Local Briefs
Nov. What's New In The Community
Tuesday, November 03 2015
Written by The Circle,
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Tiwahe Foundation receives 1 Million grant from Northwest Area Foundation
The Northwest Area Foundation (NWAF) has awarded a $1 million Presidential Grant to the Tiwahe Foundation, an emerging Native community foundation that serves the Twin Cities area, for its “Investing in Indian Philanthropy” project. The grant is twofold: $300,000 is slated to provide operating support for Tiwahe, with the remaining $700,000 allocated as a challenge grant to help Tiwahe leverage additional funding for its endowment campaign.

The grant embodies NWAF’s commitment to build Native giving and empower Natives to fund other Natives. According to Tiwahe President and CEO Kelly Drummer, “This grant will be a part of creating history as one of the first community-led endowment campaigns in the country for American Indians.”
Founded in 2009, Tiwahe Foundation strives to be a resource for philanthropy across Indian Country. It is the only foundation to use an asset-building approach in the Indian community through a micro-granting program.

To date, Tiwahe American Indian Family Empowerment has awarded 600+ grants for educational attainment, economic advancement, and cultural revitalization to the Twin Cities Native American community.

“We hope this grant will further propel Tiwahe’s endowment campaign, ensure its long-term sustainability, and help continue the successful grant-making programs that have enriched urban Native families,” said Karla Miller, program director for NWAF.

The Northwest Area Foundation supports organizations that drive proven approaches and promising innovations to help people build assets through good jobs and financial capability. Its grantees are champions of change who reflect the diverse cultural strengths of its region, which includes the eight states of Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon, and more than 75 Native nations. For more information, visit

Minneapolis American Indian Center receives 1.2 M federal grant
On October 1st, the Administration for Native Americans, of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services officially notified the Minneapolis American Indian Center (MAIC) that they had been selected to receive a three-year $1.2 million dollar grant. The goal of the Native FAN (Fitness And Nutrition) Program is to reduce obesity and obesity-linked diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and other chronic diseases in the Minneapolis American Indian community which is disproportionately impacted by obesity and diabetes. Native FAN plans to work with 500 community members, and will recruit and provide incentives to 100 individuals with risk factors such as sedentary lifestyle, obesity, or diabetes to get involved with the program, to come on a regular basis, and to achieve their fitness goals. The program has a cultural focus by emphasizing physical activities like traditional Native dancing, Lacrosse, and endurance sports, as well as contemporary activities like men’s basketball, family volleyball, martial arts, yoga and biking clubs.

There will be monthly classes focusing on learning about nutrition, meal planning, shopping and cooking, with Native chefs providing cooking demonstrations using traditional Indigenous foods. Quarterly health fairs, workshops and powwows will be held that offer health screening and education on preventing and managing cancer, heart disease and diabetes. The project will work with a number of community partners including Dog Soldier Mixed Martial Arts, Twin Cities Native Lacrosse Club, Native American Community Clinic, Dream of Wild Health, American Indian Cancer Foundation, the Indigenous Peoples Task Force, as well as fitness clubs to coordinate physical activities, nutrition education and health screening events. The project will also entail a policy component to overhaul the health and wellness and nutrition policies for the Minneapolis American Indian Center and partnering agencies. For more info, contact Mary LaGarde at 612-879-1750, or email: This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

The Lake Superior Ojibwe Gallery opens
The new Lake Superior Ojibwe Gallery was formally dedicated on October 20 in Duluth, Minnesota.  The Ojibwe Gallery features the work of internationally recognized 19th century painter Eastman Johnson. The gallery is a project of the St. Louis County Historical Society, custodians of the art depicting the Ojibwe people when Johnson visited the “Head of the Lakes” in 1856 and 1857.
According to Society Executive Director JoAnne Coombe, “The mandate for the gallery – conveying the voice and viewpoint of the Lake Superior Ojibwe – developed after years of collaborative discussion with a hardworking American Indian Advisory Committee comprised of tribal appointees from the Fond du Lac, Bois Forte and Grand Portage Bands and at large members of the American Indian community.” 

