An All White Town

I grew up in rural Wisconsin in the 1970’s and 80’s in an all white town, except that it wasn’t, all white that is.

I don’t know exactly when I realized that little bit of information. I just know that even today I hear about rural communities being “all white” and I wonder.  I know that was the story of the area that I grew up.  That’s how we, at least we who identified as white, spoke.  “Those people” whoever “those people” were lived somewhere else, maybe in Chicago or Milwaukee or up north on the reservations, but certainly not in our area.

While I was busy living in that White Town fantasy world, some of my friends were living the reality of being bi-racial, Latino, or Asian in a community that didn’t, and probably still doesn’t really recognize them for who they are.  Instead, it asks that they pretend to be White or better yet, just be invisible or don’t be.

Well, these days I hang my hat in west central Minnesota.  I’m still in a small town and I work with small towns around the state.  Our rural communities are changing.  The White population is slowly shrinking and the population of people of Color is growing.  It’s going to continue that way into the foreseeable future.  It wasn’t ok for us to expect people of Color to pretend to be White or to try to be invisible or to just not be thirty years ago.  It’s absolutely unacceptable today.

Do we want rural communities to survive?  If we do, then we need to take a look at ourselves and ask some questions.

  • Am I seeing everyone who lives here for who they are or am I asking them to reflect me?
  • What am I doing to honor the experience and gifts that People of Color bring to the table?
  • How am I perpetuating racist systems and how am I tearing them down in my every day?
  • Who do I welcome and how?
  • What do I want my community to look like in twenty years? What will it take to get there?

I am sure there are many more questions to consider, but these give us a starting point.  The key thing is that the fantasy White Town has always been a nightmare for some and is becoming a nightmare for all.  If we want the nightmare to end, we need to look racism in the eye and tell it no more.

Polo Shirts and American Flags

In honor of Memorial Day, I thought I’d take on a topic I’ve not visited in a while.

Back in college I served in the student government association at my school.  We were a committed crew.  We gathered every Thursday night for multi-hour meetings fighting for students rights, our mix of conservatives, liberals, and radicals each determined to do what we believed was right.

Every Thursday night began with the Pledge of Allegiance which I, and a few others over the years, sat out.  I still remember being taunted by my fellow student senators for choosing not to take part.  What I remember best is the night that the flag wasn’t in the room.  One of the conservatives happened to be wearing a shirt designed like an American flag.  The group began to jokingly say the pledge in his direction.  I exploded.

People who had taunted me for a political statement against war abroad and injustice at home were ready to pledge allegiance to a shirt probably made by slave labor.  The pledge of allegiance isn’t just a poem.  The flag isn’t just cloth.  They were created to mean something.  Sometimes protest is our strongest way to honor that meaning.

Just some thoughts.

 

 

 

 

500 Years of Genocide

I went to listen to the senior seminar of a student that I’ve had the good fortune to work with over the past few months today.  Quinn will be graduating with a degree in psychology and was speaking to the problem of suicide in Native American communities in the U.S. and the connection to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and inter-generational trauma.

Her presentation was excellent overall and gave me something particularly new to think about.  I’ve heard the comparison over the years between the holocaust and Native genocide. Quinn pointed out a key difference.  Many of the survivors of the holocaust were able to leave the concentration camps when the war was over.  That’s not an option in this case, at  least not for the vast majority.

I am reminded of my old friend Walt Bresette. Walt was Anishinaabe from the Red Cliff Indian Reservation on the shores of Lake Superior.  He would often go around speaking to groups about mining and other environmental issues and he would tell these largely non-Native groups– We must come to recognize this place as our home. We don’t do that.  We tend to believe that if we don’t live here we can live there.  It’s not that way for the Anishanaabe.  For the Anishanaabe this place is home.  This was where the creator led them, to this place where the food grows on water, that food we call wild rice.

So, we look at the history of Native people in the U.S. forced into small corners of their home,  these corners we call reservations, as part of the torture.  So, on the reservation is the place of torture because it is what remains of the home and off the reservation is the place of torture because it is the part of the home that was stolen.

What do we do with that?

I’m thinking about all this not only because of Quinn’s presentation, but because I lost an old friend and mentor this past week.  He was shot.  His nephew shot him.  A middle-aged Indian had his brains blown out by a somewhat younger Indian.  Why? No one really knows.  I doubt the nephew really even fully knows why he pulled that trigger.

