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Indigenous Day ideas: AIRC hosts presenters, events as part of Indigenous Peoples and Treaty Day

BSU psychology Professor John Gonzalez speaks to a gathering in the American Indian Resource Center about race relations and economic disparities in Bemidji on Monday as part of Indigenous Peoples and Treaty Day. (Jordan Shearer | Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI—Standing beside a powerpoint breakdown of U.S. Census data, Bemidji State University Professor and Bemidji Area Schools board member John Gonzalez said there's a story hidden in data that indicates Bemidji's American Indian population is generally younger than its white population.

"The future," he said on Tuesday at the university's American Indian Resource Center, "is gonna be browner and browner."

Gonzalez's talk was one of many at the resource center, which spent Monday commemorating "Indigenous Peoples and Treaty Day" with a series of speakers, food, and a round dance. The day coincides with Columbus Day, which commemorates the 15th Century explorer who is generally credited with discovering the New World even as he encountered longstanding American Indian societies there.

Other speakers talked about the first treaty between the federal government and American Indians, the "termination agenda," and myths about Columbus himself.

Gonzalez's hour-long dive into the gaps between Bemidji-area white and American Indian people pointed out that indigenous people often earn less, rent more, and are in disproportionately fewer positions of power than their white counterparts.

American Indians in and around Bemidji also reported considerably more discrimination than whites, according to a 2009 area survey, most of which comes from retailers, law enforcement, and restaurateurs—Gonzalez himself said he was followed at stores when he had long hair, but treated more fairly when he cut it short and could more easily "pass" for Hispanic or white.

A majority of white people surveyed agreed that discrimination makes it more difficult for American Indians to achieve their goals, but a roughly equal proportion of surveyed whites said that American Indians have an equal opportunity to apply for jobs here.

Gonzalez, who grew up on the White Earth Reservation and is a member of the White Earth Anishinaabe Nation, suggested that, for white people, working on better race relations or "cultural competency" often means learning about an "other."

"White people need to know and learn something about themselves before they can learn something about the other," Gonzalez said. "You need to know what it means to be white. You need to know what that all encompasses and how that shapes your perception and how that shapes your whole life experience and, embedded within that, how that shapes your ideas about race and privilege and how it shapes your biases about people of color and about American Indian people because anybody born and raised in the United States has inherited these things."

Tossing a "boozhoo" on entryways isn't good enough, Gonzalez said. He pointed to posters for holiday parties that exhorted revelers to "drink like an Indian; party like a pilgrim." The retail chain Gap sold a shirt with "Manifest Destiny" printed in bold letters across the chest, and a 2012 ad spot in the Pioneer used a depiction of an American Indian child in traditional-seeming dress to promote a Thanksgiving sale at the Paul Bunyan Mall.

The biggest problem with that imagery, Gonzalez said, is that it portrays American Indians as a part of the past and ignores their modern-day lives and problems.

"It continues the myth of this wonderful relationship that existed between pilgrims and natives when that was not the case," he said.

Bemidji-area employers, Gonzalez said, can work to understand fundamental American Indian values like cooperation and the primacy of family and extended family. (His presentation on Tuesday was originally put together for area business leaders.) A work obligation will take a backseat to a family one, he explained.

"Instead of judging that, try to work to understand that," Gonzalez said. "These are deep-seeded values."

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education and health for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He is a Minneapolis native and a 2009 graduate of St. John's University. Before moving to Bemidji, Bowen covered education, local politics, crime, and everything in between for the Perham Focus in Perham, Minnesota, and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis.

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