Thursday, July 27, 2017

Jennifer Tonko - Why Treaties Matter — to all Minnesotans

Jennifer Tonko is the Minnesota Humanities Center’s Program Officer for Community Engagement and Traveling Exhibits. 

“All Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby.” — United States Constitution, article VI, clause 2

So, if you’re not a Native person, what do treaties have to do with you? Aren’t treaties out-of-date—why do they still matter?

When I started working at the Minnesota Humanities Center, I spent a lot of time learning from the other people who worked here about our mission and values and our culture as an organization. One of our core values was “learning from.” This is really shorthand for “learn from, not about” a people, a place, or a practice.

On the one hand, this makes perfect sense. After all, if people wanted to know what growing up in rural Iowa was like in the 80s and 90s, I’d say, “Learn from me! That’s my experience!” On the other hand, this is completely counter to the way the American educational and academic systems work. The educational powers-that-be tend to look for “experts,” and “experts” tend to be defined as people (often white, often male) educated in the academy using sources that are approved by current or former scholars from the academy that are usually presented as objective.

So “learn from, not about” is actually kind of radical. Instead of learning about a group of people from a designated “expert,” learn from individual people about themselves. Learn from lots of them. Learn from two or three or four or 100 people who might appear similar on paper, but who have different experiences and different values and different selves. Learn from people who actually think, feel, believe, and understand different things about how the world works, how the world should be, and how we, as humans, should behave in the world.

You can also learn from a place. You can learn from the place that is now called Minnesota. And if you are here in Minnesota, one of the first questions you might ask yourself is, “How did I get here?” And, unless you are a Dakota person, your story will be about a migration of some sort. Dakota people’s stories of getting here are different and not mine to tell, but if you’re in Minnesota, your story has intersected with Dakota people’s stories, whether you know it or not. Your story has also intersected with Ojibwe people’s stories. A key way that your story has intersected with indigenous people’s stories (if you’re not indigenous yourself) is through treaties. How do we learn from that?

We can start with learning from the people who know it best. Beginning in 2010, the Minnesota Humanities Center was privileged to work with the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council to create an exhibit that tells some of these stories: Why Treaties Matter: Self-Government in the Dakota and Ojibwe Nations. This exhibit was created with Dakota and Ojibwe scholars. The exhibit content was approved by all 11 sovereign nations within Minnesota.

Throughout Minnesota history, Native people have retained sovereignty and rights in exchange for land—lots of land. How treaties have been honored and how treaties have been broken shape who you are now and how you live in this place. And, you now have a chance to learn more about that from Dakota and Ojibwe people — the people who know it best — at the Minnesota State Capitol. As part of the Capitol remodel, the Why Treaties Matter: Self-Government in the Dakota and Ojibwe Nations is now on display on the third floor, in the hallway that connects public conference rooms 316-317 and the Cass Gilbert library.

I hope you will take this opportunity to visit the “people’s house” and learn from our Native Minnesota community about their stories and their sovereignty in a place that is open and welcome to all.

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