When I arrived in Grand Forks long ago to attend UND, my brother Jerry found me an off-campus apartment on Columbia Road: three bedrooms, a bathroom and a kitchen in the basement of a private home.
Thus began my introduction to diversity.
One of my housemates was an international student from India, another from Canada. And a third, my roommate, was an American Indian. We called ourselves the Little United Nations, the Indian being an enrolled member of the sovereign Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians.
Another member of my circle that first semester was a Sioux from Spirit Lake, so I learned early on – as the two often clashed over intertribal history – not to generalize about Indians.
I had come from Valley City, N.D., a nice little town of 7,000 where diversity had more to do with religion and economic status. In high school, I briefly dated a Catholic girl, and I remember the fear I felt that my Lutheran pastor might find out. I remember one black man, who came to town one summer to spin records at the local radio station. I remember seeing the ashes of the makeshift cross that was burned outside the studio one night, and I will never forget the look of abject sadness on Cecil’s face.
I was thinking about all that, and about the checkered history of diversity, race, tolerance and intolerance in Grand Forks, as I sat in the audience on Monday, the first Indigenous Peoples Day here, and listened to people of various tribes and backgrounds celebrate.
I admired the graciousness of many who came together in the Firehall Theater, their ready acknowledgement that this was not a lightly considered decision by the City Council, to wipe Columbus Day from our civic calendar and replace it with this new observance.
“I respect the Grand Forks City Council,” said Jamie Azure, chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, as others nodded. “This was not an easy decision.”
And I was impressed with the determination to press on, to continue working for mutual respect and acceptance, to make this a city that truly values and champions diversity.
It starts with education, Azure said, noting that he didn’t learn “our true history” until he went to college. Before that, “I learned that Custer was a hero,” he said. “I learned that Columbus was a hero.” His grandmother was told that she could not talk about her culture. Now, he said, he wants his daughters “to be able to go out and say, ‘Let me tell you about sage. Let me tell you about smudge,’ how it fits in cultural ceremonies.
“It’s 2019. … Get out and educate the people. There is a lot that people assume about us.”
The determined effort to gain this day, here and in cities across the country, shows how Indian people – peoples – are asserting themselves. They display a growing pride, and across Indian Country a new activism stirs – on voting rights, environmental issues, poverty, health and other causes.
“We’re evolving and we’re adapting,” Azure said. “That’s how we change this (world) and bring back our culture. We survived genocide, and we are still here. And today we are louder than ever.”
Donald Warne, another of the speakers at Monday night’s celebration, built on that theme. An Oglala Lakota from Pine Ridge, S.D., Warne is associate dean and director of the Indians Into Medicine (INMED) program at UND’s School of Medicine, which has produced a great share of the nation’s indigenous physicians.
“It’s up to us to engage,” he said. “We need to do a better job of leadership development and ‘growing our own.’ ”
Nobody would claim this, our town, is anywhere near perfect when it comes to inclusion. Distrust, bitterness, resentment, misunderstanding and discrimination continue.
But on a night declared by city leaders to celebrate the dreams and achievements of people for whom this place was a sacred meeting ground long before new peoples arrived, drums sounded a strong heartbeat and children joined their elders in joyful, keening song.
Chuck Haga had a long career at the Herald and the Minneapolis Star Tribune before retiring in 2013. He now writes for the Sunday edition of the Herald. He can be contacted at email@example.com.