Story by Alia Jeraj / Art by Magdalena Mora
It’s an impressive moniker: “Queen City of the Iron Range.” But it’s probably nothing more than a fun coincidence that the Queen City of Virginia, Minnesota, helped create a natural leader as dedicated and driven as Nevada Littlewolf.
evada would never think of herself as royalty. Instead of the nickname, she’s taken the values of her hometown to heart, and used them to build a career of service. Virginia is an old Iron Range mining town, and you can see the region’s ethos of hard work echoed in Nevada’s tireless approach to service. Virginia is a city that, like Nevada, values culture, history, and nature. The town is working to renovate it’s century-old Lyric Opera House, tucked between Bailey and Silver lakes. The Virginia Area Historical Society borders on Olcott Park, a 40-acre public green space that’s been in place since 1910.
And long before that, the Ojibwe land on which Virginia now sits was named Qeechaquepagem, or “lake of the north birds.” Nevada is a north bird who has flown south. After decades of service on the Iron Range, she’s just begun a new chapter in the Twin Cities, taking on the role of President and CEO of the Tiwahe Foundation, and leading their work to empower Native Americans in Minnesota.
This is her dream job, she says. Now, Nevada’s creating new dreams about the future of the Tiwahe Foundation—dreams built on the solid foundation of her life and work in Virginia.
“I never wanted to work in systems,” says Nevada. “As a Native person, we know that systems are set up to harm us.”
ven as a kid, Nevada was aware of the challenges her communities faced. One summer, as part of a youth employment program, Nevada’s advisor noticed her creativity and passion, and challenged her to do more. “You live in Pine Mill Court,” they said, referencing the 1950’s-era public housing development Nevada called home. “You know there’s kids running around who don’t have anything to do this summer. Here’s an opportunity to develop something for them.” So, with her sister and a friend, Nevada founded the VISIONS Youth Program, giving the kids of Pine Mill Court healthy and fun activities all summer, for three summers.
“Virginia is a town that’s predominantly white,” Nevada says, underselling it a little—the last census measured the white population as 95% of the city. So a young Nevada saw it as critically important to help Native youth in her region find leadership opportunities, which she did as an organizer and program lead with Circling to Seventh Generation. She took kids in the program to visit Virginia City Hall, three blocks from the old opera house. She wanted them to see the inner workings of their city, but she also wanted them to be seen.
“The story of the Iron Range is the story of all the European immigrants that came there to build their life around Iron mining.” She notes how people frequently praise the Range’s diversity, albeit with an overly narrow definition of the word.
“The Italians were hanging out with the Swedes and Finnish, and there was a Jewish community,” she says. “And yet, when they tell that story, they don’t really tell the story that there were also American Indians, like my grandfather, who came to the range for the same reasons—a better economy, better education for his children. We’re always left out of these narratives.”
Early in her career she became a guardian ad litem—the person responsible for finding solutions in the best interest of a child in court proceedings. In this role, she worked extensively with the Indian Child Welfare Act to keep Native children in their Native communities. Though initially hesitant to take the position—the courts recruited her for two years before she accepted—Nevada ultimately decided that her presence in the courts as a Native American woman would benefit her Native communities. “If I’m not there who’s going to advocate for them?” she asks, noting the importance of her lived experience. “Having the cultural teachings and background to understand what our families need and what it means if you actually remove children … the impact of that is enormous.”
But ten years of that kind of work wears on a person, and Nevada began to feel the burnout known to so many who work with youth. Remembering the beginnings of her youth work, Nevada began thinking about the larger systems and policies that trap people in negative environments, and began strategizing about ways to address these issues from further upstream. So, a decade after her visits with the Circling to Seventh Generation kids, Nevada decided to return to Virginia City Hall—this time to file as a candidate for the Virginia City Council.
“I think as American Indian people, we’re often put into a pigeon hole of ‘This is for you, this is not for you,’” she says. “I had never seen anybody in the city of Virginia—or any other city I’d lived in—that was a Native American serving in a position of leadership. If you’ve never seen it, it’s hard to think it’s possible, or that it’s a space for you.”
evada made a space for herself. She won that 2008 City Council race, and in so doing amassed an impressive collection of “firsts” and “onlys.” She was the first Native American councilmember, and at the time, she was the only woman, the only person with school-age children, and the only person who had directly experienced poverty on the Virginia City Council.
Nevada isn’t one to be content with just breaking new ground. She got to work. She became a fierce advocate for policies in her city that created better opportunities for all its members, and actively worked to grow new leaders in her community. She trained women to run for public office, developed leadership programming in rural and Indigenous communities, worked with Wellstone Action, founded a nonprofit organization to provide resources for rural and indigenous women, served on multiple boards, was appointed to be a part of a judicial selection commission, and received a Bush Fellowship to focus on leadership in rural and Native communities.
“I was shifting a culture by running for office,” she says. “So for future people in the community, they’re going to be able to see that and know that city council is a place for them.” Nevada ran for re-election twice, and won—twice.
In 2018 Nevada moved from the Iron Range down to Minneapolis to start her work with the Tiwahe Foundation. Though she misses the woods and waters of Northeast Minnesota, and the Queen City that shaped her, she notes, “I can walk down to the river fairly quickly if I feel like I need to get to water!”
n her new role and new city, Nevada is even further upstream from the challenges faced by her community. Her work to empower new leaders continues with Tiwahe’s American Indian Family Empowerment Fund, supporting projects based on the themes of culture, education, and economic self-sufficiency.
“I think as American Indian people we’re told, ‘this will be good for you,’ but the reality is, we know what’s good for ourselves, and often it isn’t the things people are telling us are good for us.”
Nevada is determined to bring creativity, innovation, and energy to Tiwahe in this new decade. “We get to think about things like ‘How can we have a bigger impact?’” she says, mentioning that rethinking how Tiwahe uses technology will likely play a large role.
Nevada hopes that Tiwahe will continue broadening its reach outside of the Twin Cities area. “I am a citizen of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, the Leech Lake Nation,” she proudly states.
“I’m a citizen of Minnesota. I was a citizen of the city of Virginia. And I’m a citizen of the United States of America. I belong to these communities, to all of them. They’re all a part of who I am.”
The Tiwahe Foundation is a member organization of the Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors (MUID) group—a coalition of Minneapolis Native organizations and urban Tribal offices and embassies. In September of 2018, MUID partnered with the City of Minneapolis to address the developing situation at the Franklin/Hiawatha encampment. Please read this piece from MUID chair Patina Park on the encampment, the community, and the path forward.