Growing up, Minnesota State Representative Heather Keeler did not see people who looked like her in positions of power. After graduating in 2019 with her master’s degree in educational leadership, Keeler knew that she wanted to occupy a leadership position with insight into the education gap and knowledge of community needs. She considered a run for school board in her community of Moorhead, but when State Representative Ben Lien unexpectedly announced his retirement, Keeler decided to run for representative of District 4A. She earned that role in November.
Minnesota Women’s Press spoke with Keeler about leading by example and preparing positions of power for next generations. Keeler also shared about her work drafting a bill alongside Senator Mary Kunesh to establish a statewide office to track and combat the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives [MMIR] crisis.
I want to be able to be a voice and an example for the next generation. I see my position as creating a roadmap for other people who look like me to occupy this seat. Not only am I an Indigenous woman, I am part of the LGBTQ+ population. My four-year-old has two moms, and so I experience discrimination in different areas of my life. I do not want to do this alone, so my path to leadership was to create the footprint for people to come behind me.
We have known for a long time that there is a silent genocide in our population, but we do not have data to be able to tell the story.
As Indigenous women walking around in this world, we experience a different kind of anxiety because we have a target on our backs.
Some people create a narrative that Indigenous women simply decide to leave our families. If women of other backgrounds go missing, however, CNN is all over it.
I think there is a difference between action and heartfelt action — passionately doing this work to save our next generations. What took me from awareness of this crisis to heartfelt action is when Savanna LaFontaine- Greywind went missing in Fargo. I had just had a baby, so her story was very personal to me. She was from my community.
As a mom, as somebody who has walked around in these communities pregnant, it rocked me to a place in my soul. Meeting with her family, talking with her sister, made me realize the creator has put me in a position to do something about this crisis. I carry that with weight and a humble heart. Savanna’s story is not uncommon. This happens everywhere.
After Savanna’s murder, North Dakota State Representative Ruth Anna Buffalo was a member of the Fargo-Moorhead Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Task Force. I supported her work providing opportunities for our youth to know self- defense and educating law enforcement about tribal jurisdictional complexities.
I do not want to keep having marches to remember these beautiful women and relatives because something awful happened to them. We have to be proactive.
When Senator Mary Kunesh developed the Task Force in Minnesota, it was a launching space for me to know that I belonged [in government]. I have a strong relationship with Senator Kunesh. We work on a lot of things together because I think we feel guided to do this bigger work.
Right now we are focusing on how we develop and fund an office to work on policy, data, training, and relationships with Indigenous communities in Minnesota and bordering states. Senator Kunesh will carry the bill to build the MMIR office in the Senate and I will carry that in the House. We are still working on language around budget because, to us, having meaningful, community-involved language is more important than fast legislation. If we can get it introduced this year that would be phenomenal. If not, we will address it early in next year’s session.
We want to serve with our communities, so it is important that we incorporate feedback from individuals who have been doing this work longer than we have. We have a strong team of four Indigenous women who are passionate. We also have a phenomenal group of allies. I feel good about the movement.
We have beautiful next generations that are coming up, and it is our responsibility to impact our lineages. The creator gave us this opportunity to be a voice.
I went back to school in my thirties and got my bachelor’s in Project Management and master’s in Educational Leadership. I realized that our Native American population was not advancing through school in a K-12 setting as quickly and in the numbers that [students from] other backgrounds were. That disparity leads into professional worlds. So, in my master’s practicum, I did community talking circles around the barriers to education outside of academic rigor including food insecurity, housing issues, transitions in jobs, discrimination in other areas.
Throughout my entire education I never saw a teacher who looked like me, so I want to do my best to implement programming that will help teachers get in the door. In my role now, I am carrying the bill for the higher education version of the Increase Teachers of Color Act, which is to help with scholarships and student-teaching sessions, and teacher loan forgiveness options for our BIPOC teachers.
What I like about the K-12 version of the bill is that it focuses on retention, because we do have BIPOC teachers that are teaching right now, we are just not doing a very good job at understanding their needs to keep them and help them thrive. If we look at the ratio of new teachers from the BIPOC community compared to tenured teachers from the BIPOC community, we’re not getting to that space where BIPOC teachers are retained and then serving as mentors for incoming classes. Representation in curriculum also matters. It is one thing to see the person at the front of your classroom look like you, and another to learn your history. With my work in education, it is both personal and professional for me. I have kids who I want to feel seen, valued, and heard in our schools.