It always starts with the land

What does it mean to do healing work, to do any kind of change work when the land below your feet still carries stories that are not finished?

For 50,000 generations people lived right here, on this land that is under my feet. You can’t see where I am sitting and if you, too, are sitting on this land mass that got called North America, then you, too, are living where for 50,000 generations people lived. Real people. Complex people. People who were loving and mean, who laughed and who got overly dramatic. People lived here, right here, before the glaciers came and after, lived here for, the stories tell us, 50,000 generations, that is how long we were here. The grandmothers who remember tell these stories to grandchildren. Some of these stories are gone, scooped out along with water from the slough, dried out and then dust flown in the wind. Ghosts that scattered along with top soil, settling in the cracks between here and there.

This the Dakota homeland, here where I live. My home is about 3 miles from the confluence of the Mississippi and MInnesota Rivers, Bdote, the place the Dakota name as their beginning place.  

50,000 generations real people lived here and they did many things but there is one thing they did not do: they did not forget their relationship to the land and all living things in relation to that land. This is why they could live here for 50,000 generations, within a land that was wild even as it was known, was loved even as it was farmed.

20 generations ago is when the first settlers arrived, bringing with them the separation that they had already learned on the lands where they began. They brought their understandings of private property and land ownership and they began to settle. This is the first wound of this land: the colonization by both people and their ideology of ownership. This is the first wound: the violent separation of land and people, land and life, the attempted genocide of the original peoples, the attempted genocide of all life that lives on this land.

I work and live in south Minneapolis. Dakota people hunted and their children played right where the pavement runs through. Their families were here in 1500 when French trappers first portaged and then river-wandered from the northern lakes to the southern prairie and oak savannah.

I am not going to do this alone. If you are reading this, I want to know: Do you know your original peoples and your traditional ways? Do you know the people who walked the land where you live for generations before you bought your house, planted your garden, and put out your recycling bins? Why are you reading this story? How do you want it to help you?

The first European settlers to this land were French trappers who wandered rivers and lakes making business deals with original people. After them came the army, first wave of the surge that would take trees and furs and ore including someday oil from pipelines, the army came and over time drove the Dakota villagers who had lived along the river banks for generations, drove them further away. Some settled along Bde Maka Ska, settling with a small farm where Lakewood Cemetery is today. Here is where Chief Cloudman lived and where some of the first Christian missionaries also set up, working to enforce western language and cultural traditions and to break the cultural link the Dakota people have with the land. When you look at very old maps, there is a trail that goes from Bdote to Bde Maka Ska and it passes very near to where my work, the People’s Movement Center, stands.  

By the time the French and then the army came, on the land where this street corner is, there would have been squatters; Europeans who came and just put up a tent, a shack, a rough house. So many of those early settlers were young people, just like young white US travelers today. Children who came to have adventures they could tell back home, becoming adults who reminisced over long ago adventures in parlors and over cigar smoke and business deals. Collecting stories like empty skulls. Some people came because they didn’t fit in back home, because it wasn’t safe anymore to be back home, or because they felt the call deep inside for something that was wilder than cities and farms. Some became friends with people from local tribes and some did not.  They hunted. They fished. Sometimes they farmed and then they died or else, when the city got bigger they went further north and settled in whatever corner they could find. I think of them when I drive up to northern Minnesota and see the houses that are made of plywood and twine, the old white men with beards down past their knees who live by hunting and gathering, signs with pictures of guns posted along their fences.

And there were treaties. Did you know that even as the first settlers began to establish St. Anthony and what would later become St. Paul, what is now Minneapolis remained only Dakota territory until 1851? 50,000 generations lived on this land and it is only seven generations since settlers overtook this Dakota territory. Seven generations since the Twin Cities went from being held by original peoples to being controlled by settlers. Seven.

Agreements between nations, agreements like we have free trade agreements today, agreements as a tense compromise between the rich and greedy and the poorer in need of work. Or the poor and greedy, hoping to be the winners this time.  Land gluttony. It happened fast, like a plague. Within a generation, the balance tipped from mostly original peoples to those who were not. In 1862 the US government passed the Homestead Act, opening up ceded land for settlement. That same year, 1862, Dakota families were hungry and had not received the food and supplies promised through treaty. Young people, frustrated with weeks of promises and growing hunger, fought, protested, raged, and this became the Dakota War of 1862. President Lincoln sent in troops, so many troops, and at the end of the battles, those Dakota families remaining along the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers were removed, exiled, such violence, the uprooting of a people from their land, their history.  Their warriors, 38+2, were murdered and after all of that, what mattered most to those who came was that now there was more land. And so more settlers came, buying farms along the Minnesota River, the Mississippi River, the St. Croix, spreading and calling their families to come and then spreading further.

