Episode 1: Conversation with Indigenous leaders Senator Mary Kunesh and Representative Heather Keeler

We’re joined by Indigenous leaders Senator Mary Kunesh and Representative Heather Keeler for a conversation about Indigenous People’s Day, their work to protect clean water, and their experience as Native women in the Minnesota Legislature.

Senator Kunesh has been in the legislature since 2016 and was a founding member of the Native American and People of Color & Indigenous (POCI) caucuses. Representative Keeler joined the legislature in 2021 and has a background in activism and fighting for the Native American community in the Fargo- Moorhead area.

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Transcript

We’re joined by Indigenous leaders Senator Mary Kunesh and Representative Heather Keeler for a conversation about Indigenous People’s Day, their work to protect clean water, and their experience as Native women in the Minnesota Legislature.

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TRANSCRIPT

Rep. Keeler
You know, when Íŋyaŋ Makȟá is my relative. This is not just like dirt and water and land Íŋyaŋ Makȟá Grandmother Earth is my relative. And so often when we get into these spaces and we really fight for, you know, our water and our clean air and people say, well, y’all are just so emotional, like we need to take the emotions out of it. Like, that’s not the way that we look at it. You know, we really fight for the clean water in a way that is fighting for our relatives.

Chris Knopf
Hello, welcome to the Friends of the Boundary Waters Podcast. I’m Chris Knopf, the friends Executive Director. We have been the leading voice for the Boundary Waters for more than 40 years. And through this podcast, we bring together people who share a love of this incredible wilderness. Today on our podcast, I’m joined by Native American leaders, Minnesota Senator Mary Kunesh, and Minnesota Representative Heather Keeler. They will share the reflections on indigenous peoples day, their work to protect the Boundary Waters and clean water and their experience as native women in the Minnesota Legislature. Again, thank you for joining us. So just two days ago, Monday, October 11, was indigenous peoples day and President Biden issued a proclamation recognizing October 11, as indigenous peoples day so so we have a real opportunity here to reflect on the importance of clean water with Senator Mary Kunesh of New Brighton and State Representative Heather Keeler of Morehead. Senator Akunis. This is from Standing Rock Sioux ancestry. And Heather Keeler is a roll member of the Yankton Yankton Sioux Tribe. And so this this importance of the indigenous perspective on our work is is for the for the Boundary Waters, especially important since we are in the ceded territories under under the 1854 Treaty. We recognize that there’s a history that that long predates European settlement out of Minnesota that we need to recognize respect and incorporate into our work here. So that I’m going to kick off this conversation here with with a question for both Senator coalition and Representative Keeler. And I’ll have Senator Kunesh go first, why don’t you speak a little bit more about about your background and why you ran for the Minnesota Legislature and your your work that you’re doing on clean water issues for for for all of us. So thank you, please go ahead.

Sen. Kunesh
Mitakiyape, I am excuse me State Senator Mary Kunesh. I represent district 41, which includes the communities of St. Anthony village and New Brighton Columbia Heights and hilltop, Fridley and a little bit of spring like Park. I just completed my first year in the Senate, having served four years in the Minnesota House in representing District 41. B. I also retired just almost a year ago, from full time teaching. I had been a library media specialist for close to 25 years. And so, you know, it’s it was kind of bittersweet this fall not to be returning back to school and getting my library in order and connecting with the staff and the kids. But it certainly has allowed more opportunity for me to participate in activities like this. I was born in St. Paul raised in Sartell where, right, right where the Mississippi and the watershed Creek meet. And so, you know, growing up in rural Minnesota like that, it was actually just a little village when I was growing up, nothing like it is now we had the run of the land, you know, the farmland, the creek in the river and the woods that we played in. And those sort of opportunities certainly are what, you know, kind of as the core of my, my work when I’m trying to preserve the, you know, our environment, not just where I represent, but across this beautiful state of Minnesota. And so that’s that those are the kinds of things that I have been working on. I have worked and supported a lot of work for different environmental issues, but also for our Native American communities in 2019. I was able to pass the the very unique and comprehensive missing and murdered indigenous women’s Task Force. And we completed that within two Years 18 months actually and shared that report this past December with the state legislature. And then a partnering up with Representative Keeler. We proposed continuing legislation to create a permanent missing and murdered indigenous relatives office in our state government. And lo and behold, we were successful. And we are the first in the nation, we were the first in the nation to create the comprehensive task force that we did. We were first in the nation to create a permanent, full funded, missing and murdered indigenous relatives office. And then understanding the complexity and the intersectionality of other communities of color. We also, along with Representative Ruth Richardson in the house, passed the first in the nation missing and murdered African American Task Force. And I don’t think I have to tell this audience, how environmental issues have had negative effects on our communities of color. And so with those sort of things in in my world and the connections that I have made, I am absolutely proud to be able to support that the legislation like prove it first, and also to be a friend of the Boundary Waters and all of you. Thank you.

