top of page

Part 5: Re-pairing Means Standing on Common Ground

This episode of Broken Lands features a dialogue between two women residing in the Northeastern Minnesota region: Colleen Bernu, an Ojibwe woman, and Randi Alreck, a woman of Norwegian descent. They share about their respective cultural backgrounds, and how they have learned to live well together by standing on the common ground that they share. By common ground, we mean both the literal ground of Northeastern Minnesota and the narrative ground of their common faith tradition of Christianity. They talk about how their relationship to the land and to their faith has helped them to learn to coexist within the diversity of their experience. We believe this can serve as a case study in how settlers and Native Americans can start to live together.

Dr. Matthew Cobb Today we have with us on Broken Lands, Randi and Colleen, would you both introduce yourself and then maybe one of you could say how the two of you all met?

Dn. Colleen Bernu Go ahead, Randi.

Randi Alreck Okay. I'm Randi Alreck, and Colleen and I met, oh, my goodness, how many years ago? Was it 2008 or 2009, I think it was? And we were both in the same congregation. I was leading a couple of Bible studies at the time, and Colleen was part of that. And she had a young child who was just a delight. And we were doing vacation Bible school, so I got to do some fun activities with Colleen's daughter when she was very young. I remember one of them had to do with being fishers of men, and we had a pail of water and we had some goldfish and the preschoolers could dip down with a little tea strainer and be fishers of goldfish.

Dn. Colleen Bernu [Traditional Ojibwe greeting]. So, my name is Colleen Bernu and I just introduced in a traditional Ojibwe greeting. And that's so foundational to identity for who we are in community. It's one of the very first things when people are exploring the reclamation process and beginning that really hard work of trying to come back from the forced assimilation programs and processes that our people have experienced. One of the very first things that they will learn is their introduction. It grounds you in your clan. So that's your familial relationship in your community, which for me is a little complicated. I live on the Fond du Lac Indian Reservation, which is Nagaajiwanaang, but my community is actually Wigwaasig, an off-reservation community. I have, however, not lived there for more years than I did lived there. I was one of those people that as soon as I was 18, the grass was greener everywhere else. So, out I went, right? But my whole family still lives there, and that is, honestly, where I consider home. That's the place where I know the medicines. That's the place that I know the land. That's the place where I could just show up at an auntie's house and walk in and they fill up my pockets full of of goodies, goodies to bring back to my grandma and my mom as well.

So, I met Randi at the time that she explained, but there was a piece of my life at that time, I was experiencing extreme health problems and Randi was there just to walk with me. She walked in a semiprofessional, like congregational way, but she went above and beyond to take that to a relational place, at a time where I really didn't have a firm community yet. We moved to Nagaajiwanaang when our daughter was a year old, so that had only been a couple of years prior to meeting Randi, and we moved here because moving back home to Wigwaasig was not an option for employment. And so we were trying to build community within a community that the government said we were a part of. Which was really interesting because I was the first one in my family to live on the reservation. And so for many years I spent a lot of time explaining who I was and how it was connected to everyone and and what all of those inner weavings that are so important for indigenous identity were in a way that other people could understand them.

Randi Alreck As Colleen mentioned, she moved to other or looked for other pastures at age 18. I grew up in the community I am now back into. But when I was 14 I was going, okay, four more years and I'm going to be out. And I was, and have lived in a number of places, various states. But the community I was in and grew up in was maybe 300 people at the time, maybe a little bit more than that. It's on the north shore of Lake Superior and fishing community. My grandfather was came from Norway when he was 17 years old. There was nothing for him there in his area that he was leaving in Norway, and he had an old two older brothers and older sister in the United States. First he stayed a bit in New Jersey, then he was in Chicago, eventually found his way to the North Shore and became a fisherman on Lake Superior, and also lived summers on Isle Royale.

And I had a rich experience with being able to be part of that community on Isle Royale of Scandinavian fisher-persons. It's something that is deep in the history of the little town I grew up in. We have a celebration in our community the first weekend of June, and it celebrates the Scandinavian culture in food, in dancing, in music. And I've been involved, especially in the the little plays and puppet shows that the children put on, that all have sort of a Viking background. And our family had special foods and things, we share recipes, and I really enjoy this community that I didn't in any fashion think I was going to live here or appreciate the way I do right now. And a big part of that and the heart of the community is the church that I attend now and I'm a member of. I recognize I am where I'm supposed to be, but also discovering where I live that there is a great rich heritage of our Native background here. And I live by the shores of Lake Superior, and I have had individuals who have Native background who have pointed out the spiritual feeling of the waters here, and I'm going, oh that's what it is. Yes, you can notice it during COVID, what happened right in front of our home, is people would come and just sit. Some of them would be wearing their scrubs and just sit in silence, maybe it was after their their shift at the hospitals or whatever that was going on with COVID, or people would just flock here and be playing in the waters. And there was such an incredible healing kind of thing or a soothing time where people could could just be. And that's, I think, a lot of the part of why I'm on this experience of seeing how we can be together here in this wonderful spirit-filled place that I feel that we live in.

Dn. Colleen Bernu You know, as Randi was talking, I was thinking, it's complicated. It's a complex identity, to be Anishinaabe, to be Ojibwe, especially in the northern areas of Minnesota, Wisconsin, in Michigan, where we have had cultural interactions with Europeans since the 1600s and the very beginning of those interactions was grounded in a commitment to live well together. So as Randi's talking, I'm reflecting on the fact that though the culture I know, the only culture I know is Ojibwe culture. And yet, in our community, and as well as many indigenous communities, there's this big conversation about blood quantum, and do you have enough blood quantum to be considered Indigenous or not? And does that matter? Is it about culture?

And it's interesting because if you were to look at my blood quantum, my highest percentage of blood is actually Norwegian. My grandmother, her parents came from Norway, she had siblings born in Norway. And yet I know nothing about being Norwegian. Not a thing about being Norwegian. My great grandparents. I jokingly say, but it's true, were the best Norwegian Ojibwe people I have ever heard of. Through a whole series of misfortune and exploitation of non-English speaking immigrants, they ended up in the tribal community that my mom's family was from, and, they believed that honoring humanity was more important than retaining culture. And so they figured out how to live well on the land from the people who lived there.

My dad's father had been in a different tribal community. His mother died when when his youngest sibling was born. He was like 15 or 16 at the time. And his father left. And the Ojibwe community there helped him raise his siblings. So his worldview was very much formed by the worldview of the Ojibwe people.