Seeing indigenous history on the Iron Range

"Why Treaties Matter" is a traveling exhibit exploring the history and hardship behind the treaties between the U.S. government and sovereign native people, which in Minnesota include the Ojibwa and Dakota peoples. The exhibit will have its grand opening at Hibbing Community College on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2015 and remain in the lobby of the HCC Commons through Tuesday, Oct. 20.

“Why Treaties Matter” is a traveling exhibit exploring the history and hardship behind the treaties between the U.S. government and sovereign native people, which in Minnesota include the Ojibwa and Dakota peoples. The exhibit will have its grand opening at Hibbing Community College on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2015 and remain in the lobby of the HCC Commons through Tuesday, Oct. 20.

For many reasons, the stories of native Northern Minnesota and the Northern Minnesota that formed after European and American settlement are often considered entirely separate matters in most history classes and casual conversation. The latter, written by the ancestors of most people who live here, tends to get much more attention. If kids learn about the prior, it’s usually in passing, as an aside, a novelty of our quaint prerecorded history.

In recent years I’ve grown to understand native history by leaps and bounds over what I learned in school. Native history is not separate; rather, it should be fully integrated with our stories about miners, loggers and labor organizers. There is no story that can compete with the truth. It’s simply not accurate to say that when European immigrants came that the Ojibwa story stopped. As with all humans in all times, our stories are interrelated and remain so forever.

Nevertheless, part of the persistence of that myth on the Iron Range is the fact that so much of our cultural understanding is based around the relatively recent arrival of our immigrant ancestors. Nearly all of my bloodline arrived in this country after local Ojibwa people were moved onto their current reservations, a common story among most European-Americans in this area. Further, when native treaties were discussed at all, it was usually for some reason that people didn’t like — to enforce a de facto prohibition before the real one came to be, or in relation to hunting and fishing rights that spur such controversy in this area.

Yet no place is more squarely in Indian country than the Mesabi Iron Range. And we can all benefit from learning how today came from yesterday, so we better understand what might come tomorrow.

In 2013, the flag of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwa was first flown outside the Itasca County Courthouse in Northern Minnesota. (Jennifer Bevis, Flickr CC)

In 2013, the flag of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwa was first flown outside the Itasca County Courthouse in Northern Minnesota for the first time. (Jennifer Bevis, Flickr CC)

This year, the city of Grand Rapids on the far western edge of the Mesabi is the first Range town to acknowledge the second Monday in October as Indigenous People’s Day, acknowledging the region’s original residents on a day typically set aside for the explorer whose expedition kicked off European settlement and resulting genocide and relocation of native peoples.

Grand Rapids had already taken the step of flying the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwa flag outside the Itasca County Courthouse in 2013. In 2014, my employer Hibbing Community College hung the flags of several Ojibwa bands in the commons as part of its International Flag project to honor the nationalities of all our students.

Starting tomorrow, Oct. 8, the traveling exhibit “Why Treaties Matter” will be on display in the Hibbing Community College commons. A special ceremony will be held at noon Thursday featuring Fond du Lac chair Karen Diver and other special guests. The interactive exhibit will be on display through Tuesday, Oct. 20 at HCC.

In all of this, we see the truth about our shared history come into better focus. It’s not about shaming or blaming, nor does a little bit of knowledge erase the damage of the past. But efforts like these are important. They create the understanding and build the relationships we need to make the next 200 years significantly better than the last 200 years.

From the press release at HCC:

The HCC Diversity Committee is pleased to invite you to the opening of the exhibit “Why Treaties Matter: Self-Government in the Dakota and Ojibwe Nations,” a traveling exhibition that explores the Native nations in Minnesota and their history of treaty making with the United States, on Thursday, October 8, at noon in the HCC Commons. The event will feature speaker Chairwoman Karen Diver of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. Admission to the event is free.

The opening will feature a blessing of the community and the “Why Treaties Matter” exhibit, which will be installed in the Main Entry of HCC. Chairwoman Karen Diver will be the keynote speaker, and Native American cuisine will be available for purchase from the HCC Culinary Department.

The exhibit will be on view through Tuesday, October 20. This exhibition is part of a statewide tour with visits throughout the Minnesota State Colleges and University System under the auspices of the Minnesota Humanities Center and its partner, the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council. “Why Treaties Matter” is a collaboration of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, the Minnesota Humanities Center and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian. This exhibition was developed with money from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund that was created with a vote of the people of Minnesota on November 4, 2008 and The Patrick and Aimee Butler Family Foundation. This tour is made possible by funding from the Blandin Foundation and the Northland Foundation.


