On summer days when the sky is blue and the lake is bluer, Lake Superior sparkles brighter than an ocean. But today it’s raining and a cool breeze catches the Green Bay Packers flags hanging off of mailboxes on Blueberry Lane.
The road, bordered by cedar and pine forests, winds through the reservation of the Red Cliff Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa (Though Chippewa is in the legal name of the band, Ojibwe /Anishinaabeg are the preferred terms). The reservation itself clings to the red sandstone and clay cliffs of the northernmost shore of Wisconsin.
For generations the Anishinaabeg fought for this land. In 1850, President Zachary Taylor signed a removal order that demanded all the Anishinaabeg along Lake Superior be relocated to Minnesota.
Hearing this news, the 92 year-old Kechewaishke, or Chief Buffalo, took his birch-bark canoe from Northern Wisconsin to Washington D.C. While there, he managed to get a meeting with then-President Fillmore and convince him to let his people stay in Wisconsin.
When he returned to Lake Superior, a treaty was drafted and the Anishinaabeg kept land, albeit significantly less than they had before, throughout Northern Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota.
One of those reservations is called Red Cliff.
A century and a half later, the Red Cliff reservation is indescribably beautiful while still recovering from its traumatic history.
Despite that trauma and the rampant poverty that came with it, the Red Cliff community is vibrant, and full of people building the future of their nation. In this story, you’ll meet five women who work every day to make Red Cliff stronger and better.
Carolyn Gougé pulled the glasses hanging from her neck and brought them up to her eyes. She squinted at the birds flying above the Red Cliff health clinic.
“Not eagles,” she said.
She shrugged and launched back into her life story. Her soothing voice kept pace with her feet as she walked slow laps around the clinic. She works inside, but takes any chance to get out and breathe in the lake air.
Though you certainly wouldn’t guess it, Carolyn is 59 years old. She carries the wisdom of her years with a youthful bounce and smile.
When she was six years old, Carolyn was a rebellious child. She had just lost her father and she lived in poverty with her mother and her seven siblings.
“After my pop passed on, my life was so hard at that time because everything had changed,” she said.
As she got older, Carolyn continued to rebel. She sought solace in her friendships, at 14 she started running away, and alcohol took hold of her life.
“The little girl in me had never gotten out to play,” she said.
After high school, Carolyn moved to Lawrence, Kansas to attend Haskell Indian Nations University. While there, she fell in love and moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico.
“I was drinking; he was drinking,” Carolyn said.
While living in Albuquerque, she got a phone call from her mother: her grandmother was dying. So she worked and saved up enough money to buy a bus ticket home.
“When I got off the bus in Minneapolis I called my mom and she told me that my grandmother was buried the day before.”
Back in Northern Wisconsin, Carolyn was at a crossroads. She liked Albuquerque, but her relationship was falling apart and she was pregnant. She decided to stay near her family.
“My son’s dad came up here and we tried to make it work but the alcohol was too much in the way.”
A couple of years later, when she was 22, Carolyn met two older women. The women were in their forties and they took classes at Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College in Ashland, WI.
“I’d go drinking and they’d come and get me, they’d make me get up, and they’d take my son to a babysitter and they’d make me go to school with them. Six months later I graduated.”
When she graduated from the college’s medical secretary course, she applied for a position at the health center in Red Cliff. She didn’t get that position, but she got the second one. And now, 34 years later, she’s the center’s Contract Health Service Administrator.
After finishing school, Carolyn began to discover her spirituality. “I started understanding what it was to be a woman. How beautiful it was to be a woman. And I quit using,” she said.
Then, at a pow-wow, she met Willard.
“He was from Lac Courte Oreilles [band of Ojibwe] and he sang on the drum,” she said. “And we started seeing each other after I had taken a step back and been by myself, to heal myself.”
On June 1, 1991 they were married. Two years later they had a daughter.
“Paige was born in ‘94 and then my mom passed on in ‘96 and that broke my heart,” she said.
Carolyn didn’t have a great relationship with her mother when she was young, so when her mother was dying she felt that she’d missed a lot of opportunities to learn from her.
But she recalled her mother saying: “Carolyn, I’ve taught you everything now it’s time for you to remember.”
In July of 2000, Carolyn was elected to the Tribal Council, the governing body of the Red Cliff Band. But in November of that year, her husband, Willard, fell ill and retired.