The Lake Superior Ojibwe Gallery project was made possible by the support of the residents of St. Louis County and funding provided through the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, the JNM Gift Trust and the Depot Foundation.

The Ojibwe Gallery is on the top floor of the Duluth Depot in Duluth, Minnesota. For more info, call JoAnne Coombe at 218-733-7586 or email This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it


NACF awards 2015  Upper Midwest regional artist fellowships
Seven Native artists from the Upper Midwest have been awarded Regional Artist Fellowships from the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation (NACF). This is the second consecutive year that the NACF has awarded the fellowships, which recognize Native artists for artistic vision, development and impact to community and culture in the traditional and visual arts categories.

This year’s Traditional Arts Fellows are Amelia Cornelius, April Stone Dahl and Pat Kruse. The Visual Arts Fellows are Bennett Brien, Jim Denomie, Dyani White Hawk Polk and Maggie Thompson.
Regional Artist Fellowship recipients receive a monetary award that supports the completion of a project and pursuit of professional development, both of their choice within the Fellowship term.
The 2015 Regional Artist Fellows include: Bennett Brien, Large-scale Sculpture, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa; Jim Denomie, Painter, Annishinabe, Lac Courte Oreilles; Dyani White Hawk Polk, Contemporary Art, Sicangu Lake (Rosebud Sioux); Maggie Thompson, Textile Fiber Art, Fond du Lac Band of Minnesota Chippewa; Amelia Cornelius, Cornhusk Doll Maker, Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin; April Stone Dahl, Black Ash Basket Maker, Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa (Ojibwe); and Pat Kruse, Birch Bark Art, Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe
To date, NACF has supported more than 160 artists and projects throughout Native country. For more info, see:

Red Lak Band receives grant from MN DEED
The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development has awarded grants to about a dozen nonprofits in Minnesota, including the Red Lake Band of the Chippewa Indians Entrepreneur Development Program. The two-year grants total $2.7 million to 11 nonprofit organizations to provide services and technical assistance to emerging businesses and entrepreneurs in the state.

“These nonprofit organizations help businesses start and survive during the early stages of the business development,” DEED Commissioner Katie Clark Sieben said.

The Red Lake Band of the Chippewa Indians Entrepreneur Development Program was awarded $100,000 to assist individual entrepreneur in establishing and growing new businesses in the Red Lake Nation.

Art glorifying the conquest of Indians needs to leave state capitol
Tuesday, November 03 2015
Written by Scott Russell,
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Father Hennepin at St. Anthony Falls hangs in  the Governor’s Reception Room.Artwork in the Minnesota State Capitol shows American Indians being “civilized,” losing land to treaties, and being defeated in battle. The art tells a very slanted version of history; and portrays American Indians negatively. This artwork has long been a sore point, particularly given that it hangs in the building where laws are made.

However, the Minnesota State Capitol is undergoing a major renovation, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for change. The state created an Art Subcommittee to make recommendations about the art. The Subcommittee includes two noted American Indian leaders: Gwen Westerman, Dakota, a University of Minnesota-Mankato professor, and Anton Treuer, Ojibwe, a Bemidji State University professor.

At a recent hearing, Westerman spoke about some of the art’s historical inaccuracies, and commented on how it showed Dakota people as “a faceless menace.” “Imagine,” Westerman said, “coming here and seeing yourself or your family members depicted in these paintings.”

The capitol art debate is similar to the debate about flying the Confederate Flag over the South Carolina statehouse. Both involve a battle over symbols. In the Minnesota context, the questions are: Do these paintings and symbols reflect the best of our heritage and values? What do we do with art and symbols that are unwelcoming and hurtful?

Here are brief descriptions of some of the most problematic art. None of this art has any historic interpretation.

