The young Navajo woman broke down in tears as she described how tribal members in the Southwest had unsuccessfully battled the building of a border wall on sacred ancestral sites.
"When you lose that fight, what do you do?" she asked, standing in an audience before a panel of Indigenous elders. "What do you do after all that?"
More than 1,600 people from across the country came to the Minneapolis Convention Center in recent days for a tribal youth conference, and they eagerly sought insight from activists they'd heard so much about growing up. The panel commiserated with their questioner.
Winona LaDuke recounted how she'd just lost a yearslong fight herself — against the Enbridge Line 3 oil pipeline going through northern Minnesota.
"I licked my wounds for part of the winter and then I said, 'Hell with them, let's go,' " recalled LaDuke, an Ojibwe activist from the White Earth Reservation. "[Now] they're trying to put the pipeline through Wisconsin and Michigan, and we're rolling out right behind them."
She added: "Mother Earth and everybody and all the old spirits watching over us … know how we stood up and did the right thing. Always do the right thing."
The younger generation at the United National Indian Tribal Youth Inc. conference listened intently to reflections on American Indian activism dating to the late 1960s. The American Indian Movement (AIM) that began in Minneapolis gained national attention 50 years ago this November when its members marched to Washington, D.C., and took over the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Months later, the occupation of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota — partly in protest of the government's failure to honor treaties — brought wider attention to the Indigenous plight.
Clyde Bellecourt, an AIM founder and leader in both confrontations, died in January after decades more of advocacy that included the successful push for the Washington NFL team to drop its "Redskins" name.
Judith LeBlanc, sitting on stage with LaDuke and Madonna Thunder Hawk, noted that today Natives have the first restaurant to win a James Beard award (Owamni in Minneapolis), the first Miss Minnesota winner (Rachel Evangelisto) and their first American Indian-written and directed TV show ("Reservation Dogs").
"There are so many firsts for us right now — it's a magic movement moment," said LeBlanc, executive director of the Native Organizers Alliance and member of the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma. "But without the leadership of our ancestors … we wouldn't be here right now."
She recalled working on the defense of people facing criminal charges from the Wounded Knee occupation. LeBlanc and others applied old lessons in grassroots organizing to ensure the appointment of Deb Haaland as the first Indigenous secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior by sending a flurry of letters from tribes and a petition with thousands of signatures.
The Biden administration wanted someone else, she noted, "and you know what we did? We organized the hell out of it."
LaDuke urged Native youth who wanted to make a career out of community organizing to find allies, because they wouldn't win alone.
"There's a lot of people out there now … particularly with the uprising and the murder of George Floyd that are like, 'Oh, we better work with Indigenous people.' Well, bring them to the table. Make them bring their bucks to the table. Make them bring their lawyers to the table."
"You are our retirement plan — remember that," LaDuke said near the end, drawing laughter and applause. "We put it all with you. We believe in you."
As for the Navajo woman disheartened by the lost fight over the border wall? Thunder Hawk told her she understood.
"It's a long haul, OK?" said the founder of the Warrior Woman Project and member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. "But we're Indigenous. That wall went up. It can come down."
Karen Guise, 18, came from the Red Lake Nation to emcee part of the event and is moving to Minneapolis next month to start her freshman year at the University of Minnesota.
She left feeling motivated.
"I really liked how they ended it — that that their retirement plan was us," said Guise, who is communications director of the Red Lake Nation Youth Council. "Because they did their work, they did their journey, they paved the path, and now they just need the youth to follow like them."