Skip to Content

Support MinnPost

This content is made possible by the generous sponsorship support of The Minneapolis Foundation.

U of M students hope documentary prompts debate over apology to Native Americans

Little Crow's wife and children at Fort Snelling
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Little Crow’s wife and children at Fort Snelling, ca. 1863.

Mighty oaks from little acorns grow.

An old saying, it came to mind as University of Minnesota lecturer Carter Meland talked to me about a thought-provoking video project of the 60 students in his introductory “American Indians in Minnesota” class.

Maybe the documentary they premier May 1 will in the end be little more than a classroom exercise. Or, maybe it will spark some kind of official, mighty-oak apology from the state of Minnesota.

At any rate, the exercise has already jump-started discussion among students about the tumultuous history of Indians in Minnesota, from their treatment after the bloody Dakota Conflict, to boarding schools for Indian children where they were often forbidden to speak their native language and many say stripped of their culture, to tribal land ownership issues.

Students earning required social justice and diversity credits are producing the 60-minute video that also explores a possible apology for what Meland calls “colonist policy and practices,’’ as well as reparations to the state’s Dakota and Ojibwe people, Meland explains. The public is invited to the premier, as well as Gov. Mark Dayton and University president Eric Kaler, though both are unable to attend. Find details at story’s end. 

On the national level, the United States issued a quiet “apology to Native peoples of the United States,” buried in the 2010 defense appropriations bill.   Writer Lisa Balk King dissed it in Indian Country Today with a piece headlined “A Tree Fell in the Forest: The U.S. Apologized to Native Americans and No One Heard a Sound.’’ In contrast, Canada in 2008 asked its citizens to tune into a nationally broadcast apology from Parliament.

Minnesota history

“I found out through this class how little I knew about what transpired and all those crazy things that happened as part of Minnesota history,’’ says class member Jennifer Hall. 

It’s really opened my eyes a lot,’’ says the junior, herself Objiwe. She says she and classmates are “kind of appalled” at government’s treatment of American Indians in the 19th century and the impacts on natives in terms of land loss and their traditional way of life. 

“History is a living part of the present,’’ suggests Meland. By that he means, historic events and attitudes affect current attitudes and that these cause “ripple effects.”

The ripple effects in this case, he says, could be reflected in high levels of poverty among Native Americans.

According to the 2010 American Community Survey estimates (as reported in the “Greater Twin Cities United Way Faces of Poverty 2012”), American Indians make up the largest percentage of Minnesota families of poverty at 35.6 percent. Further, 51.8 percent of American Indian children, ages 0 to 5, are poor. 

Meland himself is Native American, a fact neither he nor his father knew, because of a divorce that split the family, until about 1990 when his dad received a phone call regarding a payout to the family in connection with the White Earth Land Settlement Act

This is the second offering of the class, which uses stories and literature to entice students to investigate ideas, Meland says, but the first time video has been included in course requirements.

The video, assembled by students, will be “easy to criticize on technical grounds, but we hope the story is compelling,’’ Meland says.

The movie premiers at 12:45 p.m. May 1 in room 231 of Smith Hall on the East Bank at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, and is open to the public.

Update

Now named and posted on YouTube, the 60-minute documentary can be seen here.

“An Overdue Apology: Truth-Telling for Native People of Minnesota” is clearly well-researched, heartfelt and makes for an interesting watch.

MinnPost’s story also prompted a number of people, including other media, to view the video and remain to talk with students about its content, teacher Carter Meland told me.

Get MinnPost's top stories in your inbox

Related Tags:

About the Author:

Comments (20)

Minnesota's general ignorance of this history

I came to Minnesota as a high school student. It's long, long ago now, so I may be wrong, but I'm pretty sure we heard nothing about the Dakota War in any of my history classes. We just read Diane Wilson's "Beloved Child: A Dakota Way of Life" (MHS Press, 2012) in my book club, and that educational hole was the same for everyone in the group.

Minnesota's treatment of the Dakota people was jawdroppingly horrifying. We discuss war crimes of WW2, the Balkans, Congo, etc. etc.in properly shocked tones, but have been ignorant about something which happened here just 150 years ago. Following that genocidal period, the practice of removing Indian children from their families and installing them in hellish boarding schools led to lasting misery and terrible damage for the culture-- and it continued into the late1970s! The burden of those horrors is still harming Indian society, and Minnesotans need to REALLY hear about it, and understand it. And APOLOGIZE for it.

