Madison 365 announced their 2022 list of Wisconsin’s Most Influential Native American Leader, with many of the recipients belonging to the University of Wisconsin community.
For the past six years, Madison 365 has recognized the state’s most influential Black and Latino leaders and decided to do the same for Indigenous leaders in 2020, according to their website. This year featured 39 leaders — including Dr. Angela Fernandez.
When Fernandez, an assistant professor in the UW School of Nursing, discovered she was on the list, she felt not just surprised but honored.
“It was a huge honor to be one of those folks [on the list] and for me, it was also a reminder of my responsibility to be, as many Indigenous folks say, a good relative,” Fernandez said.
For Fernandez, who is a member of the Menominee Nation of Wisconsin, being a good relative means honoring her ancestors through her actions and also paves a healthy future for the next generations, she said.
And she uses her position to do just that.
Fernandez’s research combines social work with the health of marginalized groups, in which she said she intertwines her work at the university with her cultural background.
Before coming to work for the university, Fernandez was a practicing social worker in community based healthcare. During that time, she worked with people from all walks of life and got to immerse herself in organizations focused on Indigenous health.
When she returned to academia as an assistant professor, Fernandez had to translate what she learned from being a practitioner as well as her experience as an Indigenous woman into her teaching and research. Through her clinical work, Fernandez is able to collaborate with inpatient and outpatient healthcare providers, allowing her to collaborate with the community around her.
“Working collectively is where real change comes, real power, real healing, it comes from that relationship that we have with one another,” Fernandez said
This is why Fernandez was excited when she was able to become a member of the campus Native American Environment, Health and Community faculty cluster. As a part of the group, she has been able to combine her research with others in similar fields.
“We share common goals, and we’re very excited to move forward with that and also collaborate,” Fernandez said about working on a project with another member of the cluster.
She is currently working with a Menominee doctoral student who specializes in forest and wildlife ecology. Fernandez explained that there is a major connection between Indigenous health and the land, such as forests, given the history of her Menominee Nation.
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She is in conversation with others in the Menominee community about how to bring youth helpful expertise on how to move forward with the threat of climate change.
“We have in mind how to move forward in a world where the climate changes rapidly, threatening our forests, threatening our health and ways of life,” Fernandez said.
Fernandez said she is also excited about a grant she is working on for a project centered around building a measure of Indigenous health, in relation to cultural practices on the land, which will become part of a larger survey pertaining to sleep health and chronic disease prevention.
A large part of this is community-based research in order to determine the most useful way to help according to the needs of the group, she said. In the future, Fernandez is also looking forward to applying for a bigger grant for a pilot study to develop intergenerational environmental health interventions, she said.
When it comes to her role as an Indigenous woman and leader, Fernandez tries to honor her culture in every action. She also tries to make the work of other Indigenous peoples more visible, pushing past the colonization that attempted to eliminate her people’s existence, she said.
“I think opportunities like this are important to show and honor the work that different kinds of Indigenous folks all over that state are doing, whether it’s in academia or in the community,” Fernandez said. “All of those roles are equally important, they are all necessary, we all need one another.”
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Oneida Nation member Dan Cornelius was also awarded with a spot on Madison 365’s list. Cornelius, the Deputy Director for the Great Lakes Indigenous Law Center, said he considered being recognized as an influential Indigenous leader as recognition for his entire team’s work at the Center.
“I look at my role as a responsibility to make a positive impact and difference to leave something better for future generations, really trying to support giving our upcoming leaders and youth a place to step into,” Cornelius said.
Cornelius’ and his group’s work at the center focuses on supporting tribes by providing inner tribal food systems.
Cornelius said expanding these food systems in a way that aligns with cultural values is imperative, and that for a lot of the agricultural producers he works with, its about serving the Indigenous communities rather than making a profit.
“A lot of our agricultural producers are not motivated by money, if they know they can keep the elders and do more to feed the community, that’s what these people are inspired by,” Cornelius said. “Our work with the center in the law school is trying to create policy to support an infrastructure that’s necessary to expanding those efforts.”
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When asked about his personal motivations for his work within the community, Cornelius said he wants to leave a better future for his son and others who come after him.
Being of Menominee descent, working in Madison just feels right to Fernandez as she is able to directly give back to her community.
“It’s my responsibility to do the best work that I can as an instructor, as a teacher, as a professor as well as as a researcher and as a member of [the Indigenous] campus community,” Fernandez said.