Last year, Dr. Anton Treuer received an honorable mention at the St. Paul Foundation’s Facing Race Ambassador Awards for his work in culture revitalization through the Ojibwe language in his hometown of Bemidji. As a preliminary for this year’s April 23 event at Crowne Plaza in St. Paul, where Treuer will serve as keynote speaker, he spoke with the MSR about the “painfully slow” process of addressing issues that negatively affect Native Americans.
“It’s stunning to me that the first people of this land are some of the least understood,” Treuer says. “And we are still here. Our languages are still here.”
Bemidji, with a population of approximately 12,000 people, is located between three of the largest Indian reservations in Minnesota: White Earth, Leech Lake and Red Lake. Native Americans make up approximately 30 percent of Bemidji’s population, but for many years the town’s people have experienced racial tension.
It was Michael Meuers, a White Bemidji resident influenced by a trip to Hawaii where the use of the word “Aloha” was understood by everyone, who suggested language could begin addressing racial tensions. He began a campaign that brought bilingual (Ojibwe/English) signage to local businesses.
Treuer, professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University, joined the effort by contributing his knowledge of the Ojibwe language. Today, the majority of businesses, hospitals, universities and public schools now have bilingual signage. The financial award Treuer received at last year’s Facing Race event went toward the cost of signage in schools.
“I don’t think that this tackles all the big issues of race, but what it does do is it opens a safe space where we can actually start to talk about some of those big issues and diffuse some of that tension,” Treuer explains. “I think for Native people, it helps them feel respected and part of a community that they sometimes feel alienated by.”
This alienation is partly the result of few opportunities for people of other races to interact with Indians. Though they make up 20 percent of Minnesota’s homeless and 17 percent of the prison population, they represent less than two percent of the state’s population.
Also, “Native people who do go on and get degrees…have a pretty natural impulse to come back and help their own people,” Treuer explains. “[This often] leads to work in tribal government positions…that have a reduced degree of interaction with people from other races.”
Though people return to their communities across racial groups, non-Native communities are typically interwoven in mainstream society, making trans-racial interactions more likely.
“If you look at what’s happened since the Civil Rights Movement in America,” says Treuer, “there are a lot of Black people in positions of economic authority and political power who are writing books and teaching at universities, and so it’s easier to have direct communication and develop deeper understandings. And I think for Native people that is a little bit more elusive.”
Education, the vehicle that is most typically viewed by Americans as a gateway to success and economic freedom, has presented a challenge specific to American Indians.
“For Black Americans, education was an opportunity that for a very long time was unfairly denied, but for Native Americans, education was a tool used to assimilate. As a result, a lot of Native people have a profound distrust for educators and people in positions of educational authority.”
This doesn’t negate the problems of education for other racial groups, Treuer says, but for Native people the educational system is a source of much anger. “We need to fundamentally change how we educate and what we decide to teach in our schools… My heroes might not be your heroes.”
With the exception of Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin, all of the faces depicted on U.S. currency have not only killed Indians personally, but have also created policies “genocidal to Native people,” Treuer explains. Yet all children — Native included — learn about them in a mainly positive light.
Though it’s not the intent of curriculum designers, school teachers or administrators to marginalize groups of people, Treuer says that is the result — specifically for Native Americans.
“So going to school and learning all about the great cultures of the world — not yours — learning all about the great actors in world history — not yours — learning all about the important events of the world — not yours — slowly but surely and consistently engineers a significant blow to self-esteem.”
Teachers do not want to miss teaching students anything of major significance, Treuer says. However, “I think a lot of teachers who themselves only got a sugar-coated version of Christopher Columbus and Thanksgiving when they went to school feel that they are ill-equipped to really address these issues themselves.
“All you need is one angry parent…coming into school and chewing out a teacher. So it’s safer not to teach about Indians…and that just perpetuates the continual marginalization of Native people in our school systems.”
Though far from a level equal to that of Europeans in American history, as a result of the Civil Rights Movement students have been increasingly exposed to Black history in school curriculum. Native American history has yet to gain the same prominence in mainstream schools.
Yet, Native American charter, magnet, tribal-run and Ojibwe language-immersion schools are offering Native students an alternative.
Hayward Ojibwe in Wisconsin, the first Ojibwe language-immersion school in the U.S., began 12 years ago. Though there is an approximate 50-percent failure rate for American Indian children on State-mandated tests in English and math, Hayward has achieved a 100 percent pass rate on tests given to students in English.
“To me, that speaks very powerfully to the importance of giving people opportunities to learn about themselves as well as the rest of the world,” Treuer says.
In addition to the negative impact schools have had on the Native American community, there’s also the economic issue. “We called it a Great Depression in the United States when we had a sustained unemployment rate over 15 percent,” Treuer points out. “Since the beginning of the reservation period [approximately 1880], the unemployment rate in Indian country has never been that low — ever.
“At Red Lake [reservation] today [unemployment] is 37 percent. At Pine Ridge the unemployment rate is 85 percent. And Native Americans are still waiting for their intervention, still waiting for a big New Deal, still waiting for somebody to pay attention or care.”
Treuer contributes to educating and starting conversations through the nine books he’s written. Among them, Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians but Were Afraid to Ask works against America’s “so often-imagined and so infrequently well-understood” approach to American Indians.
“We really need some good resource material to help people understand what terms [to] use. Is it Indian, Native American, Aboriginal, First Nation, indigenous or what? [And] to [help with] the deeper issues and sometimes more contested issues such as mascots or gaming or issues of identity.”
Ojibwe in Minnesota delves into the history, culture and community of the Minnesota Ojibwe from their origins to the configuration of tribes. It also covers current issues of poverty and economic development. The book has been incorporated into the curriculum of some Minnesota school districts.
Still, conversation and action on equity crawls toward progress where American Indians are concerned. “Indians being used as mascots for sports teams. Someday we’re going to look back at that the same way that we look back at segregated water fountains or women not being extended the right to vote, and shake our head ands say, ‘Wow, how could we have tolerated it? How could anyone have ever defended it?’”
Yet, Treuer says, “One of the things that excites me about Facing Race…and the Minnesota philanthropic partners is that they’ve done a really good job of identifying people who are movers and shakers in facing race, and not only acknowledging their achievements but inspiring others to not just follow their example, but to join the conversation and to make it a conversation rather than a shouting match.”
This year’s award recipients include Professor Emeritus Mahmoud El-Kati. The Facing Race Ambassadors Awards ceremony is free and open to the public, but RSVP is suggested at 651-325-4265, or go to www.facingrace.org.