Memorial in honor of Dr. Karissa White Isaacs


Tweed Museum of Art Curator, Dr. Karissa White Isaacs (American Studies PhD, 2013) passed away on December 13, 2021, after a brief illness, which she faced with courage. Karissa was a tribal citizen of the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe Reservation in Wisconsin and was born on August 25, 1974.

Karissa earned her BA from Hamline University, and subsequently worked as a paralegal with the Indian Child Welfare Law Center in Minneapolis. She later joined the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office as a Legal Assistant.

Karissa’s dissertation in the Department of American Studies was an assertion of tribal sovereignty. She examined the history of the legal struggle for treaty rights in the development of tribal museums in the Pacific Northwest and the Great Lakes. It required research in two different regions of Indian Country, providing Karissa with a high level of expertise.

Karissa worked in a field where American Indians are tremendously under-represented. It was important to her that American Indians work in exhibitions, programming, and teaching. After obtaining an MA in Museum Studies from the University of Washington-Seattle and working toward the development of a new Squaxin Island Museum, Library and Research Center, she returned to her home community to build the tribe’s archives. She worked on two significant oral history projects at the Minnesota Historical Society, one interviewing elderly American Indian veterans about their World War II experiences.

Karissa was a very successful graduate student during her time at the University, and in an unusual case, largely supported herself and her young son through external grants, winning two major Ford Foundation Fellowships. She was adored by her fellow graduate students in American Studies for her professionalism, generosity, and sense of humor. Karissa was a supportive friend and a warm colleague.

Karissa began her teaching career with a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Minnesota-Morris and was an Assistant Professor of Native American Studies and coordinated the Indigenous Cultures Center Museum at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin. Karissa was a talented scholar, teacher, and museum professional, and curated significant exhibitions at the Tweed Museum. Two highlights were the much-celebrated Intersections: Contemporary Art from Minnesota-Based Native Artists and a multi-media installation by Jonathan Thunder, Manifest’o in 2018. Karissa also loved traditional art forms and curated A Selection of Gashkibidaaganag about the Ojibwe bandolier bag in 2019.

Karissa (Neyaandagookwe) is survived by her son Isaac, her husband Brian Isaacs, her brothers Dr. Odawa White (Brandy) and Charles White, and her parents, Monica and Lewis White, and numerous nieces and nephews and extended family at Lac Courte Oreilles, Duluth and Grand Portage. (By Brenda J. Child, Karissa’s Graduate Advisor)