“In December  I said, ‘Will! I can say mom’s gone. And that’s okay I’m okay,’” Carolyn said. “He left me in 2001 just a few months later.”
Though she was devastated, grief was familiar this time. Her mom had prepared her for it.
“I was okay. I wasn’t okay, but I knew I wasn’t crazy,” she said.
So she flung her heart into her work and she joined every committee on the tribal council that she could.
When she retired from the council in 2004, she made the conscious decision to live every day the way she wanted to live the rest of her life.
Now, at 59 years old, she continues to build and strengthen the Red Cliff community through her work at the health center. And despite the hardship she’s weathered through her life, she relishes each day.
“The creator gave us the tools to deal with all this,” she said. “There is hope. Spiritually, physically, mentally, there is hope.”
The window blinds behind Lorna Gamble’s desk are pulled down but slices of sunlight break through– illuminating Lorna and turning her dark, curly hair into a halo.
Lorna is the kind of person whose kindness and loves radiates out of her smile and forms creases around her eyes.
She describes herself as a pre-baby elder. “There’s elders, there’s baby elders,” She explains. “I’ve got a little bit more respect than I had maybe five years ago because of my grey hairs coming in.”
And that respect comes in handy as the director of Red Cliff’s Family Violence Prevention program.
Lorna grew up on the reservation– “the rez” she affectionately calls it. But from a young age, she was different. “Even though I was related to everybody,” she said, “I was kind of seen as a black sheep because I chose not to do drugs. I chose not to drink.”
Those differences inspired her to want to help her community and help her friends and family take back their lives from substance abuse.
“Every woman has a role and you find it or sometimes it finds you,” she said.
But her differences also caused her to struggle with her identity.
“When I was on the reservation they said, ‘You’re too white.’ And when I went to the Catholic school where I had to go they said, ‘Oh you’re nothing but a dirty Indian.’”
She remembers that as being the defining moment when she embraced herself. “I learned to be me,” she said.
When she graduated from high school, Lorna went to the University of Wisconsin– Superior where she studied counseling with a focus on Native American women. While at school she worked at a domestic violence shelter, which led her into her current work.
“What I’m trying to do here is help people realize because of all the traumas that have happened, they have post-traumatic stress, they’re dealing with a historical trauma,” she said. “Here’s all these things that happened to our community to cause some unhealthy behaviors and I don’t think people understand why they do the things they do.”
The family violence prevention program at Red Cliff is 100% dependent on grant funding.
Right now she’s working on getting the funding and permission for a community event called the Lantern Project. Across Wisconsin, Domestic Violence shelters light a purple lantern every time a woman is murdered in the state.
“I want to do a healing ceremony at the lake,” Lorna said. “Then walk up here have a feast and then I want to light a lantern so that we can let the community know every time a woman dies, we’re going to turn that lantern on.”
But it can be difficult to get the grant funding for all the projects and events Lorna thinks will help her community. Like any domestic violence program, she said, they’re at risk of closing in September if they don’t get the funding they need.
But, just like she recommends her clients do, Lorna takes things one day at a time.
“The first thing you gotta do is breathe and exist.”
At a small conference table surrounded by bookshelves — full of everything from Nancy Drew to Ojibwe language books — Krystle Topping sips coffee out of a repurposed mason jar.
Krystle is quick on her feet and you can see in her eyes that her mind is dancing far ahead of you. She emanates leadership which is fitting since she’s the youngest person on the Red Cliff Tribal Council.
In a culture that places high value on the experiences and wisdom of its elders, it can be hard to be a young council member. But Krystle loves it.
“When I grew up, I remember going to council meetings,” she said. “and seeing people yell and never feeling afraid or scared or unsafe but just feeling the invigorating passion in the air and being like, ‘Wow. One day I’m going to sit at that big, huge table like those people are and I’m going to be able to engage in this, and be a part of this.”
Born and raised in Red Cliff, Krystle is the oldest of 10 siblings and one of hundreds of cousins.
When she was young, a corruption scandal rocked the tribal office. Krystle’s father fought back against that government, so she also grew up with activism in the air.
Her family was impoverished and college attendance wasn’t something that was expected of Krystle. But when all of her friends started applying, she “just jumped on the bandwagon.”
She ended up attending the University of Minnesota Morris where she played on their basketball team.
Moving into a dorm was a big transition. Krystle had never had so much space of her own before. And for the first time, she had to confront the stereotypes that her peers had about Native students.
