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Anna Goldtooth, community education specialist for Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota in Bemidji, talks about the problem of HIV/AIDS in American Indian populations in March at Duluth’s American Indian Community Housing Organization during National Native HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. (Steve Kuchera | Forum News Service)

Living on purpose: Big picture perspective

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BEMIDJI -- Don't underestimate Anna Goldtooth. She may be young, slightly soft-spoken, and self-described as "a little shy," but she has found her voice as a leader. Since 2011, she's worked to reduce rates of HIV, suicide, teen pregnancy and other health problems among American Indian youth.

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She grew up in Bemidji, and her current position is education and outreach programs manager at Planned Parenthood MN, ND, SD. This role has her meeting with community leaders, speaking at conferences and developing and delivering educational training programs to youth. This often requires initiating difficult conversations or candidly discussing issues that make people uncomfortable. As a result, she sometimes faces criticism and resistance.

"I still get scared to speak up," she admits, but even while nervous about voicing her opinions, "I'm recognizing the responsibility that people are looking to me and paying attention."

Goldtooth says focusing on the bigger picture, and her place within it, was crucial for "getting over myself and the things that are holding me back."

For her, this bigger picture is the past, present and future of her people. Knowing the larger context inspires her to work to help American Indian youth feel good about who they are. This is a big endeavor, and one that is very personal for Goldtooth. "Growing up, I had to deal with a lot of negative talk about native people, even native people talking negatively about native people. In middle school, I really started to feel bad about who I was."

She saw a lot of racial tension and internalized oppression. "Guys I went to school with would say 'I would never date a native girl'." While her parents and other elders were proud of their native identity, she says that "nobody my age was outwardly like, 'I love being native'."

Then, as a young adult, she had a transformative encounter with another young woman at a conference in Washington, D.C. Just a few years older than Goldtooth, she had a confidence that Anna found astonishing and inspiring. "She was just so proud of being native, and I just didn't know what to do with that." This woman was working with issues of American Indian health and sexuality, and Goldtooth felt drawn to a similar path. "There's some people who just come into your life at a critical time; she was that for me."

Goldtooth made the decision to major in Indian Studies at BSU, which helped her connect more deeply to her culture. During her coursework, she began realizing that the people she was reading about in books were not strangers, but her ancestors and relatives. She learned about traditional cultural beliefs and practices that contained valuable wisdom for today. She also became aware of the atrocities her people faced in the past, such as having their children taken and placed in abusive boarding schools, forced sterilization of women, the outlawing of their spiritual ceremonies and traditions, and the suppression of their language.

Doing some personal research, she found her friends could identify relatives who were given experimental birth control against their will by health professionals, and her own great-grandmother (and namesake) died during childbirth from medical mistreatment. She started to see how this historical trauma was affecting her community today, and the information empowered her. "I felt like I could see the bigger picture of what's going on," she says. "Indian Studies really gave me the tools and the language to talk about the experiences that we've had. That's given me more confidence."

That confidence led her to apply at Planned Parenthood, where she now uses the knowledge and tools she's gained to empower other young people. "This work is very personal for me." she states. "It's not just a way to get a paycheck. I'm talking about the things that me or my friends experienced growing up."

Her co-worker, Rebekah Dunlap, agrees. "(Anna) has a real sweet side of her. She cares deeply for the community and her concern is really authentic. When I think of her, I think of somebody who has a lot of strengths. She has a lot of power. And she uses it very wisely."

Goldtooth acknowledges that there are lots of problems that American Indian youth face today. Yet, she believes that trying to address these issues without addressing the larger context in which they occur will just lead to more problems.

"The statistics are just one part of the conversation," Goldtooth said. "I feel like we're really doing a disservice to the youth that we're working with if we're not talking about those underlying factors, that history, even current conditions that put our health at risk. When I talk to my people and ask them to think critically 'why do you think we're experiencing these high rates of this, this, and that? ...', they'll say a lot of things that are negative about themselves. I want to give them that context. Because if we're not, they're just going to continue to internalize all those negative messages and all of those statistics that we're given."

So Goldtooth works to help them understand the bigger picture, educating them about their culture's past: the tragedies suffered, as well as their traditional Ojibwe beliefs, traditions and practices. "Knowing your culture is a good place to operate from," she says. "There's a lot of positive things about being native." She believes that traditional Ojibwe culture has a great deal of wisdom that can help today's youth make positive choices and develop healthy self-esteem.

Goldtooth is often not much older than the youth she's working with. When difficult issues arise, she'll sometimes joke, "I'm not old enough to deal with this." She admits to often feeling like a teenager herself. Still, she's recognizing that these youth are looking to her as a leader. "They want that space to be able to talk about these issues, and maybe nobody's ever talked with them about it before." This realization gives her strength to "to step forward and handle situations to create a safe space."

Goldtooth knows that a lot more work is needed, and she's wholeheartedly committed to doing her part. After everything that has happened in the past, "we're now coming back and picking up the pieces. I see myself as part of that."

When asked how she wants others to describe her after she's gone, she replies "fearless," then laughs. "Maybe ... I still have some work to do!"

Brooke Wichmann of Bemidji is a certified life coach and has a master's degree in peace education. She owns Connectivity Coaching, and is co-director of Inner Compass Consulting. You can read more on her blog at livingonpurpose.areavoices.com. She can be contacted at brooke@connectivity-coaching.com.

Brooke's suggestions for applying Anna Goldtooth's wisdom to your own life

• Focus on the Big Picture. Goldtooth's ability to see the larger issues at stake gives her the courage to move beyond her own fears and doubts. Move beyond your own comfort zone by reminding yourself of who you want to be, and the kind of impact you want to have on the world.

• Seek Support - Everyone faces tough times. A listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, or a positive word can help us find the strength to move forward. Goldtooth says her family is an incredible source of strength for her. "They've always had my back," she says. "When I tell them that I am feeling a certain way, they really validate my feelings. They never try to talk me out of feeling a certain way or belittle my experience."

• Start where you are, use what you know - If we wait until that moment when we feel completely ready to begin, we'll be waiting our whole lives. It's easy to make excuses for why we can't do something, whether it's that we're too young, too old, too inexperienced, etc. Yet, the world doesn't need perfection. It needs people who care enough that they'll work hard to make a difference. So find a way to start doing what's important to you, today. You'll figure things out as you go.

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