HONORING INDIGENOUS WOMEN WATER PROTECTORS 2021
UNITY CHURCH PORTRAIT EXHIBITION
These portraits honoring Indigenous water protectors were initially on exhibit at Unity Church-Unitarian in St. Paul, Minnesota in December of 2021. They have since moved on to additional venues.
Giiwedini Binesiikwe - Gio Cerise (Northern Thunderbird Woman)
Ojibwe – White Earth Nation
I met Gio Cerise at Minnehaha Falls for this portrait. We agreed in advance that we wanted symbolism for a backdrop, and both thought the cascading water of the Falls would be powerful. By the time the shoot rolled around the record-breaking draught offered us a totally different tableau - a reminder of the vicissitudes of just one aspect of climate change.
Gio is a warm and open person who shared many personal insights with me. She is happily married to a man of French origins – a pattern that has been oft repeated in North American history. They have two grown male children.
Cerise was scooped up and out of the White Earth Reservation by Catholic Charities when she was two weeks old and placed in what she describes as a “blessed and loving” Italian Catholic family living in Fargo, North Dakota. She grew up knowing that she was indigenous and felt a pull even though she knew virtually nothing about where she came from or Native spiritualism, culture or customs. She told me, “I was like a little girl sitting on a fence, legs dangling on each side, but not touching either side.” This likely accounts for the connection she felt when she was around Native peoples living in the poor neighborhoods of Fargo. She was at once alienated by their poverty and poor living conditions and drawn to them. Gio describes going through such a neighborhood in her youth and wanting to “jump out of the car because one of those people could be my mother or my father.”
Gio says being ripped out of one culture and placed in another forced her to adapt. She describes without bitterness the “invisible cultural cloak” she wore that “shape shifted” her into the Catholic Italian culture of her adoptive family. She is not at all negative about her upbringing in this family and said that the Catholic Church “opened the door to my spirituality. “It’s just that I’m not walking that path any longer. I’m totally into Native Ojibwe spirituality, but I also weave other world beliefs into my thinking.”
It was the birth of her first child that stirred an intense interest in her own origins. She said, “My child looked like me and I knew there was a story to be told and I needed to find that history. I didn’t have a family tree until I created one.” That’s when she dove into indigenous history. Before she returned to the White Earth Reservation, she resolved to do it with a “good heart” and therefore, out of respect she read many books and learned the language which she says, “was created by brilliant ancestors who could pack so much meaning into each word.” She found a Circle of indigenous adoptees who met monthly in Minneapolis and who welcomed her “back home.” Her husband and her sons have been supportive of her need to reconnect.
When she returned to White Earth, she participated in an Earth healing ceremony that included drums and songs which she found profoundly moving. There she learned about the role women played in her culture as water protectors and found out there were things she could do for the water. She went to Standing Rock, “not on the front line,” but in a spiritual role to pray for the water.
Cerise’s love of water and sense of its critical role as a life force started as a child. “We were always in the water. I was a Tomboy and I wanted to be outside in nature all the time.” Other important influences were the work of Josephine Mandamin and Sharon Day who are leaders of “Water Walk” movement. She has been active in several water walks with Sharon.
Nagaamoo Ma’aingen (Singing Wolf)
Anishanaabe – Bois Forte Reservation
Sharon Day is an Anishinaabe elder, and the leader of a spiritual movement devoted to saving the dwindling supply of fresh water that is essential for all life on our planet. She battles indifference, arrogance, ignorance, and greed in her efforts to save water. If you have the honor of spending time with her you will be in the presence of a holy person. The word holy means something that is set a part - the exact opposite of the something that is common. What sets her apart is her boundless energy, optimism, selflessness, and her life’s work done with love.
She takes part in dozens of activities as the Executive Director of the Minneapolis-based Indigenous Peoples Taskforce which she founded in 1987. The purpose of that organization is to strengthen the wellness of her community in ways based on indigenous values and ways of knowing.
But that is another story. Sharon Day is also the leader and organizer of Nibi Water Walks – ceremonial walks based on Ojibwe teachings. The word Nibi is an Ojibwe word meaning water. Sharon has led water walks, which should really be thought of as walking prayers for water. This has been accomplished on rivers and lakes from one end of the country to the other for more than a decade. She, and the teams of water walkers she organizes, have walked the entire lengths of the Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri, Potomac, Wisconsin, and Red Rivers to mention only a few of her feats designed to protect water.
These walks often entail weeks of devotion to the cause and involve sore feet and a great deal of logistical machinations. The walks begin at the source of the body of water and end at its mouth. Each day begins and ends with a ceremony for the water. Water is taken from the source and delivered to the mouth of the river in a copper kettle.
It is in the tradition of almost every indigenous nation that women are the water carriers, and in keeping with that time honored custom only women carry the water on a walk. Men are welcome to participate in these walking prayers and can carry the staff, which is adorned with an eagle head, but they do not carry the copper kettle carrying the water.
On any given day, and on each day of the walk, the water must never stop or go backwards from the opening to the closing ceremony. It must flow like water flows in its natural state. In this way Sharon Day is not only praying for water, but she is also dramatizing the plight of this life-giving force.
Sharon is not very tall, but she casts a very long shadow. She has been a powerfully positive force in the lives of many. Her message of love, tolerance and respect is the right antidote for our times.
Sharon makes things happen. She has raised several million dollars and successfully sought state matching funds for a new facility for her organizations many enterprises. The name of the new space will be “Mik-wane-dun Aud-I-soo-kon,” which means “remember our teachings” in Ojibwe.
Sharon grew up on the Bois Forte Reservation in a cabin without water or electricity. Because hospitals in nearby Cook or Virginia refused care to Indians, Sharon’s mother had to be driven 60 miles to get to a hospital that provided maternity service. There were 17 children in her family, but two died before the age of two due to bad water.
Her said mother was a strong woman, “A saint who never smoked or drank. The worst thing that could happen would be to have her say you’re being foolish.”
Her father was a charismatic alcoholic and a womanizer. She describes him as a man with an analytical mind, “the smartest person I’ve ever known,” and went on to describe how he could play many musical instruments by ear and build anything. Her parents divorced.
Life on the reservation was tough. Her grandfather was killed in a fight. Two of her uncles were murdered; both by white men. Her father was killed when she was 23 years old, and it was then Sharon started drinking. Her mother got her into treatment, and she’s been sober ever since-now for more than four decades.
Sharon is an accomplished artist, musician, and poet. Her plays have won awards. This is an excerpt from a poem she wrote in September of 2014:
If we can- we slow down
Speak silently to the spirit of the water
If we can participate in ceremony daily
It becomes part of our being
Our conscious and subconscious
If we can disconnect from the harsh news of the day
Focus on the mist in the air at daybreak
Our voices rise together.
Faith Spotted Eagle
Tunkan Inajin Win (Standing Stone)
Dakota – Ihanktonwan of the Oceti Sakowin
When Faith Spotted Eagle was a young girl sitting on the banks of the Missouri River with her father, he told her about how her family and others were forced from their homes when the Army Corps of Engineers condemned their land in breach of treaty rights to build the Fort Randall Dam. She was tiny when it happened, but she recalls homes being burned and people crying as they were
Years later, sitting by the river, she recalled her dad telling her that some of those homes were now under 150 feet of water. “My girl, you’re going to have to do something about this someday,” he said to
her. “I’m only a 12-year-old girl, what am I going to do?” she asked.
