St. Olaf Magazine | Spring/Summer 2024

Indigenous Advocates Empowering Tribal Communities

Wendy Helgemo ’91, Louise Matson ’89, and Mary LaGarde ’91 are making a difference as part of the modern Native American awakening. Photo by Jaida Grey Eagle
Wendy Helgemo ’91, Louise Matson ’89, and Mary LaGarde ’91 are making a difference as part of the modern Native American awakening. Photo by Jaida Grey Eagle

It’s not unusual for Oles to stay in touch long after their college days, but the recurring get-togethers of one group of alumnae are a gathering of a different caliber: power lunch sessions between three Native American powerhouse women.

Wendy Helgemo ’91 (Ho-Chunk), Mary LaGarde ’91 (White Earth), and Louise Matson ’89 (White Earth) have all dedicated their lives to empowering Indigenous peoples at the local, state, and national levels.

Helgemo, who received the St. Olaf Distinguished Alumni Award in 2018, has spent three decades working in Native policy across public, nonprofit, and tribal sectors. That includes serving as legal counsel for multiple Midwest tribes, the director of governmental affairs for the National American Indian Housing Council, the inaugural director of the George Washington University’s AT&T Center for Indigenous Politics and Policy, and more. After a long tenure in Washington, D.C., she recently returned to her home state, where she’s now the tribal liaison for the Minnesota Department of Management and Budget. In this role, Helgemo strengthens relationships with tribal nations and ensures Indigenous interests are front of mind when it comes to financial investments across state agencies.

LaGarde has helmed the Minneapolis American Indian Center as its executive director since 2013. One of the nation’s first urban Native community centers, the iconic institution situated in the Franklin Avenue East Cultural District just reopened after a $32.5 million renovation that provided much-needed updates to the original 1974 facility. LaGarde first got involved with the center in 2009 as a grant writer; before that, she was working in early childhood development, including helping open learning centers serving Little Earth of United Tribes, the country’s only Native-preference Section 8 community-based housing in Minneapolis.

Matson, who received the St. Olaf Alumni Achievement Award in 2022, is celebrating 22 years with the Division of Indian Work, 10 of those as its executive director. For more than seven decades, the Minneapolis-based nonprofit has supported and served the urban Native population through culturally relevant education, traditional healing, and leadership development. She is also a founding board member of the Ojibwe/Dakota immersion Bdote Learning Center, vice chair of the Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors Group, and chair of Phillips Indian Educators, based in the multicultural Minneapolis neighborhood of the same name.

Taken altogether, their impressive achievements are part of an awe-inspiring Indigenous awakening, with unprecedented female Native representation in key leadership roles. That includes Deb Haaland’s (Pueblo of Laguna) historic appointment as U.S. Interior Secretary and Minnesota Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan’s (White Earth) position as the country’s highest-ranking Native woman elected to executive office. And yet Helgemo, LaGarde, and Matson’s ceaseless efforts remain as crucial as ever, given that Indigenous peoples face marked inequities in the aftermath of colonialism, including ongoing discrimination, outsized violence, health disparities, lower life expectancies, and high levels of poverty, addiction, and suicide

As some of St. Olaf’s only Native students during their time on the Hill, Helgemo and LaGarde became close in college; Helgemo also briefly met Matson (who she dubbed “the cool upperclassman”) at school. LaGarde and Matson got to know each other later in life through their complementary careers. After Helgemo reached out in recent years to rekindle those relationships before moving back to Minnesota, the influential trio began meeting regularly for those power lunches. Their conversations range from personal to professional, with lots of laughter, support, and mutual admiration. They recently reflected on their individual — and intertwining — journeys that led to their important work.

Early Influences
While it might seem like they were destined to make an impact on Indigenous communities, these three women arrived at this point in their careers via differing paths. Helgemo and LaGarde were inspired to carry on the strong advocacy traditions they observed in their inner circles early on. Matson, on the other hand, was driven by a desire to engage with the thriving Twin Cities Native community and to better connect with her White Earth heritage — an all-too common phenomenon among Indigenous individuals who have experienced disconnection from their ancestral lifeways.

Matson grew up in South Minneapolis and spent many summers up on Lake of the Woods with her paternal grandmother, who would sign Matson and her cousins up for so-called “Indian summer school” in nearby Warroad. Although her grandma was born on the White Earth Nation in northwestern Minnesota — the state’s largest Indian reservation both in terms of enrollment and geographic area, at about 1,300 square miles — Matson’s dad never lived there and her mom is non-Native, so she grew up as “more of just an urban kid,” as she puts it.

Her feelings of distance from her tribe’s traditions were no doubt in large part due to her grandmother’s time spent at an Indian boarding school, which aimed to strip Native youth of their cultural knowledge through forced assimilation.

