St. Paul natives celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day

Thomas Draskovic, a teacher at St. Paul Public Schools’ American Indian Magnet School, teaches students American Indian crafts on the first ever Indigenous Peoples Day in St. Paul. (photo courtesy of Toya Stewart Downey/St. Paul Public Schools)
Thomas Draskovic, a teacher at St. Paul Public Schools’ American Indian Magnet School, teaches students American Indian crafts on the first ever Indigenous Peoples Day in St. Paul. (photo courtesy of Toya Stewart Downey/St. Paul Public Schools)

American Indian community says new city holiday shows respect, progress

For the first time, the city of St. Paul celebrated Indigenous Peoples Day on Monday, Oct. 12, shifting the focus from the federal holiday Columbus Day, which was established in 1937.

The St. Paul City Council voted in August to recognize the day. American Indian groups have been pushing for the holiday’s name to be changed since at least 1977 when a delegation of indigenous people from around the world proposed the idea to the United Nations. St. Paul is one of about a dozen cities to celebrate the holiday as such.

“The City of St. Paul recognizes the occupation of Dakota homelands for the building of our City and knows indigenous nations have lived upon this land since time immemorial and values the progress of our society accomplished through and by American Indian thought, culture and technology,” a memorandum from the city reads.

The celebration was strong at St. Paul Public Schools’ American Indian Magnet School in the East Side’s Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood.

Festivities at the unique public school went all day, and featured dances and drumming, appearances from elected officials, a teepee set up, displays celebrating Dakota and Ojibwe cultural traditions, artwork, traditional Indian clothing, and food, not to mention a sense of community and camaraderie.

For St. Paul Public Schools staff John Bobolink, the new city holiday is a sign of recognition.

“To me, it’s about acceptance — it’s about accepting and recognizing American Indian people as being valid,” the American-Indian man said.

For many, he noted, Columbus Day has been an inconvenience — a day when the post offices and banks are closed.

But for him, it was a day to relive and remember America’s colonial past.

“From a Native perspective, it just reminded me of death,” he said. “For that to be coming up every year... it’s like ‘Here we go again.’”

Columbus, he said, is a symbol of the United States’ colonial legacy, which is a legacy of genocide. It’s a reminder that his ancestors were killed.

Bobolink serves as the lead teacher for St. Paul Public Schools’ American Indian Education Program, coordinating delivery of American Indian history lessons, as well as art and culture lessons. But, that history isn’t built into the district’s curriculum as a whole, he said — the American Indian Magnet School and Harding High School are unique in their American Indian course offerings.

According to a document from St. Paul Public Schools, about 660 students, representing 60 tribes, identify as American Indian.

“However,” it notes, “an estimated 1,000 students have some ancestral ties to American Indian tribes, with the largest groups representing Ojibwe, Lakota, Dakota and Ho-Chunk nations from Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Dakotas.”

Getting history right

Maggie Lorenz, a mother of two young girls with American Indian heritage and a staff member with St. Paul Public Schools’ American Indian Education Program, said she hopes the newfound recognition from the city will translate to more comprehensive education reform that includes indigenous history.

She said she’ll hope to see a statewide initiative stem from Minneapolis and St. Paul’s decision to dedicate the day to indigenous people — Minneapolis named the day Indigenous Peoples Day in 2014.

“I hope it relays awareness that there’s a false history,” she said, explaining that the narrative of United States history that stems from Columbus leaves out a lot.

“It shouldn’t just be a supplemental education that our Indian kids get,” she said. “Everybody should be taught it, because it’s the history of this land.”

Though her kids don’t go to the American Indian Magnet School, she dressed them up to celebrate the day, so they went to their own elementary schools dressed in Dakota garb.

Todd Goggleye, the school’s principal, said he’s been hearing from other schools looking to incorporate the magnet school’s curriculum into their own, which he chalks up to a change in educators’ approach to teaching American Indian history and culture.

He notes that though the school focuses on American Indian culture and history, it fosters diversity of thinking, and caters to students of all types, not just American Indian children.

To that end, he sees kids of all types come up to him speaking to him in Ojibwe or Lakota, trying out words they learned in their language classes. Students can start learning a language as early as Pre-K, and can continue all the way up through high school if they continue on to Harding High School.

Many cultures

Robert Desjarlait, 68, an American Indian artist from Red Lake drove down to the Twin Cities to celebrate the day.

He’s able to enjoy teaching the cultural traditions of the Ojibwe people to young people, which he said serves to help kids understand that indigenous people come from many unique backgrounds, with different tribal histories and customs.

Kids have often asked him “Did you live in teepees?” he said, explaining that Ojibwe people traditionally lived in wigwams. “We have our own language, we have our own history.”

From Desjarlait’s perspective it’s too bad that most kids don’t get nuanced education about the many American Indian tribes.

“Kids should be learning about the Indian people they live with,” he said, adding that he’d like to see a curriculum required at state level teaching about the indigenous people from the area.

“When they’re learning history, native history should be a part of that,” he said. In Minnesota’s case, the two cultures most active in Minnesota were the Ojibwe and the Dakota.

He touted the American Indian Magnet School as one that opens up the minds of all who attend: “Kids in this school understand more about diversity than they would in a regular public school,” he said.

Keeping the language, keeping it current

An eight-grader from the school named Bryan was manning a table for the day that shared information about the Lakota language.

 He told the East Side Review that of 4,000 Lakota people, only 3 percent of them speak the language, so it’s important for him to learn it and keep it alive.

He’s been learning it for the past two years at the American Indian Magnet School, and hopes to continue with the language in high school — Harding High School offers some Lakota language classes.

Thomas Draskovic, a teacher at the magnet school, teaches about 100 kinds the Lakota language every day.

For him, the day is a way to recognize American Indian people as survivors.

“We’re survivors, and we should be celebrating that,” he said. “Despite all of this negativity, we’re still here; let’s be positive and move forward with that,” he said.

He emphasized that in addition to American Indian history, it’s crucial to teach about what having an American Indian heritage looks like today.

“People think of indigenous tribes and they think of teepees and wigwams, but in the present-day American Indian people dress like everyone else and live in modern housing, yet they retain their identities, participating in powwows and other gatherings, and retaining community bonds around their histories.

“We’re not just a static people,” he said. “We’ve got to get away from ‘Indian in the woods.’”

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at Follow him on Twitter at @ESRPatrickLark.


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