“You’ll figure it out,” he said. And she did.
Faith Spotted Eagle is a first responder. She responded to fires burning in the hearts and minds of Indigenous girls ignited by racism, sexism and sexual assault with a traditional Dakota remedy called the Brave Heart Society. During intense four-day retreats, a revival of the traditional coming of age ceremony, Indigenous grandmothers welcome girls to adulthood and empower them to connect with their culture.
Faith is a first responder to the cries of a planet that is heating up due to the indifference and greed of feckless humans. She helped organize numerous tribes, landowners, and other allies in the U.S. and Canada to stop the Keystone Pipeline.
These days she is responding to the indifference and racism in the South Dakota Legislature and a biased Republican governor by organizing voter registration drives with the help of Native youth. Her father was a Democrat. She recalled her him saying, “Don’t lose yourself in them but study them.” He was excited when Faith got an internship in the office of Democratic South Dakota Sen. George McGovern in Washington, D.C. while a student at American University. She later ran for a seat in the South Dakota Legislature as a Democrat.
She responded to the challenge of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) in veterans and in the Native community by getting a master’s degree from the University of South Dakota in counseling; and getting a lifetime of experience in treatment centers, through youth and family work, by managing human
service programs and working in mental health. She also taught in high school and college. Faith developed a model called “Healing from Red Rage” so common not only in the Native community but all across America. Her work involves healing from historical trauma, “as the beast that lives in everyone
and can injure if not healed.”
Her father, a veteran of WWII, had PTSD and Faith, herself a rape victim, has had to work through trauma as well. She feels that her experiences with trauma gave her an empathy and understanding that helped others. She worked a great deal with Vietnam veterans, who she was particularly fond of because of her WWII veteran father. She would incorporate Indigenous methods of healing into her
Faith grew up on the Yankton Reservation and was not exposed much to English until her father insisted she attend a public school in a nearby town. She went there kicking and screaming; it was her first experience with white people. Her dad wanted her to learn how white people think, but cautioned, “don’t let yourself be injured by them and always maintain your Dakota Culture.”
By the time Faith was seven, a teacher recognized she was an exceedingly bright child with a facility for language and suggested she compete in the county spelling bee. Not understanding how a “bee” related to spelling – and allergic to bees herself – she was terrified, but participated nonetheless. She won, and
her teacher cried with joy.
She spoke of how Christian churches, at the behest of a government decree, would divide the reservation up for proselytizing purposes. Her grandfather, who had attended the notorious Carlisle Boarding School in Pennsylvania ended up becoming an Episcopal priest and was declared a saint. There is a statue him in the Episcopal Cathedral in Washington DC. She said his role in that religion gave the community cover. By day they were Christians, but by night they practiced their Indigenous customs. They needed cover for their “shadow world” because federal law made the practice of Indigenous religions prosecutable up until 1978.
Towards the end of his life her grandfather felt he had been lied to and betrayed by his adopted religion. She said, “That’s when he came to understand how it had hurt his people.” She had been turned off by the “wrathful message” of the Christianity brought to reservations. Her father, nevertheless, insisted that she learn about other religions to gain universal empathy and knowledge.
Faith was close to her father. He saved her from attendance at a boarding school. And they lived far enough from the Indian Agency to avoid much of its influence. “We were wild Indian kids, renegades, and had a healthy distrust of the Agency,” she said. Her family lived off the land, but they had all the basics they needed to get by and were not poor by the standards of Mother Earth. She grew up by the water, “It was my life,” she said. It was the first medicine and always will be, she said. Through the insight and support of the grandmothers of Brave Heart, Faith was enabled to secure funding to begin the long-range process of taking the water back by seeking control and involvement of Indigenous watershed management in that region. She has organized people around this plan and good things are happening to bring this long-range plan to fruition.
She has been involved in protests going all the way back to her time in Washington DC and including activities surrounding the Keystone Pipeline and at Standing Rock. She became close to Sharon Day from taking part in various water walks. She prefers not to be called a protestor, but a defender. Faith is also the only Native American person to receive an electoral vote for President of the United States. An elector from Washington State had heard Faith speak at Standing Rock and was inspired by her words. When faced with what he considered to be the unpleasant prospect of voting for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton in 2016, he voted instead for Faith Spotted Eagle – a total surprise to her! When asked why he risked a $1,000 fine for not voting for the candidate that carried his state he said, “This starship we refer to as Earth is on fire, and we are in need of a first responders, and not more politicians.”
Faith has two beautiful children; Kip and Brook Spotted Eagle, and three grandchildren.
Biidwewegiizhagdokwe - Tania Aubid
Tania Aubid’s life experiences, passions and pains are mirrored in her face. It was her face that inspired me to honor indigenous women who were putting their lives on the line to protect water. I’d seen Aubid over the years at the Minnesota State Capitol advancing causes, but when I saw her in Park Rapids, along with dozens of other Native and non-Native grandmothers present because of their concern for future generations, I decided at that moment I wanted to honor these women. Tania stood out with her indigenous attire and symbolism; she was wrapped in an inverted American Flag – the universal sign of distress. I knew then her story and that of others involved in this crusade needed to be told.
When I took this portrait, Tania was still recovering from a 35-day hunger strike. She said she had been “on a hunger strike to protest the treatment of Mother Earth, and the threat to wild rice and water posed by Line 3.” She was, at that time, optimistic that the courts would uphold provisions of the 1855 treaty regarding Native sovereignty in that area. Her hopes with dashed by the court decision.
Tania grew up on a reservation in the town of East Lake, which is in Aitkin County. She refers to that part of the state as “The Deep North,” because the hatred for Native peoples remains strong there and because of the prejudicial and aggressive tactics of local law enforcement. It is also the heart of Trump country with banners proclaiming continuing fealty to the former president plastered on homes, farms, pick-ups, and stores - daily reminders that prejudice surrounds the reservation.
She told me that in her youth, even in the midst of a poverty that was so pervasive on reservations that she wasn’t fully aware of how little her family had because everyone lived like that. They made good with what they had from food provided by fish, deer, wild rice, and the bounty of nature. She believes that today people are too tied up with material things and are missing what is important in life.
Her early life was tumultuous. A divorce and a growing sense of the hypocrisy and prejudice faced by Indians took its toll. Shed she turned to alcohol and pot for escape. She told me, “No matter what I said or did, I wasn’t being heard.” She’s now been sober for some time and thanks the Creator for pulling her through her addiction. “Alcohol,” she says, “is a harsh teacher.” Being sober has given her the energy and focus needed to become a dedicated and effective activist. She said, “A sober Indian is a dangerous Indian.” And these days it takes sobriety and personal courage to protest Line 3 because Enbridge is paying a lot of money for stepped up enforcement of actions that violate treaties. Law enforcement tactics have shifted from “catch and release” to harassment and jail time.
Aubid says there are two sets of law in the United States: one set for white and another for brown people. Her first stint in jail in Aitkin County was when she was only four years old. Her father was in a hurry to get to the hospital to be in time for the birth of a child when he was pulled over for speeding. The father, and children who were with him, were locked up for that offence. She’s sure that a white family would not have been treated that way for speeding to a hospital to be there for the birth of a child.
