Speaker educates about American Indian culture

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A speaker representing the Red Lake Indian Reservation came to Atwood last Wednesday evening, as a part of the American Indian Speaker Series, sponsored by the American Indian Center. Bianca Mendoza, a descendant of Red Lake Ojibwe and Nevada Paiute, spoke about various aspects of her culture, experiences as an American Indian and the work she does on the Red Lake reservation.
Red Lake Indian Reservation is one of 11 reservations in Minnesota, but is the only closed reservation in the state. This, Mendoza says, is an important distinction.
“This is a big deal. Our chiefs decided not to sell the land and to protect their hunting and fishing rights, because that’s the only way of life that they knew,” said Mendoza. In a closed reservation, there is no private property and all of the land is held in common by the tribe. It also means that the tribe has complete sovereignty over the land and has the right to limit who can live on or visit the reservation.
The presentation was introduced by Jim Knutson-Kolodzne, Director of the American Indian Center, who tested the audience’s knowledge about American Indians within Minnesota and shared a brief history of the American Indian Center at SCSU. He said that aside from helping SCSUs 236 native students graduate, educating non-natives about Native American culture is the Center’s primary goal.
“We would have an easier life if non-natives knew more about Indians,” said Knutson-Kolodzne.
Mendoza started off by discussing her work at the Red Lake Fishery, at which she has been Market and Sales Manager for four years.
“The reason I started working with them is because I wanted to learn more about my culture,” said Mendoza. “[My job] allows me to share our culture through food and also allows me to share our story everywhere I go.” Mendoza shared the ways in which the practices of the fishery are integrally linked to the cultural values, traditions and history of her people.
“For all the excess fish that we do not sell goes back directly into the community,” said Mendoza. “That’s part of one of our traditions. When you have more than you need, we always give that. When we see someone who doesn’t have, we always try to give that.” Mendoza shared how the tribe also supports the elders of the community who are no longer able to fish by giving them the excess fish and occasionally hosting fish fry’s for the elders.
“We take the fish to them and we listen to their stories. We truly enjoy listening to them,” said Mendoza. “They tell us from the time we are small is that we’re supposed to take care of each other, especially our elders.” Another example of the strong connection between the tribe’s cultural traditions and the fishery was when there was a walleye population decline in 1996.
The tribe decided to stop walleye fishing in response to the shortage, a difficult decision because of the walleye’s role as a main source of income and food for the tribe.the walleye population began to come back.
“As a native American community, we’re always looking to help one another in every way that we can,” said Mendoza. She elaborated on the practices that the fishery maintains in order to avoid another walleye decline.
“We go through a lot of things to protect that lake,” said Mendoza. “We have slot limits on all of our walleye. We are the only hook and line commercial fishery.” These practices are strongly influenced by traditions passed down through the generations.
“What my grandmother and grandfather always tell me is that every decision I make is going to affect the next seven generations. Everything that I do, I always think about how that is going to affect my nieces, my nephews and my children,” said Mendoza. “If we didn’t take care of that lake and that food source, then we wouldn’t have that for the next seven generations. That’s why we need to protect it.” Mendoza explained how the walleye decline validated this cultural focus on sustainability.
“When the state came in and made a commercial fishing operation, it brought a lot of greed into a lot of people’s hearts,” said Mendoza. “They wanted to take and take and take. The Creator showed them what happens when you do that. That’s when our fish population went down. We had to remind ourselves as Native Americans that we need to protect that.”
Mendoza also talked at length about her concern that the native language of her tribe has been disappearing as the few elders of the tribe who are fluent are passing away.
“That to me is a big concern because there’s only a few fluent speakers left,” said Mendoza. “It hurts my heart knowing that these elders that are fluent speakers are passing away and that us as the seventh generation need to step up.” There is an initiative on the reservation called the Ojibwe Language Immersion Program where fluent speakers will teach classes of young children only in Ojibwe.
“These classes give me comfort for the next generations ahead of us,” said Mendoza. “This language is something we need to keep alive- it’s a major part of our culture and is our number one priority because that is the core of our culture.”