  1. We are trying to get Indigenous People’s Day recognized over here In Grand Marais, as well.

  2. Great post, Aaron! Your statement, “There is no story that can compete with the truth” frames the work of the Circle of Healing, the force behind both the two-year, 22-stop tour of Why Treaties Matter in Northern Minnesota and the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe fag installations in Grand Rapids. The group’s purpose is to take courageous action, based in their evolving and expanding cross-cultural competency, understanding and awareness. I’d add that this is not about blaming, shaming, guilt or anger, which seem to be common emotions when people begin to learn the truth about the rich cultural practices of the Anishinaabe/Ojibwe people “pre-disruption” and the intentional US policies to sever them from both their culture and their land. I’m quickly losing count of the number of people saying, “I used to think ‘why can’t they (Native people) just get over it?’ I had no idea”. Also want to let you and your readers know that in addition to the Why Treaties Matter exhibition, which is top notch, there’s an excellent website too –

  3. I agree Becky, it’s an interesting and informative piece, but the sad state of affairs concerning what the media and some bloggers think is important today is troubling. Ask Aaron to explain…or when he’ll address:

    Why treaties matter – but all lives don’t matter
    Why treaties matter – but enforcing legal immigration law doesn’t matter
    Why treaties matter – but the 2nd Amendment doesn’t matter
    Why treaties matter – but 19 years of no global warming doesn’t matter
    Why treaties matter – but 94,610,000 Americans not working doesn’t matter
    Why treaties matter – but only black lives matter
    Why treaties matter – but keeping my doctor, period, doesn’t matter
    Why treaties matter – but Christopher Stevens, Tyrone Woods, Sean Smith and Glen Doherty losing their lives makes no difference.
    Why treaties matter – but cops lives don’t matter
    Why treaties matter – but the murder of 54,559,000 babies over the past 42 years doesn’t matter
    Why treaties matter – but the president not preserving, protecting and defending the constitution doesn’t matter

    Absolutely, treaties matter, especially for 1.3% of the population…but so do a lot of other things matter. Just ask the other 98.7% of the nation…

    • Casting at partisan windmills again, eh Robert? Start your own blog and write about what you like. I have no qualms giving this issue attention because attention is deserved.

    • Ranger47 – No doubt there are a million attention-worthy issues in the world, and you’ve listed some of yours. My thing is expanding my own awareness and knowledge about the true history of our country, and about how to change systems to be more inclusive of all people in this place I love and call “home”. [I invite you to learn more about the 4% of the population in Itasca County who are Native American – from a place of curiosity and questioning about how how they got to be 4% and how our histories and everydays are intertwined]. Aaron’s thing is blogging “about the people, news and culture of Northern Minnesota” and know that he has covered some of these topics using this lens. You appear gifted in crafting words. Perhaps it is time for you to focus your energy and add your voice to the blog – o – sphere – if you aren’t blogging already. Enjoy this beautiful day!

  4. Becky
    I don’t mean to diminish the history, importance and the average Americans neglect of native Americans woeful condition. Through personal involvement at a university I attended, I worked to help increase the preparedness, retention and graduation rate of American Indians interested in STEM related degrees. It helped me understand the significant issues they face. Yes, insensitivity to their perspective was/is part of the problem. But a far greater issue was peer pressure, cultural pressure, from within their own community. I have nothing against creating a Native American / Indigenous American / Whatever Politically Correct Indian Day, but I never once heard from my American Indian friends it was a top priority of theirs.

    I do find it disturbing that that the left always has to demonize someone or something when they promote someone or something. If it’s deemed important by some to create a “new” local, regional, statewide, nationwide Day, go ahead. But to make poor ole Christopher Columbus a loser? For what purpose? Ya gotta admit sailing the ocean blue in 1492 without GPS, DH36 steel hulls or bulbous bows was quite a feat. (I’ll admit, it was prior to global warming so the sea was probably glass-like). And it’s quite a stretch to say he caused the Dakota uprising or Leech Lake Ojibwe skirmish. So…why eliminate his Day? Why not just pick another day? Now we both know the answer. The left can’t operate that way. They always need to pick winners….and losers, and Christopher is their loser of choice on this one.

