150th birthday celebration prompts protests, education efforts
By Rob Capriccioso -- Today staff
ST. PAUL, Minn. - Minnesotans who expected to have a happy 150th state birthday celebration this year have had their party crashed by several vocal American Indian activists and advocates.
Many have transformed the ongoing statewide event into a backdrop for recognition of historical travesties committed by Europeans against tribes and individual Indians in the state.
Protests involving nooses have sprung up at the state Capitol, angry letter-writing campaigns have ensued, and some Natives have been arrested as a result of their educational efforts.
''What does it mean when Minnesotans continue to celebrate what they gained as a consequence of genocide, ethnic cleansing, policies of extermination, policies of forced removal, mass hangings and bounties?'' asked Waziyatawin, a Dakota woman from the Upper Sioux reservation. ''It's a question that most Minnesotans really have not wanted to ask.''
Waziyatawin, who was arrested in May after protesting a celebration event at the state Capitol, changed her name from ''Angela Wilson'' last summer because she feels that the traditional naming process in the U.S. is just another way Indians have been colonized. Her Dakota name translates to ''woman of the north.'' She will begin teaching on indigenous governance issues at the University of Victoria in July and has previously taught at Arizona State University.
Minnesota, which contains 11 tribal nations, is the historic home of the hangings at Mankato of 38 Indians for their part in the Dakota War of 1862. The event, according to Minnesota historians, remains the largest mass execution in U.S. history. In 1863, many Dakotas were forcibly removed from the state, and a massive incarceration of Dakota men ultimately prevented some of the Indian population from reproducing.
Waziyatawin and others believe that many Americans today don't realize that Indians are still paying the costs of these devastating actions. Most Dakota Indians don't live on the historical homelands and have lost some of their traditional culture and even language. Ojibwes in the state have fared somewhat better, but have still experienced many of the negative effects of colonization.
''There has not been a single generation of Minnesotans that has attempted to do justice,'' Waziyatawin said. ''Every generation has continued to enjoy the benefits of these policies of genocide and ethnic cleansing without doing justice. Everyone is invested in maintaining the status quo.''
Members of the Minnesota Sesquicentennial Commission recently acknowledged ethnocide and genocide against American Indians living in Minnesota during the state's early history. The commission, appointed by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, has overseen the celebrations recognizing Minnesota's 150th anniversary of statehood.
''Minnesotans pride themselves today on living in a state that is forward-thinking and compassionate,'' according to a statement on the commission's Web site. ''We have become a haven for refugees from countries where genocide still occurs. We recoil at the holocausts of World War I and II, and the more recent acts of savagery in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
''Yet we remain either unaware of or unable to look at our own history and acknowledge the painful wounds of ethnocide and genocide right here in Minnesota. We have a very hard time acknowledging that the pain remains and that it has affected much of our history thru to the present day.''
Waziyatawin believes the statement is a nod in the right direction, but at the same time thinks it's impossible to make up for genocide in the context of a statewide birthday party.
Griff Wigley, project leader of the commission's Native American outreach component, said the commission has attempted ''to engage the greater citizenry of Minnesota to take a look at these things and to open their eyes.'' In that effort, he's started a blog that notes Native history and news, which is linked to from the commission's Web site.
''There are a lot of people out there like me who are willing to have their eyes opened,'' Wigley said. ''Many more things that can be done that will have an impact on the education of the public.''
Wigley said some state legislators are currently exploring the possibility of sponsoring bills that would formally apologize for the sins of the past. Some in the state have also eyed with enthusiasm the April passage of a Colorado Legislature resolution comparing the deaths of millions of American Indians after colonization to the Holocaust.
''I see it happening real quick now that there's this precedent with Colorado,'' said Thomas Dahlheimer, director of Rum River Name Change Organization. The group is focused on getting the Rum River's name changed back to its sacred Dakota Indian name ''Wakan,'' which, in English, means ''great spirit.''
Leonard Wabasha, a hereditary chief of the Dakota and director of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community Cultural Resource Department, said he believes any apology is beyond the scope of what the sesquicentennial commission alone can accomplish.
''This is a national issue. These aren't isolated instances that occurred here in Minnesota.''
Wabasha said he and other members of the Dakota Nation have been talking to state legislators regarding the issue of reconciliation.
The key to making something happen is not to ''ram this down non-Indians' throats,'' he said. ''You can end up tainting your message.
''One of our premiere values is respect. As long as we practice that, then what we preach will be more easily respected. It may take a little longer, but it will eventually be accepted.''
Waziyatawin disagrees that there's not room for strong activism.
''I think we need to use multiple ways to try to get the point across. I've tried to reason with people and if they aren't listening. What other option is there?''
Whether a state or national apology happens anytime soon, Waziyatawin and others agree that there's a dire need for more education about the historical genocide committed toward Natives.
''We're the ones who have the moral high ground here,'' Waziyatawin said. ''We're trying to engage in truth-telling.''