A tipi erected near the Bald Spot on Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

This Land is Their Land

By David Schimke
Indigenous students — in collaboration with select faculty members, staff representatives, and leaders of the Prairie Island Indian Community — are working to help the college address their collective strengths, traditions, and needs.

Walking Carleton's campus just before noon on October 16, one couldn’t help but feel that something magical was in motion. It was the sort of day that can simultaneously stir memories and make new ones; a communal opportunity, too rare since the start of the pandemic, to bask in academic tradition.

With Family Weekend underway and President Alison Byerly’s installation anchoring the afternoon to come, Carleton staff members were walking the grounds, cross-checking every detail. An extralarge, open-sided canopy sat on the Bald Spot, the folding chairs and whiteclothed tables beneath arranged for a celebratory reception. A patch of fresh soil waited outside Laird for the Presidential Tree Planting Ceremony. Inside Skinner Memorial Chapel, the ever-elusive plaster bust of German poet Friedrich Schiller was situated on the pulpit.

Meanwhile, over at the Weitz Center for Creativity — where a video monitor was set up in Kracum Performance Hall to screen the inaugural address to an overflow crowd — students and parents were already streaming through the main entrance. Many of them had visited Why Treaties Matter: Self-Government in the Dakota and Ojibwe Nations, an exhibit in the Hamlin Creative Space. It would prove an apt choice.

The traveling exhibit, sponsored jointly by the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, came to campus largely due to a four-year Carleton initiative: Public Works: Arts & Humanities Connecting Communities. Combining maps, timelines, and firstperson testimonials from Indigenous voices, the exhibit focuses on the Dakota and Ojibwe peoples’ relationship with their homelands, the historical infringement on American Indian rights, and why treaties forged between the U.S. government and sovereign tribal nations in the 19th century — while persistently, and often brutally, violated by the government — remain relevant today as Indigenous people continue to strive for appropriate status and justice.

Carleton’s exhibit, which Perlman Teaching Museum director Sara Cluggish says was among the college’s best attended in recent history, also included work by contemporary Indigenous artists and a wall of Post- It notes on which visitors could write down their impressions. “I heard many students say that viewing the exhibit was difficult; it’s a hard set of realities to face,” says Cluggish. “But they also said it sparked the kinds of conversations that make them glad they came to Carleton. It wasn’t the typical version of white settler colonial history that so many of us were taught in high school.”

Momentum for the exhibit grew in 2019 after then-president Steven Poskanzer unveiled a land acknowledgment statement. Released in early spring 2020, it was particularly well-received by students who were working simultaneously on their own statement with the Center for Community and Civic Engagement (CCCE).

Carleton chaplain Carolyn Fure- Slocum ’82 read the statement at the beginning of Byerly’s installation ceremony: “We stand on the homelands of the Wahpekute and Mdewakanton bands of the Dakota Nation. We honor with gratitude the people who’ve stewarded the land through the generations and their ongoing contributions to this region. We acknowledge the ongoing injustices that we have committed against the Dakota Nation, and we wish to interrupt this legacy, beginning with acts of healing and honest storytelling about this place.”

The statement set an appropriate tone for Byerly’s inaugural address, during which she spoke passionately about issues of inclusion, equity, and diversity. Most strikingly, given the time-honored traditions that make inauguration day so special for so many, the college’s 12th president recognized that, largely because it prides itself “on being a close-knit and welcoming community, Carleton has found it painful to hear that not all members of the community have felt equally at home here.”

“Access to a Carleton education does not simply mean financial access, but cultural, social, and emotional access as well,” Byerly went on to say. “The BIPOC students, faculty, and staff we bring to Carleton do not want simply to be welcomed to our space, they want to feel that it is their space — to feel not just inclusion but belonging and ownership.”

Sinda Nichols ’05, director of CCCE, says Byerly’s sentiments and clear intention to back them up embody the spirit of land acknowledgment. “If you’re serious, you don’t just read the statement and then move on. You connect it to what you’re about to talk about and say how it relates,” she says. “And that’s exactly what Alison did.”

Nichols says the college’s formal statement motivated students to “channel their energies into action.” And that one heretofore untold story is how this “grassroots effort,” also made by a host of staff and faculty members, has already led to significant change. In the past two years, Carleton has convened a series of events geared toward a better understanding of Indigenous cultures, entered into a working relationship with the nearby Prairie Island Indian Community, and has seen the re-emergence of an Indigenous student group that has, among other things, prepared a list of recommended reforms.

Along the way, a new set of traditions have begun to take shape, no less meaningful or captivating than those that have served Carleton so well since its founding, just four years after the U.S.–Dakota War of 1862.

Originally, Why Treaties Matter was scheduled to be at the Weitz in 2020. But it was delayed because of the pandemic. That was “just a little bit of a silver lining,” says art professor Kelly Connole, because it allowed faculty and staff members more time to execute a rich lineup of preparatory programming.

Andrew Farias ’21, then-president of the Carleton Student Association, made land acknowledgment a key part of his platform during the 2020-21 school year. “Once I found out the college had crafted a statement, I knew the next step would have to involve developing some tangible steps to begin addressing past injustices and present-day needs” Farias says.

