Two women gaze from a Fort Snelling overlook in the middle of a new documentary film, “Stories I Didn’t Know.” They make an improbable duo.
One of them is Rita Davern, whose Irish great-grandfather, William Q. Davern, emigrated to St. Paul and raised grain in 1850 for the budding city’s first breweries. One of the state’s first legislators, he briefly owned part of the nearby river island named for Lt. Zebulon Pike, who purchased it from the Dakota in 1805 on behalf of the U.S. government as part of a land deal to build the fort at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers.
Ramona Kitto Stately, the other woman on the overlook, is a Dakota descendant whose people called the island Wita Tanka and the confluence area Bdote — which translates to a meeting of the waters. Stately’s great-great-grandmother traveled 40 miles, pregnant, to give birth at the sacred place, and her ancestors were later imprisoned at the fort in 1863 after the U.S.-Dakota War.
“I’m determined to face the role that my people had in what happened here — to make sense of it,” Davern, 71, says in the film. No one in her family, now six generations deep in St. Paul, ever talked about who was there before William Davern arrived. Until now.
The 74-minute documentary about Rita Davern grappling with her family history debuts at 5 p.m. Sunday as part of the 39th Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival, which this year will be a virtual event called MSPIFF39 Redefined.
“You don’t need to be Irish or Native American or Minnesotan to appreciate this film because this story could be about anyone trying to understand their family history and the stories that get uncovered along the way,” said Melody Gilbert, who codirected the film with Davern. “This is not a film that gets wrapped up in a nice bow, but I do hope it does make people think.”
Gilbert, a longtime Twin Cities documentary filmmaker, teaches at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, La. She said the project that blossomed into “Stories I Didn’t Know” (storiesididntknow.com) initially focused on Davern’s grandmother but shifted to what she called “Rita’s journey of questioning and healing.”
“I saw so many layers to her story; it was a storyteller’s gold mine,” said Gilbert, who spent nearly three months persuading Davern to narrate her story.
The film weaves myriad strands, including Davern unearthing an unknown uncle, John Davern, a violin virtuoso with mental health troubles who spent much of his life at the state hospital in Willmar. “My family was so closelipped, so Minnesotan, that it didn’t occur to anyone to say a word about my uncle,” she said.
There’s a heart-wrenching thread about Davern’s late son Chris, whom she and her husband, Bob, adopted from Korea, and his ensuing cancer and transplant. Chris received the heart of a 5-year-old Native American girl from Minneapolis who was killed after running into the street; her transplanted organs helped save seven lives in all.
There’s footage from Davern’s trip to County Clare for a reunion with Irish relatives from the extended O’Davoren clan. The name was shortened when William emigrated in the late 1840s.
But the crux of the movie centers on Davern’s personal reckoning with her family’s past, including a fizzled effort to see whether Pike Island could be returned to the Dakota who lived there before her great-grandfather owned a parcel there in the 1870s.
Davern calls herself “white and clueless” in the film, but she finds that her journey widens her understanding.
It’s true, she said, that her great-grandfather was driven out of Ireland in 1849 by the potato famine and arrived in the United States with nothing. He worked as a logger at first, buying his farm for $1.25 an acre and raising 13 children, and became prosperous as St. Paul grew. The hilly Highland Park road by his farm was later named Davern Street for him.
“But what I didn’t understand until the last few years,” Rita Davern said, “is how many resources and how much access to resource he was given. Entry to the country, jobs to work, land to buy, leadership opportunities.
“A lot of hard work, yes, but a ton of privilege. And all at the expense of those who were here ﬁrst. … And it all started with land.”
Back in the film’s Fort Snelling overlook scene, Stately says her ancestors are still seldom talked about even as descendants of white settlers scour their genealogy. Davern is different, Stately says, because she’s started to acknowledge who was there before her family.
“This is a conversation that needs to come out of your spirit, all of ours,” Stately says before the two women do a very un-coronavirus thing in the film: They hug on the vista overlooking Fort Snelling and Pike Island.
As movies go it’s a subtle but powerful scene, as these two descendants — one Irish, the other Dakota — begin that conversation.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: http://strib.mn/MN1918.