Chris Knopf
Great, thank you so much. Senator Kunesh. And Representative Keeler, if you provide some was more about your background as well.

Rep. Keeler
Sure, thanks for having me here today. My name is Heather Keeler. I’m an enrolled member of the hunt do one nation, which is the Yankton Sioux Tribe down in South Dakota with lineage to Eastern Shoshone, as a lot of you may know, we can have two bloodlines. But we’re only eligible for enrollment in one. So I feel like I always have to mention the Eastern Shoshone side of me, because that’s my mom’s side. And that makes up the entire person who I am. So that’s me, I serve and represent District Four A, which actually sits on the Treaty of traverse of 1851. Which the really cool part about that to me, and why I thought it was important for me to step up and serve in this capacity is because I’m growing up as an indigenous woman. And as indigenous girl living off the reservation, I didn’t see people who looked like me, I tell the story a lot like I didn’t see teachers who look like me, meant anywhere I went to the doctor, to the bank, to the grocery store, like I just didn’t see people who looked like me. And subliminally that tells us that we don’t belong in those spaces. And so we felt that we saw that we knew that it’s really interesting, because I didn’t vote until my mid 20s, because nobody really talked to me about getting involved. My messaging to me all through K 12 was because you’re Indian, you’re going to be dumb at math, you’re not going to go to college, just go work at a casino. You know all of these things. And so subliminally it just always told me, I wasn’t really going to belong. And then as I started working in Indian education, and sitting in living rooms, and really listening to families, I knew that the things that me and my family grew up struggling with, were something that a lot of people were dealing with. And we just wanted to be heard. And we want it to be seen and valued and appreciated. And we wanted to feel like we actually belonged in our communities. And so in 2019, I don’t take know very well for an answer. We asked to put indigenous peoples day on the calendar for our school district. And they said, No, we’re not going to do that. Like we’ll only do that if the city recognizes it. So I figured out how to get on the Human Rights Commission. And in my first meeting, and Senator Coons, she knows me well enough that like, it doesn’t take me very many meetings to get comfortable to say like, why aren’t we doing this? So my first meeting, I said, I think we need to present this to city council and we ended up passing indigenous peoples day. And in that, I brought about 100 people with me to City Hall. And it wasn’t because I wanted it to make us against them. Like often when indigenous people show up to represent something that we care about. It’s met with a lot of force because it’s this us against them mentality. But I brought a lot of our community to that event because I wanted people to see what change looked and felt like when we did it collectively as a community. And that was kind of my first, like, even step into any type of community leadership. I’ve always been just a grassroots effort type of a girl. So when I was in grad school, I did talking circles in my community. about the barriers and education and learned that representation matters. And people need to see people who look like us. And that was the same thing that I felt. And so when the one Ben lien announced his retirement, I just decided my community deserves options. They didn’t have to vote for me, but they at least, felt like my community deserved a choice and an option of one a female but also a minority. And so I went and through the endorsement process, the primary and the general, and I just got done serving my first session in the Minnesota House.

Chris Knopf
Great, thanks for thanks for outlining your journey there. Representative Keeler. So President Biden issued a proclamation recognizing indigenous people stay and and so Senator Kunesh, but it was me when the President, you know, issued that proclamation, you know, from the nation’s highest office in the land, that why don’t you have what did that mean to you?

Sen. Kunesh
Well, it certainly means that nationally, we are starting to recognize the historic trauma and genocide that our American Indian people have suffered these hundreds and hundreds of years. And it’s raising, it helps to raise the conscious awareness of today’s struggles for our tribal members, our our community members, and those across the nation. But it really what it also does is that with that acknowledgement, it shows that we, the President and the federal government is now starting to acknowledge their role in in what has been terrible disparities for our American Indian communities. And it’s going to allow for groundwork for the groundwork, so that we can continue to do the work that maybe we’d begun here in Minnesota for our native folks, and organize those efforts between our, our state and federal level, and center, those resources that have been withheld for so long, to the needs of our native community. And I think having native women or Native people, because there’s plenty of men that are serving in the Biden administration, as well as other levels, but having somebody like the Secretary of the Interior there, to advocate and give that perspective, share the lens of the indigenous people across the nation, to some of the head decision makers in our country, the you know, those that make policy that change policy. And so in a way, I feel like his announcement, certainly, you know, made us all very proud and recognizes that, that we have a voice in the decision making, because we’re, we’re starting to rise up more and more, we’re winning more and more battles when it comes to policy and finances. And, you know, hopefully, we will see the brutalization of our indigenous people through lack of policy and then an investment, but also violence against our native communities, the poor infrastructure on reservations and that sort of thing. So I think it just really makes me proud and happy that he did that. It’s unfortunate that it’s taken until what 2021 for a president to acknowledge that but it’s, it’s it’s a start. And it’s a it’s a win for us. And I hope to see more and more come out of the vitam Biden administration, when it comes to positive change and reformation for indigenous communities.