Another example of the legal double standard is the way law enforcement, and courts uphold laws made by white people for white people as opposed to the way they have dealt with over 400 treaties that have been either ignored or abrogated. It is ironic how much we make of property rights in this country as long as we are dealing with conflicts involving non-Native land and non-Natives.
We discussed recent developments in New Zealand and Canada where rivers have been granted “person” status in law to protect water from wanton exploitation. Aubid strongly believes we need to do the same in the United States. But here, instead of protecting water, we grant corporations “person” status by virtue of the U.S. Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision. That decision allows special interests First Amendment rights to purchase politicians with very large and often untraceable political contributions.
Tania Aubid is a fiery spirit. Her faith is invested in the sovereignty of Native land and in traditional Anishinaabe customs and religion. She will never give up until treaties with sovereign Nations are honored.
Tara Zhaabowekee Houska – Bear Clan – First Nation
Tara Houska’s portrait was taken at an off-the-grid location in Northern Minnesota in April. She provided GPS coordinates to a location and told me to call her when I arrived and said someone would meet and escort me to her location in a secluded compound. This was necessary because she is one of the key organizers of the opposition to Line 3. Enbridge has been funding a robust and aggressive expansion by law enforcement and consequently there has been a significant amount of harassment. A recent court case challenging the level of harassment along the pipeline was won by Native Americans.
Houska has been arrested many times for her efforts to stop the pipeline from going through sacred Native lands. The white settlers who now occupy treaty protected land taken from indigenous peoples are now strong proponents of property rights. They and their ancestors have violated every one of over 400 treaties with First Nation peoples. Indigenous people are not going to forget their property rights, which are based on the same system of law. Tara and many others have been willing to lay in front of bulldozers and chain themselves to equipment and fences to impede progress on Line 3.
Tara Houska has a law degree from the University of Minnesota. While an undergrad there she acquired triple majors in Biology, Art History and American Indian Studies. In the latter course, she concentrated on learning the Ojibwe language – a language almost made extinct by boarding schools whose central function was to “Kill the Indian” through assimilation. Mindful of expenses of going to college, she never took less than 20 credits per semester because any credits over 15 were available at no additional cost.
She grew up on Rainy Lake and said her keen interest in protecting nature owes to her early experiences in Northern Minnesota. When she came to Minneapolis for college, she told me it was “real culture shock in terms of all the people, but also the deep disconnect between people and nature.”
Her activism grew during her spell in Washington, DC, where she served as an intern during the Obama Administration on the White House Council of Environmental Quality. Her assignment focused on fossil fuel expansion, and it was there she learned what that expansion was doing to climate in every corner of the world.
As far as she is concerned, “The environment isn’t just an issue, it’s everything! The fact that we have politicized water is such a poignant example of human egotism. We are created by Mother Earth. Everything we see, touch, feel, consume is from our Mother.”
Nature is central to the spirituality of all indigenous peoples and in that respect, they are closely aligned with the strongly held beliefs of every climate scientist in the world (who is not on the payroll of Koch Refineries) regarding the impact of unregulated human behavior.
Houska wonders what happened to the “big faiths” that once emphasized life on earth was an enormous gift; one given by the creator. She says, “We should take care of what we were given, that’s part of being a good human being, right?” She feels that in our times the major faiths have fallen away from the concept of stewardship. “It’s a miracle we are here and alive. We are constantly reinforced by Nature when we pay attention and learn to listen. We should all be humble in the face of Nature and recognize our small space in the circle.”
Houska has developed a national reputation as an environmental activist. She’s testified before Congress and appeared as a contributor on CNN, BBC MSNBC and CBS. Melinda Gates awarded her with the “Awesome Woman Award” recently and she has a “Ted Talk” which is available on YouTube.
In this portrait we see the fun-loving side of a committed environmental activist. Don’t believe for a minute that her drive to save the planet for future generations is less than an all-consuming commitment.
You haven’t heard the last from Tara Zhaabowekee Houska. She will make a difference in the fight for the life of the planet.
Barbara Baker LaRush (Spirit Bird Woman)
Manido Bineshii Kwe
Mukwa Doodem - Bear Clan
For almost her entire life, Barbara Baker LaRush has lived on the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation located near Hayward, Wisconsin. She was raised Catholic and she and her children went to Catholic school. She and her husband were also married in a Catholic Church. At some point after that something happened that changed her view on the spiritual aspect of her life. First, it was her husband Bode who felt a pull to return to indigenous spiritualism. He started going to the Lodge and began to learn the Midewiwin ways of viewing life. Then Barbara felt the pull and she became a regular attendee at the Lodge too. She said, “it was more me.” In the beginning she had mixed feelings but after two or three years she had re-immersed herself in the culture of her ancestors. She believes, “You are born Midewiwin, you only need to accept.” Barbara explained that there are eight stages one goes through in the Midewiwin tradition, but she has never met anyone who has gone beyond the fifth stage. It is a rigorous and demanding process to advance through the stages.
One reason Barbara was so receptive to a return to Native ways was the role her grandfather played in passing down customs and rituals. Up until the 1970’s it was illegal for Indians to speak in the indigenous tongue or proselytize about Native spiritualism; this not withstanding constitutional protections for freedom of religion guaranteed to all Americans by the First Amendment. That meant that such teachings, LaBaker explained, “had to be underground.” Curiously, her grandfather was just as insistent that all the grandchildren regularly attend Catholic Mass. Barbara and husband Bode we’re planning to get remarried (this time in the Midewiwin tradition) on their 25th anniversary, but tragically, Bode died this summer.
LaRush says, “There is no hell. No one is turned away from the so called gates of heaven. We all come from the spirit world.” She believes that our time here on earth is hell. “When the time comes to die we return to the spirit world and to a place of everlasting happiness.” She says all religions have a connection to truth, and in Midewiwin teachings no religion is right or wrong.
One big draw of the Midewiwin way was it’s connection to Nature. LaRush is saddened to see the extent people have abandoned their connection to nature. “That’s why I refuse to ever live in a city. They live without nature,” she said. “They need nature to live. They get the oxygen they breathe from trees. They get their food from plants and animals; the fish and the rabbits and the deer give all of us the nourishment we need to live. They all have a purpose.
She is worried about water and said, “It’s not just the big companies that waste water. We all do.” Before she became Midewiwin she was not careful with water. Now she goes to great lengths to preserve water, even to the point of brushing her teeth in the shower. It’s all interconnected, “a constant flow and when you break the connection you can’t predict what will happen.” She believes that the oil pipelines are breaking the cycle of life.
Barb lives in a beautiful plot of land on Lake Chippewa. She is proud to live in America and wouldn’t want to live anywhere else because it’s a free country. Her prolific garden and flowers are a testament to her love of nature. She has seven children, 20 grandchildren and one foster child. Her life is devoted to her children and and all their progeny for the next seven generations. LaRush’s involvement in the Water Walks began with epic walk of 2011 led by Grandmother Josephine Mandamin. She said it was a real awakening, the ceremony and the singing touched her deeply. That walk was comprised of four groups who began at the four corners of the North American continent and met on the shores of Lake Superior. She has done many walks since and she and Sharon Day have become close through the years.
Tarahumara/Yaqui/Latinx - Roxanne Ornelas
Roxanne Ornelas, like so many Indigenous people I have met, defies stereotyping. She has a doctorate in geography from the University of Minnesota and is now a professor at Miami University in Ohio. Much of her research over the years has focused on indigenous peoples and their sacred lands, including indigenous women and their relationship to water.
