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Charly Haley, Published November 29 2012

White Earth chair relates personal journey to MSUM crowd

MOORHEAD – As a Minnesota State University Moorhead alumna, a Harvard University alumna and the first woman to lead northern Minnesota’s White Earth Nation, Erma Vizenor has an extensive life story.

She told parts of that story to an audience of students and community members Thursday night at MSUM.

The educational event was part of MSUM’s celebration of American Indian Heritage Month.

There have been presentations and activities throughout the month of November as part of the celebration.

Vizenor’s speech focused primarily on her personal journey, from growing up in poverty to becoming the White Earth chairwoman. She also discussed the Doctrine of Discovery and constitutional reform.

Vizenor, whose mother is Ojibwe and father is Scandinavian, grew up on the White Earth Reservation, which is the largest American Indian reservation in Minnesota. Vizenor said she and her six siblings grew up in poverty.

“We grew up in very different times,” she said to Thursday’s audience. “I’d say it was the harshest poverty one could imagine.

“We were very poor,” Vizenor continued, “but we had an abundance of love.”

Vizenor said her parents did the best they could to support their children.

Vizenor’s family moved around a lot while she was in school. After dropping out for one year when she was 16, Vizenor graduated from Park Rapids High School in 1964.

“That was an accomplishment,” Vizenor said.

She met her husband in high school, and they got married shortly after graduation.

“We moved to Minneapolis for (my husband’s) job and a better way of life than the reservation,” Vizenor said.

When that didn’t seem to work out, Vizenor and her husband moved back to White Earth.

“We thought if we were going to be poor, it was better to be poor at home,” she said.

After working for a while, Vizenor enrolled in classes at MSUM.

She graduated college in 1972, and her husband did the year after. They then went to work on the reservation.

Vizenor told the audience about attending Harvard in Cambridge, Mass., and how her dissertation was interrupted by taking time to help sort out conflicts in White Earth’s tribal politics.

In 2004, Vizenor was elected as the first woman to lead White Earth Nation.

Her goals were to stabilize and heal the tribe, and focus on education, she said.

“The country has been in a recession. These are hard times, but I was determined to build – build actual buildings,” she said. Since Vizenor has been in leadership, White Earth has built many new facilities including schools and a community center.

Vizenor was re-elected in both 2008 and 2012 as chairwoman.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Charly Haley at (701) 235-7311