SEEN is a prison portrait and poetry project. But more importantly, it’s a Minnesota portrait and poetry project. Through photography, video, and written word, we share the poignant brilliance of poets and prose writers in Minnesota state prisons, and work together to make the invisible visible, the unheard heard, and the unseen seen. Mass incarceration is dependent upon the ignoring and erasure of the human beings we cage. In collaboration with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop (MPWW) and the thoughtful, intelligent, humble, and deeply gifted writers on the inside, WAAC challenges and disrupts mass incarceration by clearing the pathways for people behind bars to have their voices heard, faces seen, and humanity recognized–and for people on the outside to reckon with the inhumanity of our country’s mass incarceration mass disaster.

This page is dedicated to Dawn’s work. For more poets and essayists, check out the SEEN page.

ZOON-GI-DE’E IN-DE’ 1-KWE, a song











ZHIGWAAJIGE*, an excerpt

When I meet another skin*, I always ask, who are you, where are your people from, what’s your family’s name, and who’s your father?

In 1981, at the age of 19, I worked for the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, archiving all the files significant to the seven Ojibwe’ Tribes of Minnesota. I could easily identify which Tribe and Band a person was from by their last name. I learned a darker history of my people by combing through these dusty; original files of the allottee’s and their descendants, starting from the late 1800s. At the time, I was too young to really understand what I was reading or its impact on the past, current, and the future generations to come.

The first file I searched for was my biological grandmother on my mother’s side; Josephine Hill-Ochiltree. As I was reviewing the information, there were several documents. These showed hospitalizations at a sanitarium, correspondence from the BIA, the “Agency,” (which was the welfare before it was called the Welfare Agency), and letters from the Catholic Diocese.

What I first discovered, was that my grandmother was subjected to the forced adoption of several of her eight children, as she according to the Catholic Diocese had all of her children out of wedlock. The Diocese had not recognized common-law marriages or Native traditional marriages that took place by the Opwagun* ceremony. Additionally, Minnesota State Law had not and does not recognize these same marriages/ceremonies today.

My second discovery was that several of her eight children had been taken from her and placed in boarding schools, and she had been sent to the sanitarium in Fergus Falls, Minnesota. While there, my grandmother had been examined and perceived as retarded and deemed incapable of taking of herself and her children. And thus my Nokomis* was sterilized.

I had gone home that day distraught. I called my mother and asked her about my grandmother. “Mom, I was going through the old, ancient allottee files at work today, and the first file I went through was Grandma Josephine’s. Did you know that she was retarded?” My mother’s response was sharp and quick, “No, she was not!” My mother then explained that the government had run a mass campaign and sterilized Indian people, and that one of the ways to do this was to label anyone who did not speak English, ‘retarded.’ That was how my grandmother became a victim of ‘silent genocide.’

In 1991, Scottsdale, Arizona, I had suffered in the throes of a third miscarriage. My British husband, Jeffrey Scott Peel, who incessantly reminded me that he was the important descendant of Sir Robert Peel, founder of the London Bobbies; refused to touch my body nor share the marriage bed in marital union until I was sterilized. Ultimately, devastated, I made the sacrifice. I went under the knife but held secretly in my heart; that I could if I desired to re-join those precious, life-driving fallopian vessels at another time. Upon my anesthesia recovery, the doctor proclaimed the irrevocable cauterization of my dream.

*Zhigwaajige, Ojibwe’: extract marrow from bones; its meaning and implication is far beyond the literal, into the metaphysical realms

*skin: slang for Native American kinship

*Opwagun, Ojibwe’: Sacred Pipe

*Nokomism, Ojibwe’: Grandmother

Ancestors of the North

Deep into the night I hear Council’s query

transported to tranquility

Guided by Wisdom’s gentle voices

the quest of daytime’s meanings

Warn against illusions; test heart’s Truth

dreams steeped in embracing images

Mysterious veil of past and future

laced in Ancestral love’s adulation

When I am lost, they find me

When in flight, they join me

When I sleep, they hold me

Ancestors of the North


Am I Invisible; does my indigenous offend you?

I am ferociously fragile and steely strong I embody your prejudice and hidden fears

I am the beauty and glory in the morning sun


You have me shackled and imprisoned

My voice and spirit, you have tried to crush

Your obscenities scorch my ears and tears that sear

Gossips round you go; and you think I don’t know?


Trauma, does it grip you tight like a vise?

Or choke with wicked fingers around your throat?

Silencing–you can’t squelch me

Punishing–doesn’t wound anymore


I am more than the splendor of my espresso long hair

More than the message of my heart that indeed cares

I have the elixir that soothes,

The sagacious love that heals


Eating Sushi

Eating sushi, depending upon your place in the Universe, would be considered an acquired taste, and in part of the trend scene of saveur fare while relenting your accumulating entertainment expense account, can revolutionize ones spend thrift habits surrounding a gastronomical affair.