Roxanne’s ancestors originated in the Mexican states of Sonora and Chihuahua. She grew up in San Diego and spent a great deal of her early years on the ocean with her father who was a fisherman. “The ocean became part of my consciousness then and led to my early activism aimed at protecting threatened whales and dolphins and later to my lifelong environmental activism.”
Ornelas said her connection to water has cultural origins, too. It is women who are traditionally the “keepers of the hearth.” She described it as a gendered role “That meant we brought the water into the home. And, of course, we all are born from the water in women’s bodies.” She told me that in every indigenous community she has worked with, or studied from every corner of the globe, it has been the responsibility of women to pray for, sing to, and protect the health of water.
As an environmentalist and a geographer, Roxanne is interested in the “varied relationships between people and their physical environs.” Her goal is to raise awareness about the “Earth-centered world view of many indigenous populations that water is sacred and that we must promote strong environmental policies that protect water and the sacred places of indigenous peoples.”
“Look”, she said, “people are already being forced to relocate because of climate change. If you think we have a problem now wait and see what happens if we don’t change our behavior.” She is right; scientists involved in the work of the International Panel on Climate Change agree that rapid temperature increases we are now witnessing are largely due to human behavior. She is convinced that “What is happening in the Anthropocene Epoch (unofficial title for the current era) is that we are poisoning the planet.”
Ornelas has been involved in several sacred water walks over the years. Her first was in 2011 when she joined in the epic “Mother Earth Water Walk.” It was organized by the legendary, Josephine Mandamin (Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory, Canada – Fish Clan), who originated the water walker movement in the early 2000s. That walk involved four teams starting from the four corners of North America and meeting at the Bad River Reservation on Lake Superior. The walk took approximately two months to complete. The teams came from the Pacific Coast in Washington State, the Gulf Coast in Louisiana, the Atlantic Coast in Maine and from the Hudson Bay region in Canada. Miraculously, they all arrived at the same destination within 48 hours of one another.
Roxanne and I collaborated on this portrait. She wanted to be photographed near the Mississippi River and chose St. Paul’s Hidden Falls for the location. She brought along her ceremonial drum which she says represents “the heartbeat of Our Mother Earth.” Her attire is that of a water walker. Long skirts are a requirement for the ceremonial walks, as is the pouch which carries tobacco – a sacred ingredient in indigenous ceremonies.
Roxanne Ornelas hopes that the public education and awareness raised by the water walkers will lead to clean water and environment for future generations. She is a delightful person to spend time with and she is an optimist. She told me, “Change is hard, but I believe we are capable of doing it.”
“We are the Earth. We are not separate from the Earth.”
Sunkawakan Ota Wicayuhe Win
(Grow With Horses)
Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux Tribe
Heidi Inman left the reservation on which she was born at age two. She thinks the move had something to do with her mother’s desire to escape her connection to Indian culture. She was mostly raised as a Catholic but said her mother experimented with many religions. As a result she spent a year at a boarding school run by Seventh Day Adventists in Hutchinson, Minnesota. She worked in the kitchen and went to school and has few fond memories from that experience. She also attended Bemidji Public Schools for a spell and found the racism hard to take especially from two older white male teachers who were particularly prejudiced. At another point in her life she attended a Catholic school on the Red Lake Reservation. She has some positive feelings about that experience largely because of two exceptional nuns who taught there. “They were part of the community and they pushed students to achieve academically,” Heidi felt. Part of the reason for all this moving around was her father’s alcoholism. He was physically abuse to her mother and that resulted in a divorce. Her mother also had an addiction to alcohol and Heidi chose to have little contact with either.
Her feelings about the Catholic Church are very mixed because of what is being revealed about the horrific abuse of Native children and the telling evidence found in graveyards connected to boarding schools. She is considering putting her research skills to work uncovering more of what the church hierarchy is hiding regarding these boarding schools.
Inman says that her spirituality has evolved. “I love the land. I love nature. That’s my religion now; caring for the land and the community if that qualifies as a religion? That’s where I feel safe and grounded.”
Heidi is concerned that most of Christianity is indifferent to the plight of nature. “This planet is God’s creation and yet we are destroying it.” And she feels, “There are a lot of wealthy people who go to church to be seen and to look good.”
Her environmental activism has mostly focused on he ceremonial side. She’s done many water walks including the Missouri, Wisconsin, Red, and a stint along the Enbridge pipeline, plus shorter walks in the Twin Cities. Sharon Day inspired her activism by her words and example. Heidi says, “She isn’t very big, but she’s a little powerhouse and a great teacher!”
While on the Missouri walk Heidi had an experience that left an indelible impression. It was extremely hot and she was exhausted and thirsty. She just wanted to sit down and drink some water. But then she felt the presence of the others on the march and sensed that her ancestors would want her to continue. She could almost hear them saying, “You must keep going.” She thinks it was like a “calling.”
Heidi also has been involved with MMIW (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women). That cause was the chief rationale for the walk along the Red River in Canada. She made a red skirt for that walk and embroidered it with the names of the missing victims. It was on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Art in summer and fall of 2021.
Even though she is not inclined to handcuff herself to a bulldozer in protest she supports those who do put their lives on the line to stop pipelines that violate treaties and threaten human life on the planet. It was on the water walk along Enbridge’s Line 3 that Heidi witnessed the devastation caused not only by the construction of the pipeline, but also by the impact of climate change with the drying up of rivers and lakes. She wonders why these walks and protests don’t garner more support from people who own cabins in beautiful northern Minnesota. “I just don’t get it,” she says, “Why aren’t they aren’t on our side. In a lot of ways America is so lost.”
Heidi’s husband is in the military and they will be stationed near the town of Nuremberg, Germany for the next three years. She views this time as a gift because it will give her time to pursue artistic and cultural interests. She wants to better learn the Lakota/Dakota language and says it’s easy to do on line these days, even from Germany. She may go for an art related masters degree so she can work on art repatriation (returning Native artifacts to their rightful owners) and there’s that Nikon camera she may dust off and start shooting again.
Finally, she is proud that so much of this fighting to preserve and protect water is being led by women. “We are the life givers and the caregivers,” she says, “And we are warriors.”
Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Reservation
Gina Peltier’s father is Ojibwe and was raised on the reservation, and her mother is a blue-eyed blond. Gina grew up in Grafton, North Dakota. She attended public schools in Grafton and was only one of two Native kids in her class. She says grade school was an awful experience because boys in the class made her life miserable, in part because she was indigenous and in part because her last name linked her in their minds to the occupation at Wounded Knee. Leonard Peltier, who gained international fame when he was charged with killing two FBI agents during the occupation, is related to her father.
Whenever she was in the town, she felt hate and prejudice, but on the Reservation, it was the opposite. Gina says she holds no ill will for the children who “tortured” her back then because that is what they were taught. She believes, the experience made her a stronger and better person. It was in high school she began to connect to and take pride in her Indigenous heritage.
Peltier has a liberal arts degree and she has worked as an alcohol addiction counselor and is also in the legal field. She burned out on the former occupation – just too much of that in her family history. Currently, she is working for Honor the Earth and that organization has put her people skills to work with good results.
