Currently, I am reading Kaandossiwin by Minogiizhigokwe for my comprehensive exams next year. I have quite enjoyed it; as I find with most texts on this subject, so much of what she has to say resonates with me, sparks something in my soul, and makes me feel like I am not alone or crazy to think and feel the way I do about the work that I am embarking on. The author presents a petal flower as a metaphor for doing Indigenous research, an image I found useful when trying to think about and explain to others what this really is. As I was reading, I found that I was really struck with her discussion of the center of the flower, which is the centering of one’s self in the search.
In this section of the book, Minogiizhigokwe discusses what so many of us Indigenous scholars already know, that it is a false notion that re-search can be done objectively and with neutrality. By simply choosing what you will re-search, you have inserted yourself into the work. The way in which you interpret your findings does the same. Every choice you make while conducting this work comes from a place within you, is guided by the life you have lived, the way you have lived, the things you have done and learned along the way. Of particular importance was the notion that your motives for why you are doing this work are important to identify, acknowledge, and share with your audience. I took a moment when I came to this section and started unpacking my motives.
Why am I doing this work anyway? I’m not Anishinaabe. I’m not a member of the Bois Forte community. I’m not even really a member of the Iron Range community (at least not by their standards). I had to really think about what made me want to do this project, this very specific project. It is about more than this place, this history, this problem. It is about many places, many histories, and many problems. My motive is love.
You see, I love what I do. When I worked my first season as an Interpreter, fresh out of college, I thought I was just taking a job, making some money, and figuring things out. I had no idea how much I would truly enjoy the work I did. Interpretation, this way of teaching, connected with me on so many levels. The ability to be a story-teller for the rest of my career, something I had not known before was actually a paying job! To learn about my audience, what they wanted to know, what they already knew, how to excite and engage them, was so exciting to me. In interpretation, I had found the niche I was looking for in archaeology: I took the stuff out of the boxes, I shared their stories with people, with the people sometimes.
I have done many different kinds of interpretation in many different places now. Naturalist interpretation in hardwood forests, in bogs, in boreal forests. Historic interpretation in tribal museums, in mines. It’s all exciting and wonderful and it fills me with so much pride to be that story-teller. But every place I have ever done interpretation (with perhaps the exception of the Mille Lacs Indian Museum) has had a serious problem: they get it wrong, somehow.
They get it wrong by displaying inappropriate images, as was the case at Kathio, its walls covered in paintings of mostly-naked Native people, done in the 1970s and never revisited. They get it wrong by having staff that are culturally insensitive to real, living Indigenous people, as was the at Itasca, where my boss pretended by braids were reigns. They get it wrong by not following meaningful consultation protocol and deciding its easier to exclude a narrative, as was the case when they built the visitor’s center at Big Bog State Recreation Area and decided not to talk about the Red Lake Nation in their wild rice display. They get it wrong by expecting that their Indigenous staff should only do programming about Indigenous topics, despite their ability to talk about so much more, as was the case at Lake Bemidji State Park. And they get it wrong by narrowing the focus of the narrative being told, as is the case at Soudan.
This is a huge problem in general, that these places look and act and feel like this, and when Native people of any background see it or experience it, we feel like we just don’t fit into these spaces. We don’t want to go to these places because of it. And that’s a difficult decision to make as a visitor to an area, but its doable. But, how do you make that decision when you are employed by that organization? Of course, there is the choice to leave and never work a day for them again. Realistically though, economically speaking, these are great jobs to have: they pay well, they have benefits, they have good hours that allow you to raise a family. Beyond this, there is that love for the work we do. I know I am not alone. I think of Gerard Baker, starting out as an interpreter at Knife River Indian Villages, doing reenactments (and yes, that meant he wore buckskin pants, long hair, and traipsed around the village as though he were living 150 years ago), and staying within that system until he had worked his way up to be the director of a National Park, where he was able to make systemic change. What if you love your job and hate the organization you work for? Or at least, you hate their system of oppression and exclusion, however indirect it may be?
And I realized, that was my motivation. I am not alone: there are other Indigenous people who do work like me, in places like this, who feel the same way I do. Heck, there are probably queer, trans, Latinx, black, Asian, and even woke white folx in the same position. What if my project can provide the tools necessary to other heritage professionals like myself, who feel powerless to make the kind of change that needs to be made, to make these sites inclusive spaces? It would be a huge step forward. No longer would these organizations be able to say they ‘don’t know how’ or ‘don’t know who’ when it they make excuses for not improving. My project has the potential to fix this problem by providing guidelines for the ‘how’ and ‘who’, to create inclusive spaces that will welcome not only tourists who are currently turned off by the presentation of these sites, but will also make those of us who are working there, who have stuck it out through the hard (exclusive, racist, sexist, erased) times, out of love for the work we do, feel like we belong there, too.