Dr. Karissa Isaacs



Tweed Museum of Art Curator, Dr. Karissa White Isaacs (American Studies PhD, 2013), age 47 of Duluth, MN passed away December 13, 2021, after a brief illness, which she faced with courage.

Karissa was born August 25, 1974, the daughter of Lewis and Mary (Grandlouis) White in Duluth. She was a tribal member of the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe Reservation in WI. 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 tribes 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 Minnesota-Morris and was an Assistant Professor of Native American Studies and coordinated the Indigenous Cultures Center Museum at Northland College in Ashland, WI. 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 experienced many opportunities to live and travel around the country not only for educational opportunities but with early travel as a family with the Badger singers. She loved to read, play piano, fancy dance and was proud to be Miss LCO Junior, 1985. Her shining star in life was her son Isaac “Ozhigaabo”.

She is survived by her son Isaac; husband Brian Isaacs; parents Lewis & Monica White; brothers Dr. Odawa (Brandy) White and their children Ayden, Miinan & Everett, Charles White and his children Leila & Braeden; numerous nieces and nephews; and her extended family at Lac Courte Oreilles, Duluth and Grand Portage.

Tribal Funeral Rites will be held at 10:00 a.m., Friday, December 17, 2021 at Big Drum Ceremonial Center in Lac Courte Oreilles. Chato “Ombishkebines” Gonzalez will officiate. Burial will be in Historyland Cemetery. Visitation will begin at 5:00 p.m. Thursday, December 16th at Big Drum Ceremonial Center.