continue to say the ‘first this’ and the ‘second that.’ It's just the expectation that leaders look like us and come from the community, and that when we have Indigenous folks at the table, we are changing those systems for the better.”
LeAnn Littlewolf, economic development rooted in culture
LeAnn Littlewolf, 47, is the economic development director at the American Indian Community Housing Organization (AICHO) in Duluth, Minn. She sees her work at AICHO as her cultural values in action. “All of the answers are in our culture, the path forward is in our origin story. We do economic development but we do it in an Indigenous way,” she said.
“I was thinking about how this land is so old and a lot of times our modern conception of it is limited. We frame it in this little tiny span of time, but this land is where my family has been for a long long time. We’re connected here and I have a real deep love of this place, of this land right here. For me, to be Anishinaabe is to recognize that tie to this land and that it goes back so far and right now where we’re at, what we do, matters for people who aren’t here yet.”
Marlena Myles, educating through art and innovation
Marlena Myles is a self-taught, professional artist. Her art leverages technology to create immersive interaction that engages and educates people about the language, history and spirituality of the Dakota people.
Being an Indigenous Minnesotan right now “means celebrating my ancestors’ survival and passing on the knowledge to the next generation and educating greater Minnesotans about us.
“As a Dakota person, your No. 1 duty is to be a good relative: to other people, to the planet, to your ancestors — through honoring their spirits. It's teaching people what Dakota means, like, ‘What does the word Dakota mean? What does it really mean? What does it mean to be a Dakota person?’”
Brenda and Benay Child, channeling Ojibwe pride from one generation to the next
University of Minnesota history professor Brenda Child says her mother taught her to be proud of her Red Lake Ojibwe heritage, something she strives to pass on to her two children. Daughter Benay Child, 20, is taking that love of Ojibwe stories and language to create art and better connect with her ancestors.
Benay Child: “My vision is that everybody speaks Ojibwe, or at least has the opportunity to go and learn it. Because it's something that connects us to our ancestors and it's the language that we use in ceremony.”
Brenda Child: “[P]eople tend to look at American Indian cultural traditions, even powwow traditions for example, as being something very ancient or very old. Aspects of powwows are very old. Aspects of them are new because powwows, just like Native people, are always evolving.
I find the jingle dress dance tradition a really good example of this particular idea because it came out of the global pandemic a century ago. [It] wasn't something that just happened in Indian Country or Minnesota. It happened in Belgium. It happened in Africa. It happened in Mexico. And so it's remarkable to think about Native people as being part of the making of the modern world.”
Kate Beane, bringing Indigenous stories into the present
Kate Beane’s roots in the Twin Cities go back generations, and now she is working to bring their stories light. Beane is a public historian who holds a doctoral degree in American Studies. She and her twin sister, Carly Bad Heart Bull, didn’t grow up in Minnesota but moved back with their family to have the opportunity to study the Dakota language. Beane can trace their ancestry back to Ḣeyate Otuŋwe or Village to The Side, a community along the shore of Bde Maka Ska.
“To be an Indigenous Minnesotan today means to have a voice. I think something that is so exciting about being alive today is the fact that we're living in a time of great change. We're living in a time of empowerment. We're living in a time where our voices are finally being heard. We are becoming the key decisionmakers within our communities. We are helping to educate the people around us to understand what being Indigenous means.
And for us, to be Indigenous means to have a clear connection to the land. To have a connection to our cultural identity and our language. To be able to speak to who we are, and to be able to humanize our family stories and our contributions to this place that we all love [and] where we all live.”
Tufawon, music as an art of resistance
Dakota and Boricua hip-hop artist Rafael Gonzalez, known as Tufawon, wants to hear Indigenous music on heavy rotation on every station. His music blends his experiences growing up and his visions for the future of Indigenous people. It combines the sounds of Minneapolis hip-hop with traditional sounds, while his lyrics cover themes like our relationship to food systems and resistance struggles of Indigenous people in North America.
“It's also important for me to use my voice and to be visible during these times. Because [as] Indigenous people we face erasure wherever we go. The largest genocide in world history happened here in the United States, you know, on Turtle Island, or so called ‘North America.’ Ever since the beginning of the colonization, settler colonialism taking over our lands, and white settlers taking over, we've been dealing with the same erasure and misrepresentation or no representation at all. So to be Dakota in Minnesota, and to have my voice heard, is super crucial in these times.”
