« Picturing America | Main | The Lingering Effects of War »

Reclaiming History

A model of the engaged scholar, Brenda Child works to expand the meaning of historic preservation in Minnesota.

How did you come to write your book on American Indian boarding schools?
I grew up hearing the stories of my grandmother, who had been a student at the Flandreau Boarding School in South Dakota in the 1920s. She left the Red Lake reservation in Northern Minnesota for Flandreau when she was 12 and didn’t come back until her late teens. One story that stuck with me was about how the school sent the girls out to be servants for local white households, which was to be a good experience for them, a way of learning the values of white middle-class society. When I began to study history, it was jarring to find there was nothing written about these sorts of stories—lots of policy studies about Indian education, but nothing about Indian people’s experiences.

You set out to fill in that missing picture?
I knew I wanted to try to write about experiences of Ojibwe people at school, and the schools in the context of Indian families and communities. The challenge for me as an historian was to try to find documents where Indian people told their stories. People said, you know, this stuff doesn’t exist for Indians. But at the National Archives, I found piles and piles of letters from students and their parents at boarding schools like Flandreau.

What do you want people to take away from your book?
Despite the policy of assimilation, despite the difficulties people experienced, despite the repressiveness and sometimes violence of the institutions for Indian people—most Indians not only survived, but Indian families continued to be families during that time. Parents were still interested in their kids, still tried to be parents to them, still wrote to them—children knew they were loved by their families. Sometimes people have wanted to view Indian people as victims—to emphasize “this severed the bonds of family and tribe.” But Indian people refused to let that happen. If there’s a central theme for me, it’s don’t underestimate the strength of Indian family and community and tribal ties.

Was cultural assimilation the prime objective for the schools?
You can’t really think about Indian education without thinking about the U.S. government’s land policies of the late 19th and early 20th century. Even after the treaties and the establishment of reservations, Indian people in the late 19th century were in possession of vast territory. These were communally held lands until the government pushed policies for the allotment of reservation lands—meaning Indians would own lots individually. Allotment made it easier for non-reservation interests to get hold of Indian land, often through unscrupulous means—that’s often what happened. The big land grab was really bad in Minnesota, because the timber companies were so influential here. Red Lake was unique because it was not allotted, unlike virtually every other Indian tribe in the late 19th and early 20th century. Up in White Earth, you can see the legacy of allotment —over 90 percent of the land within the original reservation borders is no longer owned by Indians. Where the boarding schools came into all this is that they were intended to separate young Indians from family and community values of tribalism and communalism. The idea was that young people would develop a new set of values, get vocational training, and maybe move away from the tribal community. So yes, it was about cultural assimilation, but it was inseparable from the land grab.

How is it that Red Lake escaped allotment?
Most people attribute it to our hereditary chiefs. People still quote Madwaganonint, a famous 19th-century chief from my hometown of Redby. When a commission came up from St. Paul to try to convince the Red Lakers to allot their land, he said, “No, we can’t imagine owing land in any way but together.” The fact that it was not allotted is one reason why Red Lake is the most interesting Indian community I know. That, and the fact that we were not relocated—unlike the Indians around Mille Lacs, for example. The roots are deep in Red Lake, and the sense of tribal and communal identity is very strong. It’s also a place where there’s still a system of hereditary chieftainship that dates from years and generations past. We have elected tribal officials now, but the hereditary chiefs still play a formal role in politics, in leading the reservation as a sovereign political entity. It’s a very conservative community in many ways. We’re a place that really held onto traditions and language.

You’re now involved in a major cultural preservation project in the state.
It involves the Fort Snelling historic site. My project grew out of conversations we had at the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) about how to renovate Fort Snelling for Minnesota’s 150-year anniversary of statehood (2008). When I first started teaching at the U, I called out there to say, “I’m going to bring my class out, because we’re reading about the Dakota War of 1862.” And they said, “Well, we don’t really deal with that.” I was stunned to learn that. The site’s interpretation of pioneer life in Minnesota is set in the 1830s, so it doesn’t reflect a moment in time that deals with that longer troubled history of Dakota people here. We’ve now said, at MHS, we’re going to tell that story. We’re discussing exhibits that would deal with the 1862 conflict and with the concentration camps in which Dakota people were held at Fort Snelling in the 19th century. We don’t talk a lot in Minnesota about the fact that this was the site of the largest mass execution in the history of the U.S. Yet that is something that should be part of the interpretation at Fort Snelling as well, as painful as that history is for all of us.