Gina doesn’t want to fight with anyone. She says, “the hate goes both ways, but we need White allies if we are going to save the planet.” The Anishinaabe’s Seven Fires Prophecy suggests that the different colors and traditions can come together in mutual respect, and she embraces that idea. “My role is to sell the idea that we should be the world we want to live in.
Peltier’s involvement in the Line 3 struggle has been informed by her beliefs. She feels that by sitting down and having a conversation, “rather than yelling and cussing,” that progress can be made and that has been her experience.
When she made the decision to get arrested in protest to Line 3, she made sure it happened when she was praying instead of disrupting. It’s not that she objects to the more militant approach of others; it’s that she believes that being arrested for praying is more in keeping with the civil disobedience that worked for Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. She’s convinced that arresting people while they are praying produces bad optics for Enbridge. She can’t blame those protestors who have disrupted because, as she says, “We’ve been shot with rubber bullets, blinded by bear spray, injured by law enforcement and jailed. All this for trying to save water for everyone.”
When she was arrested for praying on a bridge going over the Mississippi there was no room in the Clearwater County jail, so she ended up in Becker County. Most of the deputies were polite but there was one hostile deputy, and she also had to contend with sexism. There were five men and two women arrested at that time and the following morning it was the men who were invited to work with the public defender on their charges without any consultation with the women. Gina says that not all the people in uniform are hostile and told me that a couple of the Highway Patrol officers said they were worried for their kids and sympathetic to the cause.
Peltier told me that she had been struck by a police cruiser during a George Floyd rally in Bemidji last year. It was a touchy situation in that the Bemidji police do not have a great relationship with the Native population. There were aggrieved families protesting in front of the police station that had directly or indirectly suffered at the hands of local law enforcement including an alleged death in custody. The police were told in advance that there would be a protest and had agreed not be out in front of the station to avoid heating up the situation. But when the protestors came the police were in formation outside the station glaring at the crowd. She and several other women moved out in front of the crowd in the role of voluntary peacekeepers to make sure it remained a peaceful protest and told protestors to back away.
As she was keeping the crowd under control she struck and sent flying by a squad car. She was in pain, bruised and had scrapes, but she got up and continued to work to keep the peace. She was wearing a bright red dress and the car had a backup camera and she wonders how it could have accidental. Even after this, Native women continued to maintain a circle around the police and prevented a more serious confrontation.
Gina’s activism is fired by both science and her spiritual belief system. “We are one with Mother Earth. She takes care of us, and we need to protect her and defend her.” She’d be willing to storm the barricades if it would accomplish more than a peaceful protest, but says, “you can’t fight violence with violence.” She continued, “No one wants to be here, living like this, facing arrest and injury. The fact that we are here taking these risks is because we care, and we wish people would understand that.”
Giiwedinookwe (North Wind Woman)
Giiwedinookwe is an Anishinaabe woman who was born in Manitoba, Canada but grew up in the “United Snakes of America” she says with a wry chuckle. Our interview took place in an off the grid and secluded compound a half mile from where the pipeline was being built near Park Rapids.
Her activism is fired by what she is seeing, “Everything is under attack right now. It’s not right that people can’t have clean water, can’t fish and hunt. We still can here in Northern Minnesota.” And that is what this fight is about. Her mission she says, “is preserving the water and protecting nature from human predation.” And that dedication also comes from “living on the land and knowing my surroundings and doing my life’s work under differing moons.”
Giiwedinookwe is deeply concerned by the trend toward militarization of law enforcement and says it has “desensitized” police. She has been arrested many times for her activism, but her worst experience was in Morton County, North Dakota when she was protesting at Standing Rock. She has lived for a time in the area surrounding Park Rapids and has known and had good relations with several of the local law enforcement folks. She said some of them share her concern about having clean and safe water for their families. According to her, it’s when Enbridge came up with additional money to bring militarized law enforcement into the area that the harassment got worse. But of the Standing Rock she said, “The harassment there was intense and the cops were evil and the jails were awful.”
In Anishinaabe tradition the connection of women to water is strong, “because we are the givers of life. Our hearts beat along with the Earth.” Giiwedinookwe says, “all the water up here is connected and there is wild rice everywhere.” Clearly, she sees that the fracking process and leaking oil pipelines will spell doom for wild rice and a way of life and said, “creation stories warned us that this was coming.” She also spoke of the bounty of the North and of making birchbark baskets to harvest blueberries and told me that there was no other place on Earth where one can find wild rice.
“People need to get out of themselves and keep their mind, spirit and body in order or they are going to have troubles” she insists. Giiwedinookwe wants young people to stand up, but they also need to tend to their “briefcase” and “do right by their Creator.” The term “briefcase” is symbolic to her and means today’s youth need to take education seriously and learn the sciences, math, chemistry, and environmental law. “Doctoral degrees are the tools for change and holding key positions.” According to her, science and intuition tell us that the “brilliant thing to do is to go in a new direction, not drill down nine miles to find oil. One wind generator can take care of the needs of a lot of people.”
When Giiwedinookwe is not protesting pipelines, she can often be found in Minneapolis ministering to the needs of the homeless. She travels around a lot and lives off the land and feels, with justification, that if treaties had been honored that all the land between here and Hudson Bay would to belong to Indigenous people.
Niizh Nibi Eqway
(Second Water Woman)
Anishinaabe – Leech Lake
Mary Lyons was born and lived on a closed Reservation until she was about 12 years old. She said, “You don’t need to know my age, but my father was born in 1889.” There were 15 members in her family, and they had to move to avoid the hardships of the reservation after her mother died. She was raised by her two older sisters in the Twin Cities until she was sent to Dallas under the terms of the ill-conceived Indian Relocation Act of 1956.
During her time in the Twin Cities Mary connected with important female mentors who were exemplars of the Mandawin way of life. These women engaged in the creation of the first Indian Center in Minneapolis. Mary spent a lot of time with these women learning much from them.
Mary’s father had a strong influence on her outlook. He told her, “Don’t grow up to be like me. I already taught you what’s right or wrong. You be your own self because I’ve already lived my life and I don’t want to see it repeated.”
Mary Lyons had nine children; two daughters and seven sons. She says she has few grandchildren because most of her kids don’t want to bring children into this world.
She spoke at length about her involvement in Mandawin traditions and said, “It’s not a religion, it’s all about living the good life.” Indigenous people involved in this closed society don’t talk much about its inner workings, but there are stages of advancement and moving from one to the next is a long and rigorous process.
Lyons noted, “Our religion is Mother Earth-we came from the stars! We come into the world with an original agreement with the Creator. You’re going to come as a student, walk as a student, and leave as a student. You swim in the water of your mother’s womb and that water carries DNA knowledge-a knowledge of history. Everything since the beginning is downloaded into you while mother builds your beautiful body. Water carries knowledge – it’s a living thing.”
Lyons worries about chemicals in the food chain and observed, “At one time it was all organic. Our grocery stores were the forest. If we wanted food we’d go to the rivers. If we wanted water, we’d put a spigot in the ground. We never had a water bill, we never had an electric bill or a gas bill and we never had to pay taxes!”
Mary said an important aspect of Mandawin spiritualism is that, “We honor our first breath in the morning. We meet and greet the day. We do the best we can, and we honor the last breath before we go to sleep. When asleep our spirits night fly and that is part of our education.”
