ST. CLOUD -- Folk singer Annie Humphrey's origins are as clear to the eye as her Native American features, but her songs are inspired by the human experience.
Now in her mid-30s, the Anishinaabe Ojibwe from Cass Lake is gathering a national following with her awareness-raising lyrics and husky-cool voice.
She's been called an "Indian Joan Baez" for her politically, socially and environmentally oriented messages.
It's a reputation that greatly pleases Humphrey and has expanded demand for her performances at grassroots protest rallies across the country.
The Dispatch caught up with Humphrey at a recent lunchtime concert on the steps of St. Cloud State University's Student Union.
"I don't mean to insult people when I say this, but I don't want to be thought of as a 'brown American'," she said in the interview. "I want to be myself, an Indian person whose beliefs are my own.
"My Indian heritage is part of who I am so some of it comes out in my music, but I sing about a variety of human conditions," Humphrey added. "I just want to tell the truth about the world as I see it."
Born and reared on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation, Humphrey gravitated toward music at a very early age.
Her father taught her how to play the guitar by the first grade and her mother -- storyteller and writer Anne Dunn -- introduced her to the importance of words. Dunn has contributed the lyrics to many of Humphrey's songs.
From a very early age, Humphrey also learned the value of Ojibwe-style self-sufficiency, working with her family in netting fish, raising and curing wild rice, tapping the forest for its bounty of game and berries.
"It's important to know the cycle of the seasons and what we need to do to sustain ourselves," said Humphrey, who is passing along the same experience to her two young children, Geezis, 5, and Justice, 7.
"The traditional lifestyle is still possible (on the reservation) but you have to look a little harder to find it," she said, blaming clear-cutting on public and private forest lands as a threat to the Ojibwe way of life.
Bored with reservation life as a young adult, Humphrey enlisted in the Marine Corps for a four-year hitch, a decision she credits for greatly expanding her view of the world and strengthening her inner self.
"It helped me not to fear adventure," she said. "I liked it because it helped me learn what I am capable of doing physically and mentally."
Her military experience -- she was assigned to a water-purification unit at foreign postings -- also taught her a sense of personal responsibility and duty, she said, knowledge that has banished "the pity stuff" from her music.
After the military, she enrolled at the University of North Dakota, earning all but a few credits of a fine arts degree. Humphrey also holds a certificate from a police academy but has never worked in law enforcement.
Throughout the years, Humphrey continued to develop her music, playing with a variety of bands, both in the military as well as during her college years.
In recent years Humphrey returned to Cass Lake on her own terms. She built an A-frame house in the woods, with no electricity or running water, to bring her children closer to nature, she said.
"Kids spend way too much time in front of the television," she laughed, "and the only way to stop it is to take it away." She's now looking for new accommodations with modern conveniences in Superior, Wis.
Humphrey issued a couple of self-published CDs before landing a recording agreement with Makoche records, a company that specializes in Native American music.
For the first time, her music gained national distribution, and her career began to take off, she said.
"The Heron Smiled" was released last year to critical acclaim, and the company expects to release Humphrey's latest work on a yet-to-be-titled CD in January.
"I feel like I'm making it," Humphrey said, although she sometimes struggles financially. "Last year I couldn't put gas in my truck and buy groceries and this year I can. So things are getting better.
"Sure, I'd like to make it into the national spotlight," Humphrey added. "Not because of the money, but because of the message. If I could speak to a room of 50 people, that would be cool. But speaking to a room of 5,000 is cooler."
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