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.
And so when I grew up there were family stories like how to how to interpret when rain was going to stop by looking at bubbles and puddles, how to interpret when seasons were going to change, by looking at the stars, how to know how to make a particular salve or poultice by using different plants and other things on the land. And I heard those stories from both sides of my family. I didn't realize that that wasn't what everybody does. Until I went to my first sleepover in upper elementary school. And suddenly I realized that the way we viewed living in the world was different. And that was my first understanding of culture. Because to me in the family culture I grew up in, did it matter so much where you were born? Being here on this land looked a particular way, and it was all shaped by a Ojibwe worldview.
Dr. Matthew Cobb In this next section, Colleen and Randi shift into discussing religion and spirituality and the harm and the help that these forces can provide to the process of bridge building between cultures.
Dn. Colleen Bernu When we get into the conversation about religion versus spirituality, being religious versus being spiritual, that's rooted more in the trauma of poorly behaved religious practices throughout history than it is in the reality of what we're really talking about. Because the truth of the matter is our lived experience is one where we see people just not treating each other well and people not treating the environment well. Now, I'm not talking on an individual basis, because we see individuals doing a good job at both of those things. But as whole societies throughout history, there have been repeated eras and acts that don't align with treating others well and with treating the rest of creation well either, and unfortunately, there have been folks who have mobilized the institution of church, institutionalized religion as a vehicle to accomplish some of those not-good things. And I don't want to downplay that because those not-good things were terrible. They were genocide and erasure of people and forced assimilation and enslavement and a whole bunch of historical things under the guise of religion, which really, truly were were just an opportunity for power-grabbing through an institution.
So when I talk to people about this sort of thing, it's a conversation about shared values. Now we don't, as humans — every once in a while I'll meet an outlier — but as a rule, we don't want to be fighting with each other constantly. We all really want our kids to live in a world where they can feel like they've got some opportunities, that they can see a future, that they can have some happiness, that they feel valued and seen and heard by their community and others. We want to be able to ensure that we can have just enough left over to still do some fun things in our personal time as a family. We don't want to be hungry. We don't want to be cold. We don't want to be struggling. And we don't want to be unhoused. And we don't want to be fighting. We don't want to be burying our children because life is hard and they don't know how to navigate it, right? We can all share these values. Very few people in this world want to inflict pain and misery.
What we're really talking about here is, how do we accomplish that? So, I struggled with that question for a long time as somebody who walked with people who said you had to choose, you could either follow the Jesus way or you could follow the traditional way, but you can't do both. And I think at the root of some of that is this conflict that resulted from trying to figure out how to live well together with different cultures and different cultural goals, it got tangled up with politics and governments and policies and land-grab and all sorts of other things. "Can we accomplish this on our own?" was fundamentally the question that I ended up struggling with. And I landed in the "no," we can't as humans, accomplish this on our own. I landed in that camp. And for me, I recognized that we needed to have the divine walking among us. Now, that's not so fundamentally different than traditional Ojibwe worldviews. Traditionally, we we acknowledge that we needed divine beings walking among us to show us the way. The one that I could see having the most profound impact was the Creator themself walking among us in the form of Jesus. And that gives me hope, because if I were to place my hope anywhere else, I would be focused on all of the things that have divided us. And the list is long.
Randi Alreck I think so many people are looking just for that: what is it that we can have hope in? And that's where it is, if not in our institutions. But what was that plan with our creator for all of us? There's enough. There is enough for all of us. We won't have less if we make room for more. And we have that narrative told to us over and over, if you listen to tones of voices within newscasts, that "this is going to be so, so catastrophic," or we have to have a certain amount of of money for this to be possibly even have any type of future at all or a retirement. And yet, when we look at what we can share and and learn from each other, we have enough. That everyone could have those things you spoke of, Colleen, the housing, and how can we get a way to do this, to work together, is just what you said, is looking to the Creator who created all that we do have and how do we make use of that in the best way that for all of us to have a life that has that hope in it, that there are things to enjoy and be and share together. I guess that's the hardest thing I struggle with when we keep hearing a narrative that says, "No, there won't be enough, and if I give my time or my resources somewhere, I'm not going to have enough." And I'm, as you said, just looking to the Creator and the promises that there are.
