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.

Learning to heal together- One small example


I haven’t blogged in 6 months because I felt the world did not need one more statement on why there is racism, that racism is bad, or we need more cultural competence. This is not to say that people should not fight to end racism with truth and reconciliation or leading us towards cultural competence. Instead I waited for inspiration. Inspiration came just a short time ago from my experience in the Dakota Women’s Commemorative March. My friend Ramona Kitto Stately, Director of American Indian Education at Osseo a Public Schools, invited me, Maia Caldwell, an Eden Prairie High School social studies teacher, and her 9th grade civics students who were learning about tribal sovereignty.

I learned the importance of starting with oneself to begin the healing process in one’s own community. I saw with my own eyes the power of starting with yourself in your own backyard.

Ramona and Nanette
Ramona and Nanette

My own backyard is the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Minnesota has some healing to do regarding the treatment of the Dakota and Ojibwe people. There is lots to read and do about it and one can get caught up in guilt, shame or in one’s own trauma depending on if you are native, white, or depending on your background. The March is an excellent example of coming together to heal in a positive way.

Every other year descendants of the Dakota women, who were forced to march after the Dakota and U.S. War of 1862 to the Ft. Snelling concentration camp, march in unity to commemorate them. The commemoration is done in their traditional ways. The power is in doing it for themselves and not waiting for Uncle Sam or others to do it for them. All people are welcomed to join them not in a reenactment (which is a common practice) but in a spiritual coming together no matter one’s faith tradition or not.

Walking on the land brings a feeling of reflection. How could the women and children walk this trail of tears in moccasins that would get soaked in water from the snow, when did they get to eat, how did they get to use toilet facilities, and how did they stay warm? Walking in silence allows each person to reflect and wrestle with the atrocity that came before them.

Another powerful moment was what happened at the end of each mile. A woman would take a prayer flag made of willow, previously gathered from the concentration camp forest, and recite the names of two women who made the original march. Ramona’s great great great grandmother Pazahiyayewin and Kevin Locke’s great great great grandmother Mniyáta Ožáŋžaŋ Wiŋ (Beam of Light Over the Water Woman) were commemorated. A prayer was sung evoking Wakan Tanka the Creator, other prayers were silently said, and tobacco was offered by participants. Although the spiritual context was Dakota, each person could feel unified from their spiritual or non-faith tradition. The healing was in the remembering and acknowledging the pain. For me I thought about the phrase “Thy name is my healing oh my God and remembrance of a Thee is my remedy”.

Mniyáta Ožáŋžaŋ Wiŋ (Beam of Light Over the Water Woman)
Mniyáta Ožáŋžaŋ Wiŋ (Beam of Light Over the Water Woman)

Ramona puts it this way-  “We walked to regain a voice that was silenced with the removal of our relatives from this place, MniSota Makoce, our sacred homeland.  We walk to gather the energy of the land, heal the soul wounds and to never forget the atrocities perpetrated against those who have lived here and taken care of the land for centuries”.

The commemoration affected each person differently. Maia Caldwell said “Our day couldn’t have started out more perfectly. As we were waiting on our bus for the marchers to arrive at our meeting place, three young Dakota women joined our students on our bus to warm up. It was wonderful to watch them visiting together. Within minutes we were witnessing what this day was all about: an opportunity for healing and reconciliation between two cultures. The rest of the day was wonderful as well. At the end of the day one of my students said to me: “I learned more today than I ever have in any classroom!” One of her students shared his experience with Minnesota Native News.

Eden Prairie participants
Eden Prairie participants

I encourage all of us to start with ourselves and be interested in our local communities. What happened in the past that has not been acknowledged? What needs to be addressed? What needs to be healed? Make friends from other races and cultures in your community and start to talk about it without blame and guilt. Imagine the transformation that can happen when we begin to acknowledge the past, honor each other in our cultural contexts, listen, experience and reflect. No one knows what will happen because we have not really done it yet. Where will you begin? Please share your experiences so we can learn together.

Ramona says wisely that tears are healing and a good way to begin.


Why Race Unity is More Critical Today than Ever Before

This past week we reached a demographic milestone that barely made a blip in the media: American children aged 5 and under, there is no racial majority. The reality is that the aggregate of black, Latino, Asian and American Indian children as a group out number white children. This is phenomenal because just last spring it was infant births that made a similar occurrence. It is ironic that the milestone almost coincided with the bi-racial family Cheerios ad debut. Children under five years old today are living in an America where there is no racial majority. This is a world different than I grew up in and different than the world in which I raised my children. The Cheerios ad is important for a couple of reasons. This is their world and they need to see these images of an interracial family and more of them. Kudos to Cheerios to posting it.

The fact that the ad sparked a deluge of racist comments underscores the need for us to discuss why racial unity is critical for the prosperity of the American people, especially parents of young children.  The good news is that Cheerios is marketing to families that fit this new reality.

So why is race unity critical? Our society will prosper at a quicker rate if we teach our children how to interact with love and respect across the races. UNICEF indicates that societies are healthier when all children have access to health care, proper education and nutrition. Take a look at any city where children of any race are treated poorly and I guarantee that that city is not prospering. I believe that developing and implementing equitable practices are key to prosperity.

Racism will continue unabated if we do not take action and work towards racial unity. We need to talk to our children about race. White families especially need to talk to their children about race without fear and eschew color blindness. Children see skin color as early as they see other colors. Birgitte Vittrup’s ground breaking work on race and children is a must-read for all parents. Our children generally see color and are not born with the social construct of race with its preconceived notions of color bias, stereotypes and the like. We teach this to our children. How wonderful it would be for us to take a moment and watch the children under 5 see how they treat each other. Our children can teach us.

The changing demographics are an opportunity for parents to be proactive in teaching our children how to work through our racial issues peacefully. Some of us fear this change and will choose racial segregation but I encourage us to have courage to make interracial friendships. It is poignant that with the negative firestorm about the Cheerios ad two major research groups counteract with positivity. Not only are interracial marriages are on the rise with 8.4% of marriages in 2010 being interracial, up from 3.2% in 1980. Gallup reported that  in 2011, 86% of Americans approve of interracial marriages.

Without parental interventions, the children in this demographic transformation will self-select across color lines, as Vittrup points out, as we all did when we were younger. We are putting our children at risk of not being able to interact with children of other races in 1st grade and up. The same fear that we have that we will say or do something racist will persist and occur at a faster rate in this diverse milieu than in our more racially segregated adult venues. A counter strike would be to make interracial friendships. Our future generations depend on the actions we take today.