The original wound of this land is the violence of colonization and genocide; the  belief that you can own land and disappear all life that gets in the way of taking the resources from that land you feel entitled to claim. The second original wound of this land is the movement from owning land to owning people, the turning of complex breathing human beings into objects to be bought and sold, to be traded as a commodity. The institution of slavery is the second original wound of this land. All who live here on this land are impacted by these two original wounds and their descendants: indigenous disappearance and anti-Black racism. All who have some to this land as settlers, refugees, immigrants, and migrant workers share the experience of being raced:  being force-woven into the structures and systems that are maintained to justify the continuation of those two original wounds. The original wounds are not the land. The land is the land.  But the original wounds continue, showing up again and again and again.

Where were your people between 1750 and 1850? Did they have sovereignty over their own lives? Were they owned or did they own? Do you know the stories of who you were for those years? Do you know specifics or only something general? What happens for you when you think about that time, about what you know or don’t know? How close do you feel to them? Seven generations, .00000001875 percent of the time that we have been evolving on this planet, .013 percent of the time since the last ice age crossed the land below our feet. What do you know about your people from just  seven generations ago? Six generations ago? The time of your great-grandparent’s great grandparents.

Trees cut down to make railroad ties. Swamps filled in. Banks and more banks opening and then closing as money changed white hands, exploded into wealth for some and disappeared over night for others. The squatters were kicked out and now land was bought with legal paper. Irish carpenters and tavern keepers, Swiss and Welsh laborers, German butchers and cigar makers, English masons, and Scots bakers joined farmers from Germany, Canada, and older areas of the United States, wagon makers from New York, hotelkeepers from Virginia, lawyers and merchants from Pennsylvania, millwrights from Ohio, ministers, teachers, and tailors from New England, and French-Canadian voyageurs and blacksmiths to spread over Minnesota including these neighborhood blocks just outside my door.

And the city grew.  US policy towards the original peoples, the Dakota and just further north, some of my people, the Anishinabeg,  moved to Kill the Indian/Save the Man, and boarding schools were set up, the children and grandchildren of those who lived along the river, who might have hunted where my home now stands, being removed from their families and sent to Christian schools to disappear the Dakota, the Anishinabeg.  And the memories of those who remembered when there were more oak trees than people faded in the way that the stories of our great grandparents become only vaguely told sentences without the feeling of what it was like. And the city grew. Flour mills and lumberyards growing fat off of the homesteading of the prairie and the cutting of the great north woods. And the city grew. Almost tripling in size between 1900 and 1950, we are creeping into the memories of your grandparents and parents, of the stories those of you who grew up here might now remember.

In 1910 all over the United States, “racial convenants” were legal instruments inserted into property deeds that prohibited people defined as “not Caucasian” from purchasing or inhabiting homes. This happened all over the country and also in south Minneapolis. The list of excluded groups reflected the racial assumptions of developers, real estate professionals, and homeowners. A common covenant read, “[this property] shall not at any time be conveyed, mortgaged or leased to any person or persons of Chinese, Japanese, Moorish, Turkish, Negro, Mongolian or African blood or descent.” Penalties for anyone who tried to break these covenants was severe and included losing your home and any money you had put into the property (equity). Looking at the map linked above, you can see the demographics of south Minneapolis laid out along with these 100 year old expression of legal segregation. Each economic development choice, when weighed against these racial covenants, defined the city, who lived in it and therefore who had access to all of the benefits of a livable city.

Who in your family was alive in 1914, how many generations before your birth? Did they live in the US? In Minnesota? How many of them lived in Minneapolis? Or were they even allowed to? This was the time of eugenics in the United States, when people of color, the poor, folks with disabilities, queers were being institutionalized, sterilized. Radio was new. Catholics were following Father Coughlin by the millions as he ladled up his version of sacred normalcy. This was World War 1, the Great Migration. When many of your family stories are still remembered. What did your grandparents, great grandparents tell about this time? How did it make who you are today?

This is around the same time when the Mexican community in south Minneapolis began to grow. Sugar beet companies in rural Minnesota began to recruit families to come up from Texas to work in the sugar beet fields. Some of the betabeleros returned to Texas during the winter months but others stayed and built homes in the Cities. While the largest community lived in St. Paul, a smaller community lived near the PMC on Chicago Avenue and further north to Nicollet avenue. In the 1930s and 50s, as the sugar beet industry began to wane and as economic controls after the Great Depression were put into place, many of these families were deported, both those who were undocumented and those who were legal residents. Just like now.

