Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Remembering Benesikwe: The legacy of Red Lake Nation's Shirley Nordrum

Ways To Subscribe
Benesikwe, or Thunder Bird Woman, Shirley Nordrum, leaves a legacy of connection to community, food, trees and relatives.
Leah Lemm / Northern Voices
Red Lake Nation's Shirley Nordrum leaves a legacy of her commitment to Indigenous ecological based science programs.

Independent audio producer Leah Lemm featured Shirley Nordrum on KAXE’s "Northern Voices" – celebrating ties to Minnesota’s northland, a series on KAXE.

LAPORTE — Benesikwe made a practice of beginning interviews by introducing herself in ojibwemowin.

Shirley Nordrum, whose Ojibwe language name translated to Thunder Bird Woman, set the stage this way, journalist Leah Lemm said.

“It means that you’re talking about something important next,” she said on the KAXE Morning Show on KAXE, “like what’s to follow is important and your ancestors are listening.”

To Lemm, it summed up Nordrum as an environmental trailblazer, educator, dog lover and a wonderful community member who was quick to share. Lemm featured Red Lake Nation’s Nordrum twice on her Legacy-funded program Northern Voices, produced for KAXE.

"My hope is that all her teachings she shared will live on and be passed on to others, so we can make this world a beautiful place again."
Shirley Nordrum's obituary

Nordrum died unexpectedly May 4 at 60 years old. She spent her life committed to her community as well as the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, working on ways to strengthen food systems. Her work was awarded a Bush Fellowship in 2022, where she planned to expand culturally relevant science courses and build a network of Native knowledge keepers, among other things.

Nordrum’s obituary published in Red Lake Nation News — written by her sister — described a lengthy list of accomplishments for a woman who first quit school in eighth grade. At age 17, she earned her GED in lieu of a high school diploma and went on to Rainy River Community College, where she earned an associate degree in 1986. She continued her education at Bemidji State University to earn a bachelor’s degree.

In 1992, Nordrum persuaded the Leech Lake Tribal Council to start an environmental department in the Leech Lake Division of Resource Management, which she oversaw for 16 years, the obituary stated. Since 2008, Nordrum worked as a federally recognized tribal extension educator for the University of Minnesota Extension, serving White Earth, Leech Lake and Red Lake.

Shirley Nordum is an educator with University of Minnesota Extension in Cass Lake. Leah Lemm talks with her at the Indigenous Farming Conference held in…

Nordrum recently started working exclusively with Red Lake on a woodland Indigenous Ecological Knowledge-based program.

“My beautiful sister put everyone before herself, she would do anything for anyone,” the obituary stated. “My hope is that we carry on that generosity she so freely gave. My hope is that all her teachings she shared will live on and be passed on to others, so we can make this world a beautiful place again. She was scared for the future and what it held for our people, let us all work together to carry on her dreams.”

Not only did Lemm’s stories featuring Nordrum stand out for their content about Native lands and local foods, they affected Lemm personally. Nordrum once told Lemm she could “see the shine” in her. To Nordrum, this meant people are not just physical beings, but spiritual beings in a physical shell.

“So when our energy of our spirit is vibrating at the height of wellness,” Lemm said, “it creates a glow. Maybe not in the way you necessarily think about a glow, but I do believe a visible brightening.”

Lemm said she appreciated Nordrum’s ability to look at not only people as spirits, but the plants and animals in the environment. While the value of trees may often be measured by how much money they’re worth to humans, Nordrum saw things differently. She saw the trees as relatives and as community members with more to offer than monetary value, Lemm said.

“It’s really just looking at one another with love and perpetuating that emotion throughout our community,” Lemm said. “And yeah, I think Shirley really was a great example of that and really did that.”

Nordrum’s work in local foods, education and environmental sciences reflected this. She had big dreams and ideas and asked questions about western and Indigenous beliefs. This subject was examined in a Northern Voices segment, when Nordrum recounted her ultimately ill-fated participation in an environmental stewardship graduate program. The classwork did not reflect Indigenous teachings, and Nordrum said it left her wondering: “How can these two worldviews work together and possible create a better world for us?”

Nordrum was amid attending graduate school again at the time of her death, with dreams of teaching at Red Lake Tribal College.

“We love you, Shirley, with all our hearts,” her sister wrote. “We know that you will still be with us. I hope that wherever you went, you are pain free and are being greeted by all those that went before.”

Stay Connected
Latest Episodes