A grassroots movement led by people in the town of Bemidji,
Minnesota, and their neighbors both on and off nearby reservations
have set out to find a path to reconciliation between whites and
American Indians. No government is taking part; no plan has been
laid; no blame will be assessed; and no one knows how long this
journey might take.
area residents have been working on projects to improve relations
between whites and American Indians for several years. Here,
an estimated 300 people turned up June 6, 2015, for the dedication
of a statue of Shaynowishkung, nicknamed Chief Bemidji. The
city of Bemidji got its name from the Ojibwe word Bemijigamaag
which means "lake with cross waters," referring to the Mississippi
River crossing through the lake. (photo by Michael Meuers)
"Truth and reconciliation is not an event," says Dr. Anton Treuer,
Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, one of the people facilitating the process.
"It's not something that happens in a week, a month or a year. It's
a process and it might take a really long time. If it's just something
short then it's only something to make people feel good rather than
to really change the culture and reconcile the historical experiences
of diverse people." Treuer is an author and a professor at Bemidji
a planning meeting of the Bemidji Truth and Reconciliation
project, from left, are: Minnesota Native News reporter Melissa
Townsend; Simone Senogles, Red Lake Nation; Tori Graves, and
Anton Treuer, Leech Lake Ojibwe. (Michael Meuers)
Understanding is key. Becky LaPlante, of the Blandin Foundation,
has been working on a similar effort, the Circle of Healing, being
carried out by a group from the Grand Rapids, Minnesota area. She
says, "For the first 18 months, the 30 or so participants just sat
in a circle and listened to each other. We began to build awareness
about our shared history, which is largely unknown in dominant culture
and to some extent in Native culture."
The Blandin Foundation has been sending people to participate
in the Bemidji effort, at the invitation of people in that group.
That kind of inclusiveness is equally crucial. Justin Beaulieu,
Red Lake Band of Chippewa, says, "One of our principles is to make
sure the group is inclusive, to make sure everyone can participate
and they feel comfortable participating. Who is at the table right
now and who else needs to be?"
of four nations fly proudly at the dedication of a statue
of Shaynowishkung, Chief Bemidji. From front: U.S., Red Lake
Band of Chippewa Indians, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, White
Earth Band of Chippewa, POW/MIA. (Michael Meuers)
The faith communities are among the groups that need to be there.
Beaulieu says, "There was a significant amount of harm that was
done to children and to families by the faith communities, looking
at Manifest Destiny and how these people were utilizing the laws
to take children out of their homes, to separate the families. So
how do we heal those parts? We are trying to identify where the
harm was and how those things have impacted our generations, the
adverse childhood experiences and how those cycles have perpetuated
He notes, however, "The most important thing is that we're not
trying to assess blame or to make somebody feel like they're bad.
It's about understanding what happened, why those things happened,
then healing them."
This effort is really just emerging," says Treuer. "We didn't
even put out a public call, but a couple hundred people are involved
in the process so far."
Other efforts in other places have had varying degrees of success.
From the movement in Germany after World War II to apologize for
atrocities committed against the Jews, to Desmond Tutu's Truth and
Reconciliation Commission in South Africa in the 1990s following
the end of apartheid, to Australia's apology to its Aboriginal people
in 2008 and to Canada, which just issued the final report of its
Truth and Reconciliation Commission regarding First Nations peoples,
nations have found that dealing with extremely painful oppression
and far-reaching injustices is very hard work.
project to add Ojibwe words to signage in Bemidji has met
with great success. Principal Drew Hildenbrand points to a
sign that says, "Welcome to Bemidji Middle School." (Michael
In the U.S., efforts to bring about reconciliation between the
colonizers and the colonized have included the 1993 apology from
Congress to Native Hawaiians, Kevin Gover's apology on behalf of
the BIA in 2000 and an apology to Native peoples signed into law
by President Obama in 2009.
Part of the difficulty is the inclination to put difficult events
into the past and keep them there. Beaulieu says, "For me, personally,
I hear 'Get over it' all the time from people, or 'We didn't do
that.' I just want people to understand, 'Of course you didn't do
that, but it does have residual effects that have come down the
line. And there's new research being done that shows that those
changes within the physiology can be passed along. We are trying
to get over it, but it's going to take help from everyone and understanding."
Linsey McMurrin, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, is on the staff
at Peacemaker Resources, Inc., another group invited to participate.
"When we talk about historical trauma, people think that's all in
the past. What they don't understand is that it's also ongoing.
That piece really needs to be brought to the forefront. So many
people dismiss the concerns that Indian people and their allies
have about historical trauma," she says.
What happens next in Bemidji is part of the journey. McMurrin
says, "We're just reaching out to the community. We don't want to
tell people how this should go and we want to be really mindful
not to recreate conditions of colonialism, forced participation
and paternalism. We need to focus on relationship building and strengthening
those relationships that have already been established."
the Grand Entry at the Bemijigamaag Powwow on April 4, 2015,
city and state officials walk with tribal officials. About
3,000 people attended. (Michael Meuers)
Treuer summarized some of the challenges. "You can only really
influence people who are in the room with you, so the goal is not
to chase everybody away from the table and sit there eating alone.
That's why a lot of these things have failed in the past. If it
goes too fast, then sometimes non-Native folks get really uncomfortable
and step away because they're way beyond their comfort zone, but
if it goes too slowly then a lot of times people of color feel like
it's a feel-good pat on the back and nobody's willing to do any
real change. The trick is to go a bit in between where everybody
agrees to stretch the bounds of their normal comfort and everybody
agrees to be patient and kind in going through that process at the
And so goes Bemidji, one step at a time.