Native Voices

commentary of Indigenous women about their passions

Evelyn Bellanger (photo by Walter Kimmel)

Evelyn Bellanger (White Earth): Roots 

When I was a child I asked my mom, “How long have we been here?” She replied, “Forever.” I pondered that question, and her answer, as I rode in the back seat of my parents’ car, looking out the window at the young trees growing along the road and wondered, “How could that be?” 

Answers to that question, and others raised while growing up, came from years of studying and researching our community and American Indian histories. I witnessed the effects of forced boarding schools while living on the reservation. I embarked on spiritual journeys, which helped me discover more about the injustices and struggles our people have endured. 

My curiosity about who we are as Anishinaabe people would inspire me to research our history and culture, and the practices of our language, traditions, and religion. 

Later in life, I started writing journals of my experiences, memories of growing up, and the knowledge I had gained. I shared educational articles on The Delegates webpage and in our tribal newspaper, posting our community history on The Pine Point History webpage, and did an interview on Niijii radio about what it was like growing up without technology. 

When the opportunity arises, I speak at events. I recently presented at the Nibi Miinawaa Manoomin Symposium (Women Protecting Our Water and Wild Rice) in Mahnomen. We talked about the Niibi Center, which is a repository of Anishinaabe culture and knowledge to protect our prophecy, sovereignty and cultural survival. 

This has become my mission — to educate our people about our history, to keep our people informed about the changes I see being made within our culture. I want to give them hope by understanding the proud and intelligent people we are, and why we have the issues we have in our communities today. 

Focusing on historical trauma can provide a partial answer. It can take us back to pre-contact times, to understand the root causes and to give hope to see how changes can be made. 

Nevada Littlewolf (photo by Kira Littlewolf)

Nevada Littlewolf (Leech Lake): Politics 

I have spent most of my life on the Iron Range. I have been in the company of strong Native women my entire life — whether it was working with a mom struggling to keep her family intact, or grassroots leaders like Kayla Aubid, Korina Barry, and Moira Villiard, or those in halls of power such as Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan or Former Tribal Chairwoman Karen Diver. While our identity is under constant confrontation, Indigenous women remain the backbone of our communities. My journey has been to lift Indigenous women’s voices and vision and highlight our leadership gifts. 

I served on the Virginia, Minnesota City Council for ten years. I am happy to be the new Political Director at Women Winning, to support, train, and elect pro-choice women in Minnesota. I am especially excited to use my networks and insights to reach diverse women candidates across the state and our 11 sovereign tribal nations. We have some of the most restrictive laws in the country related to access to reproductive healthcare, and most Minnesotans do not even know that. Rural Minnesota, like Indigenous people, has been under a narrative attack too. So many stories are told without including the voices of our rural innovators. I am looking forward to the continued journey ahead. 

Dawn Quigley

Dawn Quigley (Ojibwe): Indigenous Feminism 

My Ojibwe family told stories from the early morning of my life. Stories are ways of knowing; ways of being. My work today seeks to break stereotypes by using writing and story with a decolonizing and Indigenous lens. 

My academic focus developed from feminist criticisms regarding women’s marginalized positions in the social sciences. This notion challenged male-dominated perspectives in research. 

I also grew tired of seeing K-12 curriculum and books portraying Native women as dripping in alcoholism, or constantly as victims in literature. I want to show the beauty of our feminine culture. I began my book, “Apple in the Middle,” because of a voice I kept hearing: Tell them the stories. 

My first instinct was to push it away. How could I write a book? But I realized I wanted the book to be a legacy for my daughters, to hear about my Turtle Mountain Ojibwe Nation. 

Some may think my storytelling academic pieces are not scholarly works, or that my writing of stories for children is not feminism. But it is. Through my journal articles, and both of my children’s books — also including “Native American Heroes” — young girls are the heroines, and women are the dreamers and the community activists. 

