In our final episode of season 1, we are going to hear from two generations of Ojibwe women. Deacon Colleen Bernu (Director for Evangelical Mission and Synod Minister for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for the Northeastern Minnesota Synod of ELCA) and also from her high school daughter, Johanna. They share with us about what living together well might look like. Specifically, they reflect on the significance of the Duluth Reparation payment, their perspective of living between worlds, and what it's like to build community from this place. They also provide some additional context to the importance of bridge building, noting that in addition to mending the cultural divide between Indigenous people and settlers on these lands, we have another gap to cross–the divide of being both spiritual and human at the same time. We also look to the future from a young person's perspective: how Johanna views her place between her ancestors and the generations to come.
Colleen Bernu: I think the most immediate learning opportunity as a result of the payments that our Synod Council unanimously voted to make to the Minnesota Chippewa tribe is going to be a better understanding of why we would even do such a thing. What is the point and purpose of offering any type of payment, and especially a payment of 185,400, plus 100, plus 1100 dollars? And I think that opportunity – that breaking through – is going to really create these fractures in these cracks where light can shine into the areas that have been so clouded by a history that really has been perverted and has been operating in two parallel dimensions.
One is a settler narrative and the other being an indigenous narrative. And having this indigenous narrative that ebbs and flows into this other space, but not necessarily the reverse being true. So this opportunity for us to start to create a shared historical narrative, so when we do come together and we do sit down at a table together, we are entering into that space with a broader understanding, that we are coming together with more of an understanding of each other's existence and each other's experiences. And maybe we can talk to each other instead of past each other.
I think that we have hundreds of years of talking past each other, thinking we're saying the same thing. But in reality, we aren't. And that's both the short game and the long game, right? As far as the long game, I have my own hopes and dreams and wishes, and we have to start healing from some of the fractures that we have exhibited on each other. I have this opportunity and both responsibility to stand in this liminal space where I can be both – I stand as someone who acknowledges that the Jesus way makes sense and that there's room here and that creates community. And because of that, there is a possibility for reconciliation, because that's a promise we've been given.
But I also stand in a real lived reality that hasn't been something that so many people have been able to experience within my community. So I think that at the end of the day, I will feel like we've had a win, so to speak, if we can say, ‘Yeah, this is possible.’ And there's some bridges that have been built and some healing that started to occur.
Dr. Matthew Cobb: Now let's hear from Colleen's daughter, Johanna, as she reflects on her perspective of living between worlds – and what it's like to build community from this place.
Johanna Bernu: I was born to two native parents from very different backgrounds. One grew up in a community that was strictly Catholic. My dad said, and he was – he developed a hatred towards the Church, felt like it was forced. And then my mom grew up in a community that had a little bit more freedom in religion, was less forced. It was okay to push the boundaries a little bit. And that's kind of where I find my driving factor, my force.
So my mom has created this ministry setting through many, many years of work and trial and error and kind of connecting all pieces of life – both in our indigenous community and our community and living with God and God's family and Jesus specifically. That's complicated at times.
I think it's really hard for me to learn to accept the fact that I was raised as a Christian person, and that meant that I was born to a community, and I was raised in a community that was complicated and messy and had a very difficult and traumatic past. So I think that in a way, it's not really the life that I chose for myself. It was very spirit-led of: ‘Well, this is my life now.’ So it was more of an acceptance than a choice, I think.
Community for me is the people in your life who are there no matter what. So some people may call that family, but it's a little more complicated when your family isn't necessarily blood-related, and it's just a communal group of people that doesn't always believe the same thing and doesn't always act the same way, doesn't always accept the things you do, but is still there for you and would be by your side no matter what. So I think this communal identity is, like, a piece that you create with those around you. It's that you've accepted in yourself that this is how you want to live and this is the precedent you want to set down for your piece in the seven generations. They are walking that road with you no matter how that works.
Dr. Matthew Cobb Colleen provides some additional context to the importance of bridge building, noting that – in addition to mending the cultural divide between indigenous people and settlers on these lands – we have another gap to cross, noting that no matter what culture we are from, she believes we all have to bridge the divide of being both spiritual and human at the same time.
Colleen Bernu: I acknowledge I am a spiritual being, trying to figure out how to be this thing we call human being. And everything in the world – because the world is created by a spiritual being – everything is spiritual. And so ultimately, all beings in this world are spiritual beings trying to figure out how to express themselves as whatever they look like here.
So we're walking in two spaces simultaneously, and I don't know that we as humans have the language for that. You know, we acknowledge that we aren't our whole self when we're here, because we don't know how to really be whatever we are here, right? We don't know fully how to be human. You're trying to figure that out.
