2012 Forward under 40 Award Honoree
UW Major: Law
Age: 38 | Billings, Montana
Deputy Executive Counsel to the Crow Nation
As a child in the Crow Nation in southern Montana, Melissa Holds the Enemy wrestled with her ambitions. "The notion of attending a world-class university like [UW-Madison] seemed to be an unattainable dream," she says. "I believed that only individuals with wealthy parents and college funds had access to a great education." But she saw that her community had a deep need for trained and talented attorneys, and so she resolved to seek an education at the UW Law School, where she could explore what traditions such as the Wisconsin Idea and Law in Action meant.
In Madison, Holds the Enemy learned not only the law but also how to use it to advocate on behalf of the Crow Nation. After graduation, she became the Deputy Executive Counsel for one of the largest Indian reservations in the United States. In her brief tenure, she's kept the tribal citizens of the Crow Nation informed about the developments in Cobell v. Salazar, a $3.4 billion settlement of a class-action lawsuit brought by American Indians against the federal government over mismanagement of Indian assets. She also kept communities informed about the issues surrounding the Crow Water Rights Settlement Act, which confirmed and quantified the tribe's water rights on a significant stretch of the Bighorn River.
But it remains the UW, Holds the Enemy says, "where my dreams became reality." Her two children both consider themselves proud Badgers and hope to return to Madison for their education, and even her parents put the word BADGERS on their Montana license plate.
"Native Americans remain at the bottom of nearly every social indicator," she says. "The legacies of historical trauma endure, and, perhaps most disturbingly, hopes and expectations remain dismally low. My experience at the University of Wisconsin sowed the seeds of a fruitful career that will be spent addressing those concerns."
In her own words
What do you miss most about campus?
My kids and I would always find time to walk the path from Eagle Heights to Picnic Point. We had numerous happy conversations on those walks!
What is the greatest benefit of a UW degree?
The greatest benefit for me is always being able to connect with UW alumni no matter where I may be traveling or working. There's always that Badger pride that bursts out!
Who or what inspires you?
What always inspires me is the knowledge of the legacy I come from. On my father's side I am a direct descendant of the great Crow Chief Pretty Eagle. On my mother's side I am a direct descendant of the great Shawnee Chief Tecumseh. My grandparents, with the times and changes they endured, continue to inspire me, because they are why I am able to do what I am doing now — working for the betterment of Native people. I look at the struggles they lived through and the people they came to be. They represent hope, diligence and courage. My paternal grandmother survived in an era in which she was not considered a citizen, even though she was born and raised on the Crow Indian reservation in Montana. She had a sixth-grade education and only spoke the Crow language. My maternal grandfather had an eighth-grade education and was an honored war veteran. I am fortunate that my grandparents shared their journey with me so that I could share it with my children.
What's the best piece of advice you've ever received?
Every day is a new day, so find happiness in at least four things that happened that day, no matter what.
What's your guilty pleasure?
Finding a reason to celebrate with ice cream and cake!