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Tribal chairwoman shares vision for the future

White Earth Tribal Chairwoman Erma Vizenor visits with Park Rapids resident Leroy Chief after a Headwaters Center for Lifelong Learning program Tuesday. (Anna Erickson / Enterprise)

As she prepared for her "State of the Tribe" address Wednesday, White Earth Tribal Chairwoman Erma Vizenor spoke in Park Rapids about her struggles and triumphs over the years.

The program was offered through Headwaters Center for Lifelong Learning. Vizenor is the first woman to be elected tribal chair at White Earth. She grew up at Pine Point on the White Earth Reservation and graduated from Park Rapids High School.

"I'm very proud of our tribe," she said. "It was a great honor to be elected."

Over the years there have been many struggles among the American Indians, she said. When land was taken away, history was taken away too, she said.

"The trust just isn't there completely yet," Vizenor said. "It will take time to turn things around."

She was first appointed to the Tribal Council as secretary-treasurer, then was elected twice as the tribal chair of the 22,000-member White Earth Band of Chippewa.

"I consider myself very progressive, a visionary," she said. "My big focus is on education. Just like Obama said, 'the best anti-poverty tool is a good education.'"

She has a degree from Moorhead State University in education in 1972. She received her doctorate from Harvard. In 1984 she became the director of the Pine Point School.

"I always say that education is the great equalizer," Vizenor said.

She has worked on creating economic stability and thinks White Earth will reach self-sufficiency someday.

"But we need to heal our people first, focus on health and healing," she said.

She has been tackling high school dropout rates and hopes those numbers will change.

One of her accomplishments is the establishment of a tribal college on White Earth with her sister, Helen Klassen.

Each day, Vizenor said she sees kids that don't have anyone supporting them.

"That's where teachers and administrators need to step in," she said. "We need to break the cycle and it's starting to break."

Anna Erickson
Anna Erickson is editor of the Wadena Pioneer Journal.
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