Are Indian people eager for that to happen?
You know, Fort Snelling was the center of the region’s cultural life and political life in the 19th century. It also figured into Indian history in so many ways—it was a primary place of trade and cultural interaction; treaties were signed there. So when we say we’re going to tell these stories and it’s long overdue, that does resonate for Indian people. What I and some of my University colleagues have suggested is that this presents an opportunity to think deeply about what historic preservation really might mean for Indian people.

What might that entail?
For Indian people, our important places are in the landscape, in the environment, or they’re embedded in our culture and especially in our language. There is no bigger issue in Indian country today than language preservation. When I was growing up on the Red Lake reservation listening to my grandmother and mother speak Ojibwe, I took the language for granted. What’s happening now across Indian country is that we’re losing the people that we counted on for cultural knowledge and language. And what all Minnesotans need to know is that Native language isn’t just part of our community life in Red Lake or Lower Sioux. It’s also a part of our wider cultural history in Minnesota. The name of our state comes in part comes from a Dakota word. If you look at place names across the state—Wabasha, Wayzata, Shakopee, Chaska—these Ojibwe and Dakota names are embedded in Minnesota life. Far more than Swedish, for example, Native culture and language constitute the longer history of this place where we all live. As part of our strategic plan at MHS, we’ve resolved to work toward the revitalization and preservation of indigenous languages of Minnesota. A similar resolution was passed by the Minnesota legislature two years ago. It’s consistent with a broader sense of what historic preservation should be—not just about preserving architectural treasures in our state, important though that is as well.

You envision native language preservation as part of the new Fort Snelling?
What we envision is that the renovated historic site would include a center for Dakota and Ojibwe language preservation— with indoor space for workshops and research on language; outdoor space for language learning, perhaps especially for children;
and virtual space—an online space to foster community, share curricular materials, and coordinate things like Ojibwe and Dakota “language tables” around the Twin Cities (potlucks where everyone is speaking Indian). These are just very early ideas. What we’re doing now is finding out what communities need. I have an amazing American studies graduate student working on this project with me, by the way—Scott Shoemaker, a second-year Ph.D. student in American studies. Scott is a Miami from Indiana and he was a leader in resurrecting the Miami language in Indiana; he’ s also a landscape architect.

You’re talking with Indian people around the state?
Yes, with the help of two wonderful undergraduates and a civic engagement grant from the University. We want to bring Indian people into the project. We start by explaining the concept, which essentially is bringing Native people back into Fort Snelling as a project of decolonization—the idea that this is part of Indian history, too; we should return to this place and have a stake in it, and we should do it in such a way that it gives something back for Indian people. We share our ideas; then we ask people to help us shape what the project should be. What would you imagine for Fort Snelling? What are your needs? If there were a language center at Fort Snelling, would you use it? Would it be proper to have something like this there? Would you stay away from Fort Snelling because of its negative history? You know, my own family is from Northern Minnesota; my family wasn’t interned at Fort Snelling in the 19th century. But for many Dakotas, 1862 is still as painful as though it happened last week.

What sort of responses have you gotten so far?
A whole range—largely very positive. We’re still in the very early stages of talking and visioning—and of course, we’ll need money to make this happen. But it makes me happy to think that if we’re successful at this, not only would Minnesota be on the cutting edge, but … well, you get a little older and you think about what’s going to be here for people in the future.

About Brenda Child

Associate professor Brenda Child joined the American studies department in 1998. An enrolled member of the Red Lake Band of the Chippewa Tribe, she won the North American Indian Prose Award for her groundbreaking book Boarding School Seasons: American Indian Families 1900–1940 (University of Nebraska Press, 1998), which drew on letters to explore Native experiences of the government boarding schools Indian children were compelled to attend in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Child, who has a Ph.D. in history from the University of Iowa, teaches courses on multiculturalism and American Indian history. She is on the board of the Minnesota Historical Society (the only historian and the only American Indian there), where she chairs the historic preservation grants committee for the state. She also is on the board of the Division of Indian Work and The Circle newspaper in Minneapolis, and on the editorial board of the journal Ethnohistory.

Her current projects include a book about Ojibwe women for Viking Press and a study of the labor practices of Ojibwe men and women in the 20th century. She is also working with U colleagues and community partners on projects involving language preservation and historical education.

Child makes her home in St. Paul’s Battle Creek neighborhood with her spouse, Patrick McNamara (a professor of Latin American history), son Frankie (16) and daughter Benay (5).