ChangeMakers: Leya Hale, self-discovery and reclaiming the Native narrative

woman stands in front of buildings
Leya Hale, 36, stands on Raspberry Island in St. Paul. Hale says she identifies as an "urban Indian" and feels most at home in cities with lots of diversity.
Kathryn Styer Martinez | MPR News

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

Leya Hale, 36, lives in St. Paul. She was born and raised in the Los Angeles area. She is Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota and Navajo Dine. She is a storyteller, a documentary filmmaker and a producer with Twin Cities PBS (TPT), where she’s been working for the past eight years.

She graduated from California State University, Fullerton in Orange County, studying radio television and film. She attended graduate school at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, S.D., where she earned a degree in American Indian Studies and worked as a production assistant on a documentary about women in the Red Power movement. This is where Hale says the door to filmmaking opened for her.

When she moved to St. Paul, Hale said she was in awe because she could walk down the street and run into Native people. Back home in Los Angeles, she had to intentionally seek them out. Being around so many Native people, “just made me feel good that there was a strong vibrant community out here. I felt at home right away,” Hale said.

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Hale has won multiple regional Emmy awards for her work. She is currently the Merata Mita fellow at the Sundance Institute, an imagineNATIVE 2020 Native fellow and an ambassador with Thrive’s “My Sisters are Warriors” initiative. Hale is currently producing a feature length documentary about missing and murdered Indigenous women, titled “Bring Her Home.”

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 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. 

Even though sometimes we have to tell painful stories of the past, painful stories of modern [times], stories [of what is] happening to our people, to our women, to our children; it's always good to empower them to know that we are resilient people. We gotta keep going forward no matter what. 

Sometimes I feel like “why am I here being interviewed? Why am I Where I am? Why am I the only Native person at TPT?” Sometimes I feel like I don't deserve these things. I don't deserve recognition. But then I have to sometimes realize I have to do it because I need to show young people that if I could be in that institution, [they] could be there, too. We got to serve as examples. I want to encourage the young people to look at all of the mentors in our community. They're in every single field. They're in every single sector. We need to look at their examples and follow in their footsteps.

What figures have shaped you?

My dad. On my maternal side of my family, I come from the Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota people out of northeast South Dakota, on the Sisseton reservation. And on my paternal side, I'm Dine Navajo, from the four corners area, Oak Springs, Arizona. I was born and raised in Southern California in the Los Angeles area. My family came to be out there through boarding school [and] relocation. My dad was the one that raised me. 

I grew up dancing at pow wows. I’ve been dancing ever since I could walk. I dance women's northern traditional cloth. It's one of the oldest styles among the woman's Northern Plains dances. Because we had this love of dancing and sharing our culture, my family had a dance group called the Eagle Spirit Dancers. I grew up dancing, performing [and] doing cultural performances with my family at many different places: educational institutions, libraries, you name it. We were there, all across the Los Angeles area doing what we knew how to do best, share our culture with the larger community.

During these performances, I would listen to my dad tell story after story about the dances that we would perform. I would really listen to how he told each story, giving that basic beginning, middle [and] end to a story. I loved the reaction from the audience, how they really enjoyed listening to these stories, how they learned from them. I think that is what instilled the passion in me to be a storyteller. I received my passion for storytelling from my dad.

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

I believe we're coming to a time where Indigenous people in Minnesota have a voice. I'm thankful for the Black Lives Matter movement, because I feel as if they've taken us along with them in regards to being heard globally. Even this new term BIPOC. To me, that just feels good to know what that means: Black, Indigenous [and] people of color. Even though we're a small percentage, I feel people are now listening to us and want to know what our perspective is in all sectors. 

I say that from my own organization, Twin Cities PBS, I'm grateful because they've given me a seat at the table. They want to know what I think [and] my perspective on high level decision making sometimes. I'm really appreciative of that but I feel like there needs to be more of us. There's only one of me at Twin Cities PBS. There should be a whole cohort of Indigenous young people [at Twin Cities PBS] eager to tell stories. 

What's most important for the general audience to know is what lands they inhabit. Why they should take care of it. Why it's important to know that water is sacred. Why it's important to know that we need to treat our land, every species on it, in a respectful and good way. I feel like sharing our stories with the public will help them to remind themselves that they're visitors to this area. They need to treat it with respect [and] include Indigenous people. 

To Indigenous people, to the young, to the elderly: It's our time to express ourselves, express our concerns. But at the same time, come to the table with ideas, innovation, and solutions, because [non-Native people] are listening. It's our time now.

Where do you feel most at home in Minnesota?

I feel most at home in the Twin Cities. I grew up in the Los Angeles area. I know what it's like to visit both of my reservations, and I have a love for [them]. At the same time, I'm an urban Indian. I love being around a lot of different people. I feel like you learn a lot from different cultures. So I like to be where there's a lot of diverse people living among each other.  

I live in downtown St. Paul. My building itself is very diverse. There's a lot of immigrants. There's Indigenous people. There's just a wide range of different people. It's good to just live amongst each other and see how similar we are. See how different we are. Communicate with each other on a daily basis. That's where I feel at home. In the city. I feel like it's like a hub for communication, ideas and innovation.