Racial Reconciliation- Hopeful Beginnings

I am very hopeful about 2015 being the year that we start the collective process of healing and racial reconciliation. How wonderful to be so inspired after the dismal year of race relations in 2014 and what continues in 2015.

A Bright Spot

What has inspired me after the Dakota Women’s Commemorative March back in November 2014–of which I wrote–could be the beginnings of a grass roots effort. Two weeks ago, I attended an event hosted by Jean Maierhofer, Hennepin Technical College (HTC) Diversity Officer, in Eden Prairie. HTC is hosting the Why Treaties Matter exhibit and kicked off the event with a showing of Dakota 38 followed up with a panel led by Darlene St. Clair, St. Cloud University professor of American Indian Studies, and two Dakota high school students. These are my observations.

What started off as a typical Q and A soon led into beginnings of what I thought of as racial reconciliation. I must admit as I was sitting in the audience I was humbled to consider that we have so much to learn and practice about it.  What is racial reconciliation anyway? My first thoughts are that it is a process of bringing the oppressed and the oppressors together in dialogue to acknowledge the hurts and oppression through truth telling and figure out how to have justice in order to live a full healthy life together. Truth and justice are intertwined and are the foundation of racial reconciliation.

Jim Miller, the creator of the Dakota 38, is an inspiring example of someone banished from his own land, having the courage to start a healing process for himself through re-tracing the journey his ancestors made on their journey to be hanged in Mankato, Minnesota. The film itself is a tour de force that documents his experience of going through the white towns and meeting descendants of the very same people his ancestors encountered. His demeanor of love and forgiveness towards the white people in the film is unbelievable and is an example for us all. The film should be required viewing for every United States citizen.

So back to the event- the comments from the interracial audience I think are illustrious of how racial reconciliation thinking has evolved over time in Minnesota. Other parts of the country may have similar or different thoughts. One white woman said that she appreciated the film but wanted everyone to know, especially Darlene, that she did not commit any crimes against the Dakota nor did anyone else in the room. Why do we still bring all of this stuff up when we can’t do anything about it? She didn’t believe she was racist. Darlene replied that that is not the point. The point is that every Minnesotan needs to be willing to take a full accounting of what happened in the past and the long standing impacts of these actions. Dakota people need to do the same. She elaborated that the film, inadvertently conveys that racial reconciliation is a one-time event rather than the long process that it needs to be.

As Darlene was responding to the woman, she seemed to agree with Darlene by nodding her head and was comfortable with Darlene’s perspective on the situation. Darlene appreciated her comment because it probably took a lot of courage for to speak up and share her experience.

Another comment from a white man was that he was very moved by the film and apologized through his tears, for what the white people did to the Dakota people. He earnestly offered to be a part of other activities. His comment led to another from an Ojibwe man who said that movies like the Dakota 38 and comments by Darlene have an agenda of producing guilt. He explained that Indians did bad things to white people and that white people did bad things to Indians. Making people feel guilty doesn’t get us anywhere. He believes we need to move on. No need for racial healing or reconciliation. His comments were countered by a white man who shared his personal experiences of seeing that up to 20 years ago American Indians were not welcome to eat in cafes and restaurant in South Dakota. He believes that American Indians are the last racial group in America to be racist against. He mentioned the American Indian sports mascots as a current example.

So how did Darlene wrap up this discussion? I haven’t mentioned that Darlene is Dakota and is a direct descendent of one of the men hanged, Tihdonica, as well as Dakota people who protected whites. She has a vested interest in how these discussions turn out. She could be angry, resentful or bitter but instead chose a wise, courageous and very truthful answer. Darlene said that talking about the injustices is not about producing guilt in people or to make people sad. Instead, we all need to acknowledge that we are the beneficiaries of the taking of Native lands and resources whether we participated in these events or not.

Jean Maierhofer was touched by the events that evening. She said:

 “The Dakota 38 film had a profound impact on me.  In fact, I haven’t stopped thinking about the film and the Dakota people since the screening on March 23.  The film reminded me once again how much of American history is untold and waiting to be discovered by those that are willing to look and listen with an open mind and heart.

 The part of the film that continues to linger with me was at the end, when we find out the fate of one of the young Dakota men that shared their journey in the film.  It was truly heartbreaking.  As I learn, or relearn, the history that took place in Minnesota, I do not want to forget the psychological scars that get passed down from generation to generation because of traumatic events that took place in the past.  Working with young people, I recognize how important it is for them to feel proud about their culture, their history, and their identity.  I also recognize that working in higher education I can help open people’s minds and hearts so that the history of what happened to the Dakota people can be told.  And, that we can all start healing together as a community who live in this beautiful place we all call home – Minnesota.”

We left the meeting hopeful for continued opportunities to come together in Eden Prairie. Let’s galvanize together and share what you are doing in your communities. This will inspire us to get started or continue what we have started. What are we learning, what can we share? Please post here.