North Dakota woman surprised by seat win on tribal council

By James C. Falcon
Belcourt, North Dakota (AP) November 2010

After living a long life as a Benedictine sister and an educator, Zelma Peltier now has a new position to add to her resume: politician.

Peltier, who recently won a seat on the Turtle Mountain tribal council, said that, for years, her students at the Turtle Mountain Community College had been after her to run for public office.

"They wanted me to run as the chairperson!" she said. "I said, 'Oh, no. I'll let someone else do that.' People kept asking me and, since I retired, I figured I'd do it."

So, she signed up, but she didn't think she would be elected. She was proven wrong.

On Nov. 2, voters on the Turtle Mountain Reservation elected Peltier to serve as one of two representatives for the reservation's District 4. She received roughly 25 percent of the total votes, making her the second-highest vote-getter.

"I had so many votes, I was shocked," she said. "That shows they trust me, that I'm an honest person, that I have something to offer."

She, along with her new colleagues, will be sworn in at an inaugural ceremony in Belcourt Dec. 5. At 78 years old, Peltier is beginning a new chapter in the book that is her life.

"I hope that I bring to the council a little wisdom because I've learned a lot," she said. "I've experienced a lot of culture."

Peltier's earlier years were spent in Belcourt, on the Turtle Mountain Reservation. She attended a couple of years at the school in Belcourt, but the lion's share of her earlier education was received at St. Ann's Catholic School.

"As I grew older, I began thinking about my life and what I wanted to do with my life," she said. "I read some mission magazines and decided to be a missionary in China. My parents, they wouldn't hear of that. It's too far away (they said.)"

So, she prayed.

"I felt I had a calling to be a nun," she said. "It's kind of a funny thing. It's within you, you have this feeling, this desire, and sometimes you forget about it. Sometimes, I would be at a dance having the time of my life, and I had this real lonesome feeling, that life wasn't complete."

As it turned out, God wanted her to be a nun.

"He was calling me," she said. "I believe God puts circumstances in people, and ideas and thoughts in you to do something that He wants you to do."

The Benedictine nuns, who had established a home at St. Ann's, offered Peltier a scholarship to attend the Immaculate Conception High School, in Ferdinand, Ind. She said it was as if the nuns were reading her mind.

As an eighth-grade student, Peltier went to Indiana and attended the school. She graduated in 1950 and promptly entered the Sisters of St. Benedict convent, where she eventually became a Benedictine sister.

In 1953, she started her career in education, teaching at schools in Evansville and Indianapolis, Ind. She also studied language and eventually became a Spanish teacher at the Bishop Chatard High School, in Indianapolis. In 1964, she was sent to Colombia where she taught at Our Lady of the Assumption, in Santiago de Cali, a city in the western part of the country. She taught English as a second language there and, for four years, served as the school's principal.

It was there, she said, that she "fell in love with those people." But, there were people "my own people and my family" waiting back in Belcourt for her. By the end of 1969, Peltier was back on her native soil. The following spring, she left the order.

"There were some things that I didn't exactly believe any more," she said of her dispensation. "I questioned some things. I came to the conclusion that I could be just as good a person without being a nun."

Also, her parents were getting older, and "in our culture, the oldest daughter cares for the parents when they get old." These factors contributed to her leaving the convent. But make no mistake, religion is still a part of her life. "My spiritual life is still very important to me. My faith is very strong."

Upon her return to the United States, she was involved in education for the next 40 years.

"It wasn't always in the classroom, but it was always in education," she said.

She also reconnected with Francis Peltier, a "career Marine" and an acquaintance from her youth who once predicted that they would be married one day. She had rebuffed him, explaining that she was going to be a nun. They were married in January 1972.

The majority of her work in education was spent on the Turtle Mountain Reservation, where she taught all grades at the Turtle Mountain Community School and the Ojibwa School, as well as part-time at the Turtle Mountain Community College. For four years, she also worked as an education specialist in Aberdeen and Pine Ridge, S.D.

"My whole life has been one where I loved what I did and did it with a passion," she said. "I always felt that I had something to offer my students, to help them with their lives."

Starting in 1999, Peltier began to teach full time at the college, training teachers and teaching humanities, speech and the Spanish and Mitchif languages. This past May, she submitted her resignation.

"I have been wanting to retire, but (the students) ask 'Please don't retire. Wait until I finish college. Another year, another year,"' she said. "Some of them were upset when I retired.

Paula Hunt, Peltier's niece, who works as an administrative assistant at the college, said that Peltier's classes were always the most popular.

"When she was teaching speech classes, we would have students that would beg her to get in. Of course, she would, and we'd have to move (her class) to the largest classroom every semester," Hunt said. "Some kids are going to miss her, but they'll be happy for her, regardless."

Peltier's recent resignation is her third attempt, Hunt said, adding that now that she has semi-retired, Peltier will have "some sad kids."

Culture, at least the Native American culture, was one of the reasons why she sought a position on the tribal council. She said she was slightly disillusioned by "the way things happened among our people."

"We were losing our focus. We were losing our identity as Native people because we weren't living up to the principles we were taught. And it hurt me to see this happening," she explained. "I agreed to run for political office because perhaps, in some small way, I could help straighten things out, to do the right thing living like our ancestors taught us.

"It seems that people do things without principles or ethics. Of course, there are so many of our people who are homeless, who are so poverty stricken, so poor, who seemingly had no hope for the future. We should."

Peltier said that she came from "a very poor family," but her parents were hard-working.

"We were, more or less, self-sufficient that way, but we helped other people too. We always had food, shelter and the love of our parents. I see that not happening today," she said. "I see homelessness, poverty, the need for economic development. I see our health issues and all those things are so important, so that our people will be full human beings and be able to function as human beings. And spirituality enters into that, too. If we don't have a vision of what we would like to see in our future generations, then there is just no hope. I would like to see that happening."

With the help of a united tribal council, this goal, as well as others, can be achieved, she said.

"We must be united and work together to achieve some of the goals we want to achieve economic development, health care, housing for our people, and education. I believe, too, we need to revitalize our language and culture so that our children will know who they are and be proud of who they are."

She said that her age isn't going to have any negative effects on her role as a political figure. After all, she pointed out, the high number of votes she received is proof enough that the tribal members have faith in her, regardless of age.

"As I look at it, I say I might be older, but I still have a clear mind and I still have a lot to offer because I have learned so much in the years I lived," she said.

In her new role Hunt described this as being "another stepping stone in her life" Peltier explained, age isn't the be-all and end-all of a career. Movie stars, musicians, and politicians don't retire. In the latter case, they serve until they are on their death beds, she pointed out.

"Look at Betty White. She's 88 and she's still going strong," she said. "So I don't feel so bad."