DULUTH – From the steps of City Hall, an Ojibwe prayer rose above the crowd. A 10-year-old danced in traditional dress. Drums and songs punctuated the stories of Indigenous achievements.
"This is a victory for our ancestors," said Babette Sandman, chair of Duluth's Indigenous Commission and a member of the White Earth Nation. "There was a time this was all outlawed."
This year's Indigenous Peoples Day celebration in Duluth took on new gravity after the City Council unanimously passed a resolution on Monday acknowledging "the pain and suffering, acts of torture and genocide and ongoing historical and intergenerational trauma suffered by American Indian and Alaska Native children, families and tribal communities resulting from the boarding school policy."
Introduced by Council President Renee Van Nett, a member of the Red Lake and Leech Lake bands of Ojibwe, the resolution also calls on Congress to create a Truth and Healing Commission to investigate and take responsibility for the harm caused by boarding schools.
"That's a little lofty, I get it," Van Nett said. "But if we don't think like that we don't get there ever."
Minnesota had a total of 16 Indian boarding schools between the 1860s and 1970s. The schools served to "culturally assimilate Indigenous children by forcibly relocating them from their families and communities to distant residential facilities where their American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian identities, languages and beliefs were to be forcibly suppressed," according to the Department of the Interior.
In Duluth, two dozen supporters gathered around a laptop outside City Hall — meetings are still being held virtually — to urge the council to pass the resolution Monday night. Several talked about their firsthand or family experiences in boarding schools and the trauma that has endured.
"So much was lost. Our culture. Our language," said Kassie Helgerson, who had several family members attend the schools. "So many bloodlines have been ended because of the atrocities. … The worst things you can think of are the things that they went through."
The issue regained international attention this summer after the remains of more than 1,000 people, mostly Indigenous children, were found in unmarked graves at Canadian residential schools.
U.S. Secretary of the Interior Debra Haaland launched an Indian Boarding School Initiative in June "to shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past," she said at the time.
In August, the Seattle City Council unanimously passed a resolution similar to the one Duluth council members approved Monday.
U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, who spoke at Monday's Indigenous Peoples Day event in Duluth, has co-sponsored a bill to launch the Truth and Healing Commission.
"What is important about this is to not only understand the truth but also to then take action," she said.
Sandman said an elder she knows who attended a boarding school is still afraid to speak Ojibwe in public.
"Boarding schools told her it was wrong," she said. "We need healing from this, and we need reconciliation from the United States government."
Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496