Sometimes, when history comes knocking, it’s like a difficult relative, uncomfortable, unexpected, even unwelcome. Ironically, that’s often when we most need to open the door.
And so it was this Memorial Day, when my husband and I drove to Lake Mille Lacs in central Minnesota, drawn by a powwow and nostalgia. His grandparents once owned a small farm a few miles away, and he spent countless weekends rustling through fall leaves with his grandfather and eating his grandmother’s rhubarb. Those memories are a big reason we have a cabin on 40 acres and a vegetable garden big enough to provision a platoon.
Luckily for us, the powwow was on the grounds of the Mille Lacs Indian Museum and Trading Post, which allowed us to toggle between living Ojibwe culture and its proud, often painful history.
Outside on the green lawn, it was a postcard holiday – bright sky, blue lake, attentive guests, welcoming hosts. The rich mash-up of contemporary Ojibwe culture was on full display — t-shirts and jingle dresses, drumming and Diet Coke, eagle-feather fans and beaded crowns, including one with a Hello Kitty design for a five-year-old princess.
Inside, museum displays detailed the history of broken treaties and forced relocations. Native Americans were not recognized as U.S. citizens until 1924. In the 1990s, a protracted legal battle was needed to enforce the band’s hunting and fishing rights. Even today, resort owners and fishermen complain about the band’s rights to take walleye from the big lake.
Dioramas illustrated how Ojibwe families lived before the land developers and farmers arrived. Small groups survived by moving each season within an 8-mile range — tapping maples, fishing the big lake, collecting wild rice in marshes, hunting game.
That’s history the way we like it: Resourceful, revered, passé. But as we roamed through the museum, one sign painfully connected those families and my own: “In 1911, 284 Band members remain in villages near Lake Mille Lacs. Chief Wadena’s village is burned by a sheriff’s posse, and its residents are forcibly removed so that their land can be claimed by a developer.”
Three years later, in 1914, my husband’s grandfather bought 40 acres in that area. It was mediocre farmland. In time, he moved to St. Paul. But he kept the land, and when he retired there, its bounty of spruce and maple, bittersweet vines and wild cranberries fed my husband’s spirit. Before us, we now know, it fed some Ojibwe family. When forced to leave, they undoubtedly received little to nothing for their loss.
There’s much effort these day to get America to confront our history of racism and white supremacy. Loudest are the arguments over statues – Robert E. Lee in New Orleans, Christopher Columbus outside the Minnesota Capitol. It’s fairly easy to remove a statue. Far harder is examining how that shameful history still affects us. Harder still is deciding how to respond to our heightened awareness.
That’s the ambition behind the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the monument that opened this spring in Montgomery, Alabama, to commemorate 4,400 black Americans murdered by white mobs between 1877 and 1950. Some 800 weathered steel columns hang from a roof like bodies, each engraved with the name of the county where the lynching occurred and the names of the victims. The farthest north is St. Louis County, where three black circus workers were lynched in Duluth on June 15, 1920.
In interviews, Bryan Stevenson, the lawyer and activist behind the memorial, argues that America’s failure to face our history of enslavement, lynching and segregation leaves us vulnerable to repeating it. He wants America to do what Berlin, South Africa and Rwanda have done – embrace a sense of shame over the Holocaust, apartheid and genocide against Tutsi, examine how those legacies continue to affect us and work to build a better future.
“There is redemption waiting. There is recovery waiting. There is reconciliation waiting,” Stevenson recently told Brooke Gladstone, host of the radio show On the Media. “There is something more like justice than we have experienced in America…But we can’t get there through silence, by pretending the history doesn’t exist. We’ve got to own up to it.”
As I travel around Minnesota this summer, I’ll look for lakes and lighthouses. I’ll also look for the history that makes me uneasy and determined to do better for my grandkids.
That day at Mille Lacs, I felt the discomfort that comes with recognizing that my gain stands partly on someone else’s loss. I also felt grateful for the welcome and resilience of my hosts. What to do?
Powwow etiquette is quite specific: Enter the dance arbor only during inter-tribal dances. During one of the final dances, I approached an elderly Ojibwe woman who’d been dancing all afternoon. She nodded when I asked if I could join her.
The drumming started and we moved slowly forward, me in my camping shorts and floppy hat, her in a jingle dress inherited from an aunt and a hat dotted with Native Vote buttons. Around and around the circle, we went, not hopping and skipping like the young dancers but gliding and talking in that quiet way of grandmothers. At the end of the dance, we gave each other thanks.