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Little Thunders— As the thunder rolls, reflections and questions

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It is said by my Anishinaabe Ojibwe Elders that whenever you hear thunder, it is an indication that the spirits are ready to speak to you and give you wisdom about consequential matters you could be encountering, either in the moment or in the near future. The sounds of thunder bring my thoughts into reflection and deep listening. When I was growing up in Washington State, thunder was rather rare, and I probably remember every significant thunderstorm. As a child, I listened to the booming thunder and I’d hide under my covers while thinking intensely about unanswered questions.

Three years ago, my family of six moved, driving across the country from Spokane, Wash., to Yellow Springs. Our moving van pulled up in the village right at dusk. There was an October thunderstorm in progress with frequent little thundering sounds coming from all four directions. This echoey kind of thunder wasn’t something I was familiar with, but I thought to myself, “there is a lot to unfurl here.”

Welcome to my new column, Little Thunders: An Ojibwe Woman’s Perspective.

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Over time, if you keep reading, you will get to know me and my perspective, but today I’ll tell you a little bit about my history. I’m Dawn Knickerbocker. My parents named me Dawn because I was born in the early morning, just as the sun was rising out of the darkness. I connect to the renewal and hope every sunrise brings. Some of you in the area may have met me when my name was Jennifer, but I recently changed it to my given middle name, Dawn. I’ve been married to my spouse, Heath, for 20 years and together we have four children.

I’m Native American/American Indian/ Indigenous Ojibwe. I belong to the Anishinaabe people, a citizen of White Earth Nation, and am an enrolled member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe from the Ottertail Pillager Band of Indians. My identity as an Ojibwe woman is important to me and I have a responsibility to all the sources that I am: to all past and future ancestors; to the land where I was born and to all places that I touch down on and that are myself; to all women, all of my tribe, all earth, all water and beyond that to all beginnings and endings.

Before I was here in Yellow Springs, I lived in Washington, where I grew up on a dairy goat farm. I had my hands in the dirt, grew food, raised and cared for animals and rode horses bareback every day until the sun went down. I moved many times over the years; many homes, many loves. As a teen, I moved to Seattle and it was there that I became involved in the work of anti-racism and community organizing through my love for culture, heritage and the arts. This is where I began writing and understanding that I have an important voice, because I have to write. It is my survival.

I’m a natural leader. I held an elected position as the chair of the Advisory Commission on Diversity in the most diverse city in the State of Washington, which is Renton. When I lived in Spokane, I designed and implemented a grant funding program for the arts, called SAGA, which is still in effect today. I also founded a nonprofit live-storytelling organization called Pivot. Here in Yellow Springs, I worked for Antioch College as the director of foundation & corporate relations until recently, when they significantly downsized and my position was eliminated. I am now the director of strategic partnerships at the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. I get to build connections and community while working on projects relating to re-indigenizing agrarian practices and education, which brings great joy to my life. I’m also a board member of the Greater Cincinnati Native American Coalition and a co-leader at Mothers Out Front.

Woven through all the work that I’ve done and the projects that I’ve been involved with, is my insatiable thirst for connection, meaning, remembrances, Native tradition and revealing the truth. In my perspective, what is most personal is also most universal. In my Ojibwe language, we call that mino-bimaadiziwin, which is the road to knowledge or the path to the “good life.” To me, representation as an Ojibwe woman matters — even if that means consenting to learn in public.

I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to write and share these Little Thunders with you, my Yellow Springs family. I will be writing about and exploring the difficulties I and other Indigenous peoples face in modern American society. This includes topics like identity, the land, colonization and what it means to re-indigenize. I will also share my stories that draw from deeply felt emotion, celebrating them, and connecting with national and international issues I’ve become involved with, from the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women (#MMIW) to the International Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Writing about these issues is vital. There are no longer Tribal Council Fires burning here in Ohio, like there are in other places I’ve lived and visited from coast to coast. Our Indigenous wisdom is missing from decision-making, and therefore there is no consensus. While I don’t speak on behalf of all Native Americans, I will dispel misconceptions about contemporary Native American issues and also connect to past experiences that intersect with the laws of paradox and continual change.

Here on Turtle Island (North America), we already experienced an apocalypse, a complete upending of everything we knew as normal and familiar. Indigenous people weren’t supposed to have survived the genocide, from the initial frontline to the continued hammer of the colonial project. But here we are — and we are not conquered. With all that humans are now facing — COVID-19, climate crisis, the racial reckoning and the emotional fatigue of living under technological dominance — we will not emerge into a better place until we understand that it’s not just what we do, but how we do it. The ancestors of this land, the original Indigenous inhabitants, are still here. There is always the hope and the possibility of becoming a people again who can tend the old-growth forest, seeds, foods, medicines, winged and furry alliances. Healthy landscapes are even a possibility — but culturally encoded and sacred relationships are needed for that to happen again. 

We Indigenous peoples, who have endured and survived against all odds, have never forgotten. Imprinted in our bodies, held in the blood in our veins like rushing rivers, in the little ponds of our grandmother-womb waters, are answers. We’ve been listening to the thundering from all directions since time immemorial, and yet, there are decades of work ahead to move into a landscape better aligned with these thunders.

Monday, Oct. 12, is Indigenous Peoples Day, formerly known as Columbus Day. I hope you will join me in looking closely at what that means. I will be speaking at a virtual event, bringing many international Indigenous voices to the forefront at I will also be giving the opening presentation at Pathways to Regeneration, the annual conference for the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions, Nov. 6–8, at

Miigwech (thank you in Ojibwe).

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