BEMIDJI -- Meet Audrey Thayer. She’s a gardener, a grandma, a leader, a doctoral candidate, a quilter, a White Earth Nation band member, an educator and an activist.
In January, she’ll add one more title to her list -- the first Indigenous woman on the Bemidji City Council.
Thayer was elected after a tight race against Joe Gould to represent Bemidji’s Ward 1, left open by Michael Meehlhause who ran for mayor rather than seeking reelection.
Thayer has big goals for Bemidji, including addressing homelessness, affordable housing, environmental concerns and racial justice, tackling COVID-19, forging relationships between the city and tribal nations, and increasing civic engagement and education -- with only four years to accomplish them all.
Thayer said her time in office isn’t about herself, it’s about the unheard, it’s about building community.
In researching this article, neither the Beltrami County History Center nor the city were able to provide a comprehensive list of past council members, but it appears that Thayer will join an exclusive group of only seven women (including herself) who have held a seat on the city council.
“We haven’t had many women be elected to council or mayor, Rita was the first female I believe. In speaking with (Councilor) Emelie Rivera today she stated she was the sixth woman elected. So, I think it’s safe to say Audrey is the first Indigenous woman,” City Manager Nate Mathews told the Pioneer.
Thayer is 69 years old, and currently working as an instructor at Leech Lake Tribal College, which she says she will continue doing “till they tell me you're too old to teach, and then I'll get out.”
Her family has lived in the Bemidji area for three generations. She has multiple degrees in social work, Native American studies and counseling, and is working toward her doctoral degree in Educational Leadership through the University of St. Thomas.
Before coming to Leech Lake Tribal College, she taught at Bemidji State University, worked for the U.S. Indian Health Service, organized and coordinated the Greater Minnesota Racial Justice Project for the American Civil Liberties Union-Minnesota, and served as an in-home family therapist through Beltrami County Health and Human Services.
Pivotal moments in Thayer’s life led her to earning her spot in office at age 69.
She said the experiences of being homeless in the past as well as the discrimination she and her family experienced while she raised eight children as a single mother made her realize she had to do something.
“When you think about those sorts of pivotal moments for me, I had to say something or do something,” she said.
In 2003, her son died in Bemidji in a construction labor accident during his first day on the job. This changed everything for Thayer.
“It was a rotten roof and he fell to his death at 22, and his 18-year-old brother who also had been hired, held his brother in his death,” she said. “The unfairness -- I remember all of the crew were just excited that they had day labor jobs. Man, I saw this and thought, life is not fair. And that was a very pivotal moment for me. I knew I wanted change for Bemidji and understanding that we get away with doing things cheap, but it's at the cost of a life now.
“Of course, I'm dealing with pain as a mama, but I kept thinking we can do better here in Bemidji, for all those who are unheard, who have dreams and hopes and vision.”
After the death of her son, she quit her well-paying job at Indian Health Services and took a new one working for the ACLU on the Greater Minnesota Racial Justice Project.
She explained that the project led her to live more frugally and help educate Greater Minnesota on racial justice issues.
“Anytime you say racial justice -- that you're looking for a space at the table -- that scares people,” she said. “People like the word diversity. Let's put some roses and a white tablecloth out and, and let's all love each other and have peace and kindness and all that, but it's a lot deeper than that. I've always understood that we need to hear people to have justice for everybody.”
She feels in order to truly have justice for all, it comes down to listening. And Thayer is ready with open ears.
A vibrant ward
Thayer says she will act as a voice for a diverse group. Bemidji State students, upper- and middle-class families, small businesses, people experiencing homelessness, churches, young families, and multi-family homes all intersect within Ward 1.
“The people of Ward 1 chose an indigenous American woman, an Anishinaabe woman to run, to vote, to elect, to say, ‘We trust her, she's going to do the job for our city.’ And I intend to do that,” Thayer said. “That says something right there -- in bridging community -- that there are people that said, ‘No, she's going to be just fine.’”