The Discoverers and Civilizers Led to the Source of the Mississippi (Senate Chambers): The painting shows an Indian man and young woman and the spirit Manitou cornered at the Mississippi’s headwaters. They are surrounded on one side by “discoverers” and on the other by “civilizers.” Angelic beings guide the discoverers and civilizers, signifying divine intervention. The Indian couple looks afraid. The young woman is half naked, both offensive and a false representation of customs. The group of “civilizers” includes a priest with a cross, and behind the priest crouches a man restraining two angry dogs, signifying imminent threat.  

Father Hennepin Discovers the Falls at St. Anthony (Governor’s Reception Room): The painting shows Father Hennepin at the falls, renaming it after his patron saint. The term “discovers” is wrong. Hennepin stands in a position of authority, towering over the people sitting below him, when in fact he was a Dakota prisoner at the time. At right, the painting shows a half-naked Dakota woman carrying a heavy pack. Her lack of covering is historically inaccurate and offensive, an apparent effort to show her as uncivilized.

Treaty of Traverse des Sioux (Governor’s Reception Room): The Dakota ceded almost all of their land in this 1851 treaty. The painting depicts the negotiation as calm and fair. It was not.

Battle of Killdeer Mountain (3rd floor conference room): This 1864 battle, Minnesota troops had been sent far into Dakota Territory to punish Dakota people for the 1862 war and create access to western gold fields. The painting shows Minnesota troops firing on an Indian encampment. Many Dakota and Lakota under attack were not hostile to the U.S. and had nothing to do with the 1862 war.

Minnesota–Spirit of Government (House Chambers): This sculpture includes the saying: “The Trail of the Pioneer Bore the Footprints of Liberty.” Rep. Diane Loeffler, the Art Subcommittee tri-chair, has suggested removing those words.

At minimum, this art needs better interpretation so people know the history and symbolism. Better yet, some art should be moved to a museum.

The solution also needs to include adding new art that reflects our state’s current cultural diversity. Thousands of school children tour the capitol each year, students of all colors. There is little in the current art that tells children of color they belong in the capitol.

The good news is that the capitol renovation is creating space for new art. The Art Subcommittee created a statement of purpose for capitol art, which points in the right direction: “The purpose of art in the Minnesota State capitol is to tell Minnesota stories. Works of art in the Capitol should engage people in reflecting on our state’s history, understanding our government, recognizing the contributions of our diverse peoples, inspiring citizen engagement, [and] appreciating the varied landscapes of our state.”

Minnesota could consider approaches used by other states. For instance, the New Mexico State Capitol showcases works by contemporary New Mexico artists. Alaska created space to feature student art.

A group called Healing Minnesota Stories and art teacher Rachel Latuff collaborated to get Minnesota students creating alternative capitol art. [Full disclosure: I volunteer with this organization.] Three schools have participated so far, including Oshki Ogimaag, an Ojibwe Elementary Charter School in Grand Portage.

How would the presence of student art change the capitol’s atmosphere? Above is one example, artwork done last spring by Oshki sixth grader Ariana Poyirier of the Marten clan. Here is her artist statement: “Eagle Woman: My painting is of a transformation of eagle to girl/girl to eagle. The image has to do with my connection to the eagle. The eagle is important to me and to my community and a symbol of our culture. To me, my painting reminds me of my Grandma. Family is important in our culture. We are connected. Cedar and beadwork on the border … are also important to my culture. We drink cedar tea by boiling it in water. It is used for medicine. I put the beads around the girl because I do beadwork. This is a traditional craft in our culture. I am proud to be a Native American from Grand Portage and I am part of Minnesota.”

The Art Subcommittee will hold public hearings in Bemidji, Duluth, Rochester, Mankato, and the Twin Cities. Dates include: Rochester on Nov. 10, Rochester Area Foundation Community Room. North Minneapolis on Nov. 12, Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board Admin Building. Willmar on Nov. 16, Ridgewater College. And Mankato on Nov. 23, Ostrander Auditorium, Minnesota State University. For times, see: For more info, visit: capitol-restoration/about/preservation-commission/art/ for announcements.