Before the apologies, let's have the false equivalencies

The brutalization of Native Americans was national policy for many years in this country. To compare individual incidents of atrocity committed by Native Americans to that policy is absurd.

I don't understand it, frankly. I don't understand the mentality that says there can be no condemnation of immorality unless all bad acts committed by anyone who may tangentially have been involved, or who may have belonged to the same demographic as the victim. Should we say nothing about wrongdoings in the past? For example, should we not condemn slavery because, humans being human, there were surely some slaves who did something harmful to their masters? Should we not condemn the Holocaust because, odds are good, a few criminals and gennuine malefactors got theirs, too?

Specious reasoning can only distract from the real issues being raised. That, I suppose, is the point.

It's not about easing white guilt for past deeds

It's important to remember that issue here isn't about white guilt, it about Indian dignity. The atrocities committed against Indian people in this country and state are not a just a historical reality, they are a reality that continues to affect Indian people today.

This is supposed to be a nation built on the principle of human dignity. We disgrace ourselves both Indian and non-Indian alike when refuse to take responsibility for atrocities that were committed under our flag in the name of "expansion" and "civilization".

We cannot change the past, and no one is asking us to do that. This apology is about changing the present, its about establishing a relationship with fellow Americans that's based on respect, honest, and dignity. This isn't about making white people feel bad, on the contrary, it's about making it possible for us to look each other in the eye without shame.

education, not apology

An apology is not needed. All of the people involved in the treatment of the Dakota, including the Dakota victims, are long dead. Very few Minnesotans are even descended from the perpetrators. Most of today's Minnesotans or their ancestors, came from somewhere else. An apology would mean today's Minnesotans are responsible for the events in the Dakota Wars when they are not. What's needed is education about what happened, so this tragedy doesn't happen again.

Well, actually

I'm a direct descendant of one of the 303 dakota warriors who were condemned to hang in Mankato 150 years ago. He received a reprieve from President Lincoln and only 38 of those charged were hanged (those who had committed the most egregious acts of murder and rape), in what was the largest mass execution in this country's history.

In 1862, as a result of the treaty of lake traverse, the dakota ceded land to the federal government in return for food, gold and other provisions that they could access through local trading posts. Fort Snelling bureaucrats sat on the provisions, delaying their delivery for months while the agents and trading post proprietors showed no concern. One even told them to "eat grass." Finally, with their families starving, a few hunting parties went looking for food. One raided a farm for some eggs and the war was on.

When it was over, the dakota was banished from Minnesota to Iowa and points south. Over the years that followed, the dakota drifted back up north, settling in Mendota and elsewhere in southern and western Minnesota. My ancestors settled in Sisseton, SD.

It was a war, in that two sides had a dispute that resulted in violence. Both sides suffered casualities, with hundreds of Sioux and upwards of 800-1000 white settlers being killed. The American government won the war and by all international precedents, was allowed to terms and conditions of the losing side.

No apology is required for that war any more than any victor would or should apologize to the losing side in any war. Warriors understand that.

But there IS something the American government could apologize for, and that's for the total mismanagement of the trust accounts that have been the subject of a law suit that was recently settled after 15 years in court. Each Indian family was given 80 acres to farm in areas of South Dakota and western Minnesota. Some of the land was also leased by the government to outside interests for oil and mineral rights and the lease income was to be kept in individual accounts.

Individuals are supposed to get quarterly lease statements that list their account's balance. But after 100 years, most account balances showed only a few dollars. Some Indians decided to sue the federal government about 15 years ago to get an accurate accounting of those trust accounts. Estimates at the time were that the typical account after 100 years of leasing would contain a minimum of $100,000. But after litigating and dragging their feet and refusing to cooperate with the federal courts, the Interior Dept recently settled with the plaintiffs for about $3 billion ... an amount equivalent to about $1000 per trust account.

So after 100+ years of leasing my 80 acres of Indian land to private developers for oil and mineral extraction, the federal government has determined that my account that holds the proceeds of those leases should contain about $1000.

You can apologize for that insult.

The problem with this argument...

