ChangeMakers: LeAnn Littlewolf, economic development rooted in culture

A person wearing a face mask stands outside near pine trees.
LeAnn Littlewolf at the Paul Wellstone Memorial Site in Eveleth, Minn.
Jaida Grey Eagle for MPR News

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

LeAnn Littlewolf, 47, is the economic development director at the American Indian Community Housing Organization (AICHO) in Duluth, Minn. She is from the Anishinaabe Gaa-zagaskwaajimekaag Band of Ojibwe. 

Littlewolf 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.  

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What inspires her every day is that she wants to see the community have resources and opportunity. Her work focuses on community health and ensuring that the community has everything they need across the generations. Current projects include developing a corner grocery store focused on local and Indigenous grown food that would provide access to healthy and fresh foods to the community.

AICHO is also working to create an artist hub in the Lincoln Park craft district that would feature an Indigenous artist studio space and arts production company.

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 live in Duluth, and I’m from Leech Lake. I was driving here, and I grew up around here. 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. I think about that a lot and I really have a love for children and for youth. I think about these kids that are coming and I don’t get to know them, I don’t get to hold them, and I don’t get to see their faces. But I know that they’re coming and that they need things. They’re going to need things and so what I do now makes a difference if they have those things or they don’t. So that’s what I think it means to be Indigenous to this place. 

What figures have shaped you? 

I’m very connected with my family and my grandparents. I grew up with my grandma and I grew up around two really large families so I’m really connected with aunties and uncles and my cousins. 

I never knew my grandfathers. They passed away before I was born. But my Grandpa Littlewolf actually had a huge influence on my dad on values and how we should live. When I was growing up I always heard stories about my Grandpa Steve and even though I never got to meet him, he was a big part of my life. He had a big impact on how I see my role here, like the things I need to do here and how I need to do them. 

When I was young I lucked out and I had these really beautiful people come into my life who were mentors to me: Gabriel and Leann Brisby. Gabriel was my eighth grade social studies teacher. Him and his wife mentored me and my sister and they kept an eye out for us. We had a different life. We moved a lot. We had a lot of instability, we were place to place. As a teenager I was really independent and somehow him and his wife kept track of us and would send me cards, ‘How are you doing in school?’ and things like that. 

When we were teenagers we moved to Virginia and I met a lot of community people there. I would say that my community there had a lot of impact on me, especially the moms raising their kids. The way that they took care of their kids, and all of us were on welfare, but they still made sure that their kids had everything that they needed and they were very loving and giving and very generous. So I learned a lot from my community. 

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

I have three grandchildren right now. When my granddaughter was born, it brought me instantly back to my grandma. I thought about her all the time. The things that she taught me. It wasn’t like a storybook. My grandma could be a really hard person to be around. 

She didn’t have any resources, she didn’t have income, she didn’t have any money. I remember when she was declared legally blind she was so happy because she could finally have some income. She taught me how to be humble. She taught me how to be kind. 

What I hope for Indigenous youth is those core values that got us through hard times. That they receive those and that they carry those and they remember them and carry those in our hearts. Those values are what actually helped save our people, that’s what I believe. That we take care of each other. That we’re generous, we share, we have compassion and have a really incredible work ethic. We have an understanding of our relationships and we value those relationships. So we are sitting here and we are surrounded by life and understanding that, we are sitting here with the understanding that these things are alive and they are here to help us. 

Where are we and why did you choose this location? 

We are at the Paul Wellstone memorial [in Eveleth, Minn.]. I come here to reflect on the work that I’m doing and where I'm at in life and to think about where I need to go. I come here because Paul and [his wife] Sheila loved people. They put all of their energy and heart into loving people and working and fighting for people and they did it in a good way. They brought people together. They saw possibility everywhere. 

When I was young, I watched them and I could see they had these real genuine hearts. They had a huge impact on me and the way we could be as human beings. Then I wasn’t really into politics at all and I would say that I have, over the years, seen that we could make an incredible difference if we bring our whole selves, if we’re fully there and have that kind of courage. They had courage to be loving and to [go] against the grain a little bit. So that’s why I chose this place because I love coming here. When they died I grieved and I was in deep grief. And so I come here to honor them and to show love to them and because I know that here I am connected with all sorts of people who believe in those same values and they are still doing the work. So I feel connected and loved and supported here.