Education, MHS pow wow highlight first Indigenous Peoples’ Day

Heather Keeler and her 3-year-old son Elliott (in photo at left) participate in last week’s FM Crossroads pow wow. She led efforts to have the Moorhead City Council declare Monday, Oct. 14, Indigenous People’s Day in the city. (Photos/submitted to the Extra)

Nancy Edmonds Hanson
While Monday means Columbus Day in enclaves across the U.S., Moorhead joins a swelling tide of more authentic celebration that’s spreading across the country – the first local observance of Indigenous Peoples Day.
When the City Council approved rechristening the second Monday in October in honor of the people who predated the famed sailor three months ago, a cheer rose up from the 60-some supporters who packed the council chambers. “It was important for them to witness the vote,” says Heather Keeler, the woman who first instigated the request on the city’s human rights commission. “It was important for our people in the community to see how things work on the city level. I wanted them all to be part of a huge win.”
That night’s win was just the beginning. Now, Moorhead joins the burgeoning list of Upper Midwest communities that began with Minneapolis and Grand Rapids in 2014, as well as Fargo and St. Paul in 2015, in an official citywide celebration of America’s first nations. Starting with a ceremonial smudging and blessing at City Hall at 9 a.m. Monday, the education and celebration spreads into every Moorhead K-12 classroom and onto college campuses. The grand finale: an evening of food, music and culture dubbed the Indigenous Peoples Pow Wow at Moorhead High School. It’s open to residents of every ethnic background, beginning with a free chili and fry bread feed at 5 and the Grand Entry at 6:30 p.m.
The notion of replacing Columbus Day and its stories of discovery with a broader, more accurate depiction of North America’s population as it was before he “sailed the ocean blue in 1492” is not new. It came up at a United Nations conference on indigenous peoples 40 years ago. In 1989, South Dakota led the way in correcting the popular mythology with establishment of Native Americans Day. Shortly after, Indigenous Peoples Day was adopted in Berkeley and Santa Cruz, California, in the early 1990s.
A flood of cities signed onto the nationwide movement starting in 2014. Minnesota, Alaska and Vermont were the first states, 15 years after South Dakota’s differently named observance; today at least six, plus 230-odd cities, are part of the event. Even Columbus, Ohio, has canceled its annual salute to its namesake.
Roots of Moorhead’s participation go back to the two years Heather spent as an Indian education liaison. She and colleague Delores Gabbard had helped take a busload of students to Fargo’s youth events in several years and considered whether Moorhead schools might host their own day of educational focus on native history and culture. With some 425 students of native ancestry in grades K-12 – 7% of total enrollment – “we wanted to find a platform for the history of our people on their own land,” she reports. The school district, however, was reluctant to take the first step without the city taking the lead.
Then a coincidence happened. Heather had applied to both Moorhead and Fargo’s human rights commissions a year earlier, but had heard nothing. Then she was appointed to the Moorhead board when it was revitalized last May … and heard from Fargo, too, which appointed her a member. She raised the idea of Indigenous Peoples Day with the Moorhead board in June. A month later, when she presented it on the commission’s behalf to the city council, it received rousing approval by seven of the eight council members.
Planning began immediately, with participants from the three Moorhead colleges, student organizations, the school district’s Indian education staff, the human rights commission and supporters from the community. One decision made early was that the center of the annual events will alternate between Moorhead and Fargo, with the larger city taking the lead in 2021.
Heather, an enrolled member of the Yankton Sioux tribe, grew up in a small town in South Dakota. Her people, she observed, were not a part of the stories she learned in school, where she was one of few native children. “At first, I was offended by that,” she remembers. “Then my thinking shifted. I realized the past generations were leading me to this place and time. That was a humbling feeling. As indigenous people, we have a responsibility to take care of our next generations so that we don’t lose our culture.”
She moved to Moorhead seven years ago, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in project management at Minnesota State University Moorhead. In December, she will receive her master’s in education leadership with an emphasis on higher ed. She was named assistant director for multicultural recruitment for North Dakota State University last month.
Reflecting on what some consider the demotion of Columbus Day, she says the change amounts to correcting and broadening the understanding of history. “He didn’t discover a blank, empty spot on the map,” she says. “Indigenous people had been living here for thousands of years. We’re recognizing and celebrating them. It’s a time for healing.”
Heather’s understanding of her people was inspired by her grandmother, who shared bits and pieces of Sioux culture as she was growing up. It’s a gift her own uncles were denied when they were taken away to boarding schools. When they came home, she says, “My grandmother, who was the last Lakota speaker in our family, had to learn English to communicate with them.”
Her own sons won’t experience that disconnect. DJ, an 8th grader at Horizons Middle School, already assists spiritual leader Willard Yellow Bird in prayer ceremonies like the one scheduled for Monday in city hall. Her 3-year-old Elliott stepped out in traditional regalia with his mother at last week’s FM Crossroads Pow Wow; the tiny grass dancer will dance beside Mom in her jingle dress at Monday’s gathering.
She promises a memorable evening and a vibrant education to community members of all ethnicities on Monday night. “Sometimes non-Native Americans are unsure whether they are welcome. Everyone is,” she emphasized. With participants dancing to the host drum, the Buffalo River Singers, master of ceremonies Mike Gabbard takes pain to share each dance’s history and meaning. “It’s such a beautiful part of our culture, one that’s continuously stayed alive,” she says. “This is going to be a time to learn, share and gain a little more respect for who we are as people.”
As for the term “indigenous people,” Heather explains how the name – unfamiliar to many older residents – has come into use. “It’s a generational thing,” she says. “My mother and many elders still use ‘Indian.’ So does all the federal legislation affecting tribes. The younger generation has adopted ‘indigenous’ … encompassing all the original people who lived on this land.” The shift, like the demise of Columbus Day, is a step toward correcting the historical record. The more familiar term, after all, is based on a mistake of enormous magnitude: Columbus thought he’d discovered the route to India, not encountered an entire new world of people who were there first.

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