She told me never talk about education because it is a colonial concept. She added, “In the Mandawin tradition we are always learning every hour of every day.” According to her, “You can get a White man’s education, but what’s the point because they will never really let you in.”
Lyons is now focusing on the wellbeing of the next seven generations. Regarding other religions she said, “In the Mandawin tradition nothing is wrong, maybe just wrong for you. You must be respectful of everything including the beliefs of others. And you must, above all else, respect nature. And we don’t need to have all these material things! What’s important is that we have goodness inside us.”
Lyons has been impressed by what New Zealand did to protect water. In 2017, the Whanganui River was granted legal personhood by the government to protect it from decimation. This was done in response to a lawsuit started by indigenous people there. This has now been done in Canada as well. Meanwhile, in the United States, the Supreme Court, with its Citizens United decision, grants rapacious corporations personhood so they can buy politicians without leaving fingerprints; politicians who will hence allow corporations to rape, pillage and plunder our natural resources without consequence.
Mary says politicians use racism to stir up the “fear spirit.” She believes in a perverse sort of way that fear can be a friend because it’s your twin - it’s in you. She said, “What Euro-Americans are feeling today, regarding the growing minority population in the U.S., is a mirror image of what happened to Native people. When you are afraid you can either run from it or you can hug it and learn from it. And when you learn, you can then you can look at the indigenous people and say I’m sorry because now that I’m in your shoes I understand.
Regarding the amassing of great wealth at the expense of Nature, Mary said, “I’m encouraged that these water protectors that are coming up are young. They see what the greed of the last 100 years has done. Jeff Bezos has made billions at Amazon, but if he gets cancer, he can’t buy his way out of that. The pipeline workers drank the Kool Aid and they’re making good money now, but I feel sadness for them because everyone who cuts into the earth is going to feel the wrath ten times more from cancer when it strikes them or their kids. And how will they feel when we are all fighting each other for clean water?”
We spoke of the rat race that life has devolved into in our time, and she wonders if Covid hasn’t been a gift. She said, “People are spending more time with loved ones and are re-evaluating how they want to live and work. Lots of people are quitting jobs they don’t like and looking at a different lifestyle.”
Mary also imparted some good advice for child rearing: “By always fixing your kid’s problems you’ve robbed them of their self-esteem. They’re going to grow up without learning how to solve their own problems and will never be able to manage anything.”
Lyon’s last nugget of wisdom was offered as I was packing up: “We’ve got stop creating these pods and putting people in them. The creator made only one pod and he put all of us in it. It’s called humanity.”
Zhaawanoowikwe (Southern Woman) Maryanna Harstad
Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe
Maryanna Harstad is a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, but she also has ancestral ties to the Blackfeet Nation located in Montana near Glacier National Park. She is soft-spoken, with penetrating brown eyes and a thoughtful and articulate take on life. Her biological parents met through friends at Flandreau Indian boarding school. She was adopted as an infant by non-native parents, which meant she never knew much about her birth parents or Native culture growing up. Decades later she met her birth mother on Mother’s Day and that reconnection was positive for both.
Harstad’s adoptive parents raised her, along with six other adopted children, in an ethnically rich Northeast Minneapolis neighborhood. She was brought up as a Catholic. This was during an era when Indigenous people were actively lobbying Congress to repeal a federal law that banned Native religions. It is more than ironic that a nation that prides itself on religious freedom made it illegal for Natives to practice their own religion. The United States Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;”
She grew up spending summers at a family cabin located on the Leech Lake Reservation without realizing her connection to it. That cabin remains in the family to this day.
Maryanna was a serious student and was admitted to the University of Minnesota where she earned a degree in forest resources. That degree ultimately resulted in a 30-year career with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources where one of her early responsibilities was comprehensive water planning.
It was during college that her interest in her Native American heritage blossomed; she completed a second major in American Indian Studies. That interest took her on a new journey including moving beyond Catholicism in a manner that incorporated traditional Anishinaabe practices and beliefs of the Baha’i religion into her Catholic faith.
Her first Water Walk was in 2011 when she participated in the Mother Earth walk. On that walk participants started in Mississippi, Maine, California, and Hudson Bay and came from the four directions to meet at Lake Superior. She joined Sharon Day for a portion of that walk that crossed the state of Missouri along the flooded Mississippi. “Everything about a Water Walk is a prayer for the health of the water and for all the things water brings us,” she says.
Maryanna is worried about the damage caused by misinformation and outright lies about the climate crisis that are being promoted by the politicized media. She feels people have an obligation to “dig deep to get closer to the truth.”
Harstad’s activism mostly centers on ceremony and mindfulness, but she has also participated in environmental justice actions and direct acts of conscience that have included resistance and arrest. She has been a part of many of the Water Walks, including the Wisconsin River, Willow River (Wisconsin), Red River of the North, Mississippi River, Minnehaha Creek, and Enbridge Line 3.
Nicole McKenzie Christian
Nicole Christian recently learned that she has Native ancestry through a relative named Charlotte.
She is presently working on a doctorate in clinical psychology when she is not busy protecting water and working to preserve life on the planet. Nicole’s love of nature came from her mother and her push to protect it from her mother’s example. Another early influence was a geography professor at the University of Miami in Ohio where she completed her undergraduate work. Mixed in with Professor Roxanne Ornelas’ course work on geography was her repeated theme that we are all connected to each other and to the land.
Nicole says her environmental activism caught fire when “Dr. O.” (as she refers to Professor Ornelas) encouraged her to participate in her first water walk along the Missouri River with Sharon Day. Day has been the spiritual leader of this movement for about a decade. Nicole said, “The ceremonial water walks are to let water know we still care. They are displays of reverence for water and should be seen as prayers asking higher powers to protect water - the source of all life.”
According to Nicole, “It was on that walk on the Missouri River that I started to connect with Ojibwe spirituality. Now it is alive in me - I’m connected to it completely.” Also, on that walk she was impressed by Sharon Day’s message of love and tolerance. Nicole described how, at the ceremony that concluded one of the day’s walks, Day spoke of a recent shooting at a Mosque. Sharon had said, “Whatever way you pray is absolutely correct. All stories can be true.” That shift away from thinking that there is only one true religion, and everyone needs to be converted and saved resonated with her own thinking and helped her to make peace with her past and the church. She says about Sharon, “It’s her quiet strength, and her quiet love too, that everyone feels and that’s what makes her work so powerful.”
Nicole was raised as a Christian by parents who mostly attended church at Christmas and Easter, but through a friend she got involved in an Evangelical Church for a time until she was turned off by its homophobic world view. She says, “I didn’t completely separate in the sense that I still believe there is something bigger than me, I just don’t know yet what it is.”
Sharon Day and Nicole Christian have become close friends after several water walks. Christian decided to move to Minnesota to continue her education. Day offered her a place to live and gave her a job at the Indigenous People’s Task Force to aid her in covering a portion of the cost of her studies at St. Thomas.
In these trying times the walks lift Nichol’s spirits and give her hope. “One thing the walks have done for is slow everything down and that allows me to notice things I had not seen before. At one point, in an effort to become more closely connected to her native past, she sought out her ancestor Charlotte’s grave. There she told Charlotte that she hoped she was honoring her with the work she was doing. Just then, she heard the screech of an eagle in a nearby tree – she took it as a sign.