But we're always, always, always spiritual. And for me, when I hear the Christian theology of that of the in-not-of-the-world language, there's an acknowledgment – Now, this is for me, I know there are other theologians who think differently, but there's this acknowledgment that I’m just kind of a journeyer through this place, right? I'm just passing through. I'm on my way. I came from the spirit world; I'm on my way back to the spirit world. And between those two bookends – that start and end in the same place – I'm going to figure out how to be good at being in this physical world. But I don't always feel 100% like I've got it right.
I think when I can acknowledge that, that my spirit matches to a certain degree with the spirit of the plant beings, in the spirit of the animal beings and spirit of all the other beings in this world, as well as the spirit of the human beings, because we all share the same spirit from the same creator – then I don't feel like I have to try to fight my way to the top with any other beings. And that's liberating for me.
But that doesn't say that I'm of this world. What it's ultimately saying is I was placed in this world by the same creator as all other beings who are placed in this world. And so we have a shared reality, a shared experience. If we allow ourselves to see where that shared space occurs.
Nature itself tends to follow the path of least resistance, except for humans. As humans, we like to – I don't know if we're just stubborn or what is our problem – but we like to, as humans, make sure that we try to do things probably the most complicated way. And maybe that has something to do with us feeling like we are above all. I think that from a Christian perspective, I think that our misguided connection to this idea of dominion has something to do with that. Instead of seeing us, ourselves, as in shared relationship as part of creation, this idea that we're over it. You know, standing over, given some authority over creation, probably contributes to that.
And so what would that look like to me if we were to follow the path of least resistance? I think first and foremost it would be acknowledging that God created this world in a way that works together, and that we are in a shared relationship together, and we have mutual responsibility to each other. That's not just as humans, but everything that was created. And maybe – maybe if we could do that – we wouldn't be fighting against not only ourselves, but also against the rest of creation, and we wouldn't have to see everything as adversarial. Maybe our energies wouldn't be competing with each other. Maybe we'd be content to just be as well, you know?
And I think, ultimately, that might lead us to this notion of spiritual peace. When we think about peace as being no war, and that's a certain element of peace. But that deeper just contentment, that peace of knowing that I am in the world and God is with me and the world is with me, and we're just we're good, you know? Maybe we'd be able to actually accomplish that and some people get closer to that place.
You almost have to think about it from a perspective that's a little different than a Eurocentric or a Western worldview. When we say water is life, there's something about that that we have to acknowledge. And as a Ojibwe people, you know, we acknowledge that water has a memory – that water is living, that water gives us life. And we know from science, we see in science that that is also true, right? All of us are predominantly made of water and we are carried in water and through water we burst into this world through birth. And as Christian people, we acknowledge that we experience a rebirth through water in baptism.
So there's something about being able to be around water. You know, I think that as humans, we are innately drawn to water. Water is something that we know to be a gift from creator and from God. And I also think that as people living in northeastern Minnesota, we acknowledge that water is both beautiful but also is a mystery. And there's this ability then through water to bring us to a thin space where we – regardless of if we acknowledge it or not – we get to meet the holy in that thin space. Water is relaxing and dangerous and comforting and awe-inspiring and all of these dichotomies that we don't always get to experience in life. And that in and of itself offers us a place of meditation and reflection. And how do we heal? How do we bring back to something beautiful? I'm not completely convinced that we can do that on our own.
I think if we as humans have the ability to do that completely by ourself, somebody would have figured it out by now and we wouldn't be in the state we're in. So I think that it's grounded in that water is part of the answer to that question. That willingness to go out and just be in this space and understand, ‘Okay, I'm going to meet the one who created me and who exists here and who walked on this planet and who lives deep within me in my spirit through this, through their spirit. And I'm going to be okay with that. I'm going to give up a little bit of who I am in order to create space for who they are and understand that together we are all walking in this in the spirit world, in the tangible world, as humans, as spirit beings – We're all in this, walking on this journey, together here.’
Dr. Matthew Cobb: For this next section. We shift back to Johanna and look to the future from a young person's perspective: how she views her place between her ancestors and the generations to come. She also reflects on the power inherent in language we inherit and pass along.
Johanna Bernu: I struggle to find my long-term hope in the church just because of all of the historical things that happened. I feel like my church community is not the one I lean into. I feel a little more flighty with that and definitely not the people I would call if something was going on. And that's okay. I'm okay with that.