This is how I continue my ancestors’ use of story, to reinvent the future, where Indigenous feminism will lead us. 

Jill Fish (photo by Chris Cooper)

Jill Fish (Tuscarora): Story Sharing 

Inspired by the Immigrant History Research Center’s Immigrant Stories project, I started the Native American Digital Storytelling Project in 2018, in partnership with Native organizations in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Duluth. Over the course of a year, 75 community members participated in our mobile digital storytelling workshop to create a digital story of their life, culture, and history. Each project involved writing a short story, creating an audio recording, and using pictures and videos as visuals. By providing community members with the technology and skills to create a digital story, we are empowering Native voices to change the narrative of what it means to be Native American in the 21st century. I have a website that currently includes eight of those stories: MWPJillFishStories. 

I also was invited to give a TEDx Minneapolis talk based on my psychology research at the University of Minnesota. I explored what happens to human beings when cultures and histories are systematically erased, and what we can do about it. I ended my talk with steps that can be taken to correct for the impact settler colonialism has had. Digital storytelling is a critical tool for centering our lived experiences. 

Melissa Olson (photo by Sarah Whiting)

Melissa Olson (Leech Lake): Child Removal 

As the daughter of a Native adoptee, I was heartened to read that Native adoptees in Canada had reached a settlement with the Canadian government for loss of Indigenous identity through forced adoption. The settlement includes $750 million dollars for individual compensation, and another $50 million for conciliation efforts. Hopefully that money will be spent helping adoptees tell their own stories. While the settlement was far from perfect — Métis adoptees were excluded — it was an acknowledgment of past harms. 

I was also heartened this past August to read the decision from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in Brackeen v. Bernhardt — the federal court case challenging the constitutionality of the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, which aims to keep Native children with Native families. The appeals court found the ICWA constitutional on all grounds. It was an important victory for tribal communities in the U.S. While I celebrated the outcome, I couldn’t help but compare the decision to the settlement in Canada. There is no nationwide effort in the U.S. to seek justice or conciliation for those like my mom, and thousands of other adoptees, who lost their identities through forced adoption. 

It has been argued by scholars that the ICWA is itself a reparation for Indigenous child removal in the U.S. I believe the recent round of challenges to the ICWA demonstrates that the act is not a form of reparation. As a federal law, the ICWA can be theoretically overturned, so it lacks the permanency of a reparation and it lacks the transformative potential of a truth-telling and conciliation process. 

I believe we all should call on the U.S. Congress to be held accountable for Indigenous child removal and that we need to begin a nationwide process of truth and conciliation. 

For more on the history and impact of U.S. government policy of separating Native children from their families through adoption, listen to the KFAI MinneCulture audio documentary “Stolen Childhood.” 

Karen E. Goulet (White Earth Ojibwe/Métis): Wilderness 

Karen Goulet (photo by Stephanie Xenos)

The horizon lines of the Ojibwe homelands are everything to me. The foliage, whose roots clutch the soil shaped by rivers and lakes, defines this landscape in a very particular way. They create the stage for sunrises that capture my breathe and sunsets that carry my heart west to where my family landed. Their color and light follow my thoughts everywhere. 

I come from people who are makers of beauty, change, culture, and possibility. My paternal French/Cree grandfather was a wilderness guide, who spent a great deal of his life on and by the water. My Ojibwe/Finnish mother, whose life growing up in Bemidji was well documented, was often photographed in or near the water. She has passed that love on to her daughters and grandson. Though she and six siblings have raised families out west, they know this place as home. They carry the ancestral knowledge that knows the waters are essential to our being. 

What is possible and what will happen are always in negotiation. Our spirits need us to evolve in loving ways if we are going to survive. We need to change the current trajectory in order to have a planet that will sustain us. I remember the ancestors who struggled and dreamed during difficult days and I ask them for courage. As an artist, writer, and educator, I believe there is a calling for each of us. female wrestling