BEMIDJI -- Have you ever experienced racism? What’s it like knowing you’re different? When did you start learning about your culture?
Students in Amy Sheffield’s 10th grade English class at Bemidji High School on Friday asked those questions and more of four Bemidji-area American Indian educators, whose hour-plus Q&A covered their families, their idols and their own childhoods, where some felt tugged in two different cultural directions.
“I navigated through my childhood of kind of balancing back and forth,” said Ron Wilson, a former Indian Education worker in the school district and a Leech Lake band member whose father is American Indian and whose mother is not. “I was never native enough to be native or I was never white enough to be white. So it was this battle of how do I navigate that and how do I become comfortable in my own skin with who I am?”
Kerri Jourdain, an Indian education home liaison at the high school whose mother is American Indian and father is white, recalled sticking up for her darker-complexioned little sister a lot when they attended Horace May Elementary.
“We didn't feel like we were different than anybody else, and it was hard to watch my sister be targeted for something that she couldn't help,” Jourdain said. “Racism, for me, was always really ugly, and I think I grew up really angry about it, just watching my loved ones go through it.”
Next to Jourdain, Ojibwe teacher Billy Copenais said he grew up on a reservation in rural Ontario and was hardly ever discriminated against like that, but remembered a passing truck driver whooping at him and some friends on a golf course.
Copenais said he grew up immersed in Ojibwe culture, but Teddy Murray, a White Earth band member who counted three grandparents who attended infamous “boarding schools” where American Indian children were forcibly assimilated into European culture, said his grandfather would hit his dad for speaking Ojibwe.
But the speakers’ anecdotes weren’t all grim. Some fondly recalled feel-it-in-your-chest drum beats at summer powwows, their grandma’s fry bread, swapping stories with family, or making their own fun on the reservation. Wilson smiled as he talked about ricing with his uncle in Leech Lake.
Copenais said he grew up idolizing American Indian hockey players such as Philadelphia Flyers great Reggie Leach, and Wilson said he was inspired by Grace White, the Red Lake High School basketball standout who became the school’s first Division I basketball recruit when she committed to the University of Denver last spring. Jourdain said her “Native American idol” is Tecumseh, a celebrated American Indian leader who helped establish a multi-tribe confederacy in the 1800s.
An accomplished rapper, Wilson also goaded Sheffield into freestyling in front of the class as students gleefully whipped out their phones to film her.
The quartet were there to supplement Sheffield’s lesson on “While the Locust Slept,” the nonfiction memoirs of Peter Razor, a Fond du Lac band member who was abused and mistreated in a southern Minnesota orphanage and a family’s farm in the 1930s.