“Most of my grandma’s family attended boarding schools except for one person that they hid,” Matson says. “She never talked about it, but that experience definitely impacted her and impacted my dad and in turn impacted me. My dad was raised Catholic, so I probably know more Ojibwe language than he does. Which isn’t how it should be, but that’s a good example of the trauma his generation endured that tore families apart.”

She was inspired by the strong Indigenous women she saw making a difference. “There were a lot of people I admired in the community,” Matson says. “Women like [local organizer, journalist, and cofounder of Native youth nonprofit MIGIZI] Laura Waterman Wittstock, [former MIGIZI president] Elaine Salinas, and Wendy’s mom, Marlene, were huge forces.”

Helgemo was deeply involved with the Native community throughout her upbringing in the western Twin Cities suburb of Plymouth. She recalls working as a Division of Indian Work camp counselor, attending powwows at the Minneapolis American Indian Center, and becoming one of the Indian Health Board’s original Soaring Eagles.

Portrait of Wendy Helgemo '91

“What drives me in this work is my love for Native people. I want to do what I can to help us survive in this modern world and to smooth out what has been a difficult and rocky path in the history of our country. That often means unraveling what has been in place and putting things back together so that life can be better for our people.”

Wendy Helgemo ’91

“My family has a legacy of public service, in particular working for Native people,” she says. “My grandfather, Murray Whiterabbit, was a World War II veteran who then worked at the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Ashland, Wisconsin, ensuring people had the resources to go to school if they chose to. And my mom, Marlene Whiterabbit Helgemo, was the director for the Minnesota Sioux Tribes Housing Authority, as it was called at the time, working on land and housing issues with the state’s four Dakota bands.”

Her late mom was also the first female Native pastor ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and a cofounder of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.

“So I grew up tagging along with my mom to those four tribes’ reservations and learning about them, plus we kept ties with our Ho-Chunk relatives and friends all over Wisconsin,” Helgemo remembers. “My family was also very close with Mary Ellen Dumas, who ran the Division of Indian Work, which is why it’s so special to see that come full circle with Louise now leading that organization.”

While in college, Helgemo became passionate about practicing Indian law, which led her to pursue a law degree at the University of Colorado after graduating from St. Olaf. “At St. Olaf, Mary and I were actually in an Indian history class together,” she says. “That was very eye-opening as to all the laws that had been passed over two centuries with the goal of dispossessing Native people of their land, culture, language, and resources. It really prompted my interest in policy.”

LaGarde, meanwhile, witnessed family members’ strong advocacy examples during her childhood spent in both Minneapolis and the Iron Range town of Eveleth, Minnesota. Many of them were involved in the American Indian Movement, a grassroots civil rights group that got its start in Minneapolis in 1968 to challenge systemic issues such as poverty, discrimination, and police brutality. That blossomed into an international movement aimed at upholding tribal sovereignty.

Observing that activism firsthand left an impression on LaGarde. “I grew up in the ’70s and was exposed to all the social movements going on,” she recalls. “The American Indian Movement was such a strong force back then, as it still is today. Being part of that really connected me to my cultural identity as a Native person.”

Coming from that strong cultural background, LaGarde was a bit shell-shocked by the lack of diversity at St. Olaf, especially in the late ’80s and early ’90s. “While researching colleges, I was really looking at the academic reputation,” she notes. “It never dawned on me to also look at the diversity of the student body and staff. So when I got there, it was really quite surprising not seeing a lot of brown-haired, brown-eyed people, like I was so used to seeing growing up.”

She remembers experiencing blatant racism for the first time during her college years, which sparked her interest in advocating for her fellow students of color and eventually influenced her career choices.

Impactful Achievements
Though their accomplishments are many, one of their most poignant — and public — achievements is the freshly revamped Minneapolis American Indian Center. The plan behind that renovation dates back to LaGarde’s days as its interim director in 2013, when she invited the public to provide feedback about how the community hub could better meet their needs through listening sessions. That collective visioning process resulted in a state-of-the-art, culturally relevant center designed by architect and board president Sam Olbekson (White Earth). The new building boasts an updated fitness center, an expanded art gallery, upgraded meeting areas, thoughtful spaces to accommodate youth and elder programming, and similar improvements.

More than a decade in the making, the remodel reflects LaGarde’s tireless work since her start with the center, helping breathe new life into the neighborhood hub that in recent decades had become more heavily focused on providing social services. In so many ways, the renovation is a rebirth for the center 50 years after its inception.

