Sankofa: The Past is Alive Within Us

Amanda Soderlund ’17 is an international relations major. She recently accompanied a group of Bethel University students and faculty on the Sankofa trip, and has graciously agreed to write about her experiences.

Over spring break, a group of 29 Bethel students and faculty participated in an intensive learning experience about the Dakota and Ojibwe peoples. We visited sacred sites and engaged in a process of cultural learning, historical understanding, and racial reconciliation.

We encountered many narratives of historical injustice against the Dakota in Minnesota on our trip. Stories of genocide, being robbed of land, stripped of language and spirituality, dehumanized and forgotten. Some major events we studied included the US-Dakota War of 1862, the hanging of the 38 Dakota in Mankato, and the forced march of 1,700 Dakota people to a concentration camp at Fort Snelling, in which 600 people died.

We experienced history through the eyes of Native Americans. We abandoned our notion of seeing history as linear, which distances ourselves from the past. Instead, we adopted the Native practice of considering history as alive in space and time. With this viewpoint, the very ground is a witness to history, and the past exists in that space. Through this paradigm shift, I could no longer remove myself from the pain and injustice of the past because of a great chasm of time. “The Earth remembers,” as our leader Jim Bear would say.

It was painful and eye opening to hear their history and the immense tragedy that accompanies it. I felt betrayed by the American school system, and the ugly, hidden truth of our state’s history. The version of history I was taught in school emphasizes American patriotism while hiding its crimes. At best, we hear about certain events of injustice against Natives, but these events are either quickly mentioned, one-sided, or are told with a gross lack of moral sensitivity. Teaching about historical oppression with detached passivity is not conducive to healing the generational trauma that oppressed communities feel today.

Going forward after this trip, I am sure of a few things. The first is that we have a responsibility to teach what really happened to the Dakota people in Minnesota in 1862. This also means bringing to light the racist actions of celebrated figures like Abraham Lincoln, Christopher Columbus, or Andrew Jackson. Lincoln himself signed off on the execution of the Dakota 38 in Mankato, which still remains the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

I also ask that we strive to find ways to honor our neighbors and their sacred practices. The Ojibwe and Dakota have a very strong connection to the earth, and taking away their land is like taking away a part of who they are. The current struggles they face include developers destroying sacred lands and the constant violation of treaties. The government has already taken so much away from the Dakota and Ojibwe; it’s time to ask our government to protect and uphold treaties and sacred land.

I want to encourage Bethel students and faculty to go on Sankofa the next time it is offered. It was an immense privilege to learn about Native American culture and history outside of a classroom context.

-Amanda Soderlund

 

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