Sign the petition asking the state to remove the most offensive art at:

Scott Russell volunteers with Healing Minnesota Stories.

Tribal Enterprise Theory: Ground up development and decision-making
Tuesday, November 03 2015
Written by Lee Egerstrom,
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The Koda Energy complex in Shakopee, a partnership between the fifth and sixth generation owners of  Rahr Malting Co. and the Shakopee Mdewakatanton Sioux Community (SMSC) citizens and the Rahr family were logical future business partners. They’ve been living as neighbors for most of the past 168 years in the Prior Lake and Shakopee communities southwest of the Twin Cities in Minnesota.

Inevitable or not, the day for merging a community of interests into a business venture came in 2009 when the SMSC and Rahr Malting opened Koda Energy Partnership in the city of Shakopee. It is a biomass energy generation project using agricultural byproducts and agricultural crops to produce heat and electricity for the partners’ use. Surplus production is sold to the regional Xcel Energy utility.

This business venture illustrates both the theory behind tribal enterprise development and theory used by community economic developers and planners to rationalize community business investments in the United States and Canada. In both cases, local developments result from ground up decision-making.
“Koda Energy was an opportunity to partner with our long-standing neighbor Rahr Malting in Shakopee, produce green energy, and be a good steward of the earth,” said Keith Anderson, vice-chairman of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community and board chairman of the energy partnership.

Tribal and community development experts surveyed for this article stressed ground level recognition, not top down development.

“I do not generally believe in ‘boilerplate recommendations’ for economic development,” said Frank Pommersheim, a law professor at the University of South Dakota and tribal courts jurist in South Dakota. “It’s got to be bottom up with a focus on law, infrastructure and culture.”

Pommersheim’s 1995 book Braid of Feathers (University of California Press), in which he stresses the importance of Indians and non-Indians forging alliances based on respect at the local level, is especially helpful for Indian communities, said Patrice Kunesch and Susan Woodrow, co-directors of the newly formed Center for Indian Country Development (CICD) at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

“Every single tribe has a vision for its own community development … and its own challenges,” said Woodrow, the executive officer of the Minneapolis Fed’s branch office in Helena, Mont. “There is not a one-size-fits-all (formula).”

Kunesch, of Standing Rock Lakota descent and a former official at both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Interior, added that economic and community development starts with recognizing “opportunity, solutions and best practices.” This includes assessing community needs, costs of fuel, costs of food, costs of essential services, resources available, and the environment and being good stewards over resources.

This also means there are two layers for development, said Woodrow. The tribal enterprise response, or the subject of this article, is the first layer and is triggered by recognized needs. The second layer involves ways in which Indian communities assist and encourage individual entrepreneurship – the subject of future articles in The Circle.

From the mid-1990s onwards, community development involving all communities was largely an outgrowth of post-WWII industrialization, according to Greg Wise, an Extension community development expert at the University of Wisconsin. In a paper for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Extension Service personnel, Wise said the term “community development” has come to mean more than economic or industrial development. Rather, development has come to mean process concepts including “advancement, betterment, capacity building, empowerment, enhancement and nurturing.”

This makes defining the term development even more complex than defining what constitutes a community, Wise noted.

In that regard, the indigenous people of North America have an advantage over other community builders, said Michael Toye, executive director of the Canadian CED (Community Economic Development) Network based at Victoriaville, Quebec.

“The indigenous communities are probably among the best examples of distinct, defined communities that we have in North America,” he said, citing sovereign treaties, geography, language, culture and traditions, and political autonomy.   

Given such clear definitions in Indian Country, it is interesting to note that people worldwide are seeking a tribal approach in forming communities of interest to meet local needs and cope with the impacts of globalization.