When Krystle met her roommate, she said, “Oh you’re Indian? And you lived in teepees and do rocks talk to you?”
During her first years of college, Krystle said she experienced a lot of self-hatred, “because I didn’t know who I was.”
Her history wasn’t in the textbooks she read in her schools in Bayfield so she felt lost. And she was angry because she didn’t understand why her tribe hadn’t filled those information gaps.
“Non-native professors were teaching the things I’ve lived,” she said. “You can go through life without knowing anything about Native populations.”
She bounced around a lot, not sure what she wanted to study. And she eventually left UMN – Morris to help her family.
“The personal takes priority,” she said. “You have to drop everything and come back.”
She eventually received a degree in Peace, Conflict and Global Studies from Northland College in Ashland, WI. She was the first in her family to go to college and graduate with a degree.
“I went to college and nobody can take away those two letters,” she said.
Now, Krystle lives back in Red Cliff. “I was always pulled back here by the Lake,” she said.
Krystle wears many hats on the reservation. She’s the tribe’s education director which she says means she’s responsible for anyone, “ages three to death interested in pursuing education.” And she’s also the Tribal Treasurer, an elected position.
She got her position as education director in the middle of June 2015 and then won her treasurer’s seat just a few weeks later.
“I was told, ‘You knew what you were getting into,’” she said. “To be quite honest– I don’t care what anybody says about tribal politics or politics in general — sometimes you just don’t know until you get behind the driver’s seat.”
So now, one year into her term as treasurer and with one year of leading tribal education, Krystle knows that bureaucracy can be overwhelming.
But she also firmly believes that as a young person involved in local politics, she can make her community stronger.
“We’re in a generation where there’s a lot of change in such a quick way and the teachings are timeless,” she said. “They can be carried on but there’s other things that we need to acknowledge that these young people are facing.”
Wearing a bright, floral shirt Brenda leans back into the soft cushions of her sister’s couch and tucks her feet under her. After a winter spent traveling South East Asia, she’s home for the summer.
Just before Brenda Walhovd started sixth grade, her family moved to Red Cliff.
Though Brenda’s mother came from Red Cliff, Brenda was born across the bay on Madeline Island and spent her childhood further south in Racine, Wisconsin.
But there she was: twelve and finally living on the reservation where she had spent so many summers.
Like most Red Cliff kids, Brenda enrolled in the Bayfield Public School System. Before the start of the year, she took an evaluation to find out what she knew. She passed with flying colors and started that year in seventh grade instead of sixth.
“The schools down there were pretty progressive like in bigger cities,” Brenda said.
Economic opportunity was limited on the reservation and Brenda’s family was poor. “Back in that time it wasn’t uncommon to not have running water so we didn’t have running water,” she said.
So Brenda worked whatever job she could find. She worked at her uncle’s commercial fishing company—gutting fish and carrying 60 lb fish boxes — and she picked berries and apples in an orchard in nearby Bayfield.
“We would get up super early in the morning,” Brenda said. “We’d go stand outside and one of the orchard people would come by in their big truck and they would pick up all these kids along the side of the road in Red Cliff and we’d jump in and they’d take us out and we’d be pickin’ strawberries.”
As she got older, Brenda wanted out.
“My parents didn’t get along very well and I always wanted to leave and go really really far away,” she said.
Her boyfriend at the time had just left for school in Boston. So Brenda applied to every college in the Boston area. Just as she started to hear back from schools, she and her boyfriend broke up.
“The saving grace was that I had applied to Harvard,” she said. “And I got into Harvard, so I went out there and that was really the turning point of, ‘Okay now I get to see the world.’”
She was the first in her family to go to college.
In college, Brenda worked in the admissions office as the Native American Recruitment Coordinator. Through that office she traveled the country and encouraged Native high schoolers to apply to Harvard.
“The biggest thing that hindered people from applying was themselves.” She said. “Oh you know it’s too expensive or I’m never going to get in, so I’m not going to apply.”
When she graduated in 1982, she returned home to Red Cliff and eventually went to work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a division of the U.S. federal government, in nearby Ashland, WI. Brenda worked at the bureau for 28 years rising her way up through the ranks until she became the Chief Appraiser of the bureau.
Throughout that time she married twice and had three daughters: Natalie, Anastasia and Roselin.
“I always tell each one of them that they’re my favorite and they go, ‘Oh you say that to all of us,’” Brenda said. “But they like to hear it anyway.”
