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Kalle Benallie

Rev. Marlene Whiterabbit Helgemo, the first Native woman ordained in the Lutheran church, will be remembered as a strong source for many.

Her obituary said she was constantly in touch with many people and “brought everyone warmth and a sparkle along with her signature purple eyeshadow.”

Marlene, Ho-Chunk Nation, died July 22. She was 75. She is survived by her spouse Harvey, two daughters and two grandchildren.

Pastor Louie Blue Coat, a leader in the United Church of Christ’s Council for American Indian Ministry and its Dakota Association, said on the United Church of Christ website, Marlene represented “UCC Indian country to the outside world.”

She was born in Portage, Wisconsin and grew up in Ashland, Wisconsin.

“She loved to swim in the cold waters of Lake Superior and camp on Madeline Island during the beautiful summers of her youth and later with her family,” according to her obituary.

Marlene attended the Luther Northwestern Theological Seminary and was ordained in 1987. She was a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and served the parishioners of All Nations Indian Church in Minneapolis since 1992.

She recalled in a United Church of Christ video that a friend suggested joining the All Nations Indian Church. She was given permission from the Evangelical Lutheran Church and All Nations Indian Church to be their pastor. 

“It’s just a wonderful ministry to be present in our Indian community, and it makes me proud to be a United Church of Christ pastor — to be able to bring the good news to the urban Indians of Minneapolis,” she said.

Marlene was the executive director of the United Church of Christ’s Council for American Indian Ministry. And she was the CAIM’s interim executive from 2006 to 2012.

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She co-founded the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition and was a member of the board from 2014 to 2020. She was the board president of the American Indian Community Development Corporation of Minneapolis.

“Her care and compassion for all people are indicators of her commitment to the call upon her life. She was a fierce colleague and advocate for the Council for American Indian Ministry in every setting, Rev. Traci Blackmon, the UCC’s associate general minister for Justice and Local Church Ministries, said on the United Church of Christ website. “I will never forget visiting with her at All Nations Church and learning more from her in two days than I’d learned on my own in two years. She will be greatly missed in the realm as her spirit soars.”

The National Congress of American Indians said Marlene will be “deeply missed”

“NCAI mourns the loss of Rev. Marlene Whiterabbit Helgemo (Ho-Chunk Nation). After becoming the first Native American woman ordained in the Lutheran church, Rev. Helgemo went on to live a life dedicated to serving Native communities and will be deeply missed across #IndianCountry.”

It was announced Tuesday from Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, White Earth Nation, that July 26, 2022 will be Reverend Marlene Whiterabbit Helgemo Day.

Both recognized Marlene’s advocacy for Indigenous people and their rights.

“With our deepest gratitude, we recognize Marlene Whiterabbit Helgemo for her many contributions to the people of Minnesota,” Walz said in a Twitter post.

Flanagan said in a Facebook post that Marlene was a beloved auntie whose “legacy continues to push us to serve with heart, compassion, bravery and humor.”

A funeral service was held at the Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis on Tuesday. The recording of the service is available here.

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