Chris Knopf
If you the senator coalition, Representative Keeler, so you battled at the local level, trying to get the indigenous peoples day recognized and now, President Biden has issued his proclamation what did it mean for the President to to, to recognize Indigenous Peoples Day for you?

Rep. Keeler
I think first it’s important to understand kind of what a proclamation is, it’s like a statement of support, you know, or it’s a statement of celebration. It’s this. Think we got it. We found out about it days before indigenous peoples day. We’ve done them, you know, here in Minnesota with our governor, as well, and I do think that it’s a good first step. I agree with everything that Senator Kunesh said. We have a long ways to go through Interesting, right that like we can make a statement that a proclamation that we care about indigenous people say, yet there’s a lot of concerns that we’ve been trying to get attention on, because it’s impacting our communities, and they fall on deaf ears. So, you know, we can’t be that contradicting. And we can’t say that indigenous peoples day is about understanding and really engaging and implementing a change in your community, in your region in your nation. And I just think that lip service is one thing, and you’re right, we’re moving in the right direction, because we’re acknowledging it, and we’re calling it out. But this comes with a lot of actions. And so what I hope it does, you know, as it starts, it’s the line in the sand that we’re going to start to move forward. And, and one of the things here at the local level, because that’s what we do in our seats. I think it’s easy for us as state legislators to think like on a national level, how can we get involved, we really tried to do that with line three. But at the end of the day, you know, our voters put us in the seats in the state. And so we’re actually in the process of developing a bill here in Minnesota, that will make indigenous peoples day a traditionally recognized holiday in the state, I’ll carry it in the house. And Senator Cornish, obviously, as agreed to carry it in the Senate, and we’ll do this work together. Because I think it’s important, especially in Minnesota, that we really lead the way and have our own statutes. And, you know, by law this day, for moving forward, because proclamations if a new governor president come in, then it’s like, they don’t do it that year, and it’s not a big deal. It’s an option. And we want to make this something more permanent.

Chris Knopf
It’s an excellent point that you would be needing to move from words to action, and that, you know, there’s a real limit to towards it, and what Senator Kunesh said about the, the importance of putting resources behind it, you know, boat, you know, real personnel real, real money behind it, because otherwise, they’re empty promises and, and things don’t change. You know, we just have empty words out there. Turning turning into clean water here. And Senator Kunesh, she talked a little bit about why clean waters important to you. And when you were growing up your your love of the outdoors there, would you you talk a little bit more about about the importance of clean water to and how it’s kind of informed your work in the middle of Minnesota Legislature?

Sen. Kunesh
Oh, absolutely. So as I mentioned, I grew up in Sartell, just eight miles north of St. Cloud, where the Mississippi River and the walk tab Creek me met. And when I was a little girl, I mean, we spent our summer playing in the creek, playing in the river, catching crayfish, you know, all sorts of adventures. That’s where we learn to swim. And there came the day that my dad said that we could not play in the water anymore. We were surrounded by by farms. And the runoff from not only the manure and the fields and the chemicals that were being used back in the 60s and early 70s was affecting the creek. And there were high contents of pollutants in in the creek. And then of course, there was the Mississippi River. And right in our towel, there was a paper mill, St. Regis paper mill and a big dam. And there were days that that paper mill would just release the most noxious water it right into the Mississippi directly into the Mississippi. And if the dam was open, there would be this foam from the churning water that would just you know, foam up, like, like 234 storeys high in it when it was yellow. And, I mean, it was so obvious that the pollutant was there. There is also a foundry that deserves foundry insert towel that was spewing, you know quite, you know, polluted smoke and air into the air. And so while we lived in this very rural area all around us were these pollutants. And when my dad said that we couldn’t, you know, be in the water anymore. It was a really harsh reality. And, you know, thankfully the US Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1972 ensuring that we were going to protect and maintain the chemical, the physical the biological integrity of our nation’s water. So this wasn’t just a Minnesota thing. And it has made a big difference on our nation’s water and our water here in Minnesota. But let’s you know really be clear that clean water is absolutely vital to our health. It’s kind of vital to our communities and to our economy. Part of my district has the Mississippi river running through it. And anything that happens upstream is going to affect my communities down here, all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. So the health of the rivers and the lakes, the, the streams are fragile wetlands, those are all vital to the future. And so it’s so important that we continue to do what we can to protect that water for clean water for drinking. And, you know, Minnesota is, you know, what their economy is based on tourism, especially up north. So our cherished way, way of life, going into the cabin, getting out into nature to hike, and bike and canoe through the Boundary Waters, all of those depend on clean water on a healthy, healthy ecosystem, to provide that for not just us, but for wildlife habitat. We’ve seen across the state, different creeks or rivers that have been so polluted that the fish you know, die away, or frogs are found with more than four legs and double heads and those sort of thing. So absolutely our future our economy depends on the clean water. And if we don’t stand up and fight for that alongside with all of you, we are we will be doomed. And we won’t have a clean a world to leave for the next seven generations of of our of our of the future children and families.

