Mac’s 2010 Civic Forum: Reflections for Dakota Birthright

Hi everyone,

My name is Terence Steinberg and I’m a recipient of the 2010 Live It! Fund. For the next few months I’m going to be posting about my project, Dakota Birthright. I’ll share my reflections on various events related to civic engagement and leadership, and take you along on a canoe trip that traces the reverse route of the Dakota exile from Minnesota.

Here are my thoughts after attending the 2010 Maclester Civic Forum

The Civic Forum utterly blew me way.  Not only was the quality of intellectual debate and presentation stimulating and factually robust, but more importantly the passion and consciousness shared by the speakers and audience resonated throughout the night.  Too often academia dwells in a contextual vacuum.  For example, in my discipline, Economics, we’re instructed (indoctrinated, may I say?) to remain invariably positive about our subject.  But these are normative issues!  Economics is a social science – it’s not biology!  Our educations are nothing without implementing them in our communities.  As the evening developed, the abundance of opinions at the Civic Forum strengthened the purpose of our gathering.  I, for one, felt a renewed and compelling urge to do something for my community, whether in Saint Paul or the greater United States.

Among the range of topics related to “Civic Leadership in the Age of Obama,” the Forum’s title this year, was inertial racism, a broad description of what some call institutionalized racism.  We focused largely on how this relates to African Americans, but it is the central narrative of so many other groups as well.  Crow Creek Reservation in South Dakota, a Dakota and Nakota community of a few thousand, composes the poorest county in the United States.  A mean annual income of less than $5,300 per capita, unemployment of 58%, and a high school graduation rate of one in three: these statistics only begin to tell the story.  Babies die at a rate nearly twice that of a decade ago, and suicide rates are several times those of the rest of our nation.  A similar reality exists for the Dakota of Santee Reservation, Nebraska.  Can this trajectory be described as anything but inertial racism?  Does the meritocracy of the United States justify condemning these communities to compounding suffering?

In the words of Sekou Sundiata, as quoted by Callie Thuma, senior Macalester student and presenter at the Forum:

Why don’t we get our hopes up too high?
What don’t we get our hopes up too high?

Last week in my EXCO class, The Indigenous Imperative, the instructor asked if I would feel comfortable sharing the parable of the two-headed snake with Dakota Birthright participants.  In the story, a group of Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) canoeing in search of food during a famine encounter a pathetic, sickly snake with heads of gold and silver resting on a lily pad.  They take pity, bring him home and nurture its needs.  As they feed the snake, it grows exponentially, demanding ever more resources and ever more space. It eats their game, causes social rifts and leads the community into a period of unparalleled trauma.  Finally, the snake swallows people whole.  They slash its belly and retrieve their family members. In the end, the snake dies, and the Haudenosaunee heal. What is the snake? The United States and Canada.

I told the instructor I did not know if I would be comfortable telling this story.  I said I aim to be a facilitator during Dakota Birthright, not a ‘teacher,’ that the true leaders of the voyage would be the elders.  As Professor and Keynote Speaker Ian Haney-Lopez urged, however, progressives should not simply aim to facilitate. We all need to overcome ‘colorblindness.’  We must discuss racism in open terms.  Then, we lead.  As a white citizen of the United States piloting a canoe trip of Dakota natives from Crow Creek to Santee Reservations, I will continue to revisit this principle

About Terence Steinberg

I'm a junior at Macalester College majoring in Economics and minoring in Environmental Studies and Creative Writing. This summer I will be i

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