The Great Depression and everything afterwards when frightened people were looking for scapegoats. In poorer neighborhoods in Minneapolis, unemployment was over 25% In 1931, nationally Minneapolis became known for its food riots as neighbors broke into grocery stores, stealing food to feed each other.

Economically this was an unstable time. What stories exist in your family from the Great Depression? Were they here in the US? Food and housing insecurity was at an all time high. People both gathered together in collectives and support systems and they turned on each other, looking for people to blame. Eugenics continued to gain national traction as the reason for everything bad. During this period, 2,350 people were involuntarily sterilized in Minneapolis, most of them defined as “mentally ill” or “mentally deficient.” How did your family fit into this story? What themes from this time are coming up again today? Why?

The Minneapolis General Strike of 1934 ended in riots with the police opening fire on labor union organizers and protesters. Two were killed and 67 injured. The strike closed down all transportation in Minneapolis and the state declared martial law.  Many of the workers lived where I live and where I work. This was 7 years before my mother was born. I grew up hearing stories of the Great Depression and of the strikes from my great grandparents and grandparents. This is recent history. This is yesterday.

In 1934, the Federal Housing Administration developed a system for classifying homes for home buyers based on their resale value and were marked green for the most desirable and red for the least desirable. And thus was redlining born. At this time, race in Minneapolis was defined as Native-born white, foreign-born white and Black.  In 1930 and 1940, Black families made up .9% of the population.  If you pay attention to local politics, then you know how redlining impacted North Minneapolis. Funds dried up. Economic segregation became tied to racial segregation. And that history has still not recovered. Four blocks north of the People’s Movement Center, just as you cross Park Avenue, you enter the redlined zone. The PMC was not in a redlined area but the PMC is on the transition space, the border. Two blocks down, at 41st and 4th, was Mrs. Little’s boarding house. Here is where Black folks new to town stayed in order to figure out their next steps. What we know about all border towns and border areas is that this is where the likelihood of conflict – as well as of creative transformation and power – increases.

In the same year, the Indian Reorganization Act demanded that, in order to be recognized by the federal government, tribal communities must organize themselves in cookie cutter ways, not by their own traditions and cultures, but by a management system that made sense to the government. And for those who were not tied to a tribal community through a reservation or for those tribal communities that the federal government decided no longer existed, the US brought in a policy of assimilation, moving Native peoples to urban areas for resettlement. And so some of the children and grandchildren of Dakota and Anishinabeg peoples were moved into federal housing in Chicago and Cleveland and Milwaukee… and also to south Minneapolis, back to their original lands but now as relocated persons within their own land.

Did you grow up in an urban area? What do you know about your neighborhood in relation to redlining or the Indian Reorganization Act? Did you grow up in a rural area? What was the racial make-up of your community? Where did who live? Was there formal or informal segregation? Were there visible indigenous people, indigenous to this land? Again, what did this all mean for your family? What did you not know because of these things?

There is so much more history to tell about this land where I now live. There is history to tell about the land where I was born, Cleveland, Ohio, the land of Tecumseh and the first pan-tribal resistance to the violence of settlement. There is history of busing and civil rights, history of hate crimes like the Duluth lynchings in Minnesota and the Black uprisings in the Hough neighborhood in Cleveland the year I was born and multiple times after. There are also so many stories of survival and resilience in all of these lands where I live and where I come from.

Plantain root. Dandelions. Some of the elms planted along the boulevards, german chamomile, pineapple weed, thistle, comfrey, all of the kinds of clover, motherwort, mugwort, and mullein. All of the plants I just mentioned, medicinal plants. Carried over in the pockets of settlers who brought their pharmacy with them, seeds they spread in their gardens who then escaped and became, like their sowers, transplants that crowded out what had been here before. This doesn’t stop them from being medicinal. This doesn’t stop them from being colonizers. And here is the challenge in being healers here on this land who are not original to this land.

It started with water and it ends with water. Minneapolis is a city that still draws its drinking water from Haha Wakpa, the great river in Dakota, from Misi-ziibi, great river in Ojibwe. This river that grows more polluted with fertilizers and silt, the detritus from fracking and mining, and the salt and weed killer used in the cities, all of this has gone into the river, along with all of what remains from each one of us living here, our bodies 85 percent water, water we release and water we hold, all of it left behind in our homes and along the sides of the streets, settling down through the layers below our feet, there are ghosts that walk our streets, right this second, as you take a deep breath and listen to the stories that you know and don’t remember, do you know who you are and why you are here? Do you know what your life has been created for? And why you are here, on this page, hearing this story, and remembering?

Ashley Fairbanks