Thursday, November 24, 2016

Happy Thanksgiving

On this Thanksgiving day, the Minnesota Humanities Center wishes all of its blog readers a very happy Thanksgiving holiday. 

We hope your day is filled with meaningful time to reflect, give thanks, and connect with family, friends, and community.

“Rest and be thankful.” 
William Wordsworth

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Sharon Day - What Will You Do For the Water?

Sharon Day, Bois Forte Ojibwe, is the executive director of the Indigenous Peoples Task Force, and the leader of 12 Nibi walks including the Mississippi River, the Ohio, the Minnesota, the James, the Kettle, and the Chippewa. She will lead a Potomac River walk this fall. 

“Gidaw izhichigaye na nibi?” This question in the Ojibwe language is, “What will you do for the water?”

This question was asked of me back in 1998. I responded by trying to help save Camp Coldwater Spring. Since then, I have led 12 or 13 Nibi, or water walks, to pray for the health of the rivers.  First, we determine which of the many rivers or lakes on Turtle Island need our prayers the most – which rivers or waterways are severely impaired by pollution or are facing immediate threats by new mines or pipelines running under them. Then we go to that river; we make an offering and state our intentions to walk along this waterway to speak to the water spirits. This is our responsibility as Ojibwekwe, indigenous women, to care for the water. 

Since the beginning of time, Ojibwe women have gathered the water every morning for the needs of the people. We are, like the water, life givers. As we bring our children into the world, they live in our womb in water for nine months. This is a most sacred place. We all need water for nourishment. We need water to bathe, to nourish our plants, and to cook or preserve our food. No human living on this earth can live without water. No one.

When I was a young girl, I would get up in the morning and get the water pail and head to the well to gather the water for the day. It was the last thing I did every night before I went to bed. When one gathers the water and carries it, one develops a relationship with the water. You are careful with it and you use it more than once. Today, we just turn on the faucet, use it, and pour what we don’t need down the drain. On the Nibi walks, women gather the water at the headwaters or source of the river and carry the water to the mouth of the river. There we give the water back to the river. While we carry it, we sing, we pray, we speak to the water spirits. We give thanks for the Nibi, we express our love and respect. These are the teachings of the Ojibwe people.

All the Nibi water walks follow these protocols and more. It is our intention to make sure there is water to nourish our great-great-great grandchildren seven generations into the future. We do this because someone did this for us. My ancestors knew that one day I would be here. They sang the songs and offered the prayers so that I would be able to enjoy life, mino bemadiziwin. To them I am grateful and it is due to the love they had for me that I am able to answer the question, “Gi daw izitchigay na nibi?” What will you do for the water?

“Ngah bimosayaan nibi ohnjay.” I will walk for the water.

Visit the Water/Ways traveling exhibit in Sandstone at the Audubon Center of the North Woods from November 19, 2016 – January 1, 2017. 

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Trista Matascastillo - The Stories Behind Veterans Day

Trista Matascastillo is a Veteran of the Navy, Marine Corps, and Army. She is currently the Strategic Partnerships Officer for the Minnesota Humanities Center and a 2016 Bush Fellow.

Each year on Veterans Day, we pause and reflect on events that have shaped our history. We often look back over a distinct list of historical events that trigger memories about times, places, and people. As a country, we engage in conversations about wars and talk about honoring our heroes in a way that makes them seem like super-humans, capable of unimaginable feats. We wave flags, tie yellow ribbons, and sing patriotic songs. It makes us feel good about doing our part in society to support those we depend on to defend our way of life.

Often left out of the conversation are personal stories of our Veterans and their families that aren’t included in the history books or taught in classrooms. As a Veteran myself, I can tell you that our stories aren’t highlights captured on a timeline, but are instead a blend of experiences, both good and bad, that form our memories and shape who we are as humans and how we engage with and in the world.

Veterans come from a wide variety of backgrounds, belief systems, and identities. Although we experience our military service as part of a large, collective unit, our memories form very personal narratives.

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s 2016 Veterans Day message lays out a chronological history of conflicts and honors those still serving, and he says that “…on this day, and every day, we should celebrate each generation by telling their stories.” I would go one step further and suggest that you take time to listen to a Veteran sharing his or her personal stories. Alternatively, you could engage in a conversation with one or more Veterans about their experiences and who they are as people. You could attend a Veterans theater production and listen to or watch a Veteran perform. You could read a memoir, story, or poem written by a Veteran. In doing some or all of these things you will be better able to connect with, understand, and celebrate Veterans through our shared humanity.

You can check out an upcoming Humanities Center Veterans’ Voices event and resources on our website at

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Mary Manor - Fighting the Power: The Positive Story of Public Education

Mary Manor is a proud union member and public school teacher who teaches social justice through the lens of literature and writing at Minneapolis South High School. Mary lives in South Minneapolis with spouse, Corinth, and their dog, Lenny.

Last May, the racial equity student group at South High held “Racial Equity Day.” Student-organized and student-led, the day featured dozens of workshops focused on engaging students in discussions of race and justice in our communities. As a unionized public school teacher at South High, this is a powerful, positive story I can tell about public education.

In contrast, the public education story told by our most powerful government agents, richest capitalists, under-served communities, and disenfranchised students is one of failing schools, ineffective teachers, disengaged students, and long summer breaks. This narrative gives credence to punitive policies, loss of teacher autonomy, destructive teacher evaluations, funding cuts, and school closings.

My union colleagues and I grapple with the harmful effects of this narrative even as we help create positive ones. The power of the negative story comes from money and oppression. The power of our story comes from the work we do, the action we take, and the successes of our students.

I am fortunate to work at Minneapolis South High with colleagues that prioritize the struggle to put social justice issues at the forefront of education. We teach English classes that focus on readings from historically marginalized authors and give all students the opportunity to engage on a deep and authentic level. We have math classes focused on social justice – using poverty rates, demographics, and educational achievement data to teach algebra and statistics – so students can practice practical applications of math and examine social issues that affect communities in which they live. We teach American history classes that privilege the absent narratives of people of color and create engaged, active young citizens who are ready and willing to fight for civil rights.

The power of our story is also dependent on the humanities. My own study of the humanities has helped me develop the knowledge, understanding, compassion, and need for action that shapes my life and teaching. The Minnesota Humanities Center’s workshops have focused my attention on the power of story and the need to engage in the work it will take to change the American narrative for the better.

This summer, in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, in memory of Philando Castile, and while holding tightly to the hands of the unionized public school teachers on either side of me, I sat down in the Nicollet Avenue and 8th Street intersection in downtown Minneapolis along with eighteen others. Some of my students peppered the crowd. We chanted and sang until the police gave the final warning to clear the intersection. We remained seated as people from the crowd – friends, fellow teachers, students, union comrades, and community members – gave us hugs and handshakes. Moments later, we were arrested to resounding applause and cheers. I took action because I believe black lives matter. I took action because I believe my black students matter. I took action because I could not go back to my classroom this fall and teach students that they can and should create a powerful, positive American story without living those lessons myself.