The birdbaths have frozen here in Minnesota. I step onto the porch and pour some water for the birds. Winter came early and everyone seems a bit unprepared or in denial. It’s a worry because there’s a very large group of mostly Native people living in tents in what they’ve named the Haiwatha Encampment. The city promised help before it got cold. Lots of help came, but people will be there until mid-December. Two hundred human beings who need water, warmth, food, homes, help.
Before I am back inside my warm home, the birds dive for the water I’ve poured for them: blue jays first, then dozens of robins, woodpeckers, eventually starlings — birds I rarely see in numbers — land. I’ve responded to their need.
Keep Off Danger Thin Ice
say the signs on the lake near my house. The signs are always there, but I only notice them when it snaps cold. It feels colder before snow accumulates because snow can insulate even a tent. Living by water, even water as snow, shapes us. Mni Sota
means Cloudy Waters in Dakota, which is how our state got its name. If I were to do a land acknowledgement — a recognition of who once lived in a place, often given at public events — in Minnesota I would recognize the Dakota people who named this place. But I would do so in the present tense. Minnesota is still a Dakota place and home to many Ojibwe and other tribes as well.
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The land the Hiawatha Encampment occupies is spread across county, city, and private land. Much of it belongs to Native organizations. Nearby, the Red Lake Nation, an Ojibwe tribe, owns land that is slated to become the Navigation Center that will bring over half of the encampment in from the cold.
I travel for a living, being an itinerant scholar and visiting writer. Everywhere I go is Native land.
Earlier in November, I was lucky enough to have two colleges in Wisconsin host me. We were gathered in Menominee homelands, near the Oneida Nation, and in areas Ojibwe and Odawa people have long called home. At each event at least one group of original people was acknowledged. They were also present, which is most important to me. Everywhere I go there are Native people to meet and share stories with, to ask to accept a land acknowledgment. Everywhere I go, I offer my own request that the original people allow me to speak in their land.
The land the Hiawatha Encampment occupies is Native homeland.
In Wisconsin, everyone was wonderful, the Native students most of all gave me enormous hope and I encouraged them in the dreams they shared. We gathered to share Indigenous foods, too, and talk about my book Original Local
. Students and staff at both colleges used recipes from the book to make meals so good that during each one we all fell silent in enjoyment. After, we shared stories and talked about the rise of the Indigenous foods movement, about family gatherings, about how Indigenous people are recognized.
The city of Minneapolis celebrates Indigenous People’s Day, having jettisoned Columbus Day, but a formal land acknowledgement has not yet become the norm here. Elsewhere I’ve visited, a representative of a Native Nation gives the land acknowledgement, which doesn’t seem exactly right to me. We have our own protocols for acknowledging one another’s homelands. Formal statements should take place between governments, perhaps, not individuals. We have not quite worked this all out. I worry that land acknowledgment statements take the place of real relationships with Native Nations and individuals. It’s a good start, but there’s so much more to acknowledgement than saying our names.
What to do? Figure out how to invite an understanding of Indigenous presence daily and connect Indigenous visitors to Native Nations nearby with whom they can amplify knowledge.
I joke that I have Land Acknowledgement Fatigue (LAF), but there’s a grain of truth.
When I work in collaboration with other Native artists, there’s often room for community engagement as part of our travels. We ask organizations that are hosting us to set it up. It’s best when an organization reaches out to and forges new relationships with Native people in their community to reinforce the value of Native artists, youth, and elders that share their homelands. I was lucky enough to be in Portland for the literary festival where I was presenting writers in New Poets of Native Nations
. I met Ed Edmo, elder poet of the Shoshone-Bannock Nation, and sat with him a bit. The festival arranged my reading in the museum beside artwork created from my culture group, Ojibwe/Cree. It was a quick visit, but even as a visitor from a distant tribe, I felt acknowledged and acknowledging, and within Native community.
I’ve been migrating, I think as I watch the birds, I need water, too, the river of connection, the fluid community that includes Native people beyond the formal, beyond the ask and acknowledgement.
It meant so much to me that Norbert Hill, editor of a book about Native Nations' survival, The Great Vanishing Act
, took me on an impromptu tour of his homelands in Wisconsin. We tooled down the country roads adjacent to Green Bay and cruised the parking lots of several tribal facilities. Oneida Nation infrastructure is impressive, composed of gas stations, store fronts, office buildings, and resources beyond what most Native Nations can hope to recover. There are language programs, elder housing, behavioral health facilities, and a place I love the title of: The Self-Sufficiency Center. There’s knowledge in that name I’d like to amplify. I’m thinking of Minneapolis. A very visible camp of hundreds of people, the gathering of these individuals into one, resulted in consolidated services and forced action. That’s self-sufficiency and so is the manner in which the Hiawatha Encampment residents addressed their needs to the city council and made their voices heard.
People treat me well in my travels. I am trying to return what is given me. We are meant to share the gifts that come from this land. This is a central belief and practice of many Indigenous cultures. It may have been a mistake, but we have not given generosity up yet. The gift is not the end of the relationship. Reciprocity should be a kind of currency. For all we have had taken, all we have given, we should get a bit back when we need it.
It’s about to be Thanksgiving, that American holiday founded on myths and lies about colonists and tribes. I rename it Indigenous Foods Day, a time we can learn from the original agriculture and stewardship of Native peoples, which continues. Beside an Oneida longhouse sat a three sisters garden of corn, beans, and squash or pumpkin. Elsewhere, the Oneida Nation produces foods at the cannery. We drove by their large apple orchard. We surprised a group of wild turkey behind the pow wow grounds. At Oneida Market I asked my guide for patience as I shopped, decided TSA would confiscate roasted corn flour, and determined to phone in an order later. We drove on, stopped to watch the tribe’s bison herd in the low November sun — golden guard hairs lit up and blowing above their dark winter coats. I offered a miigwech
, my thanks — the night before we slew a kettle of “Black and Blue Bison Stew” made for us by the chef at University of Wisconsin Green Bay.
That night, an Ojibwe friend who lives in Green Bay told me that Hobart, the Oneida’s neighboring community, declared they no longer acknowledge the reservation exists. These, their closest neighbors, seek to render invisible and legally terminate the Oneida Nation.
It is zero degrees — I put out liquid water for migrating birds, think of everything our community is doing to try to get people safe and warm. It has fallen to Native Nations and local Native organizations to address this crisis of homelessness in our homelands. The problem is tremendously complex and involves dozens of city officials and local organizations working on almost nothing else for months. In the face of crisis, formalities in distant locales seem a tad ridiculous. I joke that I have Land Acknowledgement Fatigue (LAF), but there’s a grain of truth. There’s so much to think about when I travel as a Native person, so much I hope to learn from the Native people in each place. So much I want to bring home.
I am listening to the lessons of home and away now. Even if there’s silence before a Native voice speaks, acknowledge Native people first in open forums. Engage Native people in an ongoing way, not only in designated months. We are here, no matter where you are here. We are all on Native land. We are your neighbors.
I am thinking of what being a neighbor means, what it means that people with nothing banded together to become visible to their neighbors, to state a Native presence with their bodies, and demand an acknowledgement that goes beyond words.
÷ ÷ ÷
Heid E. Erdrich
is author of eight books, most recently the poetry collection Curator of Ephemera at the New Museum for Archaic Media
. Her second anthology, New Poets of Native Nations
, is from Graywolf Press. Heid is Ojibwe, enrolled at Turtle Mountain. She teaches in the Augsburg University low-residency MFA Program.