Weather Forecast


Joe Day: Cultural liaison retires

Joe Day talks about his 30-year career in public service as a liaison between the American Indian community and state and local governments. A retirement party is 1-4 p.m. Saturday at the American Indian Resource Center. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Joe Day's three-decade career of serving as a liaison between American Indian and white cultures ends with a captive audience.

Day, 64, is retiring after serving as an American Indian liaison with the state Department of Corrections, a post he held for three years.

"What I was hired for was to bring the American Indian culture into the facilities - both for the staff and for the inmates," Day said.

It's something he's done most of his career, after arriving in Bemidji in 1978 after working in a high-technology optical company.

He's served 10 years as a Bemidji School Board member and as an American Indian liaison with the state Department of Natural Resources. He served as executive director of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council for 11 years until his move to Corrections.

A retirement party is being held for Day from 1-4 p.m. Saturday at the American Indian Resource Center on the Bemidji State University campus.

Much of it was "learning over the past 30 years that assimilation has really kicked in, and 80 percent of the Indians, including myself, really didn't know who we were," he says. "We didn't have that cultural background."

On his latest job, Day was hired to work with corrections officials to bring American Indian culture into the prison system, using spiritual leaders to set up culturally correct observances, such as sweat lodges and pipe ceremonies.

"I personally didn't have the knowledge, but I knew people who did," Day said. "I contracted with about a half-dozen spiritual leaders from the Chippewa community, the Dakota community and one guy from Pine Ridge."

American Indian inmates, as well as officials, learned about the activities that go on in a sweat lodge and the protocols for running one, he said. They learned the proper ways to conduct ceremonies, what is appropriate for a ceremonial pipe and who can carry a pipe.

"We have a state law stating that in all the state facilities smoking is banned except for Indians in ceremony," Day said. "Well, what kind of tobacco? There's an assumption it's commercial tobacco. We asked the old people, what's smoked in a pipe?"

Day said commercial tobacco, such as Prince Albert seen many times, is incorrect. "It's called ah-say-ma o-pwa-gun by the Chippewa and it's called chinshasha by the Sioux. What it is, is the ... piece of red willow. You take the red willow bark, remove that and there's a little white spongy material underneath the bark. You scrape that, dry it and that's what is smoked. It's Indian tobacco."

Day said his job wasn't to say that inmates practicing traditional rites were doing it incorrectly, but to present the right way.

He visited all 10 state prisons his first year, meeting with wardens and discussing their challenges in working with American Indians. "About 80 percent of the challenges were in doing the cultural programs," he said.

The American Indian community in prison sees assimilation first hand, as all inmates are essentially given a number and treated the same.

"The Department of Corrections has done a wonderful job in trying to accommodate various cultures," Day said. "What the key is, is asking the right people. People in Minneapolis and St. Paul are really out of touch with what traditional practices were ... so what they had was an amalgamation of various ceremonies."

There are two cultures, he said, the American Indian prison culture and the real world culture on the outside. "So how do we correct the one internally?" Spiritual leaders, he said, were just waiting to be asked for their guidance.

Following the traditions does have value for rehabilitation, he said. "The nuances, from what I've learned from the Indian community, is pretty different from the mainstream on how you do things, how you correct people or not correct people on how you go about your daily lives."

It's a part of American Indian history, he said, noting that the powerful Iroquois Confederation clashed with missionaries who brought their traditions to the tribes. "It took them a year to tell the missionaries, no, you have your way, we have our way, thank you anyway."

The missionaries left angry, he said.

Yet it was from the Iroquois that Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson learned about democracy. "The tribes really practiced that," Day said.

Day, who came to Bemidji from the business world where competitive decisions are made daily, wondered when he worked with the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, why it took so long to make a decision.

"It was because it was deliberate," he said. "The six tribes took stuff back to their tribes, they talked about it and talked about it for six months to make a simple decision."

It was like putting a square peg in a round hole to mix the two cultures, he remembers.

He said MCT administration once made a major decision to self-insure, saving more than $100,000 over premiums to Blue Cross Blue Shield, but politics prevented all MCT member tribes from doing the same.

"That was when tribes were just starting to become and develop their own programs," Day said. "They wanted to do their own thing, which is appropriate. I arrived back from California in an era where tribes were going from relying on the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe to being self-sustaining."

Tribes are now struggling with sustainability, he says. "How do you sustain your tribal government programs as the transition occurs in leadership?" Day asks. "That's the key."

In his 11 years with the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, Day said he had tenuous times with Gov. Arne Carlson but found Gov. Jesse Ventura an ally of Indian causes. The council works as a liaison for state services to Indians, and to air grievances about service delivery.

"Minnesota was head and shoulders above any other state in state-tribal relations" when if formed the council in the 1960s, he said. There are now 32 in the United States. "We have advisory committees to human services and nine other agencies where they work very closely ... where they have a forum to sit down and talk about areas of mutual concern and the way to resolve conflict."

Day said Ventura spent an entire day on the Fond du Lac Reservation, eating and visiting with tribal members in all facets of reservation life. "No other governor has ever done that."

Starting with the DNR in 1984, Day remembers getting complaints from game wardens about fining poachers $1,000 but Leech Lake game wardens fined poachers only $100.

"Well, $100 was like $1,000 on Leech Lake," Day said. "Take a look at how long enforcement has been in the state -- 100 years in the state at that time -- and Leech Lake had only 10 years. They were doing a remarkable job with just 10 years experience. Give them time."

Over his career in public service in the Bemidji area, Day says there have been improvements in race relations, but that the gap isn't closed.

"I think we're still in opposite ends of the room, but I think we may be a little bit more polite toward one another," he said. "The racism is obviously there. I think we've made great strides with the last presidential election."

Racism isn't out front, he says, but there are subtleties of racism. Listening to the law enforcement radio scanner, "you can pick up some of those subtleties over the airwaves."

He remembers a meeting more than 20 years ago when the community grappled with racism and formed a committee to do something about it.

"I remember the first few meeting -- all the white people on one side, and the Indians on the other. After six months, after you develop friendships, we're all interspersed and we all had the same goal that the chiefs had of meeting that challenge that the chiefs had -- why are we always on the paying side of the cash register?"

There has been some positive change, he said. "Some of it has happened today, we're making an effort, but it's taken 20 years to even get their attention."

Today's kids are much more aware of diversity, said Day, who retired to a lake near Walker.