Ȟaȟa Wakpadaŋ and the missing stories of Native Americans living in the suburbs

I was surprised to learn that there are more Indigenous people living in suburbs in Minnesota than in urban cores.

The suburbs grew in part because of white flight from the cities