Sharon Day: Disenrollment: Contemplating A More Inclusive Approach

William Mitchell College of Law

Sharon Day (Bois Forte Band of Chippewa) makes a compelling case for Native nations to abandon externally imposed criteria for citizenship that continue to cause internal divisions within Native nations and communities and instead return to Indigenous cultural values and teachings predicated on unity, inclusion and love.

This video resource is featured on the Indigenous Governance Database with the permission of the Bush Foundation.

Resource Type

Day, Sharon. "Disenrollment: Contemplating A More Inclusive Approach." Tribal Citizenship Conference, Indian Law Program, William Mitchell College of Law, in conjunction with the Bush Foundation. St. Paul, Minnesota. November 13, 2013. Presentation.

"[Anishinaabe language]. So I just want to start by telling you a little story.

In 1984 or 1985 -- I'm not exactly sure when -- I went to Nicaragua as a member of a LGBT work study brigade. There was about four of us, we went to Nicaragua and we stayed with families in León and we took medical supplies because of course there was a U.S. embargo against Nicaragua. And so they couldn't get medical supplies or if they had a John Deere tractor that needed parts they couldn't get parts and none of those kinds of things. And it was actually the sixth anniversary of the revolution there. One of the towns that was near León was a little place called Subtiava and Subtiava was the birthplace of [Augusto César] Sandino who was...the Sandinista pattern themselves after Sandino and that was the beginning of the revolution.

So when I went to Subtiava, they had a cultural center, a museum and it was the only cultural museum in Nicaragua. And so I asked the people there, ‘Who...' because I was trying to figure out like how are they Indian, because they said Sandino was an Indian. So, ‘Who lived in Subtiava?' ‘Anybody who wanted to.' ‘Well, how do you govern yourself?' ‘Well, we have a council.' ‘Well, who can vote for the council?' ‘Whoever lives in Subtiava.' And this was like, what? Like how can this be because of course in our reservation systems who can live on the reservation, who can vote in the election, all of that's very tightly regulated, right? And so here's this community, an Indigenous community, in Central America where everything was just so open.

And so I was still having a...'Well, maybe they're not Indian after all.' And so I asked them, ‘Well, what do you do in terms of you use like traditional medicine?' ‘Oh, yeah.' And so they showed me some of their medicines and they said, ‘In fact, right down on the beach a little ways up the coast we had a medical school where we train traditional practitioners in how to heal people before the Spaniards came and there was was a school and we had 100 people there.' And one of the first things that the Spaniards did was burnt down that traditional medical facility. So then they pulled out all their land claims maps, like that I could understand. Same as us, right? But it was...this was 1985 and this is very...this changed a lot of the way that I thought about Indigenous people.

So I'm not a lawyer, I worked for the state for a number of years and had to deal with some state-tribal law for about 10 years and had some many good discussions there with especially the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, and who as a result the tribe...the state had to change their contracts with tribes, all their language. But you know what, as tribal people, we had a governance system prior to 1492. We had a system of governing ourselves and this system of governance really for the Ojibwe people involved our clan system. And so there were clans and myself, I already told you I'm [Anishinaabe language], and where we sit in the lodge is in the western doorway and our job is to protect the people. And so ever since I was a little child I could hear my dad saying, ‘Your job is to take care of your family, your clan, your band, the tribe, all Indigenous people and ultimately all of humanity.' Now I've been lucky all my life to be able to work in positions that have enabled me to do that.

We all have clans and there's sub-clans, but these are the major clans that governed, took care of things and some years ago we started a small charter school in Minneapolis. It was called Native Arts High School and it operated for about three years and we couldn't make it go financially, but the way that we planned everything was that we had the students broken up into clans and if there was a dispute, the clans got together and they made a decision. And if they couldn't decide then we went to the Fish Clan because they were the philosophers and they ultimately made the final decision. When that decision was made, that was it. So I guess they were sort of like the Supreme Court.

And so we also have these seven grandfather teachings, and I know among the Lakota and Dakota they also had a system. They had these very same values with the addition of fortitude because life out there on the plains is a little more difficult and so fortitude is something that is one of their values. And so you can't can't choose which of these values you're going to practice, which of these values you're gong to incorporate in your life because if you don't practice one of these, you're practicing the opposite.

I know it's the end of the day and there's...just to make it short and sweet, we had laws before 1492, we had ways of governing ourself. It was based on inclusion as opposed to exclusion. Everybody had a job to do. When I was a little kid, I was telling somebody at lunch, my...I was one of 13 children and I was smart. And so when my parents would get up at 5:00 in the morning, if I did all my work the day before, I got up with them at 5:00 and my dad would...I'd get to eat with my daddy, eggs and bacon and things like that. And he would tell my mother in Ojibwe what a wonderful child I was, what a wonderful child I was because I'd done all my work and I understood all of this that he was saying in Ojibwe, and it was my time to be with my parents. When I didn't do my job, I stayed in bed.

