ChangeMakers: Nicole Matthews, ending sexual violence is ‘part of my purpose’

A woman standing in front of mosaic structures.
Nicole Matthews stands in front of the Memorial for Survivors of Sexual Violence at Boom Island Park in Minneapolis on Oct. 28.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Throughout November, MPR News is featuring Indigenous Minnesotans making history to celebrate Native American Heritage Month.

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. 

She began working at the coalition more than 18 years ago after working at a nontribal program doing similar work. It’s a move she said “felt like coming home,” because she’s able to impact and create change in her own community. 

Matthews says many of her female relatives have experienced domestic violence and sexual assault. She has experienced sexual violence. And so advocating for sexual assault victims in the Native American community is personal.

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“It's part of who I am as an Indigenous woman,” said Matthews, who is Anishnaabe from the White Earth Band of Ojibwe. “It's part of what matters to me and I see it as part of my purpose.”

She also serves as vice chairperson for the state's Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women's Task Force, which was launched last year

Editor's note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What does it mean to be an Indigenous Minnesotan right now? 

I think we're really fortunate to be at a time where we have an Indigenous relative in the governor's office, as our lieutenant governor holds the highest office of any other Indigenous woman in history. That's incredible and representation matters. We're seeing a lot of not only representation, but a lot of really meaningful connections and meaningful work to include our Indigenous communities in Minnesota. We're seeing an increase across the country of that as well.

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. 

I just want people to remember that we're still here and we're everywhere. We're in your cities. We're in your communities and our kids go to school with your kids. We should be included, always. We should always be at the table. When we create systems and responses that are good for our Indigenous people, they're good for all people of this land.

Which figures have shaped you?

My mom grew up in one of our reservations, up on the Leech Lake reservation in northern Minnesota. She grew up in a time when there was a lot of separation. She grew up where there was a lot of poverty and a lot of hatred of Native people. 

I heard stories of her talking about her activism when she was a young person and her ways of activism even as she continued to grow. She used to talk about being a single mom at a time when it wasn't OK to be a single mom. And buying her first house and how hard that was because people looked at her like, “You're not supposed to own a house as a single mother, and you're not supposed to do these things.’ So I oftentimes think about her and all the struggles that she encountered and the ways that she always stood strong. The ways that she always kept fighting for her people, for her relatives, for the people that she loved and for her community. She always fought for what was right. 

One of the things that she always taught me when I first started doing this work, and I was terrified to speak, and I was terrified to use my voice, and I would shake and I would almost black out and not remember what I was saying … she would say, “Nicole, as long as you use your heart and speak from your heart the words are always going to come to you. You're always going to say the right thing.” I hold on to that today. She's no longer on this Earth anymore but she gave me a lot of teachings. 

Since then I've had so many other Indigenous women who have mentored me, who have gently corrected me, who have stood by me, who have loved me and supported me. Also our Indigenous youth, my kids. We don't only learn from people who are older than us, but we there's so much to be learned from those who are younger than us. I learn from all of that.

What's your vision for the future generations of Indigenous people in Minnesota?

I have so much hope right now because I've seen our young people that have stepped into their power in such amazing ways. In ways that I certainly didn't when I was their age. The ways that they are speaking about issues and things that are important to them, and the ways that they're elevating their voices and elevating these causes is incredible to me. 

So my hope really is that we as adults [and] as those who support our young people continue to build that net around them to lift up their activism. That we also learn when it's time to step back and let them lead. Because I think they're showing us that they're ready to lead. They continue to lift up all the issues — land issues, anti gender-based violence issues, LGBTQ/Two Spirit issues. All of the issues that are important and relevant and all the wellness and the healing that will come from their leadership. That's what my hope is.