By Dan Ninham
There are regional and national indigenous women leaders who are not only being elected into political office but are being re-elected as well. Many of the leaders are also social activists and educators.
Audrey Thayer is an enrolled member of the White Earth Nation. She has been an instructor on the faculty of Leech Lake Tribal College for the past ten years. Thayer also serves as the At Large Councilor for the Bemidji City Council. She served two years as Ward 1 Councilmember and is now the newly elected At Large Councilor.
Thayer also has continued her higher education toward a terminal doctoral degree in Educational Leadership at the University of St. Thomas. Her expected graduation date is in December of 2023. The University of St. Thomas is a private Catholic university in St. Paul/Minneapolis, MN.
Thayer’s personal history includes activism in many social justice issues. St. Thomas had a strong history in social justice, and she had a bias about the Catholic tradition because her family including her mother and grandmother were in government and Catholic boarding schools. “I had at a young age blamed all of the intergenerational issues in our family on intergenerational trauma from Christianity and Colonialism,” said Thayer. “I have added capitalism in my words of issues that plague Indigenous-American peoples.”
“My philosophy was to select a private institution exposing me to people in a different socio-economic class system, with priests with whom I had issues,” shared Thayer. “A person can do anything if they genuinely seek to improve their minds. I started my first year of doctoral work at age 64. There is nothing that can stop our people including age.”
Earlier in her undergraduate years, Thayer realized in order to make life better for her growing family and extended families, and ultimately her community and extended communities, she needed higher education.
Thayer attended Cambridge College in Massachusetts. “I carted five of my eight children I raised from the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation in Wisconsin to the big city of Boston to complete my Masters’s in Education in Counseling/Psychology. It was a two-year program I finished in a year and a half. Juggling a part-time job, full-time school, and five children was a huge challenge. I wanted better for our family.”
Thayer also graduated with a B.A. degree in Native American Studies/Sociology at the University of Minnesota-Minneapolis. “Always pregnant – I had only three of the eight children I raised,” she said. “Drove back and forth from the St. Croix Reservation to get the degree completed. Driving a beat-up old pickup with a big belly. During this time of history I learned about unconditional love and compassion for people. We are pitiful people and must put our asema down for those hurting and struggling.”
Truth is one of the Seven Grandfather’s Teachings that Thayer practices daily as an educator and a politician. She said, “I am a truth speaker. This leads to wanting justice for the unheard voices in our communities. In leadership, truth and transparency are essential.”
Being a professional mentor starts with also being mentored and guided. Thayer considers Colette Hyman a friend that she also connected with as a professor. They are co-writing a book project.
“Audrey Thayer and I met in June 2015 at a Minnesota Campus Compact conference on diversity and community engagement,” said Colette Hyman. “As two of the oldest participants, we immediately gravitated to each other and then struck up a wonderful friendship.”
“We decided to work together on a book about women and leadership in the Twin Cities Indigenous community because we both saw a need to highlight amazing work that Indigenous women, primarily Dakota and Anishinaabe, had done starting in the 1960’s to build the institutions that are still central to Indigenous life in Minneapolis and St Paul,” added Hyman.
Hyman continued, “Audrey saw the need among her students at Leech Lake Tribal College and young women in the Bemidji area. I had been doing research with Dakota women and teaching Native history for almost 15 years and wanted to work on a research project with Audrey.”
“As a leader herself, Audrey wanted us to be able to convey to younger Native women the importance of taking action on behalf of their communities and wants them to see themselves as potential leaders. We wanted them to see the women who had done so much in this community as role models for their own work,” added Hyman.
Audrey and Colette conducted archival research on organizations like the Division of Indian Work in Minneapolis and the St Paul American Indian Center at the Minnesota Historical Society, but the bulk of their research has been interviewing the women themselves.
“In drafting the chapters of this book, we highlight the voices of these women,” said Hyman. “We really want their stories and their experiences to drive the overall story that we tell.”
The work is quickly evolving and there has yet to be a title for the book. The co-authors expect to have a draft completed by the spring of 2024, and to have the book published in 2025.
There are others that also mentor Thayer. “The other folks that guide me are the community and the spiritual world around me,” said Thayer. “I utilize spiritual leaders from the three reservations to assist me in all I do politically.”
“As an educator I exhaust myself seeking resources to share, empower students that there is hope, to understand that the history of intergenerational trauma almost destroyed our people,” said Thayer. “We are rebuilding, learning, and being who we were meant to be as we live on Turtle Island.”
“As a servant leader, a person elected to lead a city of people is to be true to myself and the people. Our teachings suggested that we live well and lead all peoples. I am doing as instructed with honesty,” added Thayer. Honesty … is another one of the Seven Grandfather’s Teachings.
Thayer continued to talk about working with issues in a broader scale. She said, “This is not easy. The amount of lateral, institutional, governmental, and internalized oppression is accurate. The marginalization, the creation of powerlessness for specific populations within the dominant western world views is real. There are allies that understand privilege and want to make our world better.”
“I humbly appreciate those standing alongside the Indigenous Americans in support of the change that must happen for all people to move forward,” added Thayer.
“I am a servant leader,” said Thayer. “A truthfinder. An Anishinaabe Ikwe leading. It is our responsibility to participate, engage to be part of caretaking for every living being on our Mother Earth. It truly brings gratitude to your life. It is done by action, education and love.”