Gert van Dijk, a Dutch economist and former president of COGECA, the Brussels umbrella arm of agricultural cooperatives in the European Union, made that point in a recent Dutch textbook that translates to “When the markets fail.” In it, he said, people “draw a circle” around their common interests and then form cooperatives (or other community-based enterprises) to meet those common needs or pursue common opportunities. This they do even when the members of these “new” communities may be diverse and share little else in common.

Observing tribal development here at home with broader community economic development theory, it appears four categories of tribal development and investment have emerged. The first and most obvious is in meeting community needs – grocery stores, services, gas stations – when local and regional markets have failed.

One step up would be developing tribal businesses that serve a broader community surrounding the Indian Nation. Often the objective would be achieving economies of scale and scope. But in cases where a service is provided for a country or region, or an enterprise serves as a broader community bank, retailer or recreation area, an element of being good neighbors plays a role along with realizing returns on investment.   

A third category would be tribal enterprises that add value to local activity. This would make tribal businesses and members more entrepreneurial in their activities and in their households. Van Dijk sees that as the role of most agricultural cooperatives as well, and it explains why there is a dual bottom line of both social and economic goals for community enterprises.

Finally, a fourth category is emerging in which tribal development leaders are pursuing perceived market opportunities and seek investments to diversify tribal portfolios. This is especially the goal where Indian communities are trying to lessen their dependence on gaming revenue.

“Those four categories make sense to me; I can think of examples of each of them with Tribal Councils and First Nations here in Canada,” said Canadian CED director Toye.

Going forward, the Minneapolis Fed’s Kunesch and Woodrow said they anticipate more tribal investments in agriculture, agribusiness, health and nutrition services, biomass and energy development, and anything that can be environmentally sound development of local resources. “I see biofuels as a real natural,” said Woodrow.

All these strategies and local recognition of opportunities play out with the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community.

The Koda Energy partnership, as described by Anderson, connects with several themes mentioned above. So does Dacotah Roots, an organic recycling facility in which the SMSC community began turning organic waste materials into compost in 2011.

Area schools and local governments use the facility to dispose of organic wastes. And as part of its good neighbor strategy for its broader community, the SMSC community offers free yard waste drop off services each September and October for Scott County residents.

Tribal enterprise practice: balancing community needs and opportunities
Tuesday, November 03 2015
Written by Lee Egerstrom,
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When it comes to putting community development theory into practice, the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin and the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska serve as useful models for Indian Country. Both federally recognized sovereign nations have invested in banks to meet citizens’ needs and to further their economic development. Both have diverse tribal enterprise holdings that produce jobs for their people, profits for their government coffers, and services that meet social goals set for their communities, their people and their surroundings. It isn’t all small, local-based business.

The Oneida were originally from Upstate New York; the Winnebago, a variant name for Ho-Chunk people, were originally from Wisconsin and Minnesota before being relocated in Nebraska.  
In July this year, a joint venture business between the wholly-owned Oneida Total Integrated Enterprises (OTIE) architectural and engineering firm based in Milwaukee and project partner RS&H Inc., a Jacksonville, Fla. infrastructure and facilities consulting firm, landed a five-year, nearly billion-dollar military construction contract with the U.S. Air Force.

The Oneida Nation’s purchase of OTIE 11 years ago was an investment in a successful Milwaukee business that had some ties to the Wisconsin tribe, said Bobbi Webster, the Oneida spokeswoman.
Over the years, OTIE has created jobs directly and indirectly through construction projects for Oneida members, she said. And two Oneida enrolled members serve on OTIE’s board of directors even though management and other directors are professional architects, engineers and marketing and business experts.

OTIE’s website notes the Milwaukee firm has worked on over 50 Air Force facilities in 19 states and at military installations in Guam, Japan, Korea and the Azores.

