A journey that started in Lac Du Flambeau, led to the South and West then to Stevens Point may lead University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point graduate student Candace Thompson right back where she started.
A member of the Ojibwe Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and the Tohono O’odahm Nation of Arizona, Thompson is on track to earn her master’s degree in community and organizational leadership.
She plans to take her knowledge back to her hometown to help support youth through organized sports programs. Involved in the North American Indigenous Games since she was young, Thompson is already coaching a track team to compete in the next games in July 2023 in Nova Scotia, Canada.
“I’m very interested in helping my community,” she said. “We know that addiction runs through Native communities as does childhood trauma,” Thompson said. “I’d like to offer youth experiences outside of their home and help them use sports as a coping technique.”
Thompson began playing basketball when she was 10 years old with the Lakeland traveling team. She had seen how Native youth struggled with the adjustment of being a majority in grade school to a minority in high school. The traveling team gave her the opportunity to interact with non-native students in the area before she got to high school, as well as learn about teamwork.
“Basketball helped me get out of my shell,” Thompson said. “I hope to do the same for the children in Lac du Flambeau. “I want to get them outside, meeting new people and realizing the benefits of exercise for stress relief and physical activity.”
After beginning higher education in Milwaukee, Thompson joined the U.S. Air Force. She served for eight years as a pharmacy technician, stationed in Biloxi, Miss., and Tucson, Ariz. She r then was ready to go back to school through the G.I. Bill, with an interest in science-related courses.
“Natural resources brought me to UW-Stevens Point, but I ended up in biology,” Thompson said. She completed her undergraduate degree in biology in May 2022, finding her studies supported the Native beliefs that all things are connected.
“I felt more tied to tribal holism than ever before,” she said.
Her adviser, Biology Professor Chris Yahnke, helped her stay focused by discussing these holistic Native beliefs with her. She shared poetry with him about wolves being the brothers of the tribe.
“This perspective became vital the following semester when Wisconsin had a wolf hunt and did not consider the relational value of the wolf as brother to our Indigenous people,” said Yahnke. “I can talk about relational values but to hear from Candace directly is more impactful for me and the students in the class.”.
Thompson will blend her love of natural resources, biology and sports when working with the young members of her tribe.
“I feel it’s my duty to educate people about sustainability,” she said. “There is work to be done to bring more sustainability to Lac du Flambeau. They currently don’t have a recycling program, so I feel compelled to help with that.”
Thompson has found a home away from home at UW-Stevens Point’s Native American Center (NAC), where she works each week. She also serves as president of the student organizations American Indians Reaching for Opportunities (AIRO) and American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES).
“It can be difficult to come to college and face the unknown, so I tell other Native American students to get involved because it helped me,” she said. “If you feel homesick, it’s a way to connect and feel less alone.”
One of her mentors has been NAC Director Rachel Davis, who encouraged her to pursue a graduate degree.
“Candace deeply cares for others and shows that through her leadership in the Native American Center,” said Davis. “It has been a great gift to get to know and work with Candace and I appreciate her insights grounded in our Indigenous worldviews. Candace is a veteran, to be in her presence is to be with someone who is strong in their beliefs, values and identity. And lucky for us, she is willing to use those strengths to help those she loves, her community and her country.”
“Everything I’ve learned at UW-Stevens Point has been helpful,” Thompson said. “When I wanted to quit, what sticks out most has been being able to focus on sustainability. It opened my eyes. Now I hope to go back to Lac du Flambeau and make a difference there.
“Every child matters,” she said. “I just want to help anyone who needs it.”