Chris Knopf
Think Thank you Senator Kunesh issue raised such a good point there that water really is the critical resource. People talk about critical minerals and things like that. But but certainly this past year, where we’ve seen droughts across the country, and the importance of clean water that here critic, clean water is the critical resource. And if we lose that, then we then we’re really, really sunk here. Representative Kaler, would you talk about the importance of clean water to Yes, waters? Waters life? Thank you. Thank you, Kirsten, for for that. Yeah. So Heather, would you talk about the importance of clean water in the in the work that you do?

Rep. Keeler
Sure, I think clean water is connected to a lot of other things. For me, as an indigenous person, I understand the responsibility. And our impact on seven generations. And just for people to understand, like seven generations and average generation is 25 years, for seven generations. I mean, we’re looking at 175 to 200 years worth of impact. And so what we do today, or what we don’t do today impacts almost 200 years worth of our relatives, we are here, you know, understanding and really fighting for treaties, and treaty understanding and treaty responsibility, because to us, the foundation of of treaties are for being good neighbors to each other, not only good neighbors to each other, like geographically like, Hey, you’re my physical neighbor. But being a good neighbor, and a good relative to our kids, their kids, their kids, its kids, your kids, your kids, his kids, like all the kids seven generation, but also, you know, Íŋyaŋ Makȟá is my relative, this is not just like dirt, and water and land, Íŋyaŋ Makȟá Grandmother Earth is my relative. And so often when we get into these spaces, and we really fight for, um, you know, our water and our clean air, and people say, well, y’all are just so emotional, like, we need to take the emotions out of it. Like, that’s not the way that we look at it. Um, you know, we really fight for the clean water in a way that is fighting for our relatives. And so to me, that’s why it’s important. I grew up understanding water was one of those elements that the government really fought us for, you know, I grew up along the Missouri River. And in the state of South Dakota, a lot of the dams in the 50s were built on reservations. And reservations were the spaces that they sent all of us because they were identified as unusable land. If you look at most reservations, that’s kind of what we ended up getting. And so I remember my grandma telling me about their fight, you know, to stop the Army Corps of Engineers from flooding out these areas to build dams because they were flooding out some of our most sacred burial grounds. And their response was like, well, we’ll just move that we’ll just Move the burial grounds. And I feel like my mom was an active part of aim. And they fought for a lot of social justice and environmental justice rights. And then now it’s just my turn to step into that space to be a voice, you know, in the path of all the generations to protect our water and protect our relatives.

Friends of the Boundary Waters
We’re going to take a short break here to ask Do you need help planning for your next Boundary Waters trip, visit our website at Friends-BWCA.org will find amazing trip resources, route maps, articles and free guides to prepare for your next BW ca adventure.

Chris Knopf
Thank you so much Representative Keeler to talk about that connectivity and that responsibility that extends beyond the moment to seven generations. One of the things that as an organization we’ve been proud to work on with with both of you is the Prove it First bill and the proven first bill is is part of that promise to the to the seven generations and that, that that law that passes would simply required applicants for one of these sulphide mines to prove that it has been done safely elsewhere in the country for for at least 10 years. And that that that type of mind has been closed for 10 years without causing pollution. And if that if that can, if that demonstration can’t be made, then then that type of mine isn’t can’t be can’t be built here in Minnesota that we shouldn’t be a guinea pig here. It’s a very, very simple up legislation and, and, you know, Representative Keeler, would you talk about your support for proof at first and why it’s important to you?

Rep. Keeler
Well, kind of what we’ve been saying. And what the theme is, is that it’s it’s our responsibility to be a voice and protect our water and protect our relatives. And I live on the total opposite side of the state. But I do know that this whole entire community in this whole state and region appreciates and loves our water. And the thing that I like most after talking to Senator McEwen about the provement first bill was the fact that, you know, there you you’re all fighting for this one area of the state. But if we start to allow these types of processes to happen, whether it’s pipelines, whether it’s mining, you know, whatever it is, if you don’t have the safe standards and nets set up now, if things are just going to get out of control, and it can be in my community, in your community, it could be in any of our communities. And so that’s the one thing that we’re really trying to do is to set up those policy areas that are really setting us up to do the work that some people say we really care about, we can say that we care about clean air, and we can say that we care about it. We talked about being a carbon neutral state quite a bit. But yet there’s no policies that even make permits go through an assessment process to see what a carbon impact would be. And so that’s the things that I really appreciate about the language is that we’re actually doing research to see how can this be done in a safe way? And then also, how can it shut down and stay shut down, because we know that elements live in soil, even after buildings are long gone. And so just making sure that we’re setting up those safeguards in our state, is what I believe my constituents and people across the state are hoping and needing us to do.