The only problem I have with Mr. Tester's argument here is that it takes the Dakota Conflict out of historical context and pretends it was stand alone war. In fact, the Dakota Conflict was part of a series of Indian wars which were launched by the US government and would have been considered illegal in todays international courts. You cannot separate the Indian Wars from the decades long US government policy of invasion and expropriation of Indian lands, not to mention the ongoing practice of treaty violations by the US government. In fact, it was US government treaty violations that triggered the Dakota Conflict.

Sure go ahead and apologize it is a great political strategy

Whoever turned the apology into its current political theater should be set in a room and given sincerity lessons. In this day and age they are generally as sincere as competing politicians referring to their worthy opponent and then continuing to talk about why they are not worth and possibly immoral and surely evil. An apology is about the most meaningless thing you can do, why should Tribes settle for that.

Frankly instead of a hollow apology if I ran the world every school child would be taught

1. the tribal migration patterns as part of Minnesota history - it wouldn't start with fur traders - it wouldn't even start with Lakota or Ojibwe who are also relative new comers to the area. It would be nice to know that the Mille Lacs area has been inhabited on and off for over 10,000 years.

2. that there is a difference between Indian people and Tribal Governments and that the rights of Indians and Tribes stem from their status as governments not from ethnicity or race. And that each tribe has at least one contract with the government where they gave up some property rights to secure other property rights. Candor in that the US governments periodically disregard for these contracts and created problems sometimes maliciously and sometimes by "killing with kindness" has created some problems that still exist today.

3. that tribes are intact cultures not historic relics and there is a great deal of diversity in how members of tribes earn a living, adhere to their culture, and where they live

4. that being indian is hard in a white male dominated world because of ignorance and the persistence of stereotypes.

That would be a lot more useful in producing real change than an insincere apology.

Native American History.

One of the classes I took to get my degree from Minot State University in 1985 was "Indian Treaties". It covered much of this. I also took classes in ND history. Much was learned from these two subjects. One fact: The 7 tribes of the Dakota's were not called Sioux by them. Sioux was a word that meant 'enemy' by other tribes. And it was a member of one of tribes that created the UND Sioux mascot profile. Thus the strange goings on in ND over that so called 'nickname'.

That's true

But this class and their movie is focused on "American Indians in Minnesota," and for me, as a Sioux, that's what the history of "American Indians in Minnesota" means.

Regardless of what would be legal or illegal in today's international law, prior to the 21st century, the world was shaped by nations warring against other nations. That's just a fact of life. We can look back and regret history's cruel and even barbaric means of settling borders as cultures destroyed other cultures in land grabs, but that was just the way it was.

The American Indian populated this continent for thousands of years prior to the arrival of the europeans and they warred against each other over buffalo hunting grounds, slaves, horses, and women. They were used to fighting to defend what they had and taking trophies in their victories.

In Minnesota, the Sioux, Chippewa and Crow fought amongst themselves continuously. Sometimes they won, sometimes they lost. "Battle Creek" in Saint Paul was named for an epic battle between the Sioux and the Chippewa. But against the more heavily armed europeans, they lost. And most Indian people from the nomadic warrior tribes get that and moved on.

But in the aftermath, the Indian people have always had a choice. Live free on the reservation land the federal government established for them and accept the government handouts as a way of life, or not. I chose not.

I'll be at the movie, btw.

euphemism

...so "apology" is really a euphemism for "US taxpayers owe Native Americans money for crimes Americans committed in the 19th century."

I saw the movie

If the objective was to educate non-Indians about the history of the Dakota and Ojibwa tribes in Minnesota and the cultural differences between the two, I thought the students did a very good job. If the objective was to convince non-Indian people who know virtually nothing about the history of Indians in Minnesota to apologize for the wrong-doing of their ancestors, not so much. An apology by proxy given by people who had no role in any wrong-doing is meaningless.

A few observations:

Whenever I encounter someone who knows nothing about American Indians or who thinks that all American Indian culture and language is alike, I tell them to think of the european continent. Europe is made up of several nations like England, France, Germany, Italy, Greece, etc., each with its own unique language and culture. North American Indian tribes are the same way. Some were great horsemen and hunted buffalo, while others traveled by canoe, ate mostly fish and berries, while others farmed and trapped small animals.

Darlene St.Clair did an excellent job of explaining how Indian gaming proceeds are spent, and how because that decision is made by sovereign nations, how they differ from tribe to tribe. Some tribes (primarily the Ojibwa) spend the money on reservation infrastructure etc., while others (primarily the Dakota) distribute it to individuals to use as they see fit. My tribe sends me a $100 gift card every month from their gaming profits. An excellent study in ideological diversity amongst the tribes.

