The University of Minnesota opens its state sesquicentennial observance in Duluth with an unvarnished look at the American Indian experience in the state.
It's not all a happy story, which includes American Indian children forced into boarding schools, young women sterilized for life, and the largest mass execution in U.S. history.
Alexis Pogorelskin heads the University's Center for Genocide, Holocaust, and Human Rights Studies on the University of Minnesota Duluth campus. She saw the opportunity through the state's birthday celebration, to link history and human rights.
"The programming that the center has done has focused on Darfur, the holocaust, the Armenian genocide," Pogorelskin says. "And as Director of the center I have long wanted to do American Indian issues, and with the boost of the sesquicentennial I was able to put this panel together."
Panelists include Pogorelskin, Linda Grover with UMD's American Indian Studies Program, and Native American speakers Jim Northrup and Dr. Robert Powless. Northrup is a celebrated writer and poet from the Fond Du Lac Band of Ojibway. Powless is professor emeritus with UMD's Center for American Indian Studies.
"I'm going to focus on what does human rights actually mean?" says Powless. "And how does that relate to what has happened to Indian people in the past, and what we would like to think is going to be happening to them in the future."
According to Powless, the American Indian experience today is still one of human rights denied.
“If we're not aware of these issues then we, as a community, cannot appropriately address them.”Alexis Pogorelskin
"Part of a definition of human rights - a dictionary definition of human rights - is equality before the law," Powless says. "Certainly if you look around here in Duluth, you don't find that."
Powless says he believes some crimes against Duluth's American Indians have not been given a thorough investigation.
But he says things aren't hopeless. Powless says the popular image of Indian people has improved since the 1930s and 40s.
"And I'm saying today, we've got to somehow learn from each other," Powless says. "Indians have to go into the mainstream, yes. But they also have to teach their culture, or cultures, to non-Indian people, if we're going to have, in my estimation, true human rights."
Alexis Pogorelskin says she's hoping participants leave with a different sense of who we are.
"That what we think of ourselves as Minnesotans and Americans and what we take for granted, and what we assume, that these things are really not true," says Pogorelskin. "And when certain members of our larger community are under threat, there's a way in which our understanding of who all of us are is likewise under threat."
Pogorelskin says a consideration of the American Indian experience can lead to a reconsideration of the way the United States relates to other countries in the world, and the treatment of minority cultures.
"I think if we're not aware of these issues then we as a community cannot appropriately address them," Pogorelskin says. "We can treat them as historical, but I think they are topics we need to consider in terms of who we vote for, what we stand for, what we represent, and what we're going to fight for."
The panel being held in the Kirby Student Center on the UMD campus is the first in a series of lectures the University of Minnesota plans through the coming year on the American Indian experience.