Chris Knopf
Thank you, Representative Keeler, it is true that we’re all connected here and that, and we’re so grateful that as a representative of Morehead, you’re also representative of the entire state and take that, that shared responsibility. So so so seriously here. Senator Kunesh should talk about your support for moving first as well.

Sen. Kunesh
I’m happy to do that. And I’m happy to support this this bill. I you know, we, we towed it as such a common sense bill and it makes perfect sense that anything that that would not only harm the Boundary Waters because it’s right there on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, but anything that has the potential again to to affect our water and our lands, you know, moving salt from there, absolutely. We should be requiring proof of safety and remit mitigation afterwards. For sure. Again, we are dealing just like with the Enbridge pipeline, we are dealing with foreign entities, multinational corporations that are coming over here in Minnesota and want to do their business here in Minnesota far from any of the responsibility or direct consequences of any kind of mishap. And they’re asking us, they’re telling us, you know, don’t worry, we got this, just trust us, we, we, we done this in other places, and it hasn’t had, you know, a negative effect, I think they said they have a zero discharge mine that doesn’t pollute the water system, and, but they aren’t able to prove it. And they have to prove it to us in Minnesota. And they don’t have to prove it to us in Minnesota for one year, two years, but they have to prove, you know, in longevity, that there is not a compromise to the lack of pollution within the process that they’re doing it. And so, um, you know, I just, I’m generally an optimistic person, I generally trust people with their words. But in the last five years, one thing I’ve learned is that we can’t do that, especially when it’s something as important as our environment. And you know, the very, very, very precious Boundary Waters Canoe Area, and those communities around it. And so if they’re not going to offer any proof, if Twin Metals is not going to step up, and offer any proof, and say, we got it, we’re going to do the best that we can. I don’t think that’s enough, that absolutely is not enough. And so if this is going to be the future, if we are going to allow entities like this, to come into Minnesota, and operate something as as precarious as copper, copper sulfide mining, we have to make sure that there is no question in how it is done, and how it is going to allow for the safety and the health of our future environment here in Minnesota. And I think it’s a perfectly reasonable, not only request, but demand. And I think we ought to, you know, certainly codify these kinds of things, these kinds of protections within our state statutes, so that those that would like to come to Minnesota and do this kind of work, realize that we mean business. And we’re not just Minnesota Nice, we’re going to, we’re going to take you at your word, because we have seen that is not the case time and time again. And if you especially look at, you know, what has been done to the reservations, and our Indian folks, the state government, the federal government, all these years have said not to worry, we will take care of you, we will provide all the things that you need for a good positive life. And then, you know, the rug just pulled out from underneath them. So I absolutely believe that this Prove It First legislation needs to be passed, and we need to apply it in so many different ways.

Chris Knopf
Thank you, the senator Kunesh you raised a number of really important points there that they sort of promises that nothing, nothing bad will happen here. It’s really Yeah, that the track record of Glencore that owns Polymet and and Antofagasta that owns Twin Metals is just terrible, that that these are bad corporate actors that have left a path to destruction and, and child labor overseas of of destroying communities in their in their home countries and Chile, it’s just a these are truly bad actors and to try to rely on their their empty promises is just a dangerous, a dangerous thing to allow these bad actors to come into to Minnesota here. Reference is added a killer Why did they ask you you know, what can non native people do to to support data perspectives? What is a question that was asked by one of our audience participants here and what what message do you have for for non native people and in working with with Native people here?

