Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Part scholar, part activist

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
June 11, 2008


The horse-drawn covered wagons rolled toward Fort Snelling as part of ceremonies organized to mark 150 years of Minnesota statehood.

A wagon train of carts and prairie schooners – the drivers and their passengers clad in fringed buckskin and other pioneer costumes – travelled 160 kilometres from Cannon Falls to St. Paul.

At the fort, the procession was halted when a handful of protesters blocked the road. Among them was a 40-year-old professor named Waziyatawin. She was in no mood to honour a colonial triumph.

“They gained statehood at Dakota expense,” she said.

A Wahpetunwan Dakota from the Upper Sioux reservation, she learned stories about her people from her family as a little girl. As an adult, she earned a doctorate in history, bringing formal academic training to her studies.

Minnesota is having a birthday party. Talking about stolen land, broken treaties and of mass murder does not fit into the narrative of a celebration.

So she blocked the road. She was cited for misdemeanour disorderly conduct and held for an hour.

A few days later, a protest on the steps of the state capitol turned into a scuffle with police. Although not directly involved in that incident, she was warned not to continue shouting. When she did so, she was arrested again.

Two arrests on successive weekends made May a memorable month.

On July 1, she will leave Minnesota for British Columbia. Waziyatawin (pronounced Wah-ZEE-yah-tah-ween) will be taking up a five-year position as the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Peoples at the University of Victoria.

She plans to teach courses on such themes as truth-telling and reparative justice, indigenous women and resistance, and decolonization.

She was born to parents who were both educators. Her father earned a doctorate in the field, while her mother is currently a director of a social welfare agency in North Carolina.

“I grew up in a family with a strong oral tradition,” she said in a telephone interview from Granite Falls, Minn. “I can't remember a time when I didn't know stories. It was something I heard always when I was growing up.”

What she heard at home was unlike what was taught in class.

“All the children in U.S. schools learn all these myths we have about Columbus Day and Thanksgiving. Those were all nightmares to me.”

She remembers a dark day in Grade 9 when a social studies teacher offered for debate the statement that the only good Indian was a dead Indian.

After gaining a double major in history and American Indian studies from the University of Minnesota, she earned a master's degree and a doctorate from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. Her doctoral thesis was an oral-history project that became the first of her four books.

Research into the history of her people has not eased the pain.

The skirmishes of 1862 go by many names – the Sioux Uprising, the Minnesota Massacre, Little Crow's War. The details are familiar to her, even as they are unknown to so many others. The outcome was dismal for the Dakota, some of whom had risen in opposition to the occupation of their lands.

Survivors were marched across the state, held in a camp, and then forcibly expelled. (The camp was near the fort at which she was arrested last month.) Thirty-eight Dakota were hanged in what remains the largest mass execution in American history.

A price was placed on the head of any Dakota found in the state.

At lectures, Waziyatawin shows a newspaper clipping from an 1863 edition of the Winona Daily Republican. It offers a bounty of $200 for a single Indian scalp – enough, she notes, to purchase a 160-acre homestead.

“It's still stunning to me. It still appalls me. There's still the hurt, a recognition of just how expendable aboriginal persons have been. And still are.”

Twice she has embarked on Dakota Commemorative Marches, treks of nearly 200 kilometres retracing the route her ancestors were forced to follow in their expulsion a century-and-a-half earlier.

The marches “provide a wakeup call to all of us about the extent of the injustice perpetrated against us.”

She is also left with a thought – “as Dakota people we are very much visitors in our own homeland.”

An elder gave her the name Waziyatawin as a girl. It means “woman of the north.” She began using it regularly five years ago and last summer Angela Cavender Wilson legally changed her name.

The lone difficulty with bearing a single traditional name has been in booking an airplane flight, as the computer system demanded a first name. A boarding pass was acquired by signing in as Miss Waziyatawin.

“Felt like a pageant title,” she quipped.

She looks forward to learning the history of the indigenous peoples of Vancouver Island. British Columbia, she was told, is also marking a sesquicentennial this year.

2008 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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