What I do keep thinking is that while that young man pulled the trigger, a whole society, a society of which I am a part, murdered my friend.

The stealing of land, the failure to tell the truth of history, the economic, environmental, and social acts of destruction aimed toward the Indigenous people of this land for the past 500+ years, told that young man who he is.  Those actions helped him define his own view of himself and determine his response to the world.  Every action leads somewhere.  Quinn spoke today of inter-generational trauma and ACEs impact on the high levels of suicide in Native American communities.  I suspect the same is true for acts of violence and for deaths due to drug and alcohol overdoses as well.

Until we, as a society, really deeply and sincerely address those underlying causes, until we speak the truth of the history,  mourn together, and change our actions, we are still engaging in genocide every day and every moment of each day.

The Boarding Schools Continue

I was a foster parent for a bit over a year before I moved to Morris.  It gave me an opportunity to learn quite a bit about the foster care system in Minnesota as well as to care pretty deeply about some profoundly hurt children.

The foster care system in Minnesota is a lot like that in other states.  It needs systemic change.  Wonderful, caring people work within the system.  They are overworked, under prepared for their roles, often lacking cultural competence for working with the groups that they interact with, and eventually just burned out.

There’s a piece though that troubles me most deeply about how the system works.  Here in Minnesota that piece goes back to 1871 with the opening of the White Earth Indian School.   The White Earth Indian School was one of sixteen boarding schools in Minnesota, the largest of which was on the campus where I now work.  The Morris Industrial School for Indians which was begun by the Catholic Sisters of Mercy and later run by the Federal Government had over 2000 students during its 22 year history from 1887 to 1909.  These schools were where Minnesota lived out that idea made famous by Capt. Richard H. Pratt, who founded the Carlisle School in Pennsylvania, “Kill the Indian. Save the man.”

Native children were kidnapped. Their hair was cut. They were denied their traditional diets and forced to speak only English.  They could no longer practice their own spiritual beliefs or learn from their elders.  Entire generations began to lose a sense of who they were.  We know now that this loss has fed into many of the challenges that our Native communities face today.  We understand that the destruction of the Native diet has led to diabetes, heart disease, depression, and other illnesses. We know that people need a sense of family and self to stay clean of drugs and to succeed economically and emotionally.  We know that many of the elders who lived through the boarding schools still carry the trauma and that those experiences are handed down one way or another.

Why does that matter?  Well, here in Minnesota 2% of the population is Native. Yet, over 20% of the children in foster care are Native.  In 1871, maybe the Federal government didn’t understand the culture of the Native people and how the community raised children.  Maybe they really thought they were doing something good.  I don’t know.  What I do know is that today we know better.  Today we know that it’s wrong to simply kidnap those children, cut their hair, take away their language and their beliefs, and feed them poison.  Yet we continue.

The system needs to change.  Stop putting Native kids in foster care at record rates.  Instead, feed them good food, bring back their languages, let them learn their history and their values, honor their communities.

The Red Dress

Image may contain: people standing and outdoor

Miigwetch to David Manuel or whoever took this photo.

 

I’ll start this by being clear.  My ancestors are from Luxembourg and surrounding countries.  Sometimes when I advocate that the people of the over 500 different tribal nations in the place now referred to as North America get treated with basic respect and dignity I am asked if I am Native. I’m not.  I was just raised to care for and respect my neighbor.  And, I’ve had the good fortune to count some great Indians among my dearest friends.

I saw the photo of the red dress this morning.  It made me think.  I have long believed that racism is an act of fear more than power.  Somewhere in our being white folks recognize that we’ve done wrong for these many generations and we’re afraid of retribution.  We’re afraid of what could happen if everyone else had homes, jobs, money, education, and a safe place to be, at the same level that we do.

I’m not talking about individual fear.  Some people individually have moved past it.  But, as a group, we’re afraid.

We women, we have to address that fear.  It’s our to address because we are strong.  I remember as a young activist standing on the steps of the Wisconsin State Capitol, listening to Frannie Van Zile from the Mole Lake Nation.  She was talking about the proposed Crandon mine.  She said “You women, you women out there, you are the keepers of the water.”  Those words changed my life.  In many Indigenous cultures women are respected and honored. They are recognized to carry an important power, that they are keepers of the water, bearers of life.