Nicole Christian is a remarkably bright, warm, and caring person. One cannot be in her presence without feeling her inner glow and energy. When she completes her doctorate in clinical psychology at St. Thomas, she will do a one-year internship and then she wants to work in a community clinic and make mental health accessible to the underserved.
Like so many of her generation, the existential threats produce a high level of anxiety, but any time she begins to feel helpless she says, “I do something, whether it’s a Black Lives Matter rally, or picking up trash along a river, or writing my senators, or bringing supplies to the protestors against Line 3; I just try not to freeze up or become jaded.” Working with others to address these challenges gives me hope.”
Red Morning Star Woman
(Anto Wicapi Luta Winya)
Chas Jewett lives on a reservation that is just south of Standing Rock in a little town called Jewett Creek which is named after one of her ancestors. She is an environmental activist and an outspoken and articulate critic of our time. Her family has an interesting history in that one of her grandfathers had the unenviable task of serving on the first council that was forced to allot land on an ever-shrinking reservation. Her grandmother helped shelter Indians fleeing the Wounded Knee Massacre. Her father and grandfather were forced to attend boarding schools.
Jewett’s father had a strong influence on her later activism because he taught her there was a need for strong leaders at a time when indigenous people were under constant attack. Ironically, they were political opposites as he was a Goldwater Republican and she a leftwing Democrat (at least initially).
Jewett was raised as a strict Catholic and got her Bachelor of Arts degree in English (with a minor in government) from St. Benedict’s College in Minnesota. According to her, the Native community is not monolithic about Christianity. And while she hasn’t attended Mass for several years, she still intends to be buried in the cemetery at St. Teresa’s Church along with three generations of ancestors. She said the Catholic Church on the Reservation today is very different.
But there is a dark side to that history. Chas knows several people who were sexually assaulted by priests. She is convinced that sexual abuse played a major role in the rise of alcoholism and suicide on the reservation. She added that the rate of suicide amongst Natives is seven times the national average. “Abuse and rape are not new problems,” Jewett said, “that started 500 years ago when White men murdered Indigenous men and raped the women they did not kill as the conquered indigenous land.” She wonders how we are ever going to get better as a people now that we have politicized the teaching of history. “We need to teach the real history of what happened,” she said.
Jewett is appalled by the way Jesus Christ is twisted and molded to fit a political agenda, especially by the Republican Party. In her interpretation, Christ was not a gun-wielding man who killed people and was preoccupied with getting rich. She asserted, “Christ threw the money changers out of the temple! What some White people have done to Christianity is a blasphemy to Jesus. When it comes to economic inequality those Benedictine nuns at St. Benedict’s taught me well the liberation theology.”
She has and extremely low opinion of Presidents George Bush and Donald Trump, but she was profoundly disillusioned by President Obama when he unleashed military-style law enforcement on the protestors at Standing Rock. Up until then, Jewett was an active liberal Democrat. But no more. That experience radicalized her. She took a break from her activism after that to reassess things. Based on our conversation, she would likely agree with Eugene Debs’ observation that, “Both political parties are wings of the same old bird of prey. She believes both are owned by corporations.
Chas Jewett’s environmental activism is inspired by indigenous beliefs about the relationship of human beings to nature – the oneness of it all. She is angry that the United States continues to ignore almost every warning about the ultimate impact of our continuing destruction of the planet. She introduced me to a new word that I will work into my vocabulary, “Wasicu,” which is pronounced wa-she-chew. The word accurately describes the predominant ethic of our time because it means, “takers of the fat” in the Lakota language. The term could apply equally to the squandering of the land and its resources and to growing economic inequality caused by the concentration of wealth.
Chas believes that all life is related; everything in the Universe. We are not apart from Nature – we are a part of nature, and our fates are directly linked. She sees that today modern science and indigenous cosmology are becoming closely aligned. “The colonizers discounted our knowledge and defined us as savages, ignoring our wisdom. Our way is the right way and Nature is confirming that.”
Jewett has a hard time putting a good spin on what’s going on today. “I don’t know if we can fix it before it all burns,” she laments. “Obama let us down. Temperatures in the oceans are rising and they are contaminated with plastics and animals are dying.
She concluded, “Our ways will save the planet, but will we ever get there?”
Heisiiniiciiei (Big Wind)
Wind River Reservation, Wind River, Wyoming
Big Wind is a Northern Arapaho but also has Dakota and Ojibwe ancestry. They are included in the exhibition honoring women water protectors because they are of two spirits. The best way to understand the term “two spirits” is to accept that there is a spectrum between total masculinity and total femininity and many people reside at different points on that continuum. Big Wind says, “In Indigenous teachings we all have a different word for somebody who doesn’t fit inside that binary system. And it’s more than just appearance and has to do with the roles people play in their community.” They say of two spirit people, “when there is any type of disagreement two spirit people will be there because they embody both energies and have a broader perspective.”
Big Wind grew up in housing project adjacent to an oil field. As a youth, they swam and fished in nearby Beaver Creek. Much later, they realized that the corporation that owned the operation was using Beaver Creek to dilute the poisons they were generating in the process of extracting the oil. So, not only were their lands stolen and exploited without Natives getting any compensation, but they were also adversely affecting their health. Big Wind says they have lost multiple family members to cancer and that the life expectancy on that reservation is 48 years. “They poisoned my homeland and that is why I will keep on fighting until I am no longer here.”
Big Wind has been arrested ten times over the years and more recently, those arrests occurred up by Park Rapids where the pipeline construction was advancing. Line Three is going through the headwaters of the Mississippi an several hundred acres of pristine wetlands and will put all that wild rice in jeopardy. “When you exploit the land, you hurt people and the people who suffer the most are the indigenous people. I fight for people who can’t be out here on the front lines.”
These activists know that the impact of these decisions, which put money ahead of human life, are but a piece of a much larger ecological disaster called climate change. Big Wind says that within 50 years, “my home will no longer have glaciers and will no longer be able to replenish the water supply. And I’m frightened for what this means for future generations. These extractors of resources always tell us to ignore their past behavior because this project will be different. But the violations of pollution standards and OSHO regulations continue.
Big Wind is a full-time water protector. Their earliest protests regarding pipelines began in North Dakota at Standing Rock where they stood in opposition to the Dakota Access pipeline that runs from the Bakken Oil fields to a refinery in central Illinois. For them, it is a matter of both honoring treaties and protecting water. They were arrested for trespassing there. They took the matter to court and because they are a direct descendent from that area won the case. The courts, in this case, upheld the notion that you can’t trespass on your own land. One could ask then, why oil companies can trespass with impunity on land the courts determined belonged to their people in a treaty?
They have always been an activist who believed in direct action and that activism has now switched to what Big Wind calls “land defense and water protection.” Big Wind concluded their comments with a call to action: “We all have a choice and one path leads to destruction and the other toward survival of all living things. We have a responsibility to fight for a sustainable world. There’s always a way to get involved. These kinds of threats to the planet are going on everywhere.”
(Winona means first daughter in Dakota)
Ojibwe - White Earth Reservation
Winona LaDuke was born in 1959 to an Ojibwe father and a mother of Russian Jewish ancestry. She mostly grew up with her mother in Ashland, Oregon, then a small logging and college town near the California border. Due to her father’s strong connection to his heritage, she was enrolled with the Ojibwe nation at an early age. Her father made sure Winona stayed connected to her indigenous roots by taking her to pow wows and other tribal functions.