With the encouragement of Nichols and American studies and history professor Meredith McCoy, Farias organized an ad hoc working group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, staff members, and faculty members to, as McCoy puts it, “ensure that the land acknowledgment statement doesn’t become just performative.”

One of the group’s charges was to prepare people on campus for the treaties exhibit. A series of study groups held early in 2021 examined the Dakota people’s connection to Minnesota land, the legal makeup of treaty agreements, and even the promise and pitfalls of land acknowledgment itself. “These discussions were about an acknowledgment of presence, an acknowledgment of the past, and an acknowledgment of differentials in wealth and opportunity,” says religious studies professor Michael McNally, who played a key role in organizing the exhibit and attendant educational efforts.

Map of the past, present, and future of Dakota people and language in the Twin CitiesMap of the past, present, and future of Dakota people and language in the Twin Cities Photo: Illustration by Marlena Myles Around the same time, McCoy, who is of Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe descent and Carleton’s only Indigenous faculty member, was teaching “Indigenous Histories of Carleton.” The 14 students who took the class, wrote McCoy in a course description, were tasked with “situating Carleton’s history alongside histories of Dakota people and Anishinaabeg in what is currently Minnesota” and sharing “their findings in publicly accessible ways with the Carleton and Northfield communities."

In June, class members synopsized their individual, 20- to 30-page research papers (available in the Carleton College Archives) during an hour-long Zoom presentation sponsored by the Northfield Public Library and still viewable on YouTube. The subject matter included a narrative of activism and student groups, the origins of Carleton’s land and wealth, and a discussion of Christianization and dispossession in Northfield and beyond.

What the student researchers found fortified and fleshed out a historical report that McCoy delivered to the Northfield Human Rights Commission a year earlier:

“The area currently known as Rice County was originally stewarded by the Wahpekute Band of the Dakota Nation. Throughout the early 1800s, the federal government engaged in treaties (often negotiated through deceitful practices) that dispossessed Dakota people of their homelands. After the 1851 Treaty, the Dakota Nation retained only two areas of land on the Minnesota River. . . .

In the 19th century, U.S. officials slaughtered bison to deny Native Americans a food source.In the 19th century, U.S. officials slaughtered bison to deny Native Americans a food source. “When the federal government failed to uphold the terms of the treaties, Dakota people experienced widespread famine. Tensions grew between Dakota people and the local traders who, complaining of delayed federal payments, denied Dakota people food and allowed it to rot. This led to a two-month conflict known as the U.S.–Dakota War of 1862. In response to the conflict, President Lincoln ordered the mass execution of 38 Dakota men in Mankato. It remains the largest mass execution in the history of the United States.

“At the end of the war, Minnesota exiled Dakota people from the state. To enforce its order, the government pursued, arrested, and marched more than a thousand Dakota women and children to Fort Snelling, where they were held in unsanitary conditions for months. Many died in the camps, and those who survived were then further removed to South Dakota and Nebraska.

“Northfield’s two colleges, Carleton (founded in 1866) and St. Olaf (founded in 1874), were established within a few years of Minnesota’s removal of Dakota people. While we are still working to document the relationship of Dakota people to the area now known as Northfield, Dakota expulsion from southern Minnesota undoubtedly facilitated settler expansion in this area.”

Professor Meredith McCoy recognizes Indigenous Peoples’ Day with IPA membersProfessor Meredith McCoy recognizes Indigenous Peoples’ Day with IPA members As her students scoured the past, McCoy was also counseling and connecting Indigenous Carleton students, including Zia NoiseCat ’23 (Canim Lake Band Tsq’escen), Naiya Karl ’23 (Choctaw), Imani Kindness-Coleman ’22 (Apsáalooke), Saheli Patel ’25 (Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe), Ana Pina Marcelino ’22 (Nahua) and Zaya Vijil ’23 (Diné). Encouraged by the land acknowledgment statement and looking for an avenue to empowerment, the students formed the Indigenous People’s Alliance (IPA), a campus organization that originally formed in 2015 but fizzled out when its few members graduated.

“There are all sorts of clubs at Carleton where you can explore different facets of your identity, like Sci Fi Club, so I was able to find people I had similar interests with,” says Vijil. “But one thing I didn’t have was any sort of cultural connection. My freshman year I didn’t know how to find other Indigenous students, which was a complete change from where I grew up. It felt really lonely.

“Many of us in IPA have similar histories and cultural backgrounds, so we’re able to understand and support one another,” Vijil continues. “It means a lot to be around people who have a similar sense of humor about their circumstances or who know the importance of ceremony, which is such a big part of our identity.”

Broderick Dressen ’09 (Iñupiat Eskimo) grew up with the Prairie Island Indian Community. He remembers feeling under pressure and occasionally out of place his first year, but emphasizes that he had strong support from faculty members in the political science department and received counsel from an Indigenous staff member. He also lived just an hour from his home community, which made it a bit easier to stay connected with his community during the school year. These personal caveats notwithstanding, he’s very encouraged by the land acknowledgment statement and the emergence of IPA, which he hopes will help non- Indigenous members of the Carleton community better understand how cultural differences can affect a person’s educational expectations, experiences, and chances at success.

