The very first Native American to be appointed by North Dakota lawmakers as the state’s poet laureate is Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Ojibwe Dr. Denise Lajimodiere. A state poet laureate represents the state in inaugural speeches, commencements, poetry readings and educational events. Lajimodiere was appointed in April 2023, in a bipartisan vote and will hold the position for a two-year term.
Dr. Lajimodiere has earned all her degrees from the University of North Dakota (UND), including her doctorate. She has been in education for 44 years as an elementary teacher, a principal, and a professor at the North Dakota State University (NDSU).
Dr. Lajimodiere is one of the founders of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (N-NABS-HC). She is a poet – Dragonfly Dance (2010); Bitter Tears (2016); Thunderbird (2017); His Feathers Were Chains (2020); children’s book author, Josie Dances (2021), and academic book author, Stringing Rosaries: The History, The Unforgivable, The Healing of Northern Plains Boarding School Survivors (2019).
Denise has been a Pow Wow dancer for over 55 years. She began as a fancy shawl, then traditional northern buckskin. In 1984, she was one of the first Jingle Dress dancers in ND. She enjoys doing her own beadwork for each of her dancing outfits, and sews ribbon skirts, dresses, and quilts.
The CREA culture team conducted the following email interview with Dr. Lajimodiere:
Maranda Obradovic: As someone who provides such a great deal of inspiration to others, I'd like to know who or what provides inspiration to you in your life both personally and artistically and why?
Dr. Lajimodiere: My life as a Native, particularly, an Ojibwe tribal member is my greatest inspiration. A lot of my poems are autobiographical, but not all. I write about my sense of place – the reservation, North Dakota, winters, weather, nature. I’ve been a dancer for over 50 years, fancy shawl, traditional, jingle, but, strangely, I have written very little about it. I am now.
Raven Warren: What is your mission while in the position of ND's poet laureate, specifically in your representation of indigenous peoples?
Dr. Lajimodiere: I am so proud to represent my tribe as the first Native North Dakota Poet Laureate. I didn’t have Native writer mentors or role models while in high school or college in the 60s and 70s. I hope to be a role model for Native students, to show that they can write poetry and they can be published. I’ll be writing a grant that, if funded, will allow me to travel to ND reservations to work with students. I hope to publish an anthology of their work.
Melissa Spelchen: You have an extensive career in education of others at various levels of primary, secondary and higher education. Who were the educators that were most impactful in your life, specifically that guided you to this incredible accomplishment of being appointed the first Native American North Dakota Poet Laureate?
Dr. Lajimodiere: I was educated in public schools out in Portland, Oregon, where my parents had relocated during the mid 50s. I attended two years at Portland State University before moving home to the Turtle Mountains and earning a Bachelors in Education at University of North Dakota. I never had a Native teacher or professor. I was simply totally focused on earning a degree so I could achieve my goal of teaching Native students on my home reservation. Which I did. I loved learning and challenging myself, which is why after 22 years of teaching I went on to earn my Master’s in Ed. Leadership and become a principal. I further challenged myself to earn a Doctorate. That’s when I became a professor at North Dakota State University. My most memorable teacher was during my junior year in high school. I took a creative writing class from Mrs. Avshalomov. She took me aside at the end of the year and told me, “You can write.” I’ve never forgotten that. While at UND earning my doctorate I took poetry workshop classes from Dr. Larry Woiwode, who was ND Poet Laureate at that time. I learned so much from him as far at the skill of writing a poem. I owe so much to his teaching and mentorship.
Red Basket, Dr. Kathy Froelich, an MHA elder and CREA Indigenous Culture Coordinator suggests this classroom activity to educators: “We are more alike than we are different.”
Goal – Students will understand that Dr. Lajimodiere was once a student like them and identify their own strengths and learning styles.
Step 1 – The teacher will show below video:
Step 2 – The teacher will provide each student with a copy of the Multiple Intelligence inventory: https://www.birmingham.k12.mi.us/cms/lib/MI01908619/Centricity/Domain/994/Multiple%20Intelligences%20Survey%20and%20Guide.pdf
Step 3 – Students will complete the inventory and calculate their results.
Step 4 – The teacher will provide time for students to share their perceptions of the results.
Step 5 – Teacher will ask: What was most surprising about their findings? How did Dr. Lajimodiere demonstrate her strengths?