She ran a “community campaign,” she said, fueled by small donations, area musicians and local artists. Thayer is hoping this will culminate in more people running for office, more people on committees, and more people paying attention.
Thayer said she was grateful the council position is non-partisan because she believes an issue-based -- not a party based -- approach is the best way to connect with her constituents.
“There are Republicans, there are Independents, there is Green Party and there are Democrats, all in my ward,” she said. “So, I don't want to be walking in there and say, ‘Well, jeez, I'm this or I'm that,’ I'd rather say, ‘I'm issue-based.’ ‘What is the issue? What can we do and how can we solve it?’ And that takes relationships.”
In her mind, building community is all about finding common ground, which she said often means gardening or quilting or food in her world. She even joked that after a conversation with one of her future constituents who is pro-second amendment, she earned her permit to carry.
Thayer encourages people to speak up and speak out, no matter their viewpoints.
“Before I (take office) I want to make sure that the staff, the city, feel comfortable and know that I'm not charging in like a bull in a China shop,” she said.
Goals and motivations
Thayer has a packed list of goals for her time on the council, and has already started trying to reach them -- meeting with churches and small businesses, and having attended city council meetings for the past few months.
She hopes to better address homelessness in the area, and increase the availability of affordable housing. She also wants to help Bemidji tackle COVID-19 and its impacts.
Environmental concerns are of utmost importance to her. During her campaign, she was endorsed by MN350, a well known environmental activism organization.
With her background and cultural values, Thayer brings a unique perspective to the council. She explained that she wants to forge lasting relationships between the city and tribal nations and hopes to increase civic engagement and education.
“I do carry, I’m hoping, a good relationship with the tribes,” she said. “That's unique. We will go to the tribes to start partnering with them. Maybe they can help, maybe they can't, we don't know that. But what we do know is that we have some issues in our community. We’ve got to partner up, and be very visible, so that there's some trust built because right now, the trust is gone.”
Thayer is also bringing with her the Ojibwe Seven Grandfathers Teachings, which she sees as her guiding principle.
“We are caretakers,” she said. “Anishinaabe people are caretakers of the earth. That means we run for office because we have to be care-taking the community resources, and we have to be caretaking and helping people. It's about people. It's about honesty and truth and fortitude.”
In the future, Thayer sees Bemidji growing into a “cultural Mecca,” she said, with more ethnic restaurants, celebrations and Indigenous business owners. She pictures the different cultures in Bemidji as walking side by side, instead of trying to blend or erase one another.
“I ran for the unheard in our community. I ran because of our siloed community and lack of relationship building with the tribes who support this community,” she said. “We can't close our community off anymore. We have to embrace.”
Passing the torch
Thayer said she does not plan to seek reelection after her four years are up, so she needs to work quickly.
“That is a huge amount of work,” she said, reflecting on her laundry list of goals. “I have only four years to accomplish that. And in those four years also mentoring people who are younger than me, who are smarter than me.”
She hopes instead to inspire young people, particularly young women or young Black or Indigenous people, to run for office in her place. She hopes to light a fire, engaging more of them in local government.
“I really do believe that anybody under 35 should be in these positions. We always seem to elect people who are older and that narrative needs to change. We need to get people involved again,” she said. “I don't care if they're pink, blue, purple. I don't care. I just want young people to start taking an initiative.”
“I have a large family system, so I wanted them to have a role model, as well to set an example for the community that they can create change.” she continued.
What’s next for Thayer after this? Perhaps writing a book, she said. She doesn’t see a future for herself as a long term local politician. Her spirit and perseverance have energized the people around her, and she hopes to serve as a spark, inspiring more people to work together for change.
“I was like a pebble in a lake -- a little stone got thrown in and now waves are happening. That's exciting to me that people are starting to think about their neighbors,” Thayer said. “We are sitting in the heart of three large reservations, which leads me to work on community, being the first Indigenous American woman in history, that'll be on the Bemidji City Council.”