Angela Boozhoo

Words by Beth Oness, photographs by Mary Farrell

At the end of February, we sat in Angela Boozhoo’s sunny living room in a rare moment of quiet in a busy season. Due to the warm winter, the sap in the silver maples has been running for almost a month, and Angela, with the help of Jamie Schell, Anne Conway, and many others, has spent days at Prairie Island, gathering sap, boiling it down, and sharing wild rice treats and warm drinks. Many people think of “making maple syrup” as a New England or Vermont industry. Certainly it’s marketed that way––with the crystalized syrup stamped into tidy maple leaf shaped candies––but gathering sap, boiling it down, stoking the fires, and participating in a sugarbush has been a traditional rite for Indigenous peoples for aeons.

Because the trees are located in a Mississippi River backwater called Crooked Slough, at the edge of Prairie Island Campground, the Crooked Slough Sugarbush is simply called Sap to Syrup. It is a collaboration between the Boozhoo family, Prairie Island Campground, and Winona Parks and Recreation, and it’s just one of the projects that Angela has been working on recently.

Angela Boozhoo has large, clear blue eyes, and when I ask her a question, I can see a wealth of consideration behind those eyes. Soft-spoken, she chooses what she wants to reveal. Her cats play with the end of my pen as I take notes, and I tell her about a satirical meme I’ve seen about land acknowledgments. In a light voice, she says, “My land acknowledgment is fierce!” And she smiles. 

Angela is the recipient of a grant from the NDN Collective, “an Indigenous-led organization dedicated to building Indigenous power.” Their mission: “Through organizing, activism, philanthropy, grantmaking, capacity-building and narrative change, we are creating sustainable solutions on Indigenous terms.” Based in Rapid City, South Dakota, this non-profit organization works throughout the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico. Their Collective Abundance Fund helps Native and Indigenous communities, peoples and nations in the quest for bimadisiwin – “living a good life.” Their grants help participants enrich their families, not only in a material sense, but in a sense of community abundance.

If you attend an event hosted by an Indigenous person, you may notice it often opens with: “Welcome relatives.” This greeting in English emphasizes that family can be broadly defined; it presumes inclusivity and asserts our inter-relatedness.

NDN grants allow participants time to learn about traditional skills, such as harvesting wild rice. The grants support learning about traditional medicine, traditional celebration, and ceremonies and rituals such as sugar bush or sugar camp. The grants also allow recipients time to consider questions such as: “How can we learn as a community?” and “What are the traumatic effects of living in a capitalistic society?” The skills and knowledge that participants develop are useful for more than one person or their immediate families––they extend to the larger community. For instance, community members and local students have been participating in the Sap to Syrup program, and Angela’s hope is that the program can be worked into local school curricula, so it’s an ongoing learning process.

Angela Boozhoo grew up in Winona, and aside from living in Wisconsin for fifteen years, she has lived here for most of her life. She has two school age children, four grown children, and four grandchildren, so she understands the cultural fabric of the town.

For Angela, an important part of her grant work is honoring her Ojibway heritage, and “re-educating my family about this part of our heritage, which we’ve been dissociated from-–we didn’t grow up knowing any of this.”

This is a common problem for many Indigenous people—a history of erasure.

As Angela and I talk about families, I tell her about my Irish Catholic background and how little I knew about certain parts of my family, simply because of a tight-lipped moralistic austerity, and Angela smiles, clearly understanding that. Living in the Upper Midwest, we sometimes hear jokes about Norwegian reticence, but the gaps in Indigenous understanding are different–they are the result of forced displacement, genocide, and racism, and trying to find ways to fill those gaps, to “re-educate my family about traditional ways,” isn’t simply a matter of doing small things, it’s a matter of reclaiming a birthright, which, in many ways, systemic racism is still trying to erase.

Angela reads to me from a three-ring binder of material, gathered by one of her cousins, about her great-grandmother. Victoria Beane was born in 1911, and literally didn’t know where she was from. Her mother died when she was a year and half old and she was brought to an orphanage in Owatonna. As Angela reads from the paperwork and correspondence, her voice drops. She doesn’t need to explain the moralistic tone of the letters––it’s self-evident. Apparently young Victoria was “disobedient,” and her adopted family wanted to return her. The complaints from the adoptive family, and the admonitions from the orphanage suggest that this was not an unusual occurrence. I ask Angela if she ever met, or remembered her great-grandmother, and she laughs, “Oh yes, I did. She was feisty!”

