"I dedicate my life to helping educate others about Native people and what we're all about."
Photos by Megan Monday
Dylan Jennings | Odanah, WI
"My name is Dylan Jennings, or Bizhikiins—Young Buffalo, as we translate from Ojibwemowin, our language.
My parents were really young when they had me, just out of high school. They met down by Waaswaaganing, or the Lac du Flambeau Reservation, near Minocqua. They stuck together to raise me and to take care of me. That often meant taking on multiple jobs at one time and trying to raise a family.
I was born in Stevens Point, but we moved around a lot to find good jobs. My mom is a Bad River Tribal Member, and so no matter where we were living, it was also really, really important to go back to the Bad River Reservation throughout the year to maintain our relationships with our community and relatives up here. We were always coming back here, always.
Moving around meant I was raised around many different tribal communities, and I got to know a lot of relatives from other places, like the Lac Du Flambeau Reservation and the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation. Eventually, my family moved to Wausau, where I spent a good part of my young childhood.
When I was a kid I guess I was mischievous, a little bit. Naughty at times, a lot of energy. I absolutely loved being outside. I loved anything to do with hunting and fishing. When I was a kid, my grandmother worked for the Bad River Natural Resources Department, and I remember going into the office with her. One day I went in and heard her co-workers talking about some baby eagles. It was on their agenda for the next day to visit some of the nests.
I remember thinking, ‘You can do that for a job? You get to go outside, and work with the animals?’ It was just mind-blowing to me as a kid. From then on, I had my heart set on doing something in the natural resources field.
I've been around a lot of our different ceremonies since I was a little one. My grandma would bring me around the Midewin Lodge. We'd go to Big Drum or we'd go to sweats. She brought me to my first sweat lodge when I was really little. My grandma had a big impact on me. She helped to raise me in our traditional way of life, and exposed me to the things that would help me get past some of the biggest struggles in life.
One thing that comes from our traditional ways and has helped me a lot in life has been having my Anishinaabe wiinzowin, my name. It’s different than the English name that my parents gave me at birth; your Anishinaabe wiinzowin is the name the spirits give you. They say that we all have these names, but you have to seek them—you have to do the ceremony and find your name. I was very fortunate that my family did that for me, because throughout my whole life it’s helped me with my identity. From a very young age I knew I was Anishinaabe. I knew my name. I knew where I came from. That was very important, to know that I belonged somewhere.
In our naming ceremonies, we bring tobacco, or asemaa. Tobacco is used to petition the spirit or to ask something from somebody. We bring tobacco to the person in the community that does the namings—that receives the dreams. Everybody does a ceremony a little differently, but once that person accepts the tobacco, they receive the name and then they let everything in creation know what the name is so that everything in creation can then not only take pity on the person being named, but help them, wherever necessary. It's a very beautiful ceremony.
Even nowadays when we work with our young people in our community, or when we work with some of our community members that are struggling with sobriety, we bring that up as one of the first thresholds that people should really consider, is attaining that Anishinaabe wiinzowin. Your name will help you understand where you're from, it will help with your identity, it will help with your feeling of belonging, it will help you throughout your life in ways that you might not even understand yet.”
“For me, high school in Weston, Wisconsin was full of opportunities, but there were still some tough spots. I went to a predominantly non-Native high school and I had really long hair at that time. A lot of our men have long hair, it's part of our identity. But when you go other places, sometimes you're outcast or treated differently because of that.
I remember I loved baseball and I was trying to go out for the baseball team. One of the baseball coaches came up to me and said, ‘There's no way you're going to make the team if you decide you're going to keep that braid.’
At that age, I remember thinking, ‘That’s just not right.’ I remember deciding, ‘I choose my way of life. I choose who I am over a sport.’
I didn't end up playing baseball anymore after that. It was one of those little moments, though, that called me to dedicate my life to helping educate others about Native people and what we're all about. About our language, our identity, our way of life. It’s amazing how much of an impact one person can have on another soul, and if we know more about each other, we can be kinder to each other.
In high school, I excelled in academics. I took a lot of advanced placement classes, which helped when I got to college to help offset credits. I was very involved in extracurricular activities, and I did really well in history and creative writing classes. Based on that, I got an opportunity to work on a very important project.
One of my teachers asked if I would help work on a book of oral histories about Native Nations of Wisconsin. I had grown up in several different places, and so I had all these connections with folks in Lac du Flambeau, Lac Courte Oreilles, Bad River. I got to draw from those voices and those stories and relationships. I got to help produce it and also I was the editor of that book. I am still really proud to have been part of it, because often our stories aren't heard as much.