So we practiced these, we were taught these things, and in my work now at the Indigenous Peoples Task Force we have a youth theater program that's been in existence since 1990 and we have a cessation program for young people and when the kids come in every day, the first thing they do is they have tobacco ceremony. They say this is the favorite part of the program because they sit in a circle and they talk about who they are. And when they come in, they grab a little name badge like this and it has one of these words on it, one of these values and they put that on and in all the rest of the day there that is how they're going to respond to everything. And so we learn these values through practice and if we could begin to develop some of our programs on the reservations beginning in Head Start, pre-school, incorporating these values, we would be about being including people because the more people we have, the more power we have.

Right now, we're only one percent of the population or something like that and so we need to...we've lost so many people and so we need to become larger, to become stronger, and it's not just about those immediate resources. We need to think about how do we do this? We do this through...all of our children should know where did they come from, how did they come into the world. They should know their name. My name [Anishinaabe language], that means something to me. In my week I'm meeting with five young women who want to be put on their berry fast. These are the things that we're doing, teaching these young people these kinds of things.

The effects of colonization: none of us have, no matter what, I don't care if you're a lawyer, if you sit on the Supreme Court or if you're an elected tribal official, none of us have escaped the effects of colonization. We all have felt anxiety and depression, some of us more so than others and this is a picture that many of you have seen and it's actually Spaniards setting the dogs on people that they considered to be so different from them that they weren't quite human and these were...LGBT native population, we...many of us have self medicated, we've become addicted, and we've lost more than 50 percent of our gifts because we only come into the world with gifts and we have to get those back. And so how do we go through this process of de-colonization?

We're introducing these teachings into our community, hold community gatherings where we invite everybody, of my cousins, she was on tribal, she was tribal chair for a couple of terms up at my reservation and one day she said to me, ‘Why is it moved away from home when you were young and I stayed here and lived on the reservation all my life and why is it that you know so much more of the cultural teachings?' Well, partly it was because I sobered up when I was 21 years old. Between the time I was 14 and 21 I used up my quota of alcohol and drugs and the first thing I did was I learned how to meditate, and then gradually I found my way to the Midewin Lodge and began to learn some of these teachings.

Somebody else I was talking to a little while ago, Mr. Barber there, he said, ‘Some of those folks back in the ‘60s and the ‘70s, we were the old St. Paul families, the Indian families, and we clung together. We clung together because we were all that we had and nobody missed that Saturday night powwow at 475 Cedar St. where the Indian Center was.' And so we had those kind of community gatherings where people participated and we need to include everyone and we need to reorganize these kinds of community events in our...and I think we need to change our way of thinking. Instead of thinking about the glass being half full, we need to think about how do we fill up that glass so everybody gets a drink of that water? How do we build those kinds of homes? In our own community, my grandfather built many of the homes at Bois Forte and I tell you those houses were far better than those HUD homes that they came along in the ‘60s. But they did it together, my grandfather and my uncles -- they did that work together and that's what we need to do.

My mother was born in Canada, three generations ago. Her mother lived in Canada, my great-grandfather came from Leech Lake, but I'm full blood and I'm from Bois Forte, but you go back three generations and these boundaries that we have today did not exist 200 years ago. So why are we so intent on upholding these practices that tear us apart? In this room, you are the brightest people, you are the leaders, we've got to put our minds together and our hearts and come up with a new way of being, because this is the seventh generation and they said that if we are to ignite that light of the eighth fire that leads to peace and harmony, that we need to do it from a spiritual frame of view and to move forward that way.

So today, I will choose love and I hope that you do too because who are we if we are not...if we do not choose love. So it makes me really sad to think about some of the things that happen in our communities today -- some of the things that that we heard about this afternoon -- to many people, and if we're to survive and light that eighth fire, we need to move in that direction and if we're to not only survive as a people, but we have to make some different choices in terms of all humanity, all the people who currently live on Turtle Island, we need to bring them together. When they said, a new people will emerge in the time of the seventh fire, they meant we are all of that new people. We are all of those people and so it takes all the people on Turtle Island if we're going to survive as a species because certainly we know that the Creator has cleansed the earth before and there are many things that are going on today. We need to look at our resources and what are we doing to those.

On my reservation, I wrote an article about the water and they chose not to print it and they said because the mining companies might not like that. I said, 'But it's not about the mining companies, I'm not talking about the mining,' although we should be very careful about that because the sulfide mines that they're proposing are nothing like the mining that is taking place on the Iron Range near where I live. They said, ‘Well, but if we print it then the mining companies might want to have equal space.' And I said, ‘But you're the editor, you can choose.' So anyhow, they didn't and I went on and published it on a place called Alternate, which was then picked up in Canada and in many places and the article was about what I just said: today, I choose love. [Anishinaabe language]."

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