    Oh, I have faith Aaron will someday realize he has the capacity to cover both trivial and compelling issues. And being he’s a much better writer than me, I hold out hope he’ll realize his capacity…and soon. We’re leaderless, adrift and not calling Columbus Day Columbus Day is further proof…


  5. Ranger47 – The text of the resolution may be of interest to you – I’ve provided the link below. You’ll see that it acknowledges the City’s desire to celebrate the culture and value that our Native neighbors add to our city and recognizes Columbus Day as a federal holiday. It’s a win / win!

    You should come be a part of the celebration tomorrow – 11 am – 1 pm downtown Grand Rapids.


  6. Becky, Becky….The day chosen to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day could have been any of 365 days yet Columbus Day was chosen…and we all know it was no accident. And it was not chosen to enhance the importance of Columbus. To the contrary, the media, liberals and you have already diminished and demonized him. For example, let’s see how many references are made to our hero Christopher tomorrow during the first annual IPD. Don’t take Aaron or his readers for fools by telling us it’s a “win-win”. You’re smarter than that..

    Now, get your Columbus Day sales shopping list together and buy as much as possible tomorrow. In a very few short years, Columbus Day sales will be a thing of the past. Maybe already to late for Grand Rapids sales..

  7. Chopsticks In Ma Hair says

    Of course the whole folksy Voyageurs extractive mythos has to go. Archetypal ‘explorers’ and genocidaires who ‘lived simply with the land’ become medium-kindred , left-leaning users and preservationists – weird ,and seemingly dishonest somehow , yet never more salient when out and about, canoe, foot, bicycle, whatever. Also, Glencore!?!? Extensibly “too big to fail”(?) – their capital structure includes not-small loans from BofA and other large US banks. So, that, plus what if a private equity /activist shareholder group gets a controlling stake?

  8. Don’t know if you are a long-time reader of Aaron’s, Becky, but “discussions” with Ranger are lessons in futility.

  9. “Aaron’s blog”

  10. So Becky…how’s that “win-win” you mention working out for our hero Christopher on his Day at today’s IPD celebration? I’ve yet to hear his name mentioned, but I can’t be everywhere. Maybe you heard something..

  11. Becky…A pertinent article (in the Red Star no less) is worth reading.
    In part it says:
    * “Last year, the Minneapolis City Council voted to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day on Columbus Day, a national holiday. Busy smearing the villain Christopher Columbus, the council failed to honor the fact that, in practice, Columbus Day is Italian-American Heritage Day, and has been celebrated as such for decades.”

    * “This year, by continuing to ignore how the holiday is actually observed, the council and mayor demonstrate cultural myopia and racial disrespect.”

    * “Playing favorites with races is an ugly game with no winners.”

    * “The council’s move is further perplexing, since the U.S. already has a holiday dedicated to indigenous peoples — two, actually, if you count the largely unknown Native American Heritage Day, signed into law by George W. Bush. The other being Thanksgiving, which is not only a day devoted to indigenous peoples but, better still, one dedicated to peace and harmony between indigenous and non-indigenous Americans.”

    * “We ought not, however, pit America’s ethnic groups against each other…”

    It sounds as though the writer plagiarized me, don’t you think?

  12. Well, let us examine this former “hero”, a former saint now dragged through the mud by the devils of political correctness. We could perhaps read the journal of his son, Ferdinand, as he describes his father demanding gold, then making “examples” by disfiguring some poor local, or in the best tradition of empires, slaughtering the inhabitants with the best of modern weaponry he could possess. Or, the diary of Bartholome’ de Las Casas, wherein he describes how the wondrous deliverer of civilization, not having found fields of gold, immediately began the slave trade. We could study our subject more in depth, but it would merely be more of the same followed by learning it is a falsely created holiday lobbied for by Italian – Americans. We will also neglect some other enlightening moments of the Spanish conquest as they brought forth both crossbearers and crossbowmen, their enthusiasm to raise the inhabitants from their pre-Christian squalor and enlighten them on the benefits of being slaves, rape victims and the subjects of playful slaughter by your unfortunately slandered demigod, whose hunger for gold was eclipsed only by his psychopathic bloodlust. Attempting to defend him by sarcasm and irony simply shows your seemingly endless ignorance. All colonists and colonial empires must mythologies the conquered inhabitants as either non-existent or evil in order to justify the taking. It is no different here my great Bwana…the empire simply has a different flag.

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.