Chippewa woman makes history as North Dakota Poet Laureate

North Dakota lawmakers have named a Chippewa woman as the state’s Poet Laureate, making her the first Native American to hold the position in the state and increasing attention to her expertise on the troubled history of boarding schools. native americans.

Denise Lajimodiere, a citizen of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians in Belcourt, has written several award-winning books of poetry. She is considered a national expert on the history of Native American boarding schools and wrote an academic book titled “Stringing Rosaries” in 2019 about the atrocities experienced by boarding school survivors.

“I am humbled and honored to represent my tribe. They are and always will be my inspiration,” Lajimodière said in an interview, following bipartisan confirmation of his two-year term as poet laureate on Wednesday.

Poet Laureates represent the state at inaugural addresses, debuts, poetry readings and educational events, said Kim Konikow, executive director of the North Dakota Council on the Arts.

Lajimodiere, an educator who earned her doctorate at the University of North Dakota, said she plans to leverage her role as Poet Laureate to hold workshops with Indigenous students across the state. She wants to develop a new book that focuses on them.

Lajimodiere’s nomination is impactful and inspiring because “representation matters at every level,” said Nicole Donaghy, executive director of the North Dakota advocacy group Native Vote and Hunkpapa Lakota of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation.

The more Native Americans can see themselves in positions of honor, the better it is for our communities, Donaghy said.

“I grew up knowing how amazing she is,” said Rep. Jayme Davis, a Democrat from Rolette, who is from the same Turtle Mountain strip of Chippewa as Lajimodiere. “In my mind, there is no one more deserving.”

By highlighting the personal stories of what residential school survivors have experienced, Lajimodiere’s book “Stringing Rosaries” has sparked discussions about how to address injustices experienced by Native people, Davis said.

Beginning in the 18th century and well into the 1960s, networks of boarding schools institutionalized the legal abduction, abuse, and forced cultural assimilation of Indigenous children in North America. Much of Lajimodière’s work grapples with trauma as it has been experienced by Indigenous people in the region.

“The sap oozes from the trunk of a fir tree like bitter tears…. I hug the tree and cry for the children, for the parents left behind, for my father who survived, for those who did not survive,” Lajimodière wrote in a poem based on interviews with victims. of boarding schools, published in his 2016 book “Bitter Tears.

Davis, the lawmaker, said Lajimodiere’s writings inform ongoing work to address the past, such as returning ancestral remains — including residential school victims — and protecting tribal cultures in the future by codifying the Federal Indian Child Welfare Act into state law.

The law, enacted in 1978, gives tribes the authority to initiate fostering and adoption proceedings involving Native children. North Dakota and several other states considered codifying it this year, as the U.S. Supreme Court plans to challenge the federal law.

The US Department of the Interior released a report last year that identified more than 400 Native American boarding schools that sought to assimilate Native children into white society. The federal study found that more than 500 students died at boarding schools, but officials expect that figure to rise exponentially as research continues.


Trisha Ahmed is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues. Follow Trisha Ahmed on Twitter: @TrishaAhmed15.

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