“Extraordinary tribal leadership 30 and 40 years ago” started branching out and looking for ways to develop the community and economy, Webster said. It helps to have ties with the Green Bay Packers football team as well, she added.

The Green Bay Packers are an iconic example of a community owned enterprise, said Joshua Bloom, partner and principle at Community Land Use and Economics Group LLC in Washington D.C. Small business people in Green Bay formed the team in 1923 as a nonprofit corporation. It continues that way today with successive shareholders buying non-appreciating stock. If the team ever folded, all money accumulated would go to charities.

Football team owners would never again allow a franchise like Green Bay join their ranks when team resale values are the owners’ ultimate Super Bowl. Bloom said the Green Bay team still reminds us what communities can do when a common good is recognized. The Oneidas haven’t lost sight of such opportunities.

Pass through the Oneida Gate at Lambeau Field, go out on Oneida Street on the north side, and travel past the airport to either the Radisson Hotel and Conference Center or the Wingate Hotel, both owned by the tribe. Continue on to the Oneida Nation itself. Gaming, golf, retail shops and otherbusinesses await you. Your business might even avail itself to free trade zone services in the Oneidas’ FTZ zoned property. All such enterprises are operated as separate, freestanding corporations owned by the tribe. All have skilled, independent managements.

The Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska has a separate Ho-Chunk Inc. corporation that is the economic development arm of the tribe. It operates like a holding company and now has 35 subsidiaries involved with information technology, construction, government contracting, professional services, wholesale distribution and logistics, marketing, office products and technology, retail stores, media and marketing.

Lance Morgan, who has held various academic positions and serves on boards for banks and other non-tribal enterprises, is the professional management president and chief executive of Ho-Chunk Inc. The company’s board of directors has two members of the Winnebago Tribal Council and three at-large directors.

Patrice Kunesch and Susan Woodrow, co-directors of the Center for Indian Country Development at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, said the Winnebago model is ideal. It allows for talented management to make business decisions and separates the decision-making from tribal politics.
In the past year, Ho-Chunk Inc. became a major shareholder in the Denver-based Native American Bancorporation Co., which operates the Native American Bank that makes commercial loans for tribal governments and enterprises.

Morgan was honored in 2014 by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Minority Business Development Agency with its Advocate of the Year Award. It noted Ho-Chunk Inc. had grown since its 1995 founding to over 1,000 employees, 35 percent of whom are identified as minorities, and 100 percent of corporate management was Native Americans.

Ho-Chunk Inc. has an entity that pursues various government contracts through public policy programs. It is paying off. The Commerce Department honor cited Ho-Chunk’s work in 16 states and eight foreign countries.

Despite this ongoing diversification, gaming and retailing are still the biggest economic drivers for the Oneida and Winnebago communities.   

Views vary on inclusion of U.S. flag at Native cultural celebrations
Tuesday, November 03 2015
Written by Jon Lurie,
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Stephen Yellowhawk grew up on the powwow circuit, traveling across the United States and Canada with his family. As a young boy, this son the Lakota and Iroquois Nations was fascinated by the athletic, flashy style of the Fancy Dance (also known as Fancy War Dance), and the men who performed it wearing stunning, elaborate regalia: feather bustles, bells, roach rockers, beaded cuffs and moccasins. He would watch breathlessly as the dancers entered the arena following a color guard bearing eagle feather staffs and American flags. The Fancy Dance, young Stephen learned from his elders, was performed to honor the heroics and sacrifices of the warriors and veterans.

While other kids might have fantasized about hitting baseballs like Babe Ruth, Yellowhawk grew up emulating the legendary fancy dancers who invented the genre in the 1930s and 1940s. Men like Stephen Mopope (Kiowa), Dennis Rough Face (Ponca), Chester Lefthand (Arapaho), and George “Woogie” Watchetaker (Comanche); Elmer Sugar Brown, who added back flips to his fancy dancing; and Gus McDonald who added both cartwheels and splits.

