In my work as a journalist I have reported on a number of Native American’s stories. I have spent the past few years reporting on the Ojibwe language revitalization movement and the Dakota struggle to reclaim rights and recognition in their homeland.
I have listened to voices on all sides of often painful stories, including my own inner voice that seeks relief by setting aside the heavy task of judgement. I have spent a lot of time just listening and writing down other people’s words.
Today I am writing down my own thoughts on why I support the action of AIM to protest the Red Skins game on November 7 and what I am learning about honoring Indigenous culture. I disagree with Karl Swanson, vice-president of the Washington Redskins football team, and others who argue that the use of a Native American mascot somehow is a honor or tribute. There are many ways to honor Indigenous peoples and they all start with a simple premise — listen.
Not long ago, I attended a lecture where I was jolted when the speaker, Dakota author Waziyatawin, commented that she saw many “settlers” in the audience. Suddenly I became aware of my skin, my hair and how easy it is to be judged by appearance. I realized that my own story, in my own words, is not the only way to describe me. It was a reminder to me that I continue a story that started with my ancestors and that I am not separate from the pages of the history book no matter how self-made and contemporary I may feel.
I also realized that it works both ways. How I view others and talk about them may indeed conflict with how they see themselves. It highlights the challenge of being a citizen in these historic times. It also highlights the opportunity to influence the morality of ongoing events that began with the arrival of settlers in North America.
For me, I have taken the opportunity to learn a new language. Every time I sit down and listen to a story, I pick up new terms and thoughts. It stretches my mind, sometimes with discomfort, and there is definitely a desire to settle back into easy familiar ways of thinking. But I also find it compelling. Words carry our understanding of the world, our place and the place of others in it. As a writer, I have always been fascinated by the subject.
I have enjoyed my interviews with Anton Treuer, an advocate for maintaining tribal languages and an Ojibwe scholar. He says that Native language is the cornerstone of identity and that a strong sense of identity leads to success in education and life, qualities that are lacking for too many Native Americans. He is a leader in the movement to preserve and revitalize the Ojibwe language through story gathering projects and charter schools that offer language immersion.
He also knows the thin cloak of meaning words can wear. As the keynote speaker at the 2012 St. Paul Foundation’s Facing Race Ambassador Awards, I heard him speak about the hockey game he had recently attended with his children where UMD Bulldog fans chanted “small pox blankets, small pox blankets” and “slay the squaws, slay the squaws” while playing the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux.
When I interviewed Heid Erdrich of Wiigwaas Press, publisher of stories in Anishinaabemowin, the language of Ojibwe people., I understood the deep longing for honor and recognition of who they are today. She was moved to tears as we discussed the selection of the book Awesiinyensag by the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book as representative of Minnesota’s literary heritage. It’s a significant honor for the U.S. government to recognize a language that was once deliberately suppressed.
Earlier this year I reported on the passing of a resolution in Saint Paul’s city council chambers. The resolution declared 2013 as “The Year of the Dakota: Remembering, Honoring, and Truth-Telling.” Saint Paul’s resolution acknowledges that the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862 and the mass execution of 38 Dakota in Mankato were events that opened a disturbing and neglected chapter of history, one characterized by the genocide of the Dakota people in Minnesota. The document resolves, among other things “to promote the well-being and growth of the American Indian community and to begin efforts to rectify the wrongs that were perpetrated since the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862, a tragic and traumatic event for the Dakota People of Minnesota.”
The resolution was groundbreaking because it used powerful language, absent from my history education, such as “genocide” and “concentration camps” to describe the events surrounding the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862. The resolution further calls for the language of the Dakota to be restored to many places in the city.”
I occasionally sit down and talk with Chris Mato Nunpa and Mary Beth Faimon both of whom worked to get these resolutions passed by Minneapolis, St. Paul, Redwood Falls, and Granite Falls City Councils. Chris has fought for many years to have key language terms used in describing Dakota history in Minnesota. On the day the Saint Paul resolution passed he stood in city council chambers and stated that he felt “elated and excited to have lived long enough to see this happen.”
I am constantly adding new words to my everyday language. Bdote is a Dakota word that describes a place “where waters meet,” more specifically it describes the sacred place where the Minnesota River meets the Mississippi, homeland for the Dakota. Mona Smith spoke at a luncheon at the Minnesota Humanities Center in May about the Bdote Memory Map, a project intended “to make it easier to listen to Indigenous people.”
I believe that one of the best opportunities for understanding and honoring Indigenous people begins with listening and language. By listening and learning to think about things from another’s perspective, we all have a chance to move beyond the sports and team metaphors, the us vs. them “cowboy and Indian” mentality, and to come to terms with the truth: there is more to our shared humanity than winners and losers.