Laura Waterman Wittstock could sit two people down with opposing views and come out with a resolution.
Lloyd Wittstock, her husband, likened her demeanor to another person who grew up in Hawaii, ex-President Barack Obama.
"If you lose your cool, you're embarrassing yourself," Lloyd Wittstock said. "Try to get at what is going on and try to resolve it."
Wittstock was a prominent leader and advocate for Native Americans in Minnesota and across the country. She died Saturday at the age of 83 after battling an autoimmune disease for years, according to her family.
"She was able to bridge and that was her gift — that's what made her advocacy so valuable to Native people," said Elaine Salinas, a longtime friend. "She was able to step outside of the Native community in ways that other people couldn't and build those bridges."
Outside of giving advice and helping others in their life paths, Wittstock was a member of many nonprofit boards and was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the National Commission on Alcoholism and Alcohol problems. In 2002, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak appointed her to the city Library Board, where she served for six years.
Wittstock was born on the Cattaraugus Indian reservation in New York, on Sept. 11, 1937, and was a member of the Seneca Nation of Indians, Heron clan, according to her family. In 1945, she moved to Honolulu with her family where she lived for nine years.
At the Legislative Review, a Native American political journal in Washington, D.C., Wittstock helped disseminate the news of legislation affecting American Indians.
When she moved in Minneapolis in 1973, she worked at the Red School House — a survivor school in St. Paul dedicated to educating underserved American Indian children. She wrote grants to fund the school and sometimes drove the school van to pick up students.
The idea of the schools was to integrate Indigenous culture and beliefs into the curriculum to build pride. That would encourage students to learn more naturally, Salinas said.
At the same time, Wittstock started meeting with University of Minnesota students who were interested in journalism. That endeavor evolved into the creation of Migizi Communications — a nonprofit she co-founded that serves as a media outlet for American Indian voices.
"She really wanted to make a difference in the lives of American Indians and how we were presented in mainstream media," said Kelly Drummer, president of Migizi, adding Wittstock mentored her for many years. "She has mentored so many young women. I feel like that was one of her purposes in life was to work with us and prepare us for our lives."
The organization was created to counter the negative tilt of mainstream media coverage of American Indian communities.
"She was really a big part of that in telling the real story in what's happening across Indian Country," Drummer said. "That's why she started this work in the '70s because our story needs to be heard and needs to continue being heard."
Wittstock was also passionate about documenting and educating others about Native history, according to her friends and family. In 1993, she published "Ininatig's Gift of Sugar: Traditional Native Sugarmaking."
Twenty years later, she used a Minnesota Historical Society grant to help produce a book called "We Are Still Here: A Photographic History of the American Indian Movement."
Aside from her husband, Wittstock is survived by children Arthur Waterman Simas, James Olivera Simas, Tedi Marie Grey Owl, Rosy Marie Simas, four grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and a great-great-grandson.
Services have not been scheduled.
Alex Chhith • 612-673-4759