Marisa Miakonda Cummings has long walked in two worlds. Her clan is part of the Sky People, whose time on earth offers an opportunity "to gain spiritual understanding and help others heal along the way." She's also familiar with western ways, having earned a bachelor's degree in American Studies from the University of Iowa and a master's in tribal administration and governance from the University of Minnesota Duluth. Named in 2020 as president and CEO of the Minnesota Indian Women's Resource Center (MIWRC), she brings her wide-ranging knowledge, empathy and leadership skills to create a "true, traditional space for health and healing" for women and their families.
Q: Please tell us a little more about yourself.
A: Ebe bthite. Uwibtha tamike. I will tell you who I am. My name is Miakonda. My English name is Marisa Cummings. I am UmoNhoN (Omaha-The People Who Went Upstream or Against the Current). I belong to the Buffalo Tail Clan of the Sky People. My father is Stampeding Buffalo. My father's English name is Mike Cummings. My mother is Kathryn Cummings. My grandmother is Buffalo Tail Woman. My grandmother's English name is Eunice Walker. I was born in Winnebago, Nebraska, at the Indian Health Services hospital and raised in Sioux City, Iowa. I am the oldest of eight children. The first daughter and first grandchild. I am a mother of four amazing adult children and will become a grandmother this winter.
Q: Your father was one of your greatest mentors. What did he teach you?
A: My father received his bachelor's degree in English from Morningside College in Sioux City while also lugging beef at a meat packing plant at night to care for his young family. He went on to receive his master's degree in public relations from Iowa State University. Western education was seen in my family as a means to an end. We have to understand how these colonial systems work in order to infiltrate them and advocate for our people. My father was very engaged in the renaissance that happened in our tribal community during the 1990s. He wanted us to reclaim our traditional ways of life and saw economic opportunities to make that happen. He supported the return of sacred items to our people that was legalized through the Native American Graves and Reparations Act (NAGPRA). He also helped start our tribal casino and was the general manager there at a time when gaming was flourishing as an economic opportunity for tribes. My father did a great deal of research on our people and I picked up this research after he passed away in 2005. My father would routinely tell me that our women would lead in the future and I needed to be prepared for that role. He kept me connected to our family on the reservation growing up and made sure my identity was strong and not something to be ashamed of.
Q: You hesitated to take the MIWRC job as it might take you away from direct work. How did you keep that from happening?
A: I have continued doing direct service by staying engaged in community and participating in ceremonial and cultural events, many of which we put on at MIWRC. One thing I truly miss is my work in a traditional garden: planting, caring for the plants, harvesting, and sharing the food teachings. I need to put more energy into doing this work. Ceremonial and social gatherings are also a part of my personal healing and centering. There's nothing like the roaring laughter between Native women.
Q: You see men as part of the solution, part of healing. How does that look in practice?
A: Our men are also suffering from the root cause of our trauma, which is colonialism. MIWRC works with women and their families, which includes men and boys. Working with men and boys to have access to cultural ways of being and also discussing healthy relationships is essential to reteaching our conduct and protocols that foster respect and love.
Q: I was taken by something you said which is that, since the Indian Health Service (IHS) was established, we haven't seen measurable improvements in mental and chemical health programs in the Native American community — likely because traditional healing is not being embraced. Can you tell our readers what traditional healing might look like and why it does make lasting change?
A: Our people have always had ways of healing our mind, body, heart and spirit in a holistic way. These traditional ceremonial practices were outlawed by the settler-imposed colonial government. It is oftentimes difficult for Americans to understand that a country founded on freedom of religion outlawed ours. Many of our people went into hiding to continue our ceremonies and way of life, even at risk of violence. With the passing of federal legislation in 1978, our ceremonial ways were again practiced in the open. But to bill for mental and behavioral health through IHS or the state, we must meet certain billing criteria. We have healers and methods of healing that need to be incorporated into billing practices. These methods are rooted in our teachings, so it is a multifaceted approach to reconnecting our people with identity and community. The Traditional Healing Grant through Minnesota [Department of Human Services] is a great model for such a program. We need more funding like this and we also need to advocate for traditional healing at all levels of government. Singing, movement, the drum, shakers, offerings, connection to land and community is all a part of our healing.
Q: Related, you'd like to see funding sources shift dramatically to exemplify equity. How do we get policymakers to understand this and make these important changes?
A: Equity in funding means that the funding follows the need proportionally. For example, if 60 percent of the unsheltered who are experiencing opioid addiction are Native people, then 60 percent of the resources should go to prevention, intervention, healing, and recovery services. Policy work needs to be equitable and resources need to flood the communities most impacted by epidemics caused by colonialism. Our community was disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. We are still waiting to see the American Recovery Plan Act funds be distributed to our urban community and the agencies that serve our people.
Q: You've said that "foster care is the new boarding school." Do you see evidence that we're making meaningful inroads to change that?
A: Minnesota has one of the highest rates of Native children being disproportionately removed from their families and placed into foster care. Extraction of our children from their families and communities started with the boarding schools and has morphed into the foster care system today. Our children were sold, fostered out, rented out as free farm and domestic labor. The implicit bias of many Americans and people who work for these systems is evident in the number of children removed and the reasons that they are removed. Funding for prevention and intervention strategies for parents to keep their children and reduce trauma needs to be explored and the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) must be enforced.
Q: In emphasizing the richness of your culture, you speak of "celebrating our traditional way of knowing." You also say that life is "beautiful and good." In closing, please expand on these thoughts.
A: My identity is rooted in being an Umonhon Wa'u (Omaha Woman). My obligation to our people, my name, my clan, my family, and my community is central to who I am. As a woman from the Tesinde Clan, our work was part of procreation and carrying life forward. Life is beautiful, even through challenges and hardship. Our original teachings or traditional ways of knowing is central to my healing process. It guides my daily thinking and actions.