And yet many original elements remain, such as a steadfast dedication to serving the community and a 1974 commissioned mural by renowned Grand Portage Chippewa artist George Morrison adorning an exterior wall. Featuring chevron shapes that create an optical illusion of sorts, the large-scale unnamed work was referred to as “Turning the Feather Around: A Mural for the Indian” by its late creator.

“This incredibly beautiful, energy-efficient building will be here for generations to come,” LaGarde says. “The ground blessing [in January 2023] was a very, very proud moment for me, having Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, community members, funders, and friends and family all there to celebrate.”

Portrait of Mary LaGarde '91

“For so many years, we’ve been overlooked and put to the side. There’s just so much that has happened over the years that has negatively affected the rights of our people. Now, watching our Native people making a difference is just tremendous to witness.”

Mary LaGarde ’91

Not far away on bustling East Lake Street is the Division of Indian Work, which began as a temporary food shelf program offered by the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches in 1952. It aimed to provide for the vast Native population that was being relocated from reservations to the metro area at the time in an attempt to diminish the power of Indian Country. Since then, the Division of Indian Work has expanded its services to include a variety of culture-based programming.

More recently, Matson oversaw the organization’s amicable separation from the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches in 2018. The massive undertaking required years of structural rebuilding but has allowed the Division of Indian Work full autonomy as a “Native-led, Native-staffed nonprofit with a majority Native board that’s serving Native people,” Matson says proudly.

That unified approach was particularly important in 2020, with a global pandemic raging on and Minneapolis acting as ground zero for a racial reckoning after George Floyd’s murder. Situated just a mile from where he was killed, the Division of Indian Work was at the center of the ensuing social unrest that shook the city. “That was probably the biggest challenge of my career: How do you survive as a direct-service social service agency during a pandemic and an uprising?” Matson recalls.

Like so many Twin Cities residents, she was frightened by the tumult. “Everybody was scared, but we kept our agency open while everything else burned down around us,” she says. “When it became clear that things were getting out of control, we packed up as much as we could — our sacred items like our drum and eagle staff as well as our art and our financial documents. I was at home just in despair when I got a text that said, ‘We’re here, Louise.’”

That message came from American Indian Movement activists, who were standing guard at the Division of Indian Work, Little Earth, and other cultural institutions like nearby Norway House.

“I get emotional about it, because I didn’t ask for them to come,” she says. “After MIGIZI burned down, they were like, ‘We aren’t losing anything else.’ That’s why we have this huge mural by City Mischief and artists like Thomasina TopBear on the side of our building that says ‘thank you’ in Anishinaabe, Dakota, and Ho-Chunk for those protectors who protected us.”

Throughout the pandemic, Matson sought guidance from LaGarde and MIGIZI President Kelly Drummer about how to adapt programming so the Division of Indian Work could provide for the community. The food shelf — still in place since the organization’s beginning — continued to operate but in an adapted fashion that allowed for social distancing. Some youth and counseling offerings went remote, though Matson is glad they have returned to in-person services since then. “Just surviving that time was a huge accomplishment,” she says.

While Helgemo’s influences are perhaps less visible on a local stage, she has left an indelible mark on Indian Country at large. During her nearly 20 years in Washington, D.C., she was involved in countless policy discussions and decisions with far-reaching impacts.

“I made my way there because I wanted to be a part of creating better lives and opportunities for Native people,” she says. “Along the way, I have learned more about Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians, so I’ve been very cognizant about making sure that they also have a voice and that their rights and interests are protected.”

Upon moving to the nation’s capital in 2005, she joined the National Indian Gaming Commission as a staff attorney, then spent three years as director of government affairs for the National American Indian Housing Council. In that role, she spearheaded the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Reauthorization Act of 2008 and fought for the inclusion of tribal funding in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

After that, she spent seven years in the halls of Congress as senior advisor on Indian affairs to late Democratic Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, including several of his years as majority leader. During that time, she was instrumental in the passing of the Violence Against Women Act of 2013, which offers greater protections for Native, immigrant, and LGBTQIA+ individuals, as well as the bipartisan Nevada Native Nations Land Act. Signed into law by President Barack Obama, it placed more than 71,000 acres of onetime Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service lands into federal trust status for six Nevada tribes.

After Reid retired in 2017, Helgemo was tapped to serve as inaugural director of the first-of-its-kind AT&T Center for Indigenous Politics and Policy at the George Washington University, with a goal of “ensuring there are more staffers on Capitol Hill who actually look like America,” she says. She also acted as a legislative attorney and a policy consultant before making her way back to the Land of 10,000 Lakes earlier this year.