But because Darlene did such a great job with her interview, it led me to think that more real Indians should have been interviewed to allow them to answer some of these cultural and historical questions in their own words. It might have been more effective than having a student read a script.

But all-in-all I'd give them an A.

I saw the movie as well

Sorry I missed you Dennis,

Perhaps I should disclose the fact that the instructor, Carter Meland, is my best friend going all the way back to grade school.

I think the main intent f the movie is to provoke a conversation, not necessarily settle the issue or construct an airtight case for an apology.

I can take issue on just one of Mr. Tester's points regarding international law etc. I have to point out that the treaty violations that US government committed at the time were in fact violations of US law AT THAT TIME. Those violations were simply ignored at the time because no one was enforcing the law, at best they just kept writing new laws to gloss over the violations. Furthermore, although the Geneva Convention did not exist at the time, the concept of war crimes did exist, and murder of non-combatants, or prisoners was considered illegal. Confederate officers for instance were prosecuted for their mistreatment of Union prisoners in Andersonville after the civil war. We're not trying to apply contemporary morality to an historical event, the concept of justice and atrocity existed at the time, although the institutions have changed.

I think a case for an apology can be made on several grounds.

First, this is a request for an apology from the US government and Government of MN, not a request for a personal apology from people who obviously did not participate in the war. A president or governor may be the voice of that apology, but no one is claiming that they are personally responsible. This is not a bizarre concept, Government are durable entities that are accountable for the duration of their existence. Nations are sometimes accountable even if their governments change. This is what makes treaties, laws, constitutions etc. enforceable long after the authors have died. This is the same government, even if it is different people. And I would add that this is YOUR government, taking responsibility for past actions is part keeping your government accountable. There are many examples of government issuing apologies for historical crimes.

Second, many people seem to think that such an apology is meaningless. Meaningless to whom? Obviously it's not meaningless to those requesting the apology therefore any declaration of "meaninglessness" is little more than a reflexive exercise of a power to deny. In this context a refusal to apologize may be a perpetuation of the abuse of power. Before you declare an apology to be "meaningless" you need give those requesting the apology a chance to explain what it means to them.

Third, sometimes an action creates meaning. You may be able to argue that an apology is useless as long as it's theoretical, but once an actual apology is issued, it may well create a powerful significance. In other words, it's disingenuous to argue that an apology that has not been issued has no meaning, you need to issue the apology in order to find out what meaning it may or may not ultimately have.

Finally, we're talking about our history, and who we are. History defines us and points us in certain directions. A history that suppresses the Dakota conflict and the conquest of Indians creates a very different history than one that acknowledges those events. Such a history also point us towards a different future. Indians have not disappeared from the landscape, they are real people, fellow human beings, and fellow Minnesotans, we do not live in a museum. An apology acknowledges our history, and points us towards a future where we treat each other with dignity and respect.

An apology engages history instead of compartmentalizing it. Some suggest that all we need to do is teach history, but a history we learn but don't take responsibility for is the true definition of "meanignless".

While I see your point Mr. Usdstand

I don't think anyone particularly tribal members want to wallow in the cult of victimization. But some tribes are different perhaps they do.

Frankly I think that tribes get to decide for themselves and any apology to be meaningful would need to be on a tribe by tribe basis based on their consensus.

Mr. Tester do the Ojibwe owe the Lakota an apology?

No

We get our revenge in this generation by calling them unflattering names.

Teach their own history

The reason for the harsh comments come from the fact that the American government will not allow a free peaceful people to teach their own history.

The ones who do not understand have been manipulated into believing our gov as it lies about Native history.

The Truth - All Treaties were traded for Peace. Treaty Rights are equal to the US as a separate sovereign country, equal to the US, not to a state.

The genocide, most often unspoken has become more documented: www.hiddennolonger.org
and realized that a force of gov + church + health systems have colluded since1776 and even now, signing the treaties to approach the mineral rights and natural resources that the robber barons still to this day say they own. They do not own Indian Land, but will destroy a people (in our own country) for greed and power. In addition, genocide is that result, everyday. Alcohol is a symptom of loss of family, land, language, culture and love, generation after generation. Genocide is proven by sterilization of the young women and sexual abuse of the young men and the death of the young children in boarding school who do not submit to US gov controlled tribal conditions. It is not incidental, it is across this land, purposeful and systematic. Everyday and Today.

