Our View: Learn from history, celebrate indigenous culture

In Duluth this week are rare opportunities worth grabbing to learn more about and to celebrate the culture and the contributions of Duluth's indigenous residents.

Led by staff bearers Shawn Carr and Sheila Fairbank, marchers leave Duluth’s Civic Center on Indigenous People's Day in 2015. (News Tribune file photo)

In Duluth this week are rare opportunities worth grabbing to learn more about and to celebrate the culture and the contributions of Duluth's indigenous residents.

At noon Monday outside City Hall in Priley Gardens (or inside City Hall if the weather is bad), the Duluth Indigenous Commission will host a ceremony to commemorate Indigenous People's Day. There'll be a mayoral proclamation, hand drummers, and remarks from community leaders.

On Thursday, an annual feast and forum are scheduled for 5:30 p.m. in the Dr. Robert Powless Cultural Center at 212 W. Second St. Attendees can bring a dish to share and be ready to discuss issues facing indigenous people and our Native youth, specifically educational disparities and opioid addiction.

"(Indigenous People's Day) is an important day because we need accurate history," Babette Sandman, chairwoman of the Duluth Indigenous Commission, told the News Tribune Opinion page last week. "Columbus Day made us invisible, like there was nobody here when (Genoese explorer Christopher) Columbus got here. ... We weren't even considered human. That's in a lot of people's blood memory."

Duluth has been commemorating Indigenous People's Day since at least 2005.


"It's a victory for our ancestors, a victory for us in the present day, and a victory for future generations. We're starting to correct history and give the accurate truth," Sandman said. "We have visibility now. People are starting to know who we are, and (they) like who we are. That was not the case for my dad's generation. ... That's why people should come celebrate with us."

And stop using Columbus Day for sales and other promotions, she said.

Accurate history can help the Northland and beyond better understand indigenous issues and our rich Native culture, Melanie Benjamin, the chief executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Indians in Minnesota wrote in 2005. She shared one story from history as an example.

"In 1850, President Zachary Taylor had ordered Ojibwe bands in Michigan and Wisconsin to move west of the Mississippi River. Because the order violated the treaties of 1837 and 1842, the bands refused," Benjamin wrote in a commentary in the News Tribune. "In response, Minnesota Territorial Gov. Alexander Ramsey hatched a plan requiring the bands to travel to Sandy Lake to receive their annuity payments. Sandy Lake is near current-day McGregor, just 70 miles from Duluth. ...

"Up until this point, the Indians had always received their payments at Madeline Island. Ramsey promised that gold would await them at Sandy Lake at the end of October. In late October 1850, nearly 5,500 Ojibwe from 19 bands throughout Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan began arriving on the shores of Sandy Lake," Benjamin continued. "By scheduling the cash delivery hundreds of miles from their homelands and with winter fast approaching, Ramsey's hope was that the Indians would be trapped into staying in Minnesota, then move west of the Mississippi. The Indians who arrived at Sandy Lake found no payments and no provisions. Ramsey's assistant, John Watrous, had traveled to St. Louis by canoe to get the payments. There, he learned Congress had failed to appropriate the funds. ...

"When Watrous finally arrived at Sandy Lake on Nov. 24, it was too late. Thousands were sick and starving, and hundreds had already died of dysentery, measles and cholera.

"Watrous decided to send the bands home. He arranged for traders to give the bands an advance on their payments, and the Indians were sold supplies at six times the normal price. The surviving Ojibwe had no choice but to make the trek home, having already hunted out the area and needing to find food to survive the winter. As they journeyed, a storm set in, killing 200 more. In all, more than 400 men, women and children died as part of this scheme. ...

"Unable to bury the dead because of frozen ground, bodies were wrapped in birch bark. So many of these birch bark graves lay across the west side of Sandy Lake that even in June there still appeared to be snow on the ground.


"This is Minnesota's frozen trail of tears," Benjamin wrote. "All this happened near Duluth. History is all around us, and my hope is that learning history might lead to tolerance and understanding."

Our history - its failings and its triumphs - informs our future. We can choose to pay attention to it so it can help make our days ahead brighter and better. Or we can ignore it our peril. Choosing correctly is another opportunity worth grabbing on Indigenous People's Day on Monday and every day.

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