That red dress reminds me that Native women, in fact all women of color, are in great danger because fear attacks where power resides.  It also reminds me that, as a woman, I have a responsibility to my sisters to care for them, to mourn their loss, and to do what I am able to keep them safe.

 

Another Addict Is Gone

Another addict died this week.  Did it matter?

While more white people in Minnesota die of opioid abuse than any other population in the state, the tribes are some of the hardest hit by the epidemic. In 2016, 395 Minnesota residents died of overdoses. Native people in Minnesota die at a rate nearly 6x as high as whites. Yet there are no answers.

Native people are roughly 2% of the population of the state.  Why are they dying every day from addiction?

American Community Survey data suggests that Minnesota has a poverty rate of 10.8%. Native people, however in our state face a poverty rate of 31.4%. Native people are also less likely to make it through the educational system.

Still, after more than 200 years of attacks by European invaders and their descendants the tribes survive.  But, yet the attacks continue.

If white people were dying of opioid abuse at a rate 6x that of Native people, would we be responding differently?

Success in recovering from addiction requires hope and stability.  Right now that hope and stability doesn’t exist.  We need to change that. We can arrest as many dealers as we want and more will appear.  If we’re serious about ending the opioid epidemic, we need to address racism.  Here are a few steps to take.

  1. Learn about Native history and treaty rights
  2. Support local Native run businesses
  3. Be a vocal ally
  4. Support efforts to teach Native languages
  5. Encourage our schools to accurately teach about the history and cultures of tribes
  6. Help build a sustainable local economy
  7. Support young people by showing that you care in whatever ways that you can
  8. Listen to the elders and learn
  9. Stop and think
  10. Question the system

https://www.mprnews.org/story/2016/04/18/opioid-overdose-epidemic-explained

http://www.wctrib.com/opinion/editorials/4405297-tribune-opinion-minnesota-opioids-bill-brave-and-needed-proposal

http://bismarcktribune.com/news/state-and-regional/spaces-between-us-racial-disparities-persist-in-nd-minnesota/article_e72061be-01b3-56f9-95a9-5a16505501f2.html

 

Challenges and Gifts

My father will turn 90 in just a few days.  Family is gathering for the party tomorrow.  I’ll be 500 miles away.

That wasn’t the plan.  The plan was that I’d drive home yesterday, spend a little time with friends along the way, then head for a weekend with family.  My body, well actually my brain, changed the plan.  I have epilepsy.  I was diagnosed in 2013.  My seizures have been well under control, but one showed up a few days ago and I had to set down the car keys for the next few months.  And, I had to take a few days to just rest and recover.

The good news is that it encouraged me to pick up the laptop again.

I don’t know why I have epilepsy.  I come from a large family and I am the only one with this challenge/gift.  I can hypothesize a list of possibilities, and I have many times. But, the reality is that it’s here and I get to live with it.

Why write about it?  Well, because it is a gift and gifts are good to share.  What? Epilepsy is a gift? No way!

I will admit it’s not a gift I would have chosen and if I had the receipt I would most definitely return it, but it is a gift.  Here are just few reasons why I consider my epilepsy a gift in my life.  I wonder what unexpected and perhaps unwanted gifts life has given you?

  1. It’s helped me look at the temporary nature of life to better understand that there was a time without me and there will be another time without me.  That’s ok. Now is my time to be alive.
  2. It got me to take pause to take care of myself.  I’m now a whole lot more conscious of when I need to just relax.  I’ve totally changed my diet, lost a lot of weight, and feel much better and happier.
  3. It’s helped me empathize with the experience of others.  Seizures scare people.  They also sometimes limit some of the things that I am able to do.  Epilepsy is covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act.  So, I am told, by the law, that I now have a disability.  Some days I agree.  Some days I don’t.  But, I do know that I have a better understanding of how both my brain and societal rules create limits.
  4. I have found great support.  I am a lucky one.  I have a strong family and friends that don’t run when they get scared.  I’ve also been able to find some excellent online support groups that have added to the group of people that I have that understand.  How amazing is it when people stay with us through the our rough spots?
  5. It’s continued to inspire my work to encourage healthy living both as individuals and as community.  My experience simply reminds me that we need to take care of ourselves individually and as a community if we’re to survive and thrive.

What challenge/gifts inspire you and carry you forward?