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Carly Bad Heart Bull
Carly Bad Heart Bull was among a group of attorneys who succeeded in having the Dakota name Bde Maka Ska (White Earth Lake) restored to the former Lake Calhoun. (Submitted photo)

Breaking the Ice: Using legal skills to support Native communities

Name: Carly Bad Heart Bull

Title: Executive director, Native Ways Federation

Education: B.A., history and American Indian studies, University of Minnesota; J.D., University of Minnesota Law School

Native Ways Federation Executive Director Carly Bad Heart Bull is working to encourage greater and more effective philanthropic support for American Indian communities.

While American Indians account for 2% of U.S. population, less than half a percent of philanthropic dollars go to Native communities. Many of the larger grants intended for Indian Country “overwhelmingly go to non-Native organizations and institutions,” Bad Heart Bull said.

The St. Paul-based Native Ways Federation, composed of seven national Native nonprofit organizations, seeks to activate and expand informed giving to Native nonprofits in Indian Country through donor education and advocacy, Bad Heart Bull said.

Bad Heart Bull joined the federation in April 2020. She previously was a Bush Foundation program officer, focusing on that organization’s efforts across 23 Native nations and communities, and worked in child protection in her legal career.

Bad Heart Bull was among a group of attorneys who succeeded in having the Dakota name Bde Maka Ska (White Earth Lake) restored to the former Lake Calhoun.

Q: What’s the best way to start a conversation with you?

A: Introducing yourself, sharing your story and asking to hear mine. Where did you grow up? How did you come to where you are today? All of this helps us understand how we’re connected to one another.

Q: Why did you go to law school?

A: To learn new skills and methods to be an effective advocate for Native nations, communities and families. I wanted to gain new skills and experiences to open up opportunities for new ways to support and advocate for my people.

Q: What books are you reading?

A: “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma.” I’m really excited to read “The Seed Keeper” by Diane Wilson, an amazing local writer, Dakota writer and friend.

Q: What’s your pet peeve?

A: When foundations say, “We’d love to support Native organizations’ issues, [but] we just don’t have a program area for that.” That shouldn’t be an excuse for not funding Native communities.

It’s more than likely that any area a foundation is investing in, whether they have a specific program for Native communities or not, can and should be supporting Native communities.

Q: What’s the best part of your work?

A: Engaging with people and organizations across the country, folks who are doing amazing work in Native communities. I get to hear and see the strength and resilience of our people daily and that keeps me motivated to do this work.

Q: Least favorite?

A: Like many folks, I’m constantly struggling with work-life balance. We’re a small nonprofit, but we are growing, which is incredibly exciting. It’s also exhausting. I wear a lot of hats on any given day.

Q: What’s a favorite activity away from work?

A: Spending time with my 4-year-old son. His name is Quill. We go on a lot adventures, from a walk around the block to walking on trails.

Q: Where would you take someone visiting your hometown?

A: Minneapolis, also known as Bdeota Otunwe (City of Many Lakes), is the homeland of my people, the Dakota people. The primary place I like to take folks is to Bde Maka Ska, formerly Lake Calhoun. Our relatives lived in a village called Heyata Otunwe (Village to the Side) which was at Bde Maka Ska in the mid-1800s, so I have a very personal connection to that lake.

Q: Who is a legal figure you most admire?

A: [Minnesota Supreme Court] Justice Anne McKeig. I clerked for her in family court, the 4th Judicial District, after graduating from law school, and she’s been an incredible mentor. She’s the first Native American to serve on that court and the first Native woman to serve on any Supreme Court of any state. She taught me a lot about not only being a good attorney, but the importance of remaining your authentic self. As an indigenous woman in a Western-dominated society, this is something that can be a challenge.


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