Yellowhawk got his first opportunity to dance when he was barely old enough to ride a bike. That first powwow took place in Rapid City at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center.  He still recalls the pride he felt dancing behind the flag-bearing veterans as they entered the arena during his initial grand entry.
“From the time I first became a fancy dancer I understood that I was honoring our warriors and our veterans, both past and present,” says Yellowhawk, who is now in his sixth year as president of the Black Hills Powwow Association. The Black Hills powwow, today one of the largest in the United States, takes place each October at the same Rapid City arena where Yellowhawk initially danced as a child.

“A lot of our people have put their lives on the line for this country,” Yellowhawk says. “We hold that in very high regard, which is why we always start our powwow by honoring the warriors. They are the ones who have fought to keep our culture alive, to give us the freedom to celebrate life, and to celebrate our culture.”

Yellowhawk and the other members of the powwow association stress that all are welcome to attend, a healing message for a city with a long history of racial strife. “It doesn’t matter if you’re Native, non–Native, what tribe you’re from, what part of this community, what part of this nation you’re from – everybody is welcome,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re wearing regalia or not. If you just want to get out there and dance, you like the sound of the drum. You don’t have to be Native to come out and dance.”

The inclusive messaging draws many non-Indians the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center. For some of these curious spectators, the powwow is their first exposure to authentic Native American culture. Inevitably, the impressive pageantry inspires questions. Among those most commonly asked is this: Why would Native Americans, people who have suffered hundreds of years of colonization and genocide, honor the U.S. military and the American flag at a cultural celebration?

Emmy Her Many Horses (Sicangu Lakota) has heard this question many times. Her Many Horses, who grew up on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, is renowned for performing the United States National Anthem in the Lakota language. Hundreds of Native American veterans have received copies of the translated Anthem on CD. In 2011 she was one of eleven Native American young people honored by President Obama as a “Champion of Change.”

Her Many Horses says the Anthem project has been motivated by a desire to honor those who have fought to “defend our people, and where we come from.” This includes, she says, Native people and other U.S. citizens.

She says there are a great many reasons why Native people choose to join the U.S. military, but that regardless of their motivation, they should be recognized for having served.

“For Native people there is a difficulty in trying to remain true to who we are from our tribal nations, and who we are in society today. For some, I think, they are seeking to be that warrior. For others, the military may be their best chance at getting away from their homes and finding opportunity. The military is also an opportunity that will help pay for school, allow travel, and teach new skills. Many are following a family tradition, a cultural tradition.”

The involvement of Native people in the military goes back hundreds of years. Considering Natives were involved in the American Revolution (and every subsequent U.S. war), indigenous people have been fighting for America since before it was a country.

According to the Department of Defense (in 2010) 22,569 enlisted service members, and 1,297 officers on active duty, were American Indian. Considering the population of the United States is approximately 1.4 percent Native, and the military is 1.7 percent Native, Indian people have the highest per-capita involvement of any population serving in the U.S. Military.

“I grew up in a community where I learned to respect those who made that choice to serve. We all were touched in some way by the military. We all have family who served. We all love someone who served,” Her Many Horses says.

Her Many Horses knows that the inclusion of patriotic expressions at Native cultural gatherings does not go over well with everyone. She says she has lost friends who objected to her Anthem project.
Joe Perez (Sicangu Lakota), a Minneapolis-based powwow MC, is among those Native people who would prefer not to see the U.S. flag flown over their traditional homelands. Perez compares his gut reaction to seeing the U.S. flag entering a powwow grounds to what he imagines a Jewish person might feel when viewing a swastika. “Our people have been so influenced by messages coming from the dominant culture that we fail to see the flag for what it is – a symbol of our own oppression,” he says.

