Organizers of a new traveling exhibit on tribal treaties in Minnesota say they hope the project sparks discussions about treaty rights.
"It's more than an exhibit ... It's a conversation, one that Minnesota's not had for one hundred years or more," said David O'Fallon, president of the Minnesota Humanities Center, at a celebration of the exhibit in St. Paul on Thursday night.
The exhibit, "Why Treaties Matter: Self-Government in the Dakota and Ojibwe Nations," was the result of a two-year collaboration between Dakota and Ojibwe tribal elders, the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, the Minnesota Humanities Center, and the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. It includes a video presentation and twenty panels of photographs and information that highlight the roles of treaties from the 1800s to the present.
The exhibit has already traveled to the White Earth Reservation in Ogema, Minn. and will be shown at more than a dozen other locations across the state in the next 15 months.
It aims to teach Minnesotans that the treaties are living documents that have protected the rights of the Dakota and Ojibwe nations to exist as sovereign nations within the United States. Organizers acknowledge that tribal leaders signed the treaties under great duress, but they say that without them, the connection that tribal members have with the land they called home for generations could have been completely severed.
"They're not old archaic pieces," said Tom Ross, a tribal member of the Upper Sioux Community who helped organize the exhibit. "They represent a people, and to me, those treaties are why we're still here as a people."
The treaties have been at the center of several disputes in recent years between the state and tribal bands. A dispute between the state and the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe was resolved in 1999 by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that the band retained hunting and fishing rights guaranteed to them under an 1837 treaty.
Mary Favorite, who grew up on the White Earth reservation, was among several elders who came to the event on Thursday and helped create it. She said the exhibit reminded her of the struggles her family endured.
Favorite's father also grew up on the White Earth reservation, she said. When he was 12 years old, he was forced by white Minnesotans to attend a boarding school that prohibited students from speaking Ojibwe, even though many of the students, including her father, did not speak English.
Favorite did not learn about her father's childhood experiences until a few months before he died. One day, while tending to her father, she asked, "What's the most difficult thing you've experienced?"
"He laid there for a minute," she said, before slowly recounting the story of his first day at boarding school. It was an incident, he told his daughter, "that I've always carried in my life," although he had told no one about it.
Her father was disoriented at his new school. On the first day, he turned to someone next to him and asked for advice in his native language. A nun caught him speaking Ojibwe.
"My dad had to walk up and down the front lawn with a sandwich board and on that board it said, "I am a dummy,'" Favorite said. "His self esteem, his confidence in himself, it went right out the window."
Favorite's father went on to become a lumberjack. At the end of a long day at work, he would stay up late at night with a dictionary in front of a kerosene lamp. He was teaching himself English, Favorite said, and later became a minister.
Years later, Favorite embarked on a somewhat similar project. Armed with a legal reference book, she slowly read through the treaties her ancestors signed with the U.S. government. It often took her three to four hours to read a single page, she said.
She used her newfound knowledge to help create the new exhibit, although she insisted that others played a more important role.
"I would just like people to know what these treaties and our experiences are all about," she said. "A lot of people don't know about any of this."
The exhibit is one of hundreds of efforts funded by the state's Legacy Amendment, which was approved by voters in 2008. The amendment increased the state sales tax to fund projects to preserve arts and cultural heritage, support parks and trails, and protect drinking water sources and the environment.
More information about the exhibit is available here.
(Minnesota Public Radio received $2.6 million in Legacy arts funding during the last two-year state budget cycle.)