Elder-in-Residence program continues at Carleton with Ida Downwind

Ida Downwind, Elder-in-Residence at Carleton for 2023, made her first visit to campus in January.

Luna Schindler-Payne '26 10 March 2023 Posted In:
Ida Downwind speaks while holding papers at the front of a classroom while people look on from chairs.
Ida Downwind at her talk, "Why and How We Come From the Stars"Photo: Harry Pound

At 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 24, a crowd gathered in Boliou 104. As seat after maroon-and-turquoise seat was filled, soft chatter transformed into attentive silence as Ida Downwind, Carleton’s Elder-in-Residence for 2023, took the microphone for her first talk of the week: “Why and How We Come From the Stars.”

This is the second year of Carleton’s Elder-in-Residence program, an initiative piloted in 2022 with funding from the Public Works grant. The program invites an Ojibwe or Dakota Elder to campus for a series of week-long residencies throughout the academic year, during which they deliver public talks; dine with students, staff and faculty; offer mentoring; and meet with college leadership. Downwind’s week-long stay in January was the first of four visits she will make to the college in 2023 and focused on building and strengthening relationships of all sorts at Carleton. 

Ida Downwind speaks at a podium in the front of a small room full of people at tables.

The Elder-in-Residence program, which helps further interactions between Indigenous and other ways of knowledge on campus, is part of a college-wide movement to bring more support and energy to the Indigenous members of the Carleton community. Downwind anchored her workshops, meals and meetings through a storytelling and relationship-building approach to sharing knowledge.

Downwind is Leech Lake Anishinaabe and from the Bear Clan. Her Ojibwe name, she said, can be translated to “she who carries the fire and she who carries the water.” Highly regarded among Indigenous Traditional Healers throughout the region, Downwind is an experienced Elder and Healer and is certified in Indigenous Focusing-Oriented Therapy and Complex Trauma (IFOT) and Indigenous Tools for Living. She has also worked for more than 40 years as a teacher and educational institution leader for early elementary through Tribal College levels. Downwind holds a B.S. in elementary education and an M.S. in curriculum and instruction, and completed all but a dissertation for her Ph.D. in educational leadership.

Marcy Averill, Carleton’s Indigenous communities liaison, introduced Downwind before her first public talk on Jan. 24 as a woman with a “varied and multi-layered” background. Now a great-grandmother of five, Downwind was taught from a young age to care for her community. “She has a lot of wisdom to share,” as Averill said in her introduction, but Downwind also brought an aura of youthful humor to her talk. When Averill handed her the microphone, Downwind playfully wiped it down, with an aside to the audience—“I have to wipe this down ’cause it’s so sweaty.” Downwind’s wisdom mixed with her youthfulness and earnestness made her speech compelling. At one point, she joked that when people call her “Elder,” her first instinct is to look over her shoulder, as she doesn’t feel like an Elder herself. 

Ida Downwind speaks into a microphone.

“Why and How We Come From the Stars” was an outpouring of wisdom from Downwind’s heart. During her talk, she spoke about growing up as an orphan, finding a family and belonging. Raised by her grandmother as one of eight children, she ate venison, geese and whatever else her grandfather hunted for the family. After her grandmother’s death when Downwind was just 10 years old, she had to find new resilience when faced with the abuse of her foster parents. She found strength in her culture and traditions. She explained that “culture is a deep feeling, that deep inside work you have to do, and tradition is how you do it.”

Downwind still clearly remembers the stories that her “aunties” told her when she was a child, and emphasized the importance of not listening to those stories from the perspective of a colonizer. Instead, she said to look at stories with certainty that “this has got a message for me. Because that’s the first step in recognizing the power and the medicine that pumps in your veins.”

During her talk, Downwind reminded listeners to be in touch with their roots and encouraged them to use and discover the language of their heritage, whether that be Ojibwe, Dutch or anything else. Downwind explained that, for example, she doesn’t like the word “stories” in English, because she believes it limits the power of the message. Finding meaning in other languages, she implied, uncovers the things that are lost in translation. 

As she turned her talk toward the subject of stars, Downwind explained that in Lakota, the term for “we’re all related” also means “we have kinship to all the kind.”

“Not just humankind, but all the kind,” she said, “so we’re related to the plants, to the animals, to the bugs, to everything you can see or feel.”

Looking up at a projection of the Milky Way, she reminded her rapt audience that “we all come from those stars” and she spoke of the importance of actively seeking knowledge from multiple sources.

Ida Downwind speaks into a microphone and raises a hand in a dimmed classroom.

“Just because you think you found an answer, don’t let yourself die in the water,” she said. “Listen to your heart beat, let your blood run when you talk. I don’t just mean going to college… Also listen to your ancestors.” She paused. “Because both those concepts came with us from the stars.”

As she talked, Downwind mentioned stories she knew that had been passed down from long before modern astronomy, yet held truths shared by current science. She remembered hearing as a child about a black hole in the middle of the Big Dipper that could not be seen by the naked eye, but was recently found near there by astronomers. 

At one point, Downwind addressed the whole group, reflecting on a gathering she’d held with the Indigenous Peoples Alliance student organization the previous day.

“We sat with students last night and… when I just watched and listened, I thought, what a powerhouse,” she said. “It was the first time in years I actually heard students not just say things they weren’t thrilled about, but just absolutely listen to each other without cussing, without any disrespect to each other. I just want you to know that I really appreciate that and I feel your power, because it’s the first part of your resonance.”

Downwind continued to interact with students, faculty and staff over the course of her visit through multiple community dinners, a traditional Talking Circle, a participatory session titled “Who am I? Power and Identity on the College Campus,” and through examining glyphs during her public talk titled “The Grandfather Teachings: Dakota/Lakota and Ojibwe Values.”

Downwind will be back at Carleton later in the year to hold a program in the Arb with a focus on plant knowledge, during which she will share her knowledge of traditional medicine, sustainability and restorative ecology.

During her January visit, Downwind fostered relationships everywhere, no matter who she was meeting or how she met them. From an interactive talking circle to a strategic meeting, it was clear that the knowledge Downwind shared will provide education and connection for the entire Carleton community. As Downwind’s residency continues through the end of 2023, the new and dynamic ways she will engage with Carleton are sure to foster a more holistic and diverse educational environment at the college.

The Elder-in-Residence program is made possible by the Center for Community and Civic Engagement (CCCE), the Provost’s Office and a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in partnership with the Social Science Research Council.