Sesquicentennial not an Indian celebrationby Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio
Minnesota is celebrating its 150th year as a state, but many American Indian residents are not joining the celebration. An Anishinaabe man, Robert DesJarlait, says his family is just starting to recover from more than a century of oppression.
Moorhead, Minn. — Robert DesJarlait was a young boy when his family left Red Lake in the 1950s, as part of a government relocation program aimed at making American Indians join mainstream society.
But DesJarlait says his family changed long before they left the reservation. Soon after Minnesota became a state, government boarding schools came to the reservation.
"That's where I see a lot of change in our very identity," DesJarlait said. "Looking at my family, I can see where the Anishinaabe names became English names."
DesJarlait's father was given a Christian name, and beaten for speaking his native language at boarding school.
But a kind nun also encouraged his father's interest in art. His father eventually became a successful artist in Minneapolis. In fact, he created that Minnesota icon, the Hamms Bear.
But Robert DesJarlait says members of his father's generation was conflicted about their native culture. They'd been raised with the language and customs, but then punished and taught being Indian was bad.
So as a child of that generation, he struggled to understand what it meant to be an Indian. He grew up knowing little about his native culture or language.
"When I look back at 150 years and what's happened to my family in particular, I can really see the loss of identity and not knowing who I was," DesJarlait said. "That leads to a lot of different kind of dysfunctional behaviors, some which may be hating yourself and being ashamed of yourself and your culture."
That confusion led to years of alcohol and drug abuse.
DesJarlait says he's been sober for 26 years and is connecting with his past. He's learning the Anishinaabe language. A few years ago he was given an Indian name.
He says people often don't understand his compulsion to reconnect with his culture.
"One of the criticisms I hear about Indian people is that we live in the past," DesJarlait said. "But it isn't that we live in the past. We look to the past to understand who we are today."
"The only way we can heal is by looking at that past," he continued. "First the individual heals, and then you heal the family and then you heal the community. It's going to take a while. I know I won't be around to see, but I think we're rebuilding ourselves into who we were 150 years ago."
Robert DesJarlait says hearing his 4-year-old grandson say Anishinaabe words and sing traditional songs gives him greater hope for the next 150 years.
- Morning Edition, 06/16/2008, 7:25 a.m.