“I sat with this for quite a while,” said Duluth City Council President Renee Van Nett, as she introduced a resolution that struck close to her heart at an agenda session meeting Thursday night.

But ultimately, Van Nett said she felt compelled to raise an issue that remains raw for many of her constituents, especially fellow Indigenous residents of the city.

The resolution acknowledges “the harm and ongoing historical and intergeneration(al) trauma experienced by American Indian and Alaska Native children and communities due to the United States’ Indian boarding school policy.”

From 1871 until the 1970s, as many as 16 Indian boarding schools operated in Minnesota, many with the stated goal to, “Kill the Indian … and save the man,” erasing Native American culture and language as best they could.

If a proposed resolution passes Monday night, the Duluth Council will go on record, calling on Congress to appoint a commission that would examine the ongoing impact the boarding school system has had on American Indian communities and to explore proper redress, including possible financial reparations.

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“The issues you see, if you see folks who are Native who are struggling, there are reasons behind that,” Van Nett said. “It’s not just because we’re struggling. There are things behind why.”

She said American Indian children, some as young as 4, were torn away from their families and were compelled to attend often-distant American Indian boarding schools. The boarding schools are now closed, but the lasting scars they inflicted have not faded with time, Van Nett said.

In a letter to the Duluth City Council, members of the Duluth Indigenous Commission concurred, writing: “This is happening to us right now. We are your community members, and we are grieving again and again. This time we want you to feel this with us. This time we want the United States to acknowledge what has happened to us, the people who were in boarding schools or have ancestors who survived boarding schools, passing down the trauma from generation to generation.”

The Indigenous commissioners beseeched city councilors: “This time we want you to know the impact on us today. Do not be silent, not this time. Please speak up and pass this resolution that will support efforts in reconciliation. We need you to acknowledge the harm and ongoing historical trauma that we are experiencing from the past, today and into the future.”

Drawing from the comments of Babette Sandman, co-chair of Duluth’s Indigenous Commission, Van Nett described what she referred to as “the blood memory” of those painful events.

Renee Van Nett
Renee Van Nett

Van Nett said a celebration of Indigenous People’s Day is slated to take place in front of the Duluth City Hall at noon Monday, with Sen. Tina Smith planning to attend. She invited fellow councilors and the general public to participate, saying: “Essentially, it’s about healing for all of us, because if we’re not all doing well, we’re all not doing well.”

At large Duluth City Councilor Terese Tomanek signed on as a co-sponsor of Van Nett’s resolution and said: “For decades, our government participated in a tragedy that forcibly removed American Indian children from their homes and their families. Sending children away to boarding schools has precipitated generational trauma that this resolution calls out.”

“And bringing this horrendous chapter of our history to light may help it to keep from ever happening again,” she said.

While she expressed support for acknowledging the trials and wrongs non-white local populations have endured, 5th District Councilor Janet Kennedy questioned whether the resolution would prove anything more than symbolic.

Van Nett replied that if the resolution is passed, she will personally take steps to place it before the state’s congressional delegates, the governor and even President Joe Biden. She noted that Duluth is not alone in asking for the impact of American Indian boarding schools to be investigated and addressed. Van Nett said the resolution she introduced was modeled largely on one previously passed by the city of Seattle.

At large Councilor Arik Forsman, who joined Tomanek as a co-sponsor of the resolution, also noted that Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, introduced a bipartisan bill on Sept. 30, calling for the appointment of a commission to look into the painful chapter and its repercussions.

“So, I think there is some timeliness associated with the resolution,” he said.

Forsman also noted that Canada has been wrestling with the issue of American Indian boarding schools of late, especially after the discovery of the remains of hundreds of children in mass unmarked graves there.

“Certainly, I think what this resolution acknowledges is that we’re not that different, whether that’s been found or not yet,” Forsman said. “The fact is that the U.S. had almost double the amount of boarding schools that Canada did. And certainly the resolution calls out the fact that there were many in Minnesota, too.”