But the Seven Fire is very complicated, because it relates with your seven generations. The three generations before you that built you to get you to where you are right now. And that goes past your parents, your grandparents and your great-grandparents, and the choices they made, the sacrifices they made, the hardships that they endured, and how that impacts your grandparents and the choices they make and the hardships they endure. And that – and then your parents, the people you choose to raise you and bring you into this world and then yourself and coming to peace with who you are, what you believe, and how that impacts the three generations before you or after you and whose people you potentially could be a great grandparent to.
And just looking at life like that, it makes you – it humbles you. It doesn't necessarily make you feel small, but it makes you accept how much power you really hold. So the choices that you make, they may benefit you. But three generations from now, there's gonna be somebody sitting in a room filming podcasts. And what they're going to be saying and reflecting on what you've done. Kind of just thinking about that – It humbles you, grounds you back to where you are to just create a peace within yourself.
I take Ojibwe language in school. And we did a week where we watched a podcast and you wrote down – we broke down Ojibwe words into their little sections and you kind of figure out how complex life really is. And I think we lose that when we come fluent in the language. We don't really think about it.
And even English, in a way, has Latin bases that create this complexity. And we forget that and we move on. And, “oh, it's just a word.” But I mean, that saying that words hurt may seem like really cliche, but words have more meaning than we give them credit for. And I think of awakening the Dreamers, just accepting that everything around you was somebody's dream. That you are – You are someone's dream, and you were someone's dream three generations ago, and you are dreaming the three generations ahead of you and accepting that you are not a mistake and that you did nothing wrong. And the way you are is just who you are. And that's okay. And that you are the dream. And there's a purpose, and it's just a matter of sitting down and really figuring out what you want. Not what society wants, not what your parents want, not what your family wants – what you feel called to, and whatever that could be.
Dr, Matthew Cobb: Now we shift back to Colleen, who describes her historical perspective of being an indigenous woman and the historical weight and trauma that this identity carries with it.
Colleen Bernu: There's something about humanity that feels the need to dehumanize other people, groups within humanity, and we have terms for that. We can call it patriarchy, we can call it whiteness, we can call it white supremacy, we can call it… there's a whole lot of language trying to wrap our heads around what is the – how do we describe this need to dehumanize each other? Racism. You know, we can think of a whole bunch of words. But at the end of the day, it boils down to seeing someone as less than yourself.
American Indian women and children and girls, in particular, have been sexualized from the very beginning. And it is recorded throughout history that we have been exploited in the human trafficking industry from the moment that Western culture started to open up a continual pathway across the ocean between the two continents, the European continent and the North American continent. When American Indian people were sold into slavery, women and girls were sold at 50 to 60 times the value of American Indian men. And there's a direct link in documents to the sex industry for that.
So, we as humans know that's wrong. Everyone knows that's wrong. And in order to justify things that we know are wrong, we have to create systems that allow us to convince ourselves it's permissible. That particular term is a term that came out of that era of dehumanization – and we continue to hold onto it and we continue to perpetuate it, and we continue to dehumanize women within the American Indian community as a result.
And I think if we are ever to eradicate this epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls from our communities, we have got to start seeing indigenous women and girls as people. And that means that if you want to have that word attached to something – and if it's supposed to mean woman – then you might as well just change it to woman. If you want to have it be the S-word Lake, then change it to Woman Lake. Because we need to start seeing indigenous females as humans.
So to have the conversation and to have that door open on a national stage I think is really important. The problem with all of these kind-of conversations is if we don't have them from on a person-to-person level, then people have visceral responses to them and they just want to dig their heels in the sand. The whole point of the need for the conversation gets missed. And I think that we risk that when we don't sit down at the table and just say, ‘Okay, here, here's some history. And here's some current reality, and maybe this is a perspective you hadn't thought of. So is there a willingness on your part to consider just letting go of a name.’
We change names of things all the time in this world? We seem to really struggle with changing names of things when we know – within our heart of heart – that the name itself represents something that was wrong. And so I think there's a bigger conversation that we need to have. Why in a world where we're constantly changing names of stuff, do you struggle to change the names with only certain things? What is really, truly, behind that struggle? What's going on, and how can we talk through that?
Dr. Matthew Cobb: And we will end by giving the last word to Johanna, who reflects on how the possibility of a change requires the power of imagination, which can be both exciting and frightening all at once.
Johanna Bernu: I think in our world, we don't – we don't want people to use their imaginations. You sit in history class, you worry about banning books and taking away all religions and forms of expressions and all that. And it makes me wonder what life would be like if we would let people dream and let people imagine. Because imaginations can be scary, because they can be change; they can warrant massive change. And that for humans is scary. And that makes us want to run away and make it stop. And we don't really want our lives to change. You realize after it happens that it's probably a good thing, but, in the moment, it's scary and you kind of want to run away.