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Red Lake’s Holly Cook Macarro brings Indigenous advocacy to Washington

In World
May 15, 2024

May 15—It felt surreal, to say the least, for Holly Cook Macarro to be sitting between two U.S. presidents, visiting and sharing a meal in a room full of famous and prominent individuals during a White House State Dinner.

Cook Macarro couldn’t help but think back to where she had started — growing up in Red Lake and then Bemidji, a young and passionate person with an interest in tribal advocacy.

“Thinking back makes me choke up a little bit,” she shared. “I’m a kid who was born in an Indian hospital in Red Lake Nation, and I was sitting next to two presidents. How did I get here?”

The journey has been a long one, starting with an introduction to political engagement as a child, an opportunity to be an intern at the White House, working for the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and the Democratic National Committee, all culminating in Cook Macarro starting her own lobbying firm in 2001.

Her firm, called The Angle after Minnesota’s Northwest Angle, advocates for the rights of tribal nations and Indigenous communities across the country, work Cook Macarro believes is both necessary and meaningful.

Throughout all of this, Cook Macarro’s background and ties to her home community in Red Lake have stayed with her, providing a strength and unique perspective she doesn’t take for granted.

“I’ve always been supported by my Red Lake community,” she said. “It’s been the foundation of my work all these years. It’s where I started.”

Cook Macarro’s exposure to the political world started when she was young. She grew up in a politically active family and recalls her mother making phone calls and knocking on doors during election seasons.

“I was raised doing that work,” Cook Macarro explained. “My mother in particular was very active. I grew up hanging door knockers during election time, and I was exposed to political activism all through my childhood.”

After graduating from Bemidji High School and getting her undergraduate degree from the University of North Dakota, Cook Macarro was teaching at Leech Lake Tribal College while pursuing her master’s degree in 1997.

That was when she saw a flyer for a public policy internship sponsored by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation and decided she would try for the position. When she reached out to Red Lake Nation’s then-chairman Bobby Whitefeather for a letter of recommendation, he decided he wanted Cook Macarro to work on their nation’s behalf instead.

“He said ‘I don’t want you going to D.C. and working for someone else, let’s see what I can set up,'” Cook Macarro recalled.

A White House internship was set up, and her career in the political sphere began.

“The political landscape for tribes (back then) was so much different. We had to fight even to be mentioned,” she explained. “The journey from there to where we are now has really been monumental. It’s just been a joy to watch.”

Cook Macarro recalled how at the start of her career she was often one of just a few Native Americans present, and very frequently the only woman. During times like those, she relied on her Red Lake origins, too.

“It was a challenge for me as a young woman to find my voice in rooms that were often dominated by white men,” she shared, “(but) Red Lakers are a very proud people: proud of where we come from, proud of our lands and its status, our communities our cultural lifeways. All of those things gave me grounding and an ability to put power behind my voice.”

As the years have gone by, Cook Macarro has advocated for her community and Native American communities across the United States. She met her husband Mark Macarro, a member and current chairman of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, and started a family.

Both she and her husband, who serves as the president of the National Congress of American Indians, have been strong advocates for Indigenous communities. Their work has been both for their own families and for Native American families and communities across the country.

“It’s been really important to me as the mom of two boys who are very involved in their tribal communities that they have a place to land and move forward that’s different from where I started 30 years ago,” she explained.

Cook Macarro and her husband’s work has gotten them far, earning them an invitation to sit at the head table of a State Dinner near President Joe Biden and former U.S. President Bill Clinton.

And as incredible as the journey and its outcome have been, Cook Macarro wants to ensure that every Native American youth has just as much of an opportunity as she has had, or more, to find success and make an impact.

“I’m a big fan of firsts, but I’m a bigger fan of seconds. Everybody should leave the ladder behind them,” Cook Macarro said. “That’s really the type of work and infrastructure that I strive to leave behind.”

With more political visibility and growing advocacy and leadership from Native American youth from Minnesota to California, Cook Macarro is hopeful for the future of Indigenous communities.

“I see youth now whose voices are so brave and so powerful,” Cook Macarro said. “I want them to know that their voices coming from our Indigenous communities have so much power and to not be afraid to raise their voices for the things that they believe in… I hope they continue to make the noise I see them making now.”

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