I just think that we have all these dynamic stories to tell, but what you see available in bookstores and in classrooms, the stories are all set in the past. And maybe they focus on one type of Native—like, my tribe didn’t have teepees! I felt it was important to know that we’re still here and to know what our young people are going through, and for them to feel seen, which I didn’t, growing up.
There’s some debate about whether Ojibwe people are matrilineal or patrilineal, but I’ve received some teachings that are very old that suggest that we were originally matrilineal—everything comes from the life-giver. And I think there’s something to that. Anytime I see a male who’s in a power position, it seems like there’s…a lot of cracks in that. Every tribal community that I’ve ever worked in, I see that when native women have their stuff together they’re just unstoppable.
What’s one piece of advice you wish you could have given your younger self?
I think it wasn’t until I was in my late 40s that I really started to see how important it was for me to have boundaries. I remember being so unhappy in certain situations and feeling like I had to go along with it and not make waves. And I remember thinking—if my daughter came to me and was this unhappy, I would tell her, “Love yourself, take care of yourself, if you’re in a situation that’s not good, get yourself out of the situation.” And then I remember thinking, “If I love myself as I love my daughter, and I wouldn’t hesitate to tell her this, why can’t I take my own advice?” And so what I would tell my younger self is to take care of myself and make no apologies for having boundaries.
Who taught you to set boundaries?
I just realized that givers need to set boundaries because takers never will. I was sometimes in situations at work where it felt like no matter what I gave it was never going to be enough, and for reasons that had nothing to do with me. I read this saying somewhere—“You don’t have to set yourself on fire to keep other people warm.”
So, the story you spent ten years on is going to be adapted for a Netflix series by the Obamas’ production company! Do you have any I-will-die-on-this-hill ideas for the adaptation?
What I have said from the very beginning is that there needs to be Native creative talent, not just in front of the camera, but behind the camera, and in the writers’ room, and at every stage, there just has to be. That’s a big reason why I wanted to collaborate with Higher Ground, because they completely got it. They already had names of people, they had done their work to let me know how serious they were about sharing my vision for this series. I’m not going to go into business with someone that would think, “Oh, are there Native screenwriters? I don’t know of any, is that possible?” I didn’t want to be in a position of doing Indians 101.
How do you treat yourself to celebrate success?
I bought this ring when I bought the book deal, it’s a green tourmaline, it’s gorgeous. [Laughs and holds up a hand full of rings.] All of these different rings that I have, I’m like, “That’s for the book deal! That’s for the Netflix deal! That’s for Reese’s book club!” I like it because every time I wear the jewelry I’m like, “Yep! Yep! Yep!”
Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter.