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Native Americans voice concerns at County Board meeting over settler comment

Several Native Americans told the St. Louis County board Tuesday why comments by one of its members about European immigration to North America “working out well’’ for everyone were offensive to some indigenous people.

About 25 Native Americans and their supporters attended the county board meeting, with several people taking advantage of the regular public comment period to explain why they believe comments by Commissioner Steve Raukar of Hibbing were inappropriate.

Raukar made the comments last week at a board meeting in Ely. Since then, concerns have been raised that Raukar, knowingly or not, was promoting white colonization and oppression of native people.

Raukar’s comments were made during a sometimes intense debate on copper mining in the region. He was speaking of how Iron Range youth are unable to find jobs that satisfy their needs, so they leave the region. That leads to declining school enrollment and shrinking Range town populations. Yet, at the same time, mining companies say they face a shortage of skilled workers.

“I’ve said many times that perhaps we need another wave of immigrants from eastern Europe to come here. Let’s give them some land and some opportunity — they’re an educated workforce — and let’s rebuild. Let’s get more Finlanders here. Let’s get more Italians, Yugoslavians, Croatians, Germans. It’s worked well once already. Why wouldn’t it work again?” Raukar said at the June 24 meeting.

Cassie Helgerson, a Duluth Native American, was at the Ely meeting and said the comments were tantamount to condoning white privilege over native people – many of whom had had their land, their customs, their children and, in some cases, their lives taken so whites could prevail economically.

Helgerson also spoke of raising two children in a small, nearly all-white town, and how she was emotionally and physically abused and tormented by overtly racist actions.

“So you see, that first wave immigrants didn’t work out well for everyone,’’ Helgerson said at Tuesday’s meeting at the Duluth courthouse. “We don’t need more immigrants here… there is no more land to give them.”

Others accused Raukar of slamming current Iron Rangers as somehow being uneducated, unable or unwilling to take available jobs, a claim they said was “offensive’’ to all current residents, not just Native Americans.

Raukar insisted his comments were being taken out of context and that he is being misunderstood. After the public comments Tuesday Raukar read a short statement. No other commissioners spoke, and there was nothing on the agenda to act on regarding the subject.

“I meant no disrespect to the Native American community,’’ Raukar said.

But Raukar, the board’s longest-serving member, who is running unopposed for re-election in November, was not conciliatory, throwing the concerns raised back at his detractors.

“With all due respect, I find your insinuation of racial bias off the mark. You have the wrong guy,’’ Raukar said. “I respectfully apologize for any misunderstanding regarding the intent of my remarks.”

Helgerson, an Ogalala Lakota, said her raising the issue was intended to point out the “two worlds’’ that coexist in the Northland –  vastly different white and Native American perceptions and interpretations of history and of how that history lead to current situations.

She said Raukar’s apology fell short of her expectations.

“He seemed to apologize for our misunderstanding and not his. But we had no misunderstanding. We knew the context in which the comments were made... yet he still doesn’t understand why they are hurtful,’’ Helgerson said. “But I think we got our point across today.”

Other Native Americans asked county commissioners to sign an on-line petition vowing to uphold the letter and the intent of treaties between the U.S. and native tribes, and recognizing those treaties as the law of the land.

Makoons Miller-Tanner, a Duluth Native American, said too many people ignore or remain oblivious to racism within the Northland.

“I’m tired of open racism against Native Americans being acceptable,’’ she told the board.