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Shared Vision: American Indian culture, history explored

Don Day, director of the American Indian Resource Center at Bemidji State University, gestures while talking to a crowd of more than 100 people Thursday night at the Cabin Coffeehouse and Café. Looking on is Anton Treuer, BSU professor of Ojibwe. Treuer and Day presented "Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians but Were Afraid to Ask," a Shared Vision event. Pioneer Photo/Laurie Swenson

More than 100 people crowded into the back room of the Cabin Coffeehouse and Café Thursday night for "Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians but Were Afraid to Ask."

The event, put on by Shared Vision, was presented by Anton Treuer, Bemidji State University professor of Ojibwe, and Don Day, director of the American Indian Resource Center at BSU.

A broad range of topics covered in the two-hour meeting ranged from terminology to sovereignty to education.

Treuer noted that American Indians, just like non-Indians, have diverse opinions.

They may call themselves Indians, American Indians, Native Americans, Ojibwe, Anishinabe or aboriginal.

"A lot of non-native people feel a little bit paralyzed," he said, noting that he uses all those terms, but is aware they can be controversial.

"Some people may very adamantly say 'I'm not Indian, I'm Anishinabe,'" Treuer said.

Treuer discussed the nature of sovereignty, that tribes have the right to make their own laws.

He said many people believe that Indians have "extra rights." One misconception is that they don't pay taxes.

Everyone pays U.S. income tax, he said, and state income tax is paid by everyone except enrolled Indians on a reservation who earn all their income within the reservation, which applies to perhaps 10 percent of the Indian population.

In earlier years, many rights were kept from Indians, many of whom were sent as children to boarding schools where they were beaten for using their native language, converted to other religions and put to work.

"My mother and father spoke fluent Ojibwe," Day said, noting that his mother was educated in a boarding school in Pennsylvania and his father went to South Dakota.

"They cut my dad's hair and said he was going to be Catholic," Day said, adding that his father was not allowed to speak Ojibwe. In later years, his parents spoke Ojibwe to each other but not their children.

Treuer said there are 200 tribal languages today, but 180 of them are only spoken by a small percentage of elders.

Day said that he would like to see Red Lake, Leech Lake or White Earth reservations require that students study both English and Ojibwe.

"They'd be the Ojibwe capital of the world," he said. "I hope somebody takes the bull by the horns."

A woman in the crowd asked if American Indian alcoholism and problems with family structure could be related to being taken from families and raised in boarding schools.

"It's hard to quantify, but in my opinion, yes, I think so," Treuer said, noting that modern studies are causing the U.S. government to rethink military boot camps because the atmosphere is emotionally traumatizing for some people

Studies and books have illustrated a consistent effort by the U.S. government to disempower parents, he said, adding that 12 years after being taken away to go to school, some children did not recognize their parents and could no longer speak their native language.

"People learn to parent by the way they were parented," Treuer said, but if that experience is lost over three or four generations of families, "it attacks the social fabric."

This has put a stigma on education to some degree among American Indians, he said, adding that when he went to college, he was mockingly called "college boy" and accused of thinking he was better than others.

"There's a very deep-seated feeling that education is bad, or at least not Indian," he said.

A lot of people don't want to look at terrible chapters in American history, Treuer said, noting that one can love one's country even while acknowledging a history including genocide against Indians, seizure of Indian land and the enslaving of black people.

"We expect the world to be fair, but the world's not fair," Treuer said. "A baby can die the day after it's born and a horrible person can live a long life."

The U.S. government has not officially apologized for wrongdoing against American Indians, he said.

"If you don't take a long look at that, you're never going to be able to go beyond it," Treuer said. "We have to look at the difficult things to get beyond it and make things better."

Next steps

Day said he was surprised at the high turnout and the fact that there were few inflammatory questions. He said he'd like to see more similar events.

"I think this was a pretty comfortable event," he said. "I think we were preaching to the choir. Most people were probably already supportive. That's pretty cool."

"I thought it was great," Treuer said. "We had a lot of great questions. ... We covered a lot of territory."

He said it might be helpful to hold another event with more focused discussion -- for example, to talk about law enforcement issues. "We just scratched the surface."

Day said he is pleased that more than 70 businesses in Bemidji have put up signs in the Ojibwe language and BSU is spending $3,000 to put Ojibwe language around campus. "How cool is that?"

Shared Vision is a diverse group of community members working to expand social, economic, educational and leadership opportunities for people of all races in the Bemidji area.