If Halee’s life were a book, it would be magical realism—one filled with dragons to slay, charming characters, and chance encounters gripped with meaning.
Halee Kirkwood ’15, who uses the pronouns they/them/theirs, is an adjunct professor at Hamline University, editor of the literary journal Runestone, teacher at the Loft Literary Center, a poet and writer, and manager of Birchbark Books and Native Arts in Minneapolis—owned by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Louise Erdrich. Halee is twenty-seven years old.
A member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Halee grew up in Superior, Wisconsin, but they didn’t discover Northland until Upward Bound, a college preparatory program for underserved youth, organized a visit day. Halee was smitten with Northland’s small class sizes and its interdisciplinary, hands-on approach.
In a Native American literature course, Halee read Louise Erdrich’s The Round House. It was the first time Halee had ever read a book by an Ojibwe woman—and they had read a lot.
“I could see for the first time that I could write my own story,” Halee said. “The Round House opened up a whole world for me of what Native literature is. My exposure to Louise Erdrich was insanely instrumental as a human and also as an artist.”
At Northland, Halee studied literature, writing, eco-criticism, and gender and women’s studies. Halee interacted with a dynamic group of peers—one of whom hired Halee for an internship at Aqueous, a regional literary journal.
Another pivotal experience: using Parsonage Fund money, Halee and cohorts attended the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference in Minneapolis. “It was a chance to see how people are doing this, earn a living from a writing life,” Halee said.
After graduation, Halee worked at the Vaughn Library in downtown Ashland, Wisconsin. Eighteen months later, they enrolled in an MFA program at Hamline University. “I hope to write stuff that is tied to my own experience. I want to show what it looks like beyond the reservation,” Halee said. “I want to get specific about place.”
After graduation, they published poetry, taught, and worked part-time at a baby boutique. Then during the early months of the pandemic, Ojibwe poet Anthony Ceballos asked if Halee would like to take some shifts at Birchbark Books and Native Arts—the store had closed its doors, but online sales were booming.
A shift here and there grew into more—and soon they were working full-time for Louise Erdrich, the author who had inspired them to pursue writing. “Halee raises the level of discourse anywhere they appear! Not only that, but their warmth, brilliance, and deep understanding of tribal life experience shines out on the world through poetry and bookstore work,” said Erdrich. “Halee has become essential to all we do.”
Halee read Erdrich’s first book, Love Medicine, and discovered Crazy Brave by Poet Laureate Joy Harjo. “When I read that book, I thought, “Holy crap, someone is writing about this,” Halee said. Crazy Brave is a slim but wholly original and powerful memoir of Harjo’s life from before birth to her time at the Institute of American Indian Arts.
“I gave my mom Crazy Brave. She read it and told me, ‘I thought I was alone in all these experiences.’”
Halee began leading virtual events with authors like Anton Truer, Ursula Pike, and Congresswoman Sharice Davis, and was named manager of Birchbark Books this past summer. “It was a silver lining of the pandemic year,” Halee said.
Halee’s biggest joy is connecting customers to resources and stories they didn’t know existed. “A young person comes in and has never read a book from her tribe. I tell her, ‘Here’s a book—that’s where the love is.”