She raised her daughters in Washburn, a town halfway between Ashland and Red Cliff.
“That was one of the things that I always wanted them to have,” Brenda said. “That it’s a beautiful place here and I’m raising you here for a reason: you got all your family here, your relatives are here, they grew up dancing in powwows, they had jingle dresses, they knew where they were from. But I also wanted them to know that there was a bigger world out there.”
So three years ago when she retired and her daughters went off to school, Brenda sold her house and her things and began to travel the world.
Every winter she searches Skyscanner and goes wherever the wind and cheap airfare will take her. And then she returns to Red Cliff each summer to reunite with her family, vote in tribal elections and revel in the beauty of her home.
In a busy coffee shop in uptown Minneapolis, Anastasia Walhovd sneaks a bite of poached eggs and lox between sentences. Anastasia talks fast and thinks faster all while exuding a calm, cool and collected vibe.
She pushes her long hair over her shoulders and admits that being, “a blonde-haired, green-eyed, Anishinaabe woman” hasn’t always been easy.
She grew up close to her roots in the Red Cliff Band. Her mom, Brenda was given many opportunities to move for work, but wanted her children to grow up near their tribe.
So Anastasia grew up fishing with her dad and swimming in the 50 degree water of the Lake. She was raised with, “a deep reverence for the meaning of Lake Superior” she said.
After graduating from high school in 2009, Anastasia followed in her mom’s footsteps and enrolled at Harvard University. She had traveled all over the world throughout her childhood so it wasn’t Anastasia’s first time outside of rural Wisconsin.
But it was one of the first times when her identity as a Native woman was questioned.
“It was weird to have to be assertive about your identity,” she said. “But I learned that when someone squints at you, you keep your eyes open.”
A turning point for her in that identity struggle came when she won an award from the Harvard Foundation for promoting intercultural relations on campus. Before she accepting the award, Anastasia had to meet with the director of the program.
That director had also met with Brenda when she was at Harvard.
“When my mom was with the Native American Program, she went to the Harvard Foundation and she asked this guy for money,” Anastasia said. “And he’s like are you really native american? And I don’t know if she got the money or not but I know she told me she ran out of the room crying.”
And when Anastasia walked into this man’s office, “He was really apologetic for what had happened 25 years ago between him and my mother.”
Though it was tough to struggle with her identity, she also notes that, “There’s a lot of benefits to looking the way I do. I’ve never gotten a speeding ticket, I’ll tell you that.”
When Anastasia graduated from school, she moved home and got a job working for the Red Cliff Tribe in the natural resources department. She helped manage the department’s internship program, track birds and fish, analyze the cedar forests and build trails in Frog Bay, the U.S.’s first ever Tribal National Park.
“Lake Superior is an addiction,” she smiled.
She later worked for the tribe as a mining resources specialist. While in that position, a controversial mining project was proposed near Lake Superior. It fell on Anastasia to understand the law and the natural implications of the project and then explain those implications to the tribe.
While working on that project, Anastasia discovered that she really enjoyed studying law. So she started working at a law firm in Bayfield. She wondered if she should go to law school.
Around that time, her mom was getting ready for a winter of traveling and suggested Anastasia tag along. While traveling through South East Asia, Australia and Mexico, Anastasia realized that she like the management aspect of working at law firm more than the practice of law.
So last March, she moved to Minneapolis and took a job as an office manager at an all-women immigration law firm. “I’ve traveled a lot,” she said. “I’m ready to make some roots.”
And for now, she loves growing her roots at the law firm in The Cities. But she also knows that one day she wants to own her own business.
“It’s a nice idea to build your own community around what you do,” she said.
The women of Red Cliff are immeasurably strong. And they have to be. “It’s rough to grow up a woman in this community,” Krystle Topping said. “And the outside world has everything to do with it. There’s a lot of expectations.”
Each of the women also noted that caretaking often falls on the shoulders of women. And that doesn’t just mean they’re expected to take care of their kids. They’re also responsible for taking care of their community.
And as their stories show, it can be hard to manage that responsibility and also take care of yourself. But they do it. Despite all of the historical trauma, current systemic problems and personal identity crises, these women are building the future of their nation and themselves.
As Lorna Gamble said, “As unhealthy as we are now, we take care of each other.”
By | Hannah Doksanksy and Samantha Harrington