Rep. Keeler
I think that’s a loaded question. I mean, I think there’s a lot of ways and it depends on how you want to work on things. To me, um, the bottom line is always genuine effort and ally ship. You know, Ally ship is just one thing you know, to say like I’m an ally stand with you basically to me says you’re not going to like stand in my way you’re not going to prevent me from not having the rights that I feel like we deserve. We have but I’m really being mindful and genuine in your action to um, you know, show up in the spaces that are really difficult, you know, engaged to learn more, you know, we know that our K 12 setting has failed us dramatically when it comes to understanding the indigenous culture, and the land in which all of you are standing on. So, you know, we can blame a system all we want, but we know that but there’s a lot of opportunities to learn, and grow and be in community. The one thing is, is that I know, from talking to non natives, they feel like powwows, or events are like not open to non natives. And what I can tell you is that we welcome relationships were a relational community. And so, you know, to me, it’s about building relationships, and really finding a niche where there’s a need, because we make up 1% of this entire nation. We talked about this, when we were talking about murdered and missing Indigenous women years ago, is that even if 100% of the Native American population stands up and screams as loud as we possibly can, we’re still really easily swept under the rug, because we’re only 1%. And so amplifying the voices. You know, being being in space and not taking over space, you know, amplifying the leaders and the grassroot organizers, maybe they don’t have all the fancy degrees that some of y’all have. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t understand the issues, elevate them, elevate the youth, really engage and talk to the youth that you’re involved in, in your community and help them understand that they have a path to leadership to that their voice matters, I think those are some of the things that that we can get involved in, but then also have grace with us as a community. We’re not we’re not at the same space, as a lot of people are, if we look at the pattern of what you know, our universities were being built at the exact same time that our kids were being taken to boarding schools. So this whole system is not designed the same for us. And so have a little bit of grace with us as we learn and we find our voices in these spaces. Because we’re walking into worlds, we’re having to speak up and do things that aren’t typical in our culture. And we’re having to do it because it’s the last thing that we can do, to try to protect the people that we really, really care about. So I think that would be the best advice that I can give non Indigenous people at least to get involved in some of these efforts that we’re working on.

Chris Knopf
Great, thank you so much for for those comments from Representative Keeler follow up question that there’s maybe a longer answer than we have time for but but you’ve been very involved in education and you know, the education system out what are the you know, the fun of the ways we should education system can best serve Native students?

Rep. Keeler
That is, I could go on and on and on about that like, right. Um, you know, one of the things that we were able to do, and that we’ve been able to do is in our Higher Ed Committee, and in our higher ed budget is we put money aside for teachers of color and indigenous teachers scholarships, because we know it’s important for teachers to represent the kids that are in their classroom. I also think it’s really important that we need to start investing in STEM programs, because I will tell you, and I’m sure Senator Kunesh, she’s nodding her head that was every single meeting that we are in. And we’re talking to the decision makers at the agency levels at the state and federal levels that are making decisions about Íŋyaŋ Makȟá, our relatives, they don’t look like us. And so we have to start investing in those pathways, again, so that people are sitting at tables that understand all perspectives of life, if it’s going to impact all communities, why not all communities at the tables. And so I really hope now that that’s been kind of brought to my attention and really brought to light in this capacity. That’s what I really hope that we can do is start to invest in that pathway through stem with bipoc youth leaders and women in general, you know, when we talk about STEM and women, but how do we get a more diverse, professional population that’s making decisions when it’s coming to our permit? Because we’re see it’s failing us miserably actually right now.

Chris Knopf
Thank you so much for that Representative Keeler. We’re through our no boundaries to the Boundary Waters program that we’re really starting to hit its stride with this in the upcoming year, we’re going to partner with St. Scholastica. To to collect that native elders stories and incorporate them into our education program to make it more inclusive. We recognize the the limits of what we’re doing, and we want to be more inclusive and, and responsive and more effective and what we’re doing here so there’s a lot in the education realm But we as an organization hope to contribute in our small way as well. And Senator Kunesh from your perspective there, you know, what can non Native people do to be more responsive to native concerns and

Sen. Kunesh
Well, definitely educate yourself and don’t always rely on those that that appear to be the experts or are sounding like they are the experts, if there are issues that, that pique your interest, you maybe read a letter to the editor that’s like, I don’t know much about this issue, you know, do the best that you can to educate yourself on issues that that seem to make a big difference not only to yourselves, but you know, to, to the good of all of the people look for the experts, and then really make an effort to, to do something, you can educate yourself, you can talk about it amongst like minded friends and neighbors and community members. But talking about it is not enough, you need to take some kind of action. And we can’t always tell you exactly what action it might be. It could be writing a letter to the editor, it could be writing a letter an email or making a phone call to your legislator, but if we’re not there, we have an assistant that’s um, you know, sifting through our information, we might miss those messages. So find ways to in person talk to to those that are making a difference. And not just at the state level. But you know, look at what, what you can do locally in your municipality. I served on our park Rec and environmental board before I was elected. And we were able to ensure that that we had green spaces and parks for families and kids to plan that our creeks and our lakes within our community as well as the river were well cared for that our trees who are healthy, we, that’s a way to make a difference within your community. At the county level, at the state level, there are ways to be heard supporting organizations like Friends of the Boundary Waters, and voicing your displeasure with even to the governor, I mean, making those phone calls to the governor’s office you might not get through, but they do keep track of all of those those people that do call because they want to hear they really do want to hear what what our what our community members what our constituents are, are thinking on certain issues. There are different organizations that you can support financially to do the work such as friends of the Boundary Waters, Minnesota 350 I love the education program that that you are doing. As a teacher of inner city kids, I was always just sort of blown away by and I want to say these poor kids mostly because they’re not exposed to the environment that often most chilled. You know, kids with privilege have kids that get to go away to two camps every year, who get to have an enhancement coursework class was and and programming over the summer. And I remember taking sixth graders to a petting farm as a as a field trip. And these kids driving through the country never having seen a real cow getting to the little farm and and seeing sheep and ducks and pigs. I mean, it was life changing for them in so many ways and things that we take for granted. And just like representative Keeler said, ensuring that that the programming that we have in our schools includes STEM education, and especially in those those inner city schools or the schools that have fewer resources, find out what you can do to to support those schools, whether it’s helping with reading skills, math skills, maybe you are an engineer, or you know, have some kind of special skill. There’s so many ways that that we can make change in a positive way. Not always prescribed by somebody else. But by looking around and looking for that knee within your community and finding that that place to plug your skills into