Entering the modern day, geometric all glass walls of Mikasa Sushi House of Scottsdale, Arizona, with its rose-colored marbled floors, thirty-foot ivory silk-screened paintings of Japanese mountain, sea and landscapes anchored by black braided brocades throughout. My precocious five-year-old self arrived with grandfather, John Baptiste, for another great adventure.

Like times before, I enjoyed many firsts with him, mustering all the bravery that any little girl could. He was the apple of my eye. I ate my first oyster, shot my first gun, caught my first fish, lit my first firecracker, and when I was old enough, I smoked my first cigar. If Gampy suggested it, I was game.

Today was no different. Bellied up to the table, he ordered sushi. In awe of the well-dressed grown-ups, lacquered chopsticks lying elegantly across each squared plate, and the clinking of glasses filled with ice in surround sound. I asked, “What ish shushi?” He responded in his kind grandfatherly voice, “Raw fish piled neatly on rice with green Japanese horseradish, called wasabi, dipped in soy sauce.”

“Mmm, shoundsh good. Shushi wish washaaaabi.” My eyes smiled back at him with my missing, whistling, front tooth in approving delight. My five-year-old self liked anything my Gampy liked. I pretended, even if I didn’t. All I knew, I liked fish; I liked rice, but that Japanese green horseradish was a curiosity–I was willing to try. In the past, Gampy told me if I kept on eating horseradish, I would somehow grow hair on my chest just like him. That’s what he told me, and I was looking forward to that hair on my chest one day.

Across the way at the next table is my seventeen-year-old self with my divorced father, Donald, and my loathsome step-mother, Mary. It is no secret that she hates me. I didn’t have to vie for my father’s affections. Daddy insisted she be present at the Arizona State University open house I had elected to attend in the fall; go Sun Devils! I was bored. I didn’t want to be seen with my parents. Nor was I in the mood to share this sushi experience without Gampy who had recently entered the spirit world.

“What happened to the days of adventure little one?” Daddy teased. “I thought we would celebrate my firstborn going into college. They say this is the place to be seen.”

“Maybe to be seen, but certainly not on the best in town to eat at Daddy”, snapping my dark eyes in Mary’s direction, while I surveyed the room. “I really am not hungry, and I don’t feel adventuresome.”

The waiter took our order, and my seventeen abhorrent self, indifferent, ordered a cucumber salad with edamame and a diet coke. I’m a spoiled daddy’s girl.

At a table in the darkened corner of the restaurant, I spied my thirty-something, recently divorced self, with a handsome, well-dressed, gentleman. His ringed fingers expertly fondling sashimi, he is teaching my slightly tipsy self how to navigate the delectable, soy sauced, raw fish flesh, without the use of chopsticks. He is flirting with me. I seemed to like it. As he placed it on my tongue; I bit down and nipped his fingers in a naughty way. I laughed.

I watched my five-year-old self watching me. I stopped; we locked eyes for a moment, as if a knowing registered.

High in the rafter VIP section is my sixty-five-year-old self, sitting with old acquaintances. Enjoying the view of the city skyline, the room filled of beautiful people, catching up on old times, and wondering what our lives had measured up to. Much has changed, but the glad hearts between us still strong.

Somehow I am different; I no longer drink alcohol. I am powerfully self-sufficient. I am much more conscientious of what I put in my body. In times past, I ate sashimi three times a week

when I hiked the local mountain peaks nearly every day; a physical and spiritual quest. High protein, low carbs in a disciplined way I kept my athletic body lean and strong. Now I care for my body with health consciousness, and a love for Mother Earth in a more reverent and mindful way. How much mercury is in the Sushi? Do I order it? Or go vegan?

I see across the room the adventurous five-year-old with the undying love of her Gampy by her side, learning the awkward use of chopsticks; the scared seventeen-year-old, sitting in the seat of familial tedium, embarking the challenge of college life; the thirty-something, sexually alive and experiencing newfound freedom.

In my life’s liberating goddess age with more than golden years to live; Epicureanism is a journey of the pallet, and a collection of hedonistic experiences, a lifetime of accomplishments through ages and stages of my entire existence, from life’s sensual and lively celebrations. I’ve become a pretentious foodie who’d conquered college, fallen foolishly in love, married and divorced twice, successful several times over in business.

What I hold dear with love and loyalty, are my family and friends, and greatest of all, I know that my beloved Gampy watches over me with his whiskery smile from the great cosmos. I throw caution to the wind, and I ordered sashimi like a connoisseur, a ginger ale with fresh strawberries in a fluted champagne glass.

When my glass came, I saluted with flamboyant abandon to all my other-selves from the balcony, “Life is good!” With my glass still raised a bit higher to the unseen world, I smiled at my ancient aspiration and whispered–“Gampy, I never did grow that hair on my chest.”

We are more than our numbers. We are humanity. And through our words and portraits, we are discovering intrinsically who we are, and we are no different than you. When I share my poetry, people see themselves in me.

I believe in the miracle of love in language, the prayers of our Ancestors, and laughter that helps us heal.