Dn. Colleen Bernu I like to say to congregations when I'm talking to them, you know, and they're talking about how to to best be disciples, I like to say to them, "Which foot are you going to lead with your human foot or your spirit foot?" Right? You get to decide. And we need to be willing to lead with our spirit selves. We've got to be willing to let that self go first. That, to me, is how I interpret the "Pick up your cross and follow me," you know, verse. We have to be willing to put our human selves behind.
I think about the treaties. You know, this whole conversation in Broken Lands started with a conversation rooted in the treaties. And I think about the treaties and I think about the story, of those who signed that very last treaty in our area where Randi and I both are, the 1854 treaty. And by no means was it the last treaty signed with Ojibwe people or Chippewa people, but it definitely was the one that was the last one signed here. And as someone whose grandfather signed that treaty, there is something deeply emotional when I think about that treaty, because our stories tell us that the night before that treaty was signed, our people stayed up all night in ceremony and in prayer. And there was deep grief over the decision that needed to be made. They'd already had multiple conversations. They'd experienced a forced death march. There were attempts to force removal there. The leaders, of which my grandfather was one, packed up and traveled by canoe, and then by steam train from what is now northern Wisconsin, all the way to Washington, D.C., without invitation, only to be met and told they needed to go back because they didn't have an appointment to meet with, at that time, you had to meet directly with the president.
But they were such an oddity on the East Coast in the early 1850s that people were intrigued to see these Indian people show up, and they were allowed to stay. And one senator made an appointment on their behalf, and they got to talk to the president. So they had already gone through all of this stuff, only to be faced yet again with the attempts at forced removal. And they knew that the Ojibwe nation was the biggest nation on the planet at that time, that they understood Turtle Island was was the world in which they were concerned with. And they knew that our alliances with other nations made the Anishinaabeg nation a force to be reckoned with. And they were pretty sure that they would end up winning the war if they went to battle. But they knew that the win would be short lived, because somehow, we had to figure out how to live well together. That was a commitment we had made. And so we decided to cede millions and millions and millions of acres because the reality was and continues to be that land and ownership of stuff was more important than relationship to the settlers who came. And so they cried and they prayed, and then they decided to give it away. Because they loved the land and the people too much to be part of watching it die.
I go back to that a lot, because I wonder about the irony of the reparation that we've made in Northeastern Minnesota. By no means do I discount the value because we do live in a society that that puts its money where its heart is. Yet, and, based off of the interviews that have been given by Minnesota Chippewa Tribe and the decisions that were made about what to do with that money, to put it towards making sure our children have a good future, I know that it is well appreciated by the Minnesota Chippewa tribe, and it has been deemed an act of genuine commitment to future relationship building. There has been absolutely zero conversation in my community here on the reservation about this particular act being just for show, and our committee is pretty good at sniffing out that kind of stuff, and nobody's perceiving it as that.
So that said, though, there is an irony that the very people who recognize that stuff, money is a stuff, right? Money's just a whole bunch of stuff. The people who recognized that stuff was more important to the settlers than relationship are the very people the settlers are giving stuff to. So I wonder what that means for us in northeastern Minnesota, what that means for us when we develop settler and indigenous relationships here. You know. Are we there yet as a faith based community? Are we? Have we arrived to a place where we truly understand what relationship is?
Dr. Matthew Cobb Randi as someone who taught Colleen's daughter in Sunday school many years ago. How would you respond?
Randi Alreck That when Colleen said that the stuff was more important than relationship, maybe we have to learn that. I mean, what what stands out in my mind are those treasures of memories, like the one with the fun activity, with the goldfish, with Colleen's daughter, but also what happened in that time?
There was a young a boy a little bit older than Colleen's daughter, and he was so extremely generous in making sure that every child got a turn to do this. He was in that same age group, but he had such tenderness and to all of his little children around him, to make sure that they got their their chance. And maybe it's looking at that, making sure that other people get their chance, because that builds the community.I happen to know that the grandfather of that person, but at the time I didn't and moved to a community that this person is now.I think there's something that does flow through generations. And when I got to know the grandparents of this little boy, many years later, I could see that their generosity and their compassion, and they have a great commitment to having the story told about what has happened with the native lands here and being able to tap into that. Well, neither of those individuals have native blood in their generations, that they know of anyways, that they see the value of that. And that's where the relationship pieces are. The things that I recall are the people who have been generous with each other, not just with money, but with their time and their instruction and their giving of their hearts.