Looking at other national apologies

As the teacher whose students put this project together, I've been following this discussion with great interest, as have many of the students. I agree with Mr Tester that more Native community members need to be included (look for that when my students tackle a similar project next year!); though I will say all the history and most of the ideas they discuss came from works by Native writers and filmmakers. So while our project is far from perfect, our guiding idea was to not fall prey to the cynicism that inflects so many discussions surrounding the need to right injustices. If you care to watch the project, it is now on YouTube:

http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL5D6682D1E9F45327&feature=edit_ok

It's an hour long, so if you don't have time to watch it all, I suggest watching the first four minutes or so and the entire part 5--you miss a lot of the historical context in doing that, but it gets you kind of right to the heart of the argument the students are proposing.

Also, an apology does not mean someone is a victim; it is an acknowledgment and recognition that actions you (or your gov't) have done have hurt someone else. When I bump into someone in the hall, I apologize; when I strike out at someone I disagree with without fully understanding their position, I apologize. Neither the person in the hall nor the disagreed with party takes their identity from the hurt I may have caused them, yet they doubtless appreciate my admission of wrongdoing.

Likewise, one thing I emphasized in class and the students do a pretty good job of emphasizing in their video is that Native people have always been agents in directing and shaping their communities. Even when those communities were experiencing horrible injustices (hurts), some, many, or most members of those communities strove--and continue to strive--to hold their homes, families, doodems (clans), and communities together.

While a state apology could be phony political theater (no, that would never happen in this day and age, would it?), an apology can be--and has been--an effective means to recognize and document injustice, in order to give voice to people who too often have been rendered voiceless (in terms of larger national discussions) by mainstream societies. I think the Australian apology to the Aboriginal people in general, and the stolen generations in particular, is powerful and much work has been done in Australia to document the responses to the apology and what it has meant to Aboriginal people. The State Library of Queensland, Australia has recorded numerous responses to the apology; I think any non-cynical apology will strive to document the responses of the people and open up a greater dialogue about justice (much as the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions did in the Republic of South Africa). I just watched five responses from Aboriginal people to the apology. I will include the links to two here:

Frankie Deemal: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RbMymoBvio4&feature=relmfu
John Wenitong: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xLAMZOgrtko

You will note that both Mr Deemal and Mr Wenitong were working diligently to help their communities for decades before the apology; they were in no way victims and in every way active agents in the health of their communities. You may also note that Mr Wenitong was deeply suspicious of the sincerity of the apology, but his response shows how much the apology has meant to him and to the health of his organization which sees to making sure Aboriginal children have access to the best education available in Queensland.

Finally, the US Congress has apologized to the Native people of the United States, but the apology was buried in a defense spending bill in 2009. Despite the efforts of many in Congress--and in Indian Country --to get President Obama to publicly express the apology, he has not yet done so. Perhaps he doesn't care; perhaps he thought it would be phony political theater; perhaps he thought it wouldn't mean anything to anyone. Instead of arguing hypotheticals, it would be nice to find out how we as a society could make it meaningful.

Wollowing?

"I don't think anyone particularly tribal members want to wallow in the cult of victimization. But some tribes are different perhaps they do. "

I'm curious Jody, do you really mean to be as disrespectful as your words? Are all requests or demands for an apology a leap into the cult of victimhood? Is there no such thing as a legitimate and appropriate apology? Or can you only categorically declare "tribal" requests as leaps into perpetual victimhood?

Obviously as sovereign nations, individual tribes speak for themselves. The apology being requested here would come from the Ojibwe. This is an explicit feature of the movie.

Correction on wollowing

To clarify, the Ojibwe are requesting the apology, not responding to such a request with an apology. And they are making the request on behalf of all Indian's in MN.

Correcting the correction

I got the following e-mail from Carter Meland and thought I should pass it along:

"...just returned to MNPost and saw your wallowing correction. I'm confused. As I read it the comment suggests that the Ojibwe are making this request for an apology. There is no such request by any Ojibwe nation that I know of, and no Ojibwe people are quoted in the video as saying an apology is needed. The class's video is just them--college students--suggesting that an apology would be a good thing. I don't want to give the impression that this is a bunch of college kids assuming the voice of the Ojibwe people."

Sorry for any confusion I've caused.