Adrienne Benjamin, master jingle dress maker, artist and activist
Adrienne Benjamin is a master jingle dress maker living on the Mille Lacs Reservation. She is also a jingle dress dancer, inspired by her great-grandmother Hannah. Guided by her mentors, teachers, counselors and grandad, Benjamin is working to help transform the lives of the next generation of Minnesotans.
“We've lost so much collectively as a people, as Indigenous people. But the one thing that they couldn't take away was our identity and our songs and our ceremonies and those things that really give us that life. The language is still here, as little as it is, you know what I mean? I feel bad for other cultures that they don't have [those things]. As much as the collective trauma is sad, our collective resilience is stronger than the sad parts.”
Autumn Dillie, combating homelessness with culture and care
Autumn Dillie, 31, is a street outreach worker for the American Indian Community Development Corp. She provides Native Americans experiencing homelessness with culturally specific services, which Dillie says is key to long-term stability.
“I think about my kid and I think about other children I consider my nieces. I just really hope they find a way to continue to resist against being extinct. Just to continue to have beautiful Native children. They all go to the Bdote Learning Center. They are learning more of our language than we ever got the chance to learn. I really think they're going to bring our language back. They'll bring back a way to be rich in our traditions, and they're going to revive our ways. I really believe that they will be better than we are.”
Leya Hale, self-discovery and reclaiming the Native narrative
Leya Hale learned how to be a storyteller by watching her dad share stories about their Native communities at cultural events back home. She grew up in the Los Angeles area and moved to St. Paul by way of South Dakota. Her journey has been one of self-discovery and reclaiming her narrative, something she says is necessary in order to elevate Indigenous stories.
“I feel that this is a perfect time, as an Indigenous person living in Minnesota, to use your words to speak, because people are listening. When I was growing up my dad used to always talk about this great time of change coming. He would tell me that great times of change come in waves. In his time it was the ‘70s, during the Red Power movement. He would tell us, ‘It's gonna come again. Be prepared. Be ready. Whatever field that you're in, when that time comes, be ready to say something. Be ready to uplift your people.’ I feel like that time is now.”
Sarah Agaton Howes, preserving culture through craft
Sarah Agaton Howes, 44, is the artist and founder of Heart Berry, which is located on the Fond Du Lac Reservation in northern Minnesota. Agaton Howes is inspired to keep making art because she views cultural art as a gift. When she wanted to learn how to make moccasins, everyone in the community was generous with their knowledge. She said she now feels like it’s her job within the community to teach and pass on what she knows. She has been teaching cultural art and moccasin-making workshops for 10 years and estimates she’s had 800 students.
“When people are making moccasins, they are struggling, poking themselves, bleeding on their moccasins [and] frustrated,” Agaton Howes said. “There in this moment is where you become your grandma. That thing you thought was lost is not lost. You’re still that. That is the best moment to be included in people's lives. Being at that heart of that connection.”
Terri Yellowhammer, bringing representation to the bench
Fourth District Court Judge Terri Yellowhammer, 57, wants increased visibility for Native Americans. Her vision for the future is to see more Native Americans positions of leadership so her community can have the services they need.
”To have our tribes, the 11 federally recognized tribes here in Minnesota, have more power means more voice. More voice means more visibility. More visibility means that our people can get the services that they need. Hopefully, they can be listened to [and] they can be seen. I can't stress that enough. When you have been victims of genocide [and] when you have survived genocide, to feel like you are unwanted [and] to feel like you are a reminder of what I think, historically, people want to forget is really demeaning, disrespectful and dehumanizing. So visibility is key to reversing those things. That's what that means to me.“
Mysti Babineau, Protecting land and people
Mysti Babineau, 34, is an organizer with climate change organization MN350 and an advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous people. Her work focuses on the intersectionality of climate and social justice issues.
“I don't know that being Indigenous to Minnesota means anything different than it did centuries ago. My bones and my blood are from this land. I love her. I treasure her and I honor her. I just want to see every creature that exists on her [are] living in harmony with her. And I also try to make sure that I'm being a good relative to my community members, too.”