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A New Indigenous Leader at Bemidji City Hall

By Kaomi Lee

It's another hectic day for Bemidji City Council Member Audrey Thayer. She juggled an online class with students at Leech Lake Tribal College, responding to city emails and making a phone call to see if she could find housing for a homeless woman she had just met.

One year ago, Thayer, 70, made headlines when she was elected as the city's first Native American city councilwoman. She received her spiritual name, Eagle Head, while in her 20s. Now 50 years later, it seems almost prophetic.

"Because I care about community and people and I want change. That means you work alongside everybody you aren't over and above anyone, you'll always be watchful," Thayer said, explaining the meaning of that name.

"I've lived here in Bemidji area for 30 years, it has sometimes not been the best. Losing a child, adjustments in how we have to understand dominant culture in rules and regulations, mental health in my family as well. I put that out there," she said recently, as an explanation of why she is often an open book when blending her private life into her public one.

Activism has been a part of Thayer's work for a long time. She spent years working for the state ACLU on the Greater Minnesota Racial Justice Project. She has volunteered for the People's Church, a shelter and food shelf. And she's worked as a student advisor at Bemidji State University and also worked for US Indian Health Service.

Working with young people and the city's most vulnerable and learning to work within the system to effect change is a skill that Thayer has now brought to the city's main decision-making body.

The child of a white father and Native American mother from the Gull Lake Removal Band, Thayer was born in Chicago and later grew up on a farm in Wisconsin. She saw first-hand that people of different backgrounds could respect one another. Thayer moved to Bemidji with her grandmother; she married twice, but ended up raising eight children on her own. She has known hardship.  

"Thirty years living in Bemidji and looking in the candy store and not being able to go in…I've dealt with housing, dealt with police, dealt with deaths, dealt with community suffering and being unheard," she said.

Today, she and fellow Native American Council Member Dan Jourdain are part of the most diverse City Council on record. One of Thayer's initiatives has been to create a community police advisory board, underscoring years of tension in the city between police officers and Indigenous folks in the area.

Folks that have known Thayer through the years say her leadership had earned her admirers in the community.

"She was a very strong woman, I liked her personality, she drew me into her circle," said Bernice Mitchell-Diver, a former colleague the Indian Health Service and a friend.

"She can talk, she knows what to say, she has her education behind her, gives her the voice to get into groups and get selected, she has a lot of people to get behind her," said Mitchell-Diver.

Thayer has also known how to build bridges with people who have a different point of view than her own. Local businessman Bill Batchelder is a Republican and admits that he and Thayer don't see eye to eye on many fiscal issues.

"She ran several times before and was turned out, but when she was elected, I was one of the first to call her up and congratulate her. She brings a vision to the council and the city," he said.

Many hope that Thayer's human touch will give people more of a voice at City Hall.

"I do feel like Audrey's election is a shift in cultural understanding in our community. I don't know if an indigenous person would have been elected even 10 years ago," said Erika Bailey-Johnson, a Red Lake enrolled member and director of sustainability at Bemidji State University.

"It's now visible, her name is listed. I think our community sees that, that whole ripple effect happens, broader than just Audrey," she added.

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