U of M students hope documentary prompts debate over apology to Native Americans

Little Crow’s wife and children at Fort Snelling, ca. 1863 (Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society)

Mighty oaks from little acorns grow.

An old saying, it came to mind as University of Minnesota lecturer Carter Meland talked to me about a thought-provoking video project of the 60 students in his introductory “American Indians in Minnesota” class.

Maybe the documentary they premier May 1 will in the end be little more than a classroom exercise. Or, maybe it will spark some kind of official, mighty-oak apology from the state of Minnesota.

At any rate, the exercise has already jump-started discussion among students about the tumultuous history of Indians in Minnesota, from their treatment after the bloody Dakota Conflict, to boarding schools for Indian children where they were often forbidden to speak their native language and many say stripped of their culture, to tribal land ownership issues.

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Students earning required social justice and diversity credits are producing the 60-minute video that also explores a possible apology for what Meland calls “colonist policy and practices,’’ as well as reparations to the state’s Dakota and Ojibwe people, Meland explains. The public is invited to the premier, as well as Gov. Mark Dayton and University president Eric Kaler, though both are unable to attend. Find details at story’s end.

On the national level, the United States issued a quiet “apology to Native peoples of the United States,” buried in the 2010 defense appropriations bill. Writer Lisa Balk King dissed it in Indian Country Today with a piece headlined “A Tree Fell in the Forest: The U.S. Apologized to Native Americans and No One Heard a Sound.’’ In contrast, Canada in 2008 asked its citizens to tune into a nationally broadcast apology from Parliament.

Minnesota history

“I found out through this class how little I knew about what transpired and all those crazy things that happened as part of Minnesota history,’’ says class member Jennifer Hall.

It’s really opened my eyes a lot,’’ says the junior, herself Objiwe. She says she and classmates are “kind of appalled” at government’s treatment of American Indians in the 19th century and the impacts on natives in terms of land loss and their traditional way of life.

“History is a living part of the present,’’ suggests Meland. By that he means, historic events and attitudes affect current attitudes and that these cause “ripple effects.”

The ripple effects in this case, he says, could be reflected in high levels of poverty among Native Americans.

According to the 2010 American Community Survey estimates (as reported in the “Greater Twin Cities United Way Faces of Poverty 2012”), American Indians make up the largest percentage of Minnesota families of poverty at 35.6 percent. Further, 51.8 percent of American Indian children, ages 0 to 5, are poor.

Meland himself is Native American, a fact neither he nor his father knew, because of a divorce that split the family, until about 1990 when his dad received a phone call regarding a payout to the family in connection with the White Earth Land Settlement Act.

This is the second offering of the class, which uses stories and literature to entice students to investigate ideas, Meland says, but the first time video has been included in course requirements.

The video, assembled by students, will be “easy to criticize on technical grounds, but we hope the story is compelling,’’ Meland says.

The movie premiers at 12:45 p.m. May 1 in room 231 of Smith Hall on the East Bank at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, and is open to the public.

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Cynthia Boyd's picture
Cynthia Boyd

Cynthia Boyd writes Community Sketchbook for MinnPost.