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Chris Knopf
Representative Keeler you so that you’ve been through your first session here at the Minnesota Legislature? What are what are some of the, you know, what are the things that inspire you? And what are some of the things that you find perhaps most most challenging?

Rep. Keeler
I think the thing that actually inspires me the most is how engaged our youth are, like, our youth that aren’t even voters yet are so invested and engaged in this process. And that fills me with a lot of hope that we’re moving in a really powerful direction, like, I just cannot wait for next generation to step up to the plate. And so that piece is really humbling. As a little girl, like I mentioned, not seeing people who looked like me being able to have the next generation say, it’s like, so cool to see all four of you, you know, doing what you do, and having conversations that my grandma said, you know, she never saw had, um, but this is a really hard job. And I think that often in places, we kind of sugarcoat that, but especially in a in a space that I don’t know, if many of you have seen the inside of the house chambers, but we sit and serve under a jumbo portrait of President Lincoln. Um, and that the conversations that we have, you know, we’re always just defending and fighting to be seen and understood. And so that work comes with a lot of like trauma triggers and historical trauma conversations. Um, but we do it. And we do it as a sisterhood. You know, we have a Native American Caucus, you know, we don’t meet regularly, but when things get difficult, it’s really nice to be able to just reach out to Senator QUnit, Representative Jamie Becker, Finn, and sometimes even Lieutenant Governor Flanagan joins in with us because this work is hard, you know, this system wasn’t designed for us to be here. And quite frankly, it was designed to dispose us. So you know, really fighting a system that doesn’t want us here every single day, we saw that one line three water protectors went to the Capitol because they’d been fighting to be heard and have a conversation. And all of a sudden, the gates went back up around the Capitol, I’m like, That, to me was the clear visual of what our government feels like sometimes. And so the support and the continued efforts of all of you to do this work is also really grounding and humbling because we know that we’re not in it alone. And that makes the hard days much better. can tell you that?

Chris Knopf
Thank you Representative Keeler. I think the upcoming generations inspiring to all of us that energy and optimism that that engagement that’s that’s out there, you know, representative to and kind of following up on it being at the Capitol and seeing those sort of symbols of trauma that are that are out there. You know, people often say that non native people might say that, Oh, these treaties, give native people special rights can can you kind of correct that perspective and talk about the retained rights within within treaties and and why the, that perspective is so wrong.

Rep. Keeler
That, again, is another jumbo topic. I mean, treaties were designed, we gave up a millions of acres of land, in exchange for Bureau of Indian Affairs and services like Indian Health Care Services Bureau of Indian Education. No, those systems dramatically are underfunded. They’re always systems and agencies that are on the chopping block when people want to shave down the budget. Um, you know, like, we don’t really have a whole lot of Kirk’s uh, you know, that in that sense, like, people think we all go to school for free people think we just get per cap all the time. Like, that’s not i I know, I don’t I know some tribes have done economic development really well and they do have some investment and payout plans that are really beneficial for their members, but that’s not really typical to be an enrolled member, you know, I again, I this other side of what I do for life could talk about this for a really long time but you know, to be even eligible for enrollment to receive these quote unquote benefits is through blood quantum and the only other living things that utilize blood quantum are horses and dogs for breeding purposes. To me, it’s a numerical genocide. It’s not a way to document us, you know, to be able to utilize services at the end of the day. We’re a government to government relationship. And those were the agreements. And so it’s not like we’re just getting things for free, you’re standing on the land that we gave up to hopefully receive something back, and exchange and we didn’t give them up lately. It’s not I mean, if you see pictures, our tribal leaders are in tears, you could see the stress on their face as they’re doing this because it, they were forced to do things to save our families, even if it meant we live in small, smaller land plots. So it’s a huge misconception to believe that we have a lot of like perks or benefits, other than the fact that we’re part of a beautiful, resilient culture that continues to be alive and well and strong and growing. Our census shows that we actually grew, which says, We were here, we’re not going anywhere.