Lasting Legacies
Like so many of us, Helgemo is encouraged by the historic Indigenous representation we’re seeing in politics and beyond. “Native people have gone to Washington, D.C. for hundreds of years to fight for their land and their rights,” she says. “Having Native people in these decision-making roles — like Congressman Tom Cole (Chickasaw), Congresswoman Sharice Davids (Ho-Chunk), and Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland — really matters in ensuring that Native Americans aren’t left behind.”

Reflecting on the current Indigenous reckoning, LaGarde says it’s been a long time coming. “For so many years, we’ve been overlooked and put to the side,” she explains. “There’s just so much that has happened over the years that has negatively affected the rights of our people. Now, watching our Native people making a difference is just tremendous to witness.”

Matson agrees. “It’s thrilling to see,” she gushes. “Just look at our lieutenant governor, Peggy Flanagan. She’s from White Earth, and she’s the highest elected Native female official in the country. We also have Mary Kunesh (Standing Rock Lakota descendant) and Liish Kozlowski (Ojibwe/Mexican). To witness that representation is such a privilege.” Flanagan has mutual respect for Matson, who she worked for at the Division of Indian Work, and credits her for shaping her career.

A bibliophile, Matson is also inspired by the many Minnesota-based Indigenous voices in literature, including Louise Erdrich (Turtle Mountain Chippewa), inaugural Minneapolis poet laureate Heid E. Erdrich (Turtle Mountain Chippewa), and Marcie Rendon (White Earth). When Louise Erdrich visited St. Olaf during a book tour for her debut novel, Love Medicine, back in the 1980s, Matson was starstruck: “I just love her, and I was thrilled to be able to hear her read.”

Portrait of Louise Matson '89

“It’s thrilling to see,” she gushes. “Just look at our lieutenant governor, Peggy Flanagan. She’s from White Earth, and she’s the highest elected Native female official in the country. We also have Mary Kunesh (Standing Rock Lakota descendant) and Liish Kozlowski (Ojibwe/Mexican). To witness that representation is such a privilege.”

Louise Matson ’89

Although this recent recognition of and respect for Indigenous cultures is certainly cause for celebration, Helgemo, LaGarde, and Matson are all focused on the future and what’s yet to be accomplished. There’s still a great amount of healing that needs to be done within tribal communities and a great amount of education that needs to be done to help non-Natives fully understand the issues impacting tribal communities.

“As an executive director, part of my job is to secure funding for our activities,” Matson says. “So I walk that line — I’m sure Mary does, too — where I need to make the case for funding because of our disparities, but I also don’t want people to feel sorry for Native people. What we tend to see featured in the media [about Native people] is the poverty porn, which just frustrates me.”

She recalls a story about her dad, who grew up listening to the audio of cowboy and Indian movies in the theater because he and his cousins didn’t have money to buy tickets. They always cheered for the cowboys because, as he later explained to his daughter, “you cheered for the winners.” Looking ahead, Matson hopes her work focused on Native youth will instill in them a sense of pride, unlike past generations who were taught to resent their Indigeneity.

Helgemo — who says she “eats, sleeps, and breathes politics” — wants to see even more representation in the places that matter, such as in Washington, D.C. “What drives me in this work is my love for Native people,” she says. “I want to do what I can to help us survive in this modern world and to smooth out what has been a difficult and rocky path in the history of our country. That often means unraveling what has been in place and putting things back together so that life can be better for our people.”

She’s particularly proud of her work related to boarding school healing and the restoration of ancestral homelands to tribal ownership, and she wants to see further progress made on both those fronts. Helgemo is also itching to get involved in Indigenous entertainment. “It’s such a celebration of our people — our whimsy, humor, and creativity,” she says with a smile. “I have wanted to write a screenplay since my 20s, so maybe now’s the time.”

LaGarde envisions a future where Native cultures are as rich and thriving as they once were. “My hope is that we don’t have to call it ‘language revitalization’ because it’s no longer being revitalized,” she says. “Instead, it’s just taught to everyone, along with our cultural practices that sadly haven’t been passed down due to the trauma of boarding schools, assimilation, and relocation. We’ve come so far, but we still need to keep educating, we still need to keep fighting.”

She is inspired by her 2-year-old grandson, who is already embracing his multiracial identity as an Ojibwe Vietnamese American. “He goes to drum and dance classes at the Indian Center,” LaGarde explains. “I hear him learning Vietnamese, and I’m hoping he will pick up the Ojibwe language, too. He’s such a special kid, and I spend as much time with him as I can.”

Above all, LaGarde wants to carry on the lasting legacies of her impressive predecessors. “I think about our Indigenous leaders who have walked on, including all these powerful women who started and led these organizations for our people,” she says. “I just hope I’m doing justice to everything they’ve done before me.”

It’s safe to say that she and her fellow Indigenous luminaries are indeed doing just that.