Thursday, January 29, 2015

Brianna Chambers Erickson - How do the Humanities define us as Americans?

Brianna Erickson is on the Board of Directors of the Minnesota Humanities Center and serves as the Chair of Communications Committee. Brianna is currently an Account Supervisor, handling accounts in health care, for Weber Shandwick. A life-long Minnesotan, Brianna is an active alumna of Bethel University in St. Paul and Minnehaha Academy in Minneapolis.

The humanities — in the form of storytelling — have defined for me what it means to be an American. Three of my grandparents served in the military, and the family culture they created is grounded in patriotism, purpose, and faith.

My maternal grandparents – he a Vietnam Veteran with 20 years of service in the U.S. Air Force, and she a former Air Force nurse who continued her service to the military as an Air Force spouse when they married and had children — regularly shared stories of their military lives with us. My grandfather’s tales of adventure and culture overseas captivated me, even in my skeptical teenage years. His stories of danger, excitement, sacrifice, and loss — often punctuated by moments on active duty when he “thought [they] were toast" — provided a partial definition of what it means to be an American. For each of my grandfather’s stories there is a complementary story of travel, worry, sacrifice, and loss from my grandmother’s experience as a military spouse and mother of four children. Together their stories gave me an appreciation for cultures outside of what I see every day and impressed upon me the values of service, purpose, sacrifice, and faith.

Part of what makes American culture so rich is our diversity — whether it’s two sides of the same path through life in the case of my grandparents, or two sides of a longstanding clash of ideas or cultures. Whether differences are large or small, the humanities help us show, share, listen, and understand — not just what divides us, but the similarities that bring us together.

The humanities are not uniquely American. Storytelling, the arts, history, and language studies pervade cultures, continents, and centuries, but an emphasis on the humanities must continue to be a defining component of American education. Incredible American writers, artists, and orators are not just a part of our history, but must also be a part of our future.

I’ve been blessed with grandparents willing to tell their stories and ensure my future is influenced by their past. Too many stories, however, are lost from one generation to the next, and too many Veterans aren’t given a captive audience eager to hear their stories, whether they entail loss, pain, camaraderie, or adventure. Each of us must take the time to ask and listen to the stories of others; the Minnesota Humanities Center is working to make this easier. Its programs focus on bringing the American stories that aren’t often told into the forefront of our community conversations. Learn more at

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Pete Hegseth - How do the Humanities define us as Americans?

Pete Hegseth is the CEO of Concerned Veterans for America and a Fox News Contributor. Pete is an infantry officer in the Army National Guard, and has served tours in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay. He resides in Stillwater, MN with his wife and two children.

I believe the humanities are the vehicle through which we should define—and advance—our American experiment.

Are we Americans because we wear red white and blue, because we go to see parades and fireworks on July 4th, or because we sing the national anthem?


We are Americans because of the values and beliefs that powerfully underwrite those significant symbols. We strive every day to live out the freedoms that our founders enshrined, and generations of Veterans have served to preserve. And when someone threatens those freedoms (like on 9/11), we must stick together—but can only do so when we remember that our freedoms are not inevitable, and must be defended ideologically, societally, and physically. In underscoring this point, I’m going to steal a phrase that Gold-Star Mother, and close friend of mine, Karen Vaughn, uses quite often:  “Our national anthem is the only national anthem that ends with a question mark.”

Reflecting on that little-known fact, our national anthem becomes more than just a song we sing before sporting events, instead it represents a call to action. A call to appreciate the rights we’ve been given, but also a call to ensure that those rights are handed down to the next generation. It’s an acknowledgment that the United States of America is the single greatest experiment in human freedom and prosperity that the world has ever seen – and we all play a crucial part in its success story.

How Americans contribute to that story varies. Some write stories of hope, some help those in need, some sing patriotic songs, some launch entrepreneurial endeavors, some devote their lives to teaching, coaching, or mentorship, and some volunteer to join the armed services. But all must contribute, in their own way, to advance the cause—and story—of America.

Fighting alongside, and now working hand-in-hand with Veterans for the better part of my adult life, I know that few have a better sense of America’s exceptional nature and spirit than America’s Veterans. I also believe that love, properly taught and understood, also burns within every American. Not everyone will actively live it out, but nonetheless, it’s there.

So to answer the original question, simply put, the humanities define us as Americans by giving us outlets -- through writing, music, social interaction, religion, or civil-service -- from which we can build, maintain, and pass down, a state and society that must remain an exceptional beacon of human freedom in what remains a dangerous world.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Dakota and Ojibwe Educator Guides and Virtual Exhibit

In partnership with the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, a group of Dakota and Ojibwe scholars and educators developed educator guides that enhance the Why Treaties Matter: Self-Government in the Dakota and Ojibwe Nations exhibit content. This traveling exhibit - now available online - focuses on treaties between Dakota and Ojibwe Nations and the U.S. Government. Each guide includes teacher background, student readings and activities, vocabulary, and suggested resources.

