Best-selling author (Firekeeper’s Daughter) Angeline Boulley addressed UW-Green Bay’s Early Spring/Summer 2022 morning graduates; with three key takeaways and a reminder that stories are good medicine
Boozhoo! Ahniin! Angeline Boulley, Miskwa Mukwakwe, nindiiznikaaz. Mukwa dodem. Bahweting endjoonjiibah. G’chii miigwetch. Good morning! My name is Angeline Boulley. I am a member of Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. I’m Bear Clan and I’m from Sugar Island, between Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario and Garden River First Nation. Miigwetch (Thank you) for the opportunity to return to Green Bay and share your special day. My previous visit was last fall and this was your first in-person event.
I love introducing myself in this traditional Anishinaabe way! It connects me to my community and celebrates the fact that our language and cultural teachings are still there. . . because of the stories. Storytelling is how we share what it means to be Anishinaabe (Indigenous).
I was raised on stories. My father is a traditional firefighter. (Yes, I really am a firefighter’s daughter!) He tells stories while tending to ceremonial fires at our tribe’s fast camp and other cultural events. Fire keepers ensure protocols are followed as ceremonial fires are different from regular campfires. You’re not roasting hot dogs, talking politics, or even gossiping around a ceremonial fire. Only good thoughts and good words to fuel this special fire.
My own college experience is full of stories – of lessons learned both in class and beyond. I was not a good student during my undergraduate years; but I excelled in extracurricular activities. There were a few defining experiences during my years at Central Michigan University that had a huge impact on my life.
First, when I was a freshman, the university held an event for BIPOC students with school administrators from various offices on campus – like Financial Aid, Registrar’s Office, Admissions, academic council, etc. The goal was to give students the opportunity to speak with administrators about the challenges we were having so that the university could overcome obstacles and barriers that impact student retention.
I remember talking to Mike Owens, the admissions director, about the lack of recruiting efforts in tribal communities in Michigan. I mentioned that for a university with an Indian reservation 3 miles from campus, it seemed strange that less than 1% of the 16,000 enrolled students were Native Americans. A few months later, I was offered a part-time job in Admissions to coordinate and facilitate Aboriginal student recruitment activities. My first visit to campus was with high school students from the local tribe – many of whom said they had never set foot on campus within 5 miles of their homes.
TAKEAWAY: Asking questions can lead to answers you didn’t expect.
I was also a resident assistant in the dorms. After graduation, I accepted a position as a residence hall manager at Northern Arizona University. My plan was to get a master’s degree in counseling, so living and working in a dorm made a lot of sense… except once there, I didn’t like it at all. I was exhausted from dorm life. And this first stage of my career did not go as I had hoped. I was surprised to discover that I missed the smell of water in the air. I had always lived near water and had taken the smell of an approaching storm for granted. I was homesick for Michigan. So I did a very un-Angeline thing and quit my job at the end of that first year. I didn’t have a job or a place to live at home, but I did the thing that scared me because it felt right. A cousin who worked at CMU let me stay at her house while I thought about my next move. I had copies of my resume in my backpack as I walked across campus and bumped into Mike Owens, my former admissions boss. He invited me to an afternoon meeting where he was attending with the new director of education for the local tribe. The meeting was going to hamper my search for a job and a place to live, but I felt compelled to accept his invitation. At the meeting, the new director of education mentioned a last-minute vacancy for a student attorney at the local college—serving as a liaison between the tribe, the public school, the students, and the parents. I retrieved a copy of my resume, gave it to the new manager, and he hired me on the spot. This is how my career in Indian education began.
TAKEAWAY: Sometimes our plans don’t work out the way we intended. It’s okay to cut the bait and reinvent your life. Discovering what you don’t like, what you don’t want, is a valuable lesson – especially at the start of your career.
I ended up becoming the director of education for this tribe about twelve years later. Part of my job was to travel to Washington, D.C. for the National Indian Education Association’s annual visit event, where we got updates on federal funding and programs, and then visited our congressional representatives. . I remember listening to the director of the Indian education office in 2002, I believe. Her name was Vicki Vasques and the way she talked about the job she was doing, I thought it would be my dream job. To advocate for all indigenous children at the national level.
Well, fast forward fifteen years. I was working as Director of Education and Assistant General Manager for my Tribe when I decided to run for our Tribal Council. I knew I had to get another job because my campaign would ruffle some feathers and I’d probably be fired. So I ended up talking with another tribesman who worked for a company called Tribal Tech. It was a small business owned by a Native American woman that provided training, technical assistance, and federal contract management to various federal agencies. The owner was Vicki Vasques – the former director of the OIE. I was hired and worked remotely on 2 contracts with the US Department of Education. Working for Vicki was amazing. After 3 years, the position of Director of the OIE opened up and I really wanted to try. I was nervous talking about it with Vicki. She said I would miss those contracts very much, but she never wanted to stop anyone from pursuing their dream.
I got the job and served as director of the Office of Indian Education at the US Department of Education. It was an incredible experience. I traveled to tribal schools and communities and worked with people who wanted to improve public schools for our native students.
TAKEAWAY: You never know who you’ll meet along the way. A chance encounter can turn into a job. We pass so many people and some may appear as guardian angels along the way. You never know when you might meet again. Someone in your dream job can become a boss or co-worker, or even a friend. The world is a smaller place than you think.
It was during my years in Washington DC that I finished writing my first novel, FIREKEEPER’S DAUGHTER, the story of a young Ojibway woman reclaiming her Indigenous identity and finding her place in her tribal community and beyond. . Every experience in my life – both the great moments and even my mistakes and painful lessons learned – has shaped this story and my own story. Stories are good medicine.
As you celebrate your accomplishments today, may you be among those who cherish and encourage you on your journey forward. Be brave. Take risks. Pursue your dreams. Practice self-care. Be the hero of your story. Let it be an exciting and satisfying adventure.
Ah (that’s all)