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UWS Student, Heaven Fleming, Named 2023 Outstanding Woman of Color in Education

By Andrea Busche

The Woman Today, Duluth


While 23-year-old Heaven Waasiikwe Fleming feels deeply connected to her Indigenous roots, that hasn’t always been the case. Although she and her family are enrolled members of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band, she attended the predominantly white Drummond High School.


Fleming often felt self-conscious when, for instance, she would wear the large, beaded earrings her grandmother had lovingly made for her. But at home her heritage was celebrated.


“I always knew we were Native,” Fleming said. “My Ojibwe name, Waasiikwe, was given to me by a friend of my grandparents who had dreamed about it. My aunts and grandma taught me to make moccasins. And my dad, David Waabigekek Fleming, knew a little bit of the Ojibwe language. He always brought home fresh fish and emphasized the importance of wild rice in our culture.”


Heaven named Miss Honor the Earth at 2022 powwow.

School and work

Fleming is a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, which is also her father’s alma mater. David earned a degree in business administration and has worked for both Northland College and LCO Ojibwe Community College over the years.


Heaven, meanwhile, is pursuing a degree in elementary education with a double minor in American Indian studies and instruction. She has wanted to be a teacher for as long as she can remember.


“My favorite thing to do with my siblings when we were kids was to play school. But I always had to be the teacher,” she added with a laugh.


Fleming lives in her own home on the LCO reservation near Hayward, Wisconsin, and attends her classes remotely.


Fleming has a lot on her plate. In addition to her studies, she works full time as a paraprofessional at the Waadookodaading Ojibwe Language Institute, a K-9 Ojibwe immersion school in Hayward. She also volunteers her time as an elementary-level basketball coach. The language learning curve has been undoubtedly steep for Fleming.


“At our school, we only speak Ojibwe; no English,” she explained. “I only started learning Ojibwe last year and, at first, could only say words like ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye.’ Now I know a bit more. Mentally, I know I’m ready to be a teacher, but I still have a lot more to learn with the language.”


Thankfully, she has plenty of colleagues she can rely on for guidance. This includes her aunt, Bezhig Hunter, who is also a teacher at the Institute.


Upon graduation, Fleming plans to continue working at the Institute, with plans to transition from a paraprofessional to a teacher. She finds deep fulfillment in sharing the importance of her culture with young people.


“The kids here learn everything within the Wisconsin educational standards, but it’s taught in the Ojibwe language, and we look at everything through that lens,” she said. “The kids also learn our cultural traditions like spearing, sugar bushing and ricing.”


Award

Recently, the University of Wisconsin-Superior named Fleming a recipient of the 2023 Outstanding Women in Color in Education Award. This annual honor is given to faculty, staff, students or community members to recognize their achievements in advancing equity and inclusion for people of color within the University of Wisconsin System, as well as communities across the state. This year marks the 28th anniversary of the award, through which more than 400 women of color have been recognized for their transformational work.

Recipients were formally recognized on Nov. 9, 2023. An awards ceremony and reception were held in Madison and hosted by the Universities of Wisconsin.


Leadership at UW-Superior is incredibly proud of Fleming’s achievements.


“Heaven has accomplished so much already at a young age and has been an outstanding leader on campus,” said UW-Superior’s Maria Stalzer Wyant Cuzzo, Ph.D., J.D., provost, and Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs.


“Her commitment to sharing her native Ojibwemowin language and culture with fellow students and the broader UW-Superior campus community have greatly enriched the learning experience and fostered a sense of belonging for all. I look forward to seeing how Heaven uses her UW-Superior education major to make a positive impact for her students and community members in the future. There is no doubt that she is creating a lasting, positive legacy that will benefit many.”


This isn’t the first time Fleming was recognized for her hard work. In 2022, she was awarded the Electa Quinney Institute Leaders of the Good Land Scholarship, which is awarded to Indigenous students in the Universities of Wisconsin, and based on academic achievement.


Heaven, with her sister Minwaanimadikwe and son, Naawigiizhig, attend a winter storytelling event in Fond du Lac, 2023

Personal

Fleming shares her life with her partner, Ryan Ayaabe, and her 8-year-old stepson, Naawigiizhig, who attends school at the Institute. Ayaabe is also a UW-Superior student, pursuing a degree in psychology, while working in the LCO Elder Center.


Together, the family enjoys playing board games, video games and sledding. Fleming also enjoys spending time with her family of origin, including her father and her four siblings.

 

Gratitude

Fleming is deeply grateful to have received this special honor from her university.


“Out of the 14 recipients of this award, two of us were Indigenous females. I hope this inspires all Native women to continue to work hard to achieve whatever they put their minds to,” she said. “And I hope they will take up space in the academic world. Representation is important.”


She is also pleased to be able to provide a positive example for the youth in her community.

“A lot of the kids I work with are so impressed that I go to college. It’s important for them to see that they can do big things, too.”

 

Andrea Busche is a Duluth-based freelance writer and small-business owner. She has been a frequent contributor to The Woman Today since 2008.

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