All week, we're sharing stories of Strong Citizens on the Iron Range. They are neighborhood leaders, small business owners and everyday activists doing their part to make the Range a better place. We hope their stories inspire you to get active in your own community.
Nevada Littlewolf has been a City Councilor in the town of Virginia for almost 10 years. She is a Bush Fellow, a lifelong resident of the Iron Range, a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, and the leader of a new nonprofit called Rural and American Indigenous Leadership. I had the privilege of speaking with her about her leadership experience and her work to change the shape of leadership on the Range.
Rachel: Tell me about your background. Have you always lived in Virginia?
Nevada: I have lived in Virginia since I was 14; prior to that our family moved around quite a bit living in other communities across the Iron Range, Duluth, in tribal communities of Leech Lake and Nett Lake, the twin cities metro area, Winona, and Bismark, North Dakota and Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
We moved to Virginia because my dad was seeking an Ojibwe Specialist Degree at Mesabi Community College. I left Virginia for a year in high school to attend the Perpich Center for Arts High School in Golden Valley. I graduated from Virginia High School, Mesabi Community College with an AA Degree and attended (commuting from Virginia) University of Minnesota – Duluth.
Rachel: When did you get elected to city council and how did you decide to run for that office?
Nevada: I made the decision to run in 2007. It bothered me that there wasn’t anyone in the race that represented my values or perspective. I also had people asking me to run. People in the region could see there was a need for a new perspective, a fresh voice. That’s why I ran. I was elected that year and started in 2008.
Rachel: Tell me more about that different perspective you bring.
Nevada: I was first elected almost 10 years ago. At the time that I ran, I was 31 and I was the youngest person on the council, the only woman, the only person with school-age children and the only American Indian ever elected. By right of my identity, I brought a lot of perspectives that weren’t being heard. Almost 10 years later I’m still the youngest person, the only person with school-age children, and the only American Indian. Up until last year, I was also still the only woman. We brought another woman (Mary McReynolds-Pellinen) to an appointed council seat in 2015. She really had earned her appointment through the recent election process, being the fourth highest vote getter. Even still, we were lucky to get her on the council, because there was opposition to her appointment in our ranks.
Our city council is comprised of people all over the age of 65, mostly Caucasian men. That’s the face of leadership here and it’s true in many of the communities across the Range. In many ways, we have a leadership crisis because we really need to have diverse voices at the table from the community representing the community. Isn’t that called democracy? The only way that I can see that changing is if other people start running for office. If they run, they will win.
Rachel: What are the main things you’ve worked on as a city councilor?
Nevada: I came in 2008, right as the economy had tanked. We were faced with budget challenges immediately. A large part of my role on the council was helping with city governance restructure, streamline and figure out better ways to operate. It doesn’t sound sexy or exciting but it’s something I’m proud of.
Early on, I worked to renovate and revitalize our municipal greenhouse, The Olcott Park Greenhouse and Botanical Garden, as a community center. We researched and discussed sustainability and local food production. Those are issues that not everyone in leadership understands or values. It’s a privilege to be able to speak to issues that otherwise wouldn’t be heard. I’m happy to be there to lift these things up, and I know that many people in the community support them. And the support for these things is only growing. We have a city center park that was designed to house a farmers market and it's never been used for that purpose. Right now, we are trying to work with a local community organization called Iron Range Partnership for Sustainability to promote the park as a farmers market.
Rachel: What do you see as the biggest challenges for Virginia and the region?
Nevada: Some of our biggest challenges include diversifying the economy, promoting entrepreneurs, promoting economic growth in a different way, and engaging young people and families to live here.
Our community has a lot of really great assets but we’re not great about talking about them--things like the Mesabi Trail, our lakes, outdoor recreation opportunities, cultural things… One of our biggest challenges is finding resources to accomplish the goals we have, to be able to make full use of our cultural assets. The Lyric Center in Virginia could change a lot in this town. It could be huge for our cultural integrity with the ability to draw visitors into the community. We need the resources and people willing to invest their talents here.
Rachel: Do you feel that local government has the power to enact change?
Nevada: We do, and it’s about making sure that we’re looking to the future and future opportunities than always looking to the past. If we have leaders that are 65+ and are used to having this mining economy here, being dependent on it, and now it’s going away-that’s really hard for them. For a younger person, it’s easier to vision a new future knowing that we can’t rely on mining forever. The older generation brings a lot of wisdom, but it needs to be a balanced mix. We need different voices in leadership.
Rachel: You’re a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. I’m interested to hear about your experience being a leader from that community. Is there a large American Indian population in the Iron Range?
Nevada: We’re the largest racial minority demographic. Indigenous people are a part of the community and always have been. It’s all Indian Land.
I can speak from my perspective as Executive Director and Founder of Rural & American Indigenous Leadership (RAIL). We work to create parity in leadership. In tribal communities, there are far more women serving in leadership than across Minnesota. Almost every tribe has had a Chairwoman, equivalent to the President of a nation. Minnesota has never even had a woman Governor and nationally no woman President. On tribal councils, gender parity is present. It’s been that way in tribal communities for a long time. We look to the knowledge of indigenous women as leaders. Statewide, we have a problem with women in leadership. 72% of council members across the state are male. 1 in 4 councils have no women at all. More than 50% of county commissions don’t have a woman on their county commission- all in the rural areas. RAIL supports, trains and networks rural women leaders.
Rachel: That’s fantastic. What sorts of programs does your organization run?
Nevada: Anything from public speaking engagements, training, networking events, mentorship, online connections and communications. We’re working on a fellow-type cohort program for 2017 as the organization grows. We received our 501c(3) non-profit status in July 2015. We’re really new on the scene as an organization. However, I worked for two national training organizations: the White House Project and Wellstone Action in the past ten years. Collectively, between our amazing and talented board and me, we bring a lot of experience and knowledge. Our curriculum and training is the hub of the work, then, of course, the networking and connecting women together.
Rachel: What are your hopes for the Iron Range? What needs to change?
Nevada: My vision for our community is that it’s thriving economically, with cultural opportunities, our lakes and forests are healthy, and that we find ways to reclaim the areas that have been mined and use those to promote healthy lifestyles in our region. My vision for the future is to see young families living in our communities, and that means good schools as well as lifelong learning opportunities.
Rachel: What are your hopes for American Indian communities on the Range?
Nevada: I hope for our tribal people to be a vital part of our communities and living in a healthy way. They need to be supported.
Across the state of Minnesota there are racial disparities that intersect with economic disparities, leadership disparities, and gender disparities. When you look at statistics, American Indians have some of the highest rates of suicide, sexual assault, poverty, etc. Yet, at the same time American Indian people are extremely resilient people.
Our culture is powerful and amazing and that’s how our communities will heal. Our language and our way of life is in tune with where the world needs to be- understanding the relationship between the environment and how we live. Those things aren’t resourced or supported or held up.
The communities at large need to understand that native people bring assets. There is a lot of misunderstanding about American Indian communities. Education is a part of that too. It’s a part of the sixth grade curriculum and mandatory in Minnesota that public school students do a unit on Minnesota tribes and history. But that’s the only place where it is shared or taught universally. American Indians are part of Minnesota history and American history. There’s very little time put into teaching what that means, yet we expect or assume people will understand what that means.
If you need to ask why American Indians are living in poverty or face the worst disparities, then you haven’t understood the history. We need a lot more education.
We applaud Ms. Littlewolf on her work to increase leadership opportunities on the Iron Range and ensure that more voices are present in community decision-making. Read all our Iron Range coverage.
(All photos courtesy of Ms. Littlewolf)