“The mainstream American mentality is very individualized. It’s a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps kind of narrative,” says Dressen, who is a member services coordinator for the Native American Contractors Association in Washington, D.C. “And the whole education system is set up that way. College is your time. But when Indigenous people — and many people of color — become adults, they are supposed to leave individuality behind.

“There’s a teaching with the Ojibwe people about the seven generations in front of you and the seven generations behind you. It’s humbling. You’re supposed to help honor those who came before and support the great-great-great-grandchildren ahead of you. At a place like Carleton, that’s a huge cultural divide, and unless professors and staff members understand and respect that divide, it can be very difficult for Indigenous students to succeed.”

In an effort to address these values-based discrepancies and blind spots and blind spots practically (Indigenous students also say they consistently endure microaggressions in and outside the classroom), the IPA drafted a series of four broad recommendations for senior leadership at the college to consider: Build a religious space in the Arb for Native students and communities; establish a tribal liaison staff position; create scholarships for Native students, including full tuition for Dakota students; and increase Indigenous studies classes, as well as the number of Indigenous faculty members.

Vijil says that, in the short term, hiring a liaison is particularly important. “Whenever anything Indigenous-related is brought up around Carleton — like a professor needing a second opinion on a syllabus — everyone goes to Meredith [McCoy], and it’s not fair to put all that pressure and responsibility on one person.”

Marcelino agrees and further points out that IPA’s list, like the organization itself, is ultimately geared toward increasing the number of Indigenous students who enroll at and eventually graduate from Carleton. “It’s simple,” she says. “If someone doesn’t think they have a support system here, then they’re not likely to come” — or stay.

A tipi erected near the Bald Spot on Indigenous Peoples’ Day.A tipi erected near the Bald Spot on Indigenous Peoples’ Day. A visible manifestation of Carleton’s increasing awareness of, and commitment to Indigenous issues took place on October 11. Instead of celebrating Columbus Day, which is still recognized as a federal holiday, IPA members, faculty members, and staff members organized an afternoon of activities to commemorate Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Representatives from the Prairie Island Indian Community, including its president, Shelley Buck, served as both the guests of honor and interactive educators. A formal ceremony kicked off the day, and those who attended were welcomed with a prayer and an honor song. McCoy joined IPA members in briefly addressing the crowd that gathered on the Boliou patio, and both Buck and Byerly (who had met privately earlier in the day) gave remarks.

“It can’t be overstated how important protocol was that morning,” says Paul Dressen, Broderick Dressen’s father and education director at Prairie Island Indian Community. “It was president to president. It was government to government. And that means a lot to the Indigenous students at Carleton who come from their own sovereign nations.”

After the ceremony, a tipi was set up near the Bald Spot across from Sayles- Hill. Dressen and Prairie Island tribal historic preservation compliance officer Franky Jackson were on hand to talk with the Carleton community. “Just as I expected, we were asked a lot of tough, thoughtful questions,” says Dressen. People were encouraged to visit the treaties exhibit. And the day ended with a community dinner of wild rice soup and fry bread, prepared by Dakota chef Phil White.

Perhaps the most meaningful episode of the day, however, took place behind the scenes. Before Buck met with Byerly, she and the other tribal visitors sat down with IPA members to show solidarity. “That meant a lot,” says Vijil. “Even though we’re students, it showed us that they see us as strong individuals and potential leaders. It also showed that we have a real support system to help us work with [Carleton’s] administration.”

In the months since that sun-soaked fall day, IPA members and engaged faculty and staff members have vigorously pursued a variety of ongoing projects. Cluggish continues to expand the Perlman Teaching Museum’s collection of Indigenous art. A grant was written to fund an onsite liaison to further expand relationships with Native communities. Speakers such as author Anton Treuer, professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State, and Oglala Lakota chef Sean Sherman continue to populate the college’s events calendar. And this spring, an elder-in-residence program, organized by McCoy and McNally, will kick off with a week-long visit by artist Denise Lajimodiere, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe.

It’s also anticipated that Carleton’s relationship with the Prairie Island Community will continue to deepen. In a gesture of gratitude and reciprocity in mid-November, for instance, members of the Carleton community were given a bus tour of Prairie Island in Goodhue County. Jackson and Dressen shared their expertise and answered questions about the Treasure Island Resort & Casino (the largest employer in the county with the second largest hotel in the state) and the nuclear power plant, which currently stores 47 canisters of nuclear waste just 600 feet from members’ homes.

For many, the field trip’s highlight was piling onto the open bed of a pickup to drive out and see the community’s bison herd. “They are part of our family,” says Paul Dressen, explaining that U.S. government officials slaughtered the animals in the late 19th century to control and subjugate Indigenous peoples. “At one point, there were 60 million bison in North America, and at the turn of the century there were under 1,000. It was almost a complete genocide. That mirrors our history. It speaks to the enormity of what happened to our people. And it’s something we hope sticks with visitors, whether they’re kindergarteners, high school students, or future leaders from places like Carleton.”

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