Guides explore:
  • A Deep Connection to Place
  • An Ojibwe Narrative: Reconnections to Place
  • The Chippewa National Forest
  • Traditional Anishinaabe Economy
  • Treaty Economy
  • We Have Always Been Sovereign Nations
In August 2010, a resolution creating a unique partnership of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, the Minnesota Humanities Center, and the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. was approved by the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council and made it possible for development of the Why Treaties Matter traveling exhibit as an educational tool for Minnesota audiences.

Educator Guides are available at
I learned a lot about the Dakota and Ojibwe's past, how they were impacted by the settlers coming here, not just by how the settlers were impacted by them. I also learned about the Dakota and Ojibwe peoples' traditions and cultures, and how they interpret the world.
- 9th grade student, Eden Prairie High School
Students at Walker-Hackensack-Akeley School District, 2014

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Elizabeth Fei - How do the Humanities define us as Americans?

Elizabeth Fei is a Program Associate and the resident #millennial at The Minnesota Humanities Center. Themes of her work right now include: Why Treaties Matter and Always Lost traveling exhibits, workshop content, and program evaluation. She also maintains her own blog at

Sometimes, when I hear a word, images and stories immediately come rushing into my head.

Betsy Ross sewing stars and stripes. Laura Ingalls running across the prairie. Blonde-haired, blue-eyed kids watching fireworks. The Oregon Trail. Hands on hearts screeching out the Star-Spangled Banner. A picture of Uncle Sam.

“Hey, you!” Uncle Sam says.

I look around.

“You!” he barks. “I want you!”

“Me?” I ask nervously. “For what?”

His index finger points at me accusingly, even though in my culture pointing is a gesture for dogs. I imagine he’s calling me out, saying: “You don’t belong here.” I look into Sam’s eyes at his white hair and beard and creamy skin and realize he’s right. As a mixed race, Chinese-American woman, these stories of America, quite literally, don’t know the half of it.

Sure, I was told other stories too.

I did a project on Amy Tan once.

I read the book, Finding My Voice by Marie G. Lee, a story of a Korean girl in Minnesota, so many times that the binding broke and the pages fell out.

Sometimes there was a box of Crayola “Multicultural” crayons.

However, looking back, these seem like consolation prizes that punctuated my otherwise invisible representation in the narratives that surrounded me.

People often wax poetic about the squishy concept of the “humanities.” They say they’re “the answer to all our problems,” they are what is meant by “the pursuit of happiness,” they make “life worth living.”

Whose life?

There are stories I wasn't told.

That even though we often hear America is a “nation of immigrants,” there were indigenous people here long before--and newsflash-- they’re still here. That some immigrants did not come here by choice. That being the product of a biracial, bicultural union does not make me a totem for a utopian, post-racial society. That the label of “American” is wrought with complexity. And who uses the label, and when, and why are all questions that do not have definitive answers.

At the Humanities Center when we talk about the humanities we talk mostly about stories—things that illuminate our human connections with one another. Stories are powerful and, as evidenced by my own experience, create images that linger with us the rest of our lives. However, the humanities can only do their magic if they speak to all of our stories. Telling the same stories over and over again does the opposite: creates a limited narrative of what belongs and what is valuable, and conversely, what doesn’t and what isn’t. It’s what writer Chimamanda Adiche refers to as “The danger of a single story.”

There are stories I could have been told.

I could have been told stories of America’s history that aren’t a series of binary ones and zeroes—American Indians vs. Colonists, United States vs. England, North vs. South, Black vs. White, Haves vs. Have-nots, Truth vs. Lies, Good vs. Evil, Winners vs. Losers. Stories of the in-between. If I had been told these, might I have found room for my own intersectional identity within the American narrative in my head?

Because of their power, I think there is a sort of a protective feeling over stories. Like the time and space for sharing is finite and that for one story to have value, all others must be erased. This concept in itself, I think, is also the result of a powerful message that asserts that we don’t have time for these tough conversations and questions. That aiming for simplification should be valued over honoring complexity and nuance.

So, how do the humanities define me as an American?

For me, they haven’t, yet.

However, the beauty of the humanities is that they could.

Continuing to interrogate the stories we have been told to make the space for broadening existing narratives opens up that possibility. I, of course, have my own work to do: raising my own voice into these spaces; listening to others; hearing and accepting stories that might go against everything I know to be true.

And, always looking for what’s missing—the absent narrative—and then uncovering it, and having the conversation again makes work longer and more complex. Sometimes it gives us more questions than answers. It might require rescheduling that meeting, rewriting the book, missing a deadline, and, in my case, more than a few Diet Cokes.

However, if it means that more people like me hear: “You matter” and feel “you matter here”…

…well, that’s everything.