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Bemidji speaker compares Holocaust to American Indian reservation system

Scholars, historians and others interested in the subject of American Indian tribal issues gathered together last night in Bemidji State University's Thompson Recital Hall to hear Humanities scholar Clay S. Jenkinson.


Scholars, historians and others interested in the subject of American Indian tribal issues gathered together last night in Bemidji State University's Thompson Recital Hall to hear Humanities scholar Clay S. Jenkinson.

Many of the audience members came to hear him because they remembered his appearance as Thomas Jefferson for the Bemidji Symphony Orchestra's July 4 Concert.

"We saw him last summer and he just enchanted everybody and (we were) so interested to hear what he had to say," said attendees Bob and Sally Montello.

Beverly Everett, music director of the Bemidji Symphony Orchestra, invited Jenkinson to speak as a prelude to the outreach program planned for May. "The Defiant Requiem," written by Murry Sidlin, is the musical story of the performances of Verdi's work in the Terezin Concentration Camp during World War II. The premise of Jenkinson's talk was "Relating the Holocaust to Native American Issues."

"In this part of the world we cannot talk about the Holocaust without bringing up the problem of our treatment of Native Americans," said Jenkinson during an interview earlier in the day. "I don't think that our treatment of Native Americans was ever identical with the purposes of the Holocaust. In other words, I don't believe that it was the policy of the United States government to insist on a systematic extermination of the Native American population; in fact, it is just the opposite."


Attendees Nadine Wade and her friend Linda Cabrales said, "This is the first time we heard the word because it's usually genocide. There is a lot of history that has not been taught in the schools. It's nice to have the real story told once in awhile."

During his talk at the college, Jenkinson went on to explain what he has learned about the treatment of native populations. In the western territories, it was actually the people who were calling for the extermination of the native peoples, and the government held them back.

The general theme of Jenkinson's talk was on the Europeanization of this land (America) which started with Christopher Columbus because it was clear that Europeans wanted to take over the continent as effortlessly as possible, but as bloodthirstily as necessary. That varied from place to place and culture to culture. There was no way that Europeans were going to let native populations stand in their way. In fact, there have been attempts throughout American history to create reservations of the kind that Oklahoma was meant to be. But the de facto policy of white Europeans was that Indians could not be allowed to get in the way of white people's dreams. That theme played itself out, over and over again, with different variations Jenkinson said.

Students Jen Froderman, a social work major, and her friend Christina Knutson came to the lecture for different reasons. Froderman because of her field of study and interest in Indian culture and Knutson because she is interested in history.

All this happened relatively late in the segment of time known as Imperialism. Printing presses and media would point out to the general public what was happening to the native population. The fact that this country was born of the Enlightenment meant that European settlers couldn't just do this and hope that it would be forgotten. There was an attempt to do it as legally and with as little violence as possible. The net result was cultural genocide, but not a policy of physical genocide.

For example, Captain Richard H. Pratt, the founder of the Indian Boarding Schools in Carlisle, Pa., is quoted as saying, "Kill the Indian to save the man." By 1900, thousands of Indians were housed in 150 boarding schools. That's not quite Dachau, said Jenkinson, but it was not that far away either for not all concentration camps were Auschwitz.

It is not fair to do a Holocaust program in faraway Minnesota without looking in the mirror and saying, "How really different have America's policies been, a much more benign version of what the Nazis were up to."

The word Holocaust has to be looked at carefully, and for Jenkinson, it means the systematic industrial extermination of a people, purposefully out of mere hate. He said he feels that was not true in America.


Jenkinson went on to explain that the U.S. government did not go that far. Reservations today are homelands for Indians. They like the culture, a refuge, a place where white culture has a small footprint. They are places where Indians can be together and gain solidarity and have a relationship with the earth that they can't have in white populations. The reservations were really concentration camps that were created in the 1870s as a stop gap measure to keep Indians together in preparation to their assimilation into the white population.

The reservation system was a way to imprison Indians on lands that nobody else wanted and now in the 21st century it's become something different. Jenkinson said if you asked Indians today if they want to terminate the reservation system, they would say absolutely not. That is a big reversal, but the point is that the white people of Minnesota took the lands from the native people here. White negotiators would come to Bemidji and say to the Ojibwe, we'd like to buy this territory and if the Ojibwe did not want to sell it, they would take it.

The government of the United States would respond to the demands of the white population and make promises they couldn't keep when Minnesota was first being populated in the 1820s and '30s in the St. Croix area. They were what are called "second hop" because they already had lives in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Ohio, for example, and then moved here. At first nobody wanted northern Minnesota, so it was just left to the Indians. Then immigration after the Homestead Act brought more people to this area. At first, the Indians cooperated out of innocence or not understanding the negotiations or were bullied or given alcohol. In some cases, the native population would simply refuse, and a border skirmish would happen where an Ojibwe would kill a white family that was squatting on their land. Then troops would come in. There would be a war and the government would simply take the land that they wanted.

There is so much spiritual and emotional support for Indians today that it would be impossible for this to happen now, Jenkinson said. If there was anything that he would have liked listeners to take back with them last night, it is a respect for the resilience of these peoples: the European Jews and other minority populations like the Gypsys and the Native Americans.

The event was well attended and free to the public. It was funded, in part, by a grant from the Minnesota State Legislature and the McKnight Foundation.

The Bemidji Pioneer and the Herald are both Forum Communications Co. newspapers.

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