Women’s Day Event at Humphrey School Celebrates Indigenous Women Leaders
“Today is a great day to be an Indigenous woman.” With those opening remarks, Jayme Davis of the Native Governance Center welcomed a capacity crowd to this year’s International Women’s Day celebration at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs on March 8, setting the tone for the day’s activities, which were focused on the increasing power and influence of Indigenous women.
Throughout the daylong symposium, which included panel discussions and keynote speeches by Native and non-Native women, the theme, “Indigenous women have always been leaders,” shone through.
“As Indigenous women, we are the backbone of our communities,” said Davis, a Humphrey School master’s degree candidate from the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and Standing Rock. “We are trailblazers, decision makers, and mobilizers who make change happen. Today is about honoring all Indigenous women, highlighting their passions, and supporting their movements for positive change.”
Attendees celebrated the electoral victories of several dozen Native women who ran for political office in the November 2018 election, and heard from one of those winners, Minnesota Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe. Flanagan (at left in photo with US Sen. Tina Smith) is the nation’s highest-ranking Indigenous woman in executive office.
“I’m honored and humbled to be the first anything,” said Flanagan, who noted that the honor also comes with a great responsibility. “I feel as though I have the future of Indian country on my shoulders. It feels heavy sometimes, especially when you’re working within a [political] system that was not created by you.”
Flanagan pointed to the support she’s received over the years from friends and relatives, especially other Native women “who have come before us and who have created a pathway. It’s our role and responsibility to do the same thing, and bring others after us.”
Other speakers echoed those same themes—of strong connections to the generations of women who came before them, and the mentors who have supported them in their current endeavors.
Justice Anne McKeig, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, recalled that after she was appointed to the Minnesota Supreme Court in 2016 she was full of self-doubt. “I am not the type of person who would normally apply for this position. I grew up in a trailer house on the reservation,” she said.
McKeig said she had an opportunity to meet US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina on the high court, who gave McKeig some advice based on her own experience.
“She told me, ‘You are not meant to be like the rest of them. You are different, but you belong there,’” said McKeig. “We all need that support. We have to keep telling ourselves that we're meant to be there and that we're worthy."
The day’s activities were not all celebratory; they were tinged with the recognition that Native people—particularly Native women—still struggle to overcome their history of mistreatment.
Attendees participated in an interactive Blanket Exercise (pictured at left) that illustrates the difficult history of Indigenous peoples in North America.
“The University of Minnesota would not be here if we didn’t recognize and honor the fact that it is situated on Dakota Territory and Dakota homeland,” said Humphrey School Dean Laura Bloomberg. “I think about the relationship that this University has with Indigenous people, and how honored I am that you are holding this event, with this topic, here today.”
US Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) encouraged the attendees to take “courageous action” to continue building on the political gains of the 2018 election.
“Why not you? That should be the message of this day, celebrating Indigenous women here and around the world,” said Smith. “Women are already leaders in schools, health care, labor, and in government at all levels. You are stronger than you think, and it’s OK to let people see that strength. What matters most is that you use your voice."