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University of Minnesota Extension

Cultivating indigenous values and leadership

Fawn Sampson is an Extension educator focused on leadership and civic engagement. She recently transitioned to this role after serving as the American Indian leadership and civic engagement liaison within the Department of Community Development. The following article is adapted from her interview with 100 Rural Women, where she serves on the board of directors.

Fawn Sampson

I was born and raised in rural Minnesota, and I am a member of Leech Lake Nation. Northern Minnesota is my home, and I am proud to be a mother of two young boys and wife to my best friend. Being connected to my communities is an essential part of who I am and something that’s built into our Native value system.

My identity and my work has always been grounded in our traditional Tribal values. Even as a young person, I was always doing my best to educate others about where I come from, to break down stereotypes, and to share information in a positive way.  

In college, I was fortunate to have the time and space to  learn a lot about myself and the history of my ancestors and my people, really figuring out who I was internally and why I’m here today.  My classes up through high school simply did not address Native history in any deep or meaningful way.  I had to learn a lot of the dark history on my own, and I remember leaving my college classrooms in tears and feeling so lost.

Thinking in seven generations

I’m trying to use the knowledge I’ve gained to make a better world for my kids and their peers. As Indigenous people, we always think seven generations ahead and seven generations behind. That’s a really daunting amount of time to consider, but it’s the core of who we are. I heard the “seven generations” story a lot when I was growing up. It’s built into our language and everyday living.

Those seven generations are why you and I and everyone exist at all. If you take the time to appreciate how different your life would be without those ancestors, you become a lot more selfless and giving. You really learn to open up your heart, and sometimes that’s not an easy task, but you have to keep pushing through.

Speaking from the heart

I really feel that leadership needs to start at home and within ourselves, which is not easy for a lot of people, especially in marginalized communities. We already have a lot on our shoulders taking care of each other. Some people have to jump right from school to caring for siblings, aunties, uncles, cousins, extended family, and community members. How often do we get a chance to just stop and think about loving ourselves?

Unfortunately, we’ve seen over these past few years how racism is alive and well. We as a society are finally starting to reckon with white privilege and what that actually means. But I’ve had to spend my entire life absorbing the negative effects of that privilege. A young white girl from rural Minnesota once asked me bluntly, “You’re a Native American? Do you live in a teepee? Do you have running water and electricity on the reservation?” I’ve spent most of my life answering questions like that. As a Native person, you can’t avoid these stereotypes and racism, but I always knew that it didn’t reflect who I truly was.

As a result, I feel like I learned to speak from my heart. I’m not afraid to challenge or question things, and I try to do it in a way that makes us think rather than shaming and blaming. We spend too much time in our worlds shaming and blaming each other.

I’ve been so fortunate that my work with Extension can help create this positive impact and build Native capacity for the future. We really are pushing Indigenous voices to the forefront of the work and making sure we are being intentional in how we communicate and work within Tribal communities. 

Connecting worlds

We’re constantly walking between our two worlds, and someday my hope is that these worlds will be more connected. I want my work in Extension to help blur that line. I want Tribal voices and marginalized communities to be automatically included in these conversations.  We need to be bringing those extra chairs to the table instead of making people bring their own chairs. I’m tired of carrying my own chair.

In my new role, I’m looking forward to conducting more research and creating leadership programming that is relevant for Indigenous communities and reflective of Indigenous values, because there simply isn't enough of it. 

I encourage everyone to look beyond their own homes and communities. You learn so much and begin to appreciate how small you really are. If you look up at the stars, at first you feel really tiny and insignificant. But it starts to give you a perspective that helps you move forward. It reminds me that I’m only one tiny little human being in this grand scheme of things and I can only do so much, which is a huge relief.

When I was younger, I felt a lot of pressure to change the world. Now I know the best way to do that is to first change the spaces I’m in.

Author: Fawn Sampson, Extension educator, leadership and civic engagement

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