LEGACY: Darlene Jackson is the “Woman Who Helps”

Darlene Jackson, Ojibwe elder, from 2003 Minnesota Women’s Press newspaper

The following story appeared in the July 30, 2003 issue of Minnesota Women’s Press. Twice per month in 2024, MWP is uplifting select pieces from our 39-year archive with a focus on longstanding issues. In tandem with our “Hometown Values & Vision” print issue, our June focus is on how neighbors support each other.

Ojibwe elder and spiritual teacher Darlene Jackson — whose Ojibwe name is Awanook, or “Fog Mist Everywhere” — does seem to be everywhere. Jackson, a petite woman with warm, laughing eyes and long, dark hair sprinkled with gray, is a familiar sight to many around the Twin Cities. She has been a foster parent to some 80 children, acted as a guardian ad litem for many more children in court, and chairs the board of directors at American Indian Services, Inc.

She joined the American Indian Movement “practically when it was founded” and was a member of the AIM Patrol — a group that drove around Minneapolis at night; looking for people who needed help. More recently, Jackson participated in the protests surrounding the reconstruction of Highway 55, and she performs spiritual ceremonies in the Ojibwe and Lakota traditions. Jackson can also be found in cyberspace, sharing her knowledge of spirituality on the internet. 

Born on the Leech Lake reservation in 1941, Jackson spent her early years living with her grandmother and caretaker, Anna, in a home without running water, electricity or indoor plumbing. Anna (who spoke only the Ojibwe language) educated her on the ways of the Ojibwe people and “tried like heck” to teach Jackson her language and values through storytelling.

By age 12, however, Jackson had begun smoking and drinking; county officials decided that her grandmother was unable to care for her, and Jackson moved into the first of four white foster homes. It was the first exposure to another culture she remembers, except for some contact with the Christian missionaries. 

At first, Jackson thought foster care was a punishment, but she eventually came to care for her first foster family. There she saw a television for the first time, and went to a store to buy her first new clothes. She learned to drive a tractor, milk cows, cook, bake, and collect firewood using two horses and a sleigh. She joined Future Homemakers of America and went to movies.

Jackson thought of her grandmother’s philosophy as she tried to deal with the changes in her life. “She told me that I would meet different people from different colors and she told me to love everybody and to respect all people,” Jackson recalled. “She taught me there’s good and bad in everybody.”

Eventually Jackson moved to a second foster home in a town where her half-sister lived and began attending a Seventh-Day Adventist church. After some time, she rebelled and refused to attend. “That’s not my church!” she told her foster family. 

In the next foster home, the family ran a resort in Northern Minnesota, one of just two in the area that rented cabins to African Americans. That, too, was a new experience. In that home and the next, Jackson said she also learned about other Christian denominations, but Christianity never resonated with her.

“I would think of all the churches that I had gone to. I would look at the altar, and there were some beautiful altars, but I would look and I’d say, ‘Okay, where are you? God, where are you?’”

While still a senior in high school, Jackson received a marriage proposal from a man of Norwegian and Irish descent. She told him “sure.” Looking back, Jackson sees her marriage as a way to leave foster care, where she was considered a ward of the state until age 21. She also now sees the fact that the man was white as significant. “…when I grew up on the rez, I remember the older women being beaten up and we all lived real poor, like in shacks, and I thought, ‘I’m not gonna live in a shack and I’m not gonna marry an Indian man because I don’t want to get beat up and get black eyes.’ Because that’s all I’d seen, you know, the negative part.”

Later, time and experience brought many nurturing Indian men into Jackson’s life as friends and “brothers.” She and her first husband eventually divorced. Jackson married twice more, once more to a non-Indian man and once to an Indian man from the Winnebago tribe.

For about a decade after she left foster care, Jackson struggled with alcoholism. After her second marriage ended, she found sobriety and discovered that she had missed out on a lot. About the same time, an Indian friend came through Minneapolis, where she was living, and told her about a different way to live her life: one that included ceremonies, sun dances and sweat lodges. “I would just visualize and I liked what he’d talk about,” Jackson recalled.

Not long after that, Jackson met her first spiritual interpreter, or medicine man — Martin High Bear, a Lakota from the Cheyenne River reservation in South Dakota. Slowly, she began to learn more about Native spirituality. A man came to her home to take her to her first ceremony and asked, “Are you in your moon?” Jackson was puzzled. “Are you having your period?” he asked her. When Jackson said no, he responded, “Good. Put on a skirt. I’m taking you to a ceremony.”

“And little by little, you know, just a little bit at a time, I began to understand,” said Jackson. “That’s how my spirituality developed. I’d go to ceremonies, and I knew that there was something very powerful and sacred.”

Through medicine men such as Martin High Bear, Robert Stead, and Norbert Elmer Running, Jackson learned about praying and communication with spirits. She developed a practice of setting out spirit plates — offering a portion of her food in honor of spirits that had passed on. More importantly, Jackson learned not to hoard the knowledge she had been given, but to share it with those who wanted to learn, Indian or not.

“What good is it going to do you to know all of this stuff?” she remarked. “You should share it. So that’s what I do.”

Jackson also became more active in the community. During the ‘70s and ‘80s she opened her home as a foster parent, caring mainly for children considered hard to place. While working at the Legal Rights Center, she began volunteering as a guardian ad litem, representing Indian children in court cases of dependent neglect or termination of parental rights, sometimes due to parental alcoholism. Early on, she was the first and only Indian guardian ad litem in Hennepin County.

“In the ‘80s I gave myself to the Creator and said, ‘Use me as a tool to reach people, to share what I’ve learned with people. Help me to say the right words.’ When I’m asked to pray or I’m asked to say something, I always pray first and ask them for guidance. It’s just like there’s something that came in and it’s doing the talking with my voice, and it’s clearer and it’s simple and it’s captivating.”

Jackson now volunteers as chair of the board of directors of American Indian Services, Inc., a halfway house for people leaving chemical dependency treatment. Through her own internet site, chat rooms, and email, Jackson teaches people all over the world about Ojibwe and Lakota spirituality, just as, in a loving home without electricity or running water, her grandmother taught her.

“I would tell people online, make a spirit plate for your relatives [who have passed on] and put out some tobacco [to show respect] and they’ll appreciate them. Like if I’m gonna have scrambled eggs, sausages, and toast, or if I’m gonna have juice or coffee, you feed them first. You make a little offering and you put a cigarette there. I put [the spirit plate] on the table. And then every day I put it in a bag and I burn it at sweat lodge.”

Jackson also offers her time to address community issues. For her, one of the hardest issues today is racism, and she speaks passionately about police brutality against people of color. She is currently preparing to lead a sensitivity training to teach law enforcement officers about Native American practices.

“One of the hardest things to do is to walk across the room and to shake that person’s hand who doesn’t like you because you’re Indian,” Jackson said.

She has shown elementary school students how to smudge themselves with the smoke of sage to prepare for prayer, talked to Alcoholics Anonymous groups about her experiences, and led prayers at the Minneapolis May Day parade and other events.

Through her work, she tries to pass her values along to others. This year in a Lakota ceremony Jackson received a Lakota name that means “Woman Who Helps.”

“When we’re in the lodge or we’re in a circle,” Jackson said, “close your eyes. You don’t know what color that person is that’s next to you. We’re all from the creator, all of us. Even in the Bible it says that God has many, many names. But whether you’re Buddhist or Christian or Jewish or whatever, we’re all under God, you know.”