Chris Knopf
Great, thank you so much, Representative Keeler there. And Senator Kunesh. You know, we’re getting near the end of our program here. Are there some final thoughts that you want to leave our Weaver audience with here?

Sen. Kunesh
Well, I do appreciate this invitation to join you over your lunch hour, and to discuss these issues. Again, as as an educator of 25 years, I find that a lot of the work that I do at the state legislature, and and outside of the legislature is educating folks on issues, especially issues that affect our American Indian communities. And when we talk about preserving our environment, acknowledging the sovereignty and the treaties that we have here in Minnesota, the fact that that you all are listening to these today, what do I see there’s 110 people on this, this this zoom? That’s, um, what is it 98 People that are maybe learn something new, or we confirmed, something that you thought about, the issues just aren’t just around treaty rights, or water rights, like line three are the minds, but also the human rights of our native communities. Representative Keeler and I passed that legislation to create the first in the nation missing and murdered indigenous relatives office, because our native women, girls, boys and two spirits have the highest rates of violence of any other group right there with our, our black women and children. And this is these are issues that we are all responsible for, no matter where we originated from, where we moved from, what whatever our socio economic status is how much education we have. We have a responsibility, a moral responsibility for the well being of every single person in our state, that’s what we legislators were elected to do look out for all of Minnesotans. But that doesn’t mean we’re the only ones to do it. And so we I appreciate so much that you joining us here today. But I would encourage you, again, to continue to educate yourself around issues not just for our native communities, but all of those that have you know, terrible disparities in health services, education, strong, you know, good paying jobs, stable, affordable housing, those are all things that make a good community that make a good state. And and I hope that those of you on this zoom will will join us in this plight to ensure that all Minnesotans have the opportunity to thrive and have a healthy, happy and prosperous life as we go forward. So wokowatonka and Chi-miigwech for being here today.

Chris Knopf
Thank you so much, Senator Kunesh. And Representative Keeler some final words for audience tonight, for today?

Rep. Keeler
Same as what Senator Kunesh said, um, I didn’t realize there was 102 people on here until you said that I was really thank all of you. You know, I mean, I see a lot of things telling us, thank you. But really, we can do our work without you all. You share information with us. It’s so important for us to make knowledgeable and informed decisions. And that matters. You know, we get pulled in a lot of directions and being a grassroots organizer for so long before being a politician. We need to do better at building that bridge and really working together. Because I am not on the ground grass roots level like I was and you amazing how much you get out of touch with some of those things and so Some of the most trusted conversations that I have are with my leaders, you know, who are out in these areas and really working on these issues. So your work is so important and your work is so vital. And we just appreciate all of the support that you provide, you know, there’s things that you can do on the ground, you can make phone calls, you can write letters, you can send postcards from your home, like, and we’ve seen, you do that from all capacities in the last, you know, feels like two years now with COVID. Um, and I think COVID has provided a lane for these bigger systems to really just rip through Mother Earth, because we’re not able to show up in the capacity in person that we used to, because we care and love each other. And we want each other to be safe and healthy. There. COVID. And so I know it’s been really a hard couple years, and we see you and we know that this is really hard work. We do this. And we’re all here because we’re really passionate about this work. And when we’re passionate. Pain comes with that. But growing pains hurt but we grow in the right direction, as long as we’re all growing together. And so we I know that I speak for myself and Senator Coons that we do not want to do this work alone. I want to do this work with you and for you, and not just alone. So Philam, thank you for everything.

Chris Knopf
You representative Taylor, thank you, Senator coalition, your your words about the importance of working with community and working with people is so important, and we’re so grateful for your leadership on this. Thank you to everyone watching but but also especially thank you, Representative Taylor. Thank you, Senator Akunis. We’re very grateful. So Chi-miigwech, Philámayaye and thank you again, have a great afternoon.

Sen. Kunesh
Oh, bye. Bye now everybody take care.

Rep. Keeler
See you.

Chris Knopf
Thank you so much for joining us. This podcast is a production of Friends of the Boundary Waters. We are a community of people who love the Boundary Waters and we would love to connect with you. Please visit us at our website, friends dash BWCA dot ORG. Again, that is Friends-BWCA.org. Thank you for joining us. Please join us again for our next Friends of the Boundary Waters podcast.

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On the Friends of the Boundary Waters podcast, we bring together people who share a love of the incredible BWCA wilderness in Northeastern Minnesota. The podcast will features scientists, political figures and experts in outdoor recreation and wilderness skills to help you learn new facets of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, the most visited wilderness in the United States.

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