When I was getting ready to finish high school, I wasn't sure where I wanted to go to college—or even if I wanted to go to college. I knew I liked natural resources, but I didn't really know where I could go that would also help me foster my identity and our way of life. What school resources would be there to help support my Native culture? That was a big concern of mine. When it came time to apply, I only applied to two schools: Harvard and UW-Madison, and I ended up getting into both. I got concerned about Harvard being so far away—that it would be too costly to fly home, or have my family come visit me. I'm a very family-oriented person. I love our ceremonies and things that we do in our community.
So, I decided to go to UW-Madison. Then, the next challenge was paying for school. My parents worked really hard for everything that we had. They knew the value of hard work, and actually had put themselves both through college once my brother and I were a little older. They wanted me to understand the value of that hard work, too. They pretty much said, ‘We fully support you. If you have to take out loans, that will be okay. You'll figure it out.’
Then, literally just a few days after I decided to go to UW, I got a phone call and learned I'd gotten into the Chancellor's Scholarship Program. Based on academics and extracurriculars, they took care of all my tuition. That was a very happy phone call, a very happy time of life. I am really, really grateful.
I liked UW-Madison a lot, but there was a little difficulty for me getting used to the fast-paced city life. Another part of college that was hard for me was the substance use. I never drank alcohol or used any kind of drug.
I’ve never even smoked a cigarette in my life, simply because I've seen what substances can do to families, so I stayed away from that. But when you're going to one of the top-ranked party schools in the United States, there's all these peer pressures. People look at you differently if you don't go out and party. Many times I would just leave Madison on the weekends—I would take off to our ceremonies or a powwow. I'd be traveling every single weekend.
There was a point in time where that made me feel lonely, or bad because it’s almost like I didn't fit in. I'd even contemplated leaving and joining the military for a little bit. I remember talking to my mom and she just kept reminding me who I was. Telling me I needed to stick it out. She'd always remind me of what my great-grandfather used to tell his children: ‘You just need to be like that duck. You have all these oils on your feathers. Just let everything slide right off you, like you're swimming through water. Everything that you're dealing with, let it slide off. You can continue doing what you're doing.’
I really remember that advice, and I took that advice and I kept going. I stayed with school. I kept getting good grades and doing the things that I was supposed to be doing.”
“During my undergraduate studies at UW-Madison, I studied anthropology, archaeology, environmental studies, and American Indian studies.
I got into archaeology and anthropology because I noticed at a very young age that there was an absence of the Anishinaabe or the Indigenous perspective when reading anthropological reports and ethnographies. That old armchair anthropologist perspective never appealed to me. I always felt like there's so much more to this field of anthropology and archaeology, and I really feel like our side of the story needs to be seen, and our people need to be empowered to do that work.
A lot of people think that archaeology has to do with digging things up and taking them away from where they are found, but there are many other ways to preserve history. I got into archaeology because I wanted to help preserve our way of life.
That drove me to go to field school, and to get my archaeology license, because there’s a huge shortage of Native American archaeologists. And there's been a lot of distrust. At one point it was considered common practice to go loot graves, to go digging up effigy mounds, and I’ve always felt that people need to be more educated about that. We need more Native people taking the reins and affecting things on a higher level, like influencing policies on how to conduct archaeological research respectfully.
A lot of people would ask my dad, ‘What's your boy going to college for?’ He talked about archaeology as one of the degree fields and people would be like, ‘Is there a market for that? Can you even get a job with that?’ The answer is yes. If you're an archaeologist and you come to the table already with the perspective of your people, then you already know things that your average archaeologist doesn't know. You have spent time with this culture your whole life, and so when you're out there and you're trying to identify a site, you're trying to assist in culture preservation activities, you know what needs to be protected. You know what the signs are. That gives you a value set that's imperative for the field.
I graduated college a year early and I thought I’d take that time to travel. I thought it’d be good for me to ‘take a break’: get out, learn about other places. But, as it turned out, that was way too relaxed for me. I was like, ‘No, gotta go get to work now.’ So I got an internship in Bad River at the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, or GLIFWC. That internship turned into a position as an outreach assistant specialist, and then pretty soon I became the Director of Public Information.
GLIFWC is an inter-tribal agency that works with 11 Ojibwe bands throughout Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin, and helps to preserve and protect treaty-supported rights and resources. I’d always been aware of the work that GLIFWC does. In high school I even wrote a paper about the spearfishing controversy that erupted after the Voigt Decision in the '80s. I entered it into ‘National History,’ a writing competition, and my essay made it to state level competition, then regionals, and then I was runner-up at nationals.
During the research process for my paper, I called up to the very office I work in today, and I talked to the Public Information Director at that time, Sue Erickson. I asked her questions and she sent me some publications and I was like, ‘Wow!’ I thought, ‘That's a really cool job that they do. They're able to help young people like me write this paper, give me this information, and it's all about treaty rights and American Indians and the resources that they're trying to protect.’