Perez believes that Native people who embrace the U.S. flag suffer from a form of Stockholm syndrome, the psychological phenomenon in which hostages express empathy and sympathy toward their captors, sometimes to the point of defending and identifying with their captors.
“Of course, joining the military can be a legitimate way for Native people to become warriors,” he says. “If indigenous nations had our own militaries, however, joining the American military would be treasonous. You don’t have to join the military to be a warrior, you just have to contribute to the good of your people.”

Perez enjoys attending professional sporting events, such as the Minnesota Twins at Minneapolis’ Target Field. He refuses to stand when the National Anthem is played, which sounds, to his ears, incongruous in the land of his ancestors. He says it would be more appropriate to hear a prayer song honoring the sacred pipe.

“I remain seated because I’m a Lakota person being oppressed in my own homeland by foreign intruders,” he says. “They have no connection to this land, and yet they’re trying to make me sing their most patriotic song.”

The single father of 12 year-old Mariah teaches his daughter to stand at school during the Pledge of Allegiance “out of respect for her classmates,” but insists she must never recite the words as he believes the Pledge is a form of political indoctrination.

“People will think and say what they believe,” says Emmy Her Many Horses, who has heard every imaginable response to her National Anthem project. “We all have that right to do so. I made a choice to do something I cared about, for people I cared about,” she says.

As a child growing up on the Pine Ridge Reservation, Von Gillette (Arikara/ Hidatsa/Lakota) remembers watching many powwows and swelling with pride as the flags were carried in. He associated the American flag and the uniformed veterans who brandished them with the military service of several close relatives, including his grandfather, father, and uncles.

“They would bring in the U.S. flag alongside the tribal flag and the POW/MIA flag. The three seemed to be working in conjunction. I didn’t really question it. I associated the flags with the veterans I knew. I thought of them as honorable, and so the U.S. flag was something I respected.”

As a ten-year-old, Gillette recalls the moment he began to question the actions of the U.S. military and the political leaders who wielded its massive power. “I watched on television as the U.S. military bombed the Iraqis, and something about it made me suspicious. I began to see a connection between what the military was doing in Iraq – seeking to take another nation’s oil resources – and what it had done to Native people.”

Gillette was further disillusioned by the stories elders told of the military invasion of his reservation during the 1973 Wounded Knee occupation. “U.S. law says the military cannot be deployed on U.S. soil against U.S. citizens. But that’s exactly what they did in 1973 when they surrounded Indian people – U.S. citizens – who were occupying their own land. I have never been able to make sense of that.”
As an adult Gillette settled in Saint Paul and established a successful business training athletes. He also began to take a more critical look at the actions of the U.S. military in Iraq, Afghanistan, and around the world as the War on Terror intensified following the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Towers.

Today, Gillette says, he is neither pro- nor anti-military, but has formed opinions based observation of the military’s actions. “What the U.S. military has done around the world in the past two decades has been disastrous. They have killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people. I don’t have any respect for that. But I don’t blame veterans; I blame the politicians in the White House. I have a lot of relatives who have served and I respect them absolutely. It gets confusing. But that doesn’t mean I have to have an all or nothing attitude.”

If it were up to him, the indigenous nations of America would cease raising the U.S. flag until the government follows through on its treaty obligations. Gillette wants to see the restoration of the Great Sioux Nation (as described in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868), the return of the Black Hills (which were removed from the Great Sioux Nation following the 1877 treaty), and an honoring of every other treaty signed by the United States.

“I have a hard time using a flag which pays tribute to a country that doesn’t uphold its basic legal agreements,” he says, at the same time expressing sympathy for those Native people who originally wove the flag into cultural gatherings.

Gillette says it was a matter of basic survival. “At one time powwows were illegal, but one of the ways you could have a powwow was to fly the U.S. flag; it was like a white flag of surrender that said: ‘Please don’t kill us while we practice our cultural traditions.’

"So I can understand how the American flag became part of the powwow culture,” Gillette says. “But I think its usage should be seriously reexamined, and I know a lot of Native Americans feel exactly the same as I do.”

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