Winona has an impressive educational background that includes a Harvard Degree in economics. She began her career when she became a principal at a school on the White Earth Reservation. During this time she also managed to get an M.A. in community economic development from Antioch University.
LaDuke’s activism began when she returned to White Earth in the mid-1980’s. There she formed the Indigenous Women’s Network and worked to expose the practice of sterilization of Native women.
Her next cause was recovering Native lands lost by the abrogation of treaties. In 1867 a treaty set aside 860,000 acres for the White Earth Reservation. Over the years the United States government classified unused land in that area as surplus which allowed it to be sold to non-natives. By the 1950’s the White Earth Reservation had been reduced to a mere fraction of its original size.
LaDuke formed the White Earth Land Recovery Project (WELRP) in 1989 with the goal of restoring ownership of lost parcels of land to the reservation. In addition to buying land, the WELRP has been reforesting and reviving the cultivation of wild rice or reclaimed lands.
In 1993, LaDuke partnered with the Indigo Girls to form Honor the Earth. The purpose of that organization is to create awareness and engage in direct action to advance Native environmental concerns.
In 1996 and 2000 LaDuke ran as the vice-presidential candidate with Ralph Nader on the Green Party ticket. In the 2020 presidential election an elector from Washington State voted for Faith Spotted Eagle for president and Winona LaDuke for vice president thus making both the Green Party and two Native American women the first to receive Electoral College votes for the highest offices in the land.
LaDuke is playing a key role in organizing the opposition to Line 3. She has been arrested and has spent time in jail.
It is impossible for indigenous people to reconcile the way our judicial system has responded to legal documents defining the property rights of native versus non-native peoples. Whenever it is convenient treaties defining Native rights are ignored or abrogated. What is happening in Northern Minnesota today is just another sad chapter in a long history of illegal activity.
Wind Woman - Patty Jo Ervin
Ojibwe – Otter Clan
Patty Jo Ervin grew up in the Grand Rapids area and attended Itasca Community College where she studied Ojibwe culture, language and history. After graduating she taught Indian Studies in the Grand Rapids school system until she retired in 2018. In retirement she has enjoyed a second act as an officiator at weddings and funerals.
Patty Jo embraces the indigenous spirituality about Nature. She is critical of the Christian religion’s notion of man’s “dominion over the planet.” She considers it “arrogant and disrespectful.” She maintains that we are connected to everything on earth, including all plant and animal life. “Everything is one,” she says, and she spoke of new scientific research pointing to a highly sophisticated level of communication between trees.
Patty Jo has a strong emotional attachment to water going back to her childhood. She has spent a lot of time in the water all her life, from spring to fall, swimming and snorkeling. “The water embraces me – it embraces me when I feel unembraceable.” She described four types of “life-giving water” in Ojibwe culture, “there is water in the womb, water in lakes and rivers, salt water, and rainwater and tears.” She added, “Given the central role water plays in creating and sustaining life, the least we can do is be thankful and protective.”
Ervin got involved in the Water Walk Movement in 2011 when she read about the Mother Earth Walk organized by Josephine Mandamin. (Mandamin was an Anishinaabe First Nations grandmother, elder and founding member Mother Earth Water Walkers). That walk started from the four corners of North America and converged at the Bad River Reservation on Lake Superior near Bayfield, Wisconsin. The four groups arrived almost simultaneously due to GPS tracking equipment that allowed for carefully orchestrated pacing. When all had arrived, Mandamin mixed the waters of the Pacific Ocean, the Gulf, the Atlantic Ocean and Hudson’s Bay together and placed it with reverence into Lake Superior.
Patty Jo watched the movement of the walkers and by the time they arrived in the Grand Rapids area she had organized lodging, meals and recruited locals to join in the walk. That was her first walk and she found carrying the water in the copper bucket “electrifying.” “The singing and praying of the ceremony changes you,” she says.
Two years later Sharon Day announced a walk along the entire length of the Mississippi River. She joined the walk and hiked for five days. There was a blizzard the day the Water Walk went through Grand Rapids. It dropped nine inches of snow. Sharon Day was not to be dissuaded. There is always a car that follows walkers, especially when they are on busy roads, and that day Patty Jo’s four-wheel drive truck was used to protect walkers as they trudged through deep snow.
A few years later Ervin drove to Detroit to join a walk across Canada. She said that they could cover as many as 26 miles a day. Some days they were up and out by 3 AM and would walk until 3 PM. After that she organized a walk around Lake Pokegama. By this time had lived on the lake for many years and had watched its rapid decline from overfishing, from pollution and the human effluvia of septic tanks.
Patty Jo went to the Standing Rock protest as well. She said, because she is an elder, organizers did not expect her to get arrested and jailed so she went there to be supportive of their efforts. She was buoyed to see the great number of young people who were at Standing Rock expressing their outrage at what Enbridge was doing to the planet.
Every time she saw evidence of Enbridge’s pipeline underway, she prayed they would not succeed at finishing the line. She remembers vividly what happened in Grand Rapids 30 years ago at the hands of the reckless successor company to Enbridge. What happened has been described as one of the worst inland oil spells ever to occur in the United States (and there have been many). Patty Jo said the company lied back then just as they are lying today. They said at that time that “it was just a little oil leak.” That “little leak” amounted to 1.7 million gallons of crude oil. Rivers and wetlands filled up with oil and it took years to clean up the environmental nightmare.
Many years ago, Sharon Day asked Patty Jo if she would be willing to do water ceremonies on a weekly basis in the Grand Rapids area. She agreed and for the last eight years, every Sunday, whenever there is open water, she has led a local water ceremony. Because of the local paper mill there is almost always open water. It’s not a publicity stunt. It’s done quietly and reverentially in a little park located in the heart of Trump country.
Liz Jaakola is lifelong resident of the Fond du Lac Reservation. Her father was Finnish and her mother Ojibwe. She is an accomplished musician who teaches music education and American Indian studies at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College in Cloquet, Minnesota. In her capacity as a musician, she has performed close to home and as far away as Rome, Italy at the Rome Opera Festival.
She is also a Native-inspired composer, and her work has had exposure on both radio and television. Her compositions include string quartets, blues, songs, and other musical forms. When performing with her band she likes to mix things up and be unpredictable; a reggae piece could be followed with country western.
Jaakola is a recipient of a Sally Award offered through the Ordway Theater for the Performing Arts. This award goes to those who contribute inordinately to the enrichment of the stage of Minnesota with their commitment to the arts. The award was based on her efforts at educational outreach, or as she says, “to open doors for others.” For Liz, it is more about educating people about music than being virtuosic. She said, “I see the reinvigoration of singing traditions tightening up our relationships while encouraging us to turn our attention back to the language, our traditional ways, and many other aspects of being Anishinaabe. In my work I encourage people to find their own voice; the voice that they used freely as a child and to nurture it.”
She strives in her life’s work to promote Anishinaabe music and education through collaboration, performances, and compositions. She has visited classrooms around the state to share traditional Indigenous songs she has arranged.
Liz’s commitment goes beyond educating people about music. She has a deep commitment to Mother Nature and despite her busy schedule she has found time to be a regular participant in many of the water walks organized by Sharon Day.
Jaakola is also an elected official who pulled about 55% of the vote to get elected as Ward 5’s council member in Cloquet in 2020.