Sue ended up writing a story for Mazina’igan, the newspaper GLIFWC publishes, about how my paper on the spearfishing controversy was a runner-up at nationals. They sent me a copy of the article, and I thought it was great. But then several years went by and I had kinda forgotten about it. It wasn’t until I was interviewing for the position as the Public Information Director here, when Sue retired, that my mom sent that copy to me. She said, ‘Do you remember this?’ The very newspaper and the very office that I was going to be taking over.
I was somehow spiraled into that story. It was pretty interesting, how the small things lead you to where you need to go in life.”
“What a lot of people don't know about is the relationship that a tribe has to the United States. A tribe is a nation. The tribe has sovereignty and the ability to work with the state and to work with the federal government on a nation-to-nation basis. The 1800s were really characterized as a treaty-signing time, in which the United States Federal Government was entering into agreements with the tribes. In doing so, the United States acknowledged the tribes as separate nations—nations within a nation. When you fast-forward to today, every tribal community—especially in Wisconsin—has their own tribal government and their own way of governing themselves. They have their own process, their own ordinances, even their own constitutions.
Sovereignty is the absolute authority and right to rule oneself. But I think many of our tribes look at sovereignty as our ability to take care of our people. Our ability to make decisions for the betterment of our people's lives in our communities. That's what we do as a tribal governing board, as a tribal council.
As far as structure, every nation has different ways of doing things. For our tribe, the Bad River Band, we have seven council members on the Tribal Council that make decisions, pass legislation, and work towards more sustainable and economic opportunities for our people.
Once I returned home and started working at GLIFWC, I’d also try to help with some of the programming that goes on around the community—help where I can with language, with cultural revitalization, with anything. Eventually I had a lot of people and some of our elders approach me and ask if I would consider running for our Tribal Council. I thought about it, but I really went back and forth because it's a very big responsibility to take that on, plus I am very young. In our community we have around 8,000 tribal members and probably close to 1,500 live on the reservation.
Being on the council is an opportunity to work for the people. Typically you have older, more experienced people running and I wasn't sure if I was going to step on anybody's toes. I didn't want to be disrespectful. But some of our people told me that it would be good to have a young person on the council to contribute a different perspective, to represent young people, and to show the young people that they could do it, too. You can go away to school, come back with the knowledge you received, and bring that back to your people. There are many different ways you can make an impact, and make our people proud.
Another thing that was on my mind was that the election was to be right around the time when my partner was about to have our baby. I remember thinking, ‘I'm going to be a first-time father. I'm still so young. What do I know?’ I had a dream about it though, and what came out of that was I felt I needed to help with our language programs, our cultural programs, all of it. I needed to help to make this an even better place, not only for my daughter, but for everybody's kids growing up here. So I decided to run. I ended up having a lot of support, and I got elected. It's been a very, very awesome learning experience. It's like going back to school, because you learn all of these different aspects about housing, health, natural resources, policy. Anything you need to know to make good decisions on behalf of your people.”
“As a Bad River Tribal Council Member, one thing that’s important to me is to raise awareness about consultation between nations. If there's something that the federal government is doing that's going to somehow affect our nation, we have the right to a consultation before anything is done. Whether that’s a pipeline that is being put through, a new state law or ordinance, whatever it is. We have the right for consultation on a nation-to-nation, or state-to-nation, basis.
It’s hard to maintain, because I know not everyone in state or federal government knows about those treaties. There’s not, like, a Tribal 101 course that says, ‘Hey, look. Tribes are recognized for their sovereign status. You need to talk to them prior to making any kind of decision.’ There are some agencies that do a really good job with that, but there are some that definitely need improvement. I’m driven to help improve the relationship between governments.
It’s a lot of work, sure, but some of the best things to see are just how resilient and how beautiful our community is. To go around and to see all of our program managers, department heads, and staff working so hard, all for the same cause. To see our young people achieve things. From the decisions that our people make, to the stances we take on our environment—it’s so great to see the important work that our people are doing here.
If I had one message for our young people, it would be to spend time with your elders and learn your language and culture, because that's fostering your identity. But I also recommend getting that formal Western higher education, because that's going to help us survive into the future. Coupled together, these things only make us stronger as a nation, and help us to support the furthering of our identity and our people's way of life.
Whether you want to return to your community as a tribal leader, or go and work for a different federal agency, or to work somewhere else to provide an Indian or Native perspective to the world on our behalf…that's how we're going to help the world be a more understanding place for Indigenous people all over. That's how we're going to save the environment in the places that we call home. By sharing that Anishinaabe perspective, that Indigenous perspective, with the world.”
-Dylan Jennings | Odanah, WI