Through research, Angela has found that Victoria’s grandfather is buried in Red Cliff, Wisconsin. Red Cliff is called Gaa-Miskwaabikaang in Ojibwe, which means, “The place where there are red rock cliffs.”

The grant has allowed Angela to take family members up to Red Cliff Reservation to visit with elders and cousins.

While it might seem a small matter to go to a winter pow-wow in Red Cliff, it is more costly and involved than it may seem. Attending a pow-wow means taking time off work and staying in a hotel, which can be expensive because Red Cliff is near Bayfield, WI. Lodging there is expensive due to the tourist industry, again a capitalistic or colonial enterprise that makes it harder to attend a traditional gathering in cold weather, when camping isn’t easy.

Although some of the elements of a pow-wow might sound familiar: vendors, dancing, socializing, the most important element is allowing people to connect with their own history.

Angela has been taking care of a drum, which she would like to know more about. She speaks about it with reverence. She believes the drum could be from the 1800s, a ceremonial drum. Unlike many cultures where family heirlooms are thought to be handed down from one individual to another, a drum, especially a ceremonial drum, is not considered as “belonging” to a family or individual—it’s more that a family might be the caretaker for a drum. It belongs to the Native community, and caretaking it is not just a polite circumlocution. A drum can be used for many things, but perhaps most importantly for healing for the community, for bringing people together.

Angela has also received a grant from the Children’s Network Abundance Fund for an afterschool program for 7-8th Graders. The project is a laying-the-groundwork sort of thing, which provides for mentoring and food for students after school. The grant was designed partly for research on matching funds, but most importantly, the project’s goal is to create a student-led process, so it encourages students to develop the skills for a decision-making process: how to narrow possibilities, and how to implement those decisions. While a rubric for a decision-making process might sound bureaucratic, as anyone who has sat in a meeting knows: strong personalities often dominate, so outlining a process for decision-making is important. Part of Angela’s work is mentoring younger students in the project, and some of the ideas that have been introduced are simple but healthy, for instance: erecting swings that a middle-schooler could use. Many schools have swing sets for small children with “safety basket seats,” but a fourteen year-old student can’t sit on those, and swinging has been researched and found to be self-soothing, not only for neuro-diverse students, but for all of us.

I ask Angela about her aims, and she says, “I’d like to be a positive part of our community for Native youth and other children. This is what I would like to see for myself, my kids, and my community.”

Right now, Angela serves as the Chair of the American Indian Parent Advisory Council in Winona, where she advocates for Native children. Funds have been provided from the state of Minnesota to school districts to help Native students, who it’s been proven have been affected by intergenerational trauma and the effects of forced removal over generations. It’s important that those funds are used effectively to be helpful.  

In addition, Angela would like to do more with Indigenous people from Prairie Island Indian Community, located outside of Red Wing. Inviting them down to sugarbush, and pursuing other projects, is a way of honoring the Dakota presence in Winona as well. 

I asked Angela if Winona seems different from when she grew up here, and she says: “Yes! There are all different make-ups, much more diversity and other elements of culture. There’s so much more to do, so much art and culture compared to when I was growing up: Polish eggs at History Center, egg roll and samosas classes at the food co-op. Initially, I didn’t quite get what Peter’s Biergarten would be like, but it has a real community feel. And Norvary! I love Norvary!” She smiles, a lightness about her.

It’s clear there’s a lot to do on the horizon. Angela looks out the window at the sunny afternoon. “I’ve got to find canoes for harvesting wild rice, manoomin. People are already asking about it!”

Towards the end of our talk, I ask Angela how she would describe herself. She is quiet for a moment. “I consider myself an anishinaabekwe; it’s an Ojibwe word that means “Indian woman.” And that seems an essential and fitting place to arrive.

Find out more about Mary & her photography at
Spillway is an initiative supporting artists, culture-bearers, and local organizations in their expression of the diverse cultures, communities, and histories of the Upper Mississippi River region.  

The stories shared here were produced through a collaboration between Art of the Rural and Engage Winona.

This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.