ChangeMakers: Peggy Flanagan, Minnesota’s lieutenant governor

A woman in a black shirt and yellow skirt stands in a forest.
Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan stands at the Westwood Hills Nature Center in St. Louis Park, Minn. on Nov. 6.
Jaida Grey Eagle for MPR News

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

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.

Flanagan grew up in St. Louis Park, Minn., the daughter of Marvin Manypenny, an advocate for Indigenous people across the country and a fierce critic of U.S. and tribal governments. Flanagan says she was shaped by his fire to bring change in government and to stand up for her people. 

Manypenny died in January, followed by Flanagan’s brother, Ron Golden, in March from COVID-19. Despite this, Flanagan has continued to govern through the pandemic and civil unrest of 2020. 

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One constant for her this year has been the Westwood Hills Nature Center in St. Louis Park, near where she grew and now lives with her daughter and husband. 

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

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

What it means to me to be an Indigenous Minnesotan right now is complicated. Every day, well, prepandemic, but every day I work in a system. I walk into a building that was not created by us or for us, but in many ways, a system that was created to eliminate us.

And so before I walk into that building, I take two deep breaths: First is a breath of just acknowledging the responsibility of being lieutenant governor for Minnesota. But the second breath is a breath of protection, walking into this system that has done quite a bit of harm. So I think it's acknowledging where we're at and how far we've come. 

Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan takes the oath of office.
Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan takes the oath of office at the Fitzgerald Theater on Jan. 7, 2019.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The other thing that I talk about a lot is that there's a Knute Nelson statue right outside my window at the Capitol. Knute Nelson ordered the removal of all Indigenous people in Minnesota, to what is now White Earth. He was not successful, but he still has a gigantic statue to his tribute and in front of the Capitol. And so some days, I look out the window, and I'm like, “Knute Nelson…” and shake my head. Other days, I'm like, “What's up now, Knute Nelson? There's an Ojibwe woman who's lieutenant governor.”

So I think that is sort of what it means to be an Indigenous Minnesotan — that we are here, and despite everything, we are incredibly resilient. We are here because we continue to have a sense of humor and connection to one another. 

But I also feel like we're in this moment where you can feel things shifting and changing. Like just the number of Indigenous women who are leading across so many sectors right now, it’s not an accident, right? Like we know that Native women have been leaders since time immemorial. It's just the rest of society that is catching up to us. So I think at this moment, what it means to be Indigenous Minnesotan is complicated, but it's also I think, a really helpful and powerful time.

What figures have shaped you?

Oh, so many, but I would say right off the top of my head, my dad. 2020 has been a really difficult year for all of us but for me personally has been pretty devastating.

I lost my dad at the end of January. My dad Marvin Manypenny, he was a hell-raiser in the best sense of the word. My dad often would say, “My girl, I want to burn the system down and you want to change it from the inside out. We need both.” And so I think about that a lot. In that, he taught me that everyone has a role, and a responsibility and that you step into that role, you serve your people as best you can.

White Earth activist Marvin Manypenny.
White Earth activist Marvin Manypenny with Minnesota Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan. Manypenny died in White Earth in January at the age of 72.
Photo by Ben Garvin | Courtesy of Peggy Flanagan

When my dad passed away, we were going through a lot of his stuff — he ran a handful of times for tribal government — and there was one of his flyers that said,”‘The right to govern ourselves is indisputably ours.” I come back to that when things feel extra complicated about being a Native person in systems of government.

He also was proud of me, and just had a really great love of his people. I continue to be so grateful that we were able to spend a lot of time with him before he walked on, and I remember the last thing I said to him was, “Dad, I love you so much. And I promise that I'm going to do everything I can for our people.” All of that happened before, this wave of just trauma for everyone, frankly, with this pandemic. So it's been sort of navigating through that grief and all of that at this time. Through what everyone is experiencing collectively because really, I'm very much my father's daughter. 

And other folks like Robert Lilligren, who's the head of the Native American Community Development Institute, but who was the first the first Native person elected to city government in the city of Minneapolis. He cleared the way for me when I was running for the school board in 2004 and got elected. He was incredible, in sort of helping me navigate through those systems. 

Laura Waterman Wittstock, who is with MIGIZI, she's kind of an O.G., right, in the urban community, and just showed what it meant to lead an organization but also just push for opportunities for Indigenous women at tables all over the place. 

And then I would say, Louise Matson, who's now the executive director of the Division of Indian work. She was my first boss, when I had a grown-up job. I worked in the youth leadership development program at DIW and her compassion for the kids and the families that we worked with every day, but also her high expectations for everyone around her to do their best for Indigenous youth, I still carry that with me. And when I see her in the community, I'm like, “Louise, I promise I'm doing my best.” I continue to look to her for just guidance and feedback. And we've just got a whole bunch of powerful urban Native leaders here, who keep me in line, and aunties who tell me what I need to act right.

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

Part of my vision, I think, is what we are trying to do currently. You know, Minnesota has existed as a state for 162 years. We have been heading in the same direction for the bulk of that time and so changing or sort of turning or steering a ship that's been headed in one direction for 162 years is a challenge.

But I think what my vision is that the state of Minnesota, both in the governor's office, but also the Legislature and in the House and Senate, truly understand tribal governments — what sovereignty is, what it means — and respect and honor treaty rights. We've created the Office of Tribal State Relations in our office. My hope is that that continues long after we're gone, that you don't need to have Anishinaabekwe as lieutenant governor. It just becomes the work that the state does.

I also hope that we have leadership that accurately reflects the communities it seeks to represent. I think that every election cycle we get closer and closer. Heather Keeler, who is just elected in Moorhead is going to be an incredible addition to the Minnesota House. We have leaders like Jamie Becker-Finn, who is a state representative who's just an incredible leader. Mary Kunesh-Podein, who's now over in  the Senate.

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.

I'd also say that as we're having these conversations and communities that we talk a lot about — and I think this happens in government and philanthropy and nonprofits a lot — we talk about BIPOC communities. But I don't always think that people really get the I, the Indigenous part of it. And sometimes it's thrown in, because that's like what you're supposed to say. But I think my vision for that is that we are building relationships across communities and lines of difference and finding those places of strength for all of us, and that Indigenous people are seen and heard and valued across the state and across the country. I think we're on our way. 

But even you know, we've all seen CNN, talking about the voter turnout, and we were labeled as “something else.” I think that just speaks directly to the continued ignorance of some folks in media about the fact that we are still alive and still exist. But also that Native folks have such a sense of humor about it. You know, it's been nonstop memes and saying, “something else and proud” and, you know, “I'm the second something else woman elected to executive office in the country.” That also that feels pretty good, too.

Where are we and what is your connection to this place?

We are at Westwood Hills Nature Center in St. Louis Park. I have been coming here every year of my life since I was in kindergarten. This is on the regular list of field trips for children who grew up in this community. But this has been a real lifesaver for me this year. I take walks here, multiple, multiple times per week, even when it's really chilly because it's a place where I can clear my head. I can see hawks and deer and visit with the little muskrats who live in the pond and it's just a good place that is maybe five minutes away from my house where I can just reconnect with myself and clear some space.

Knowing that we have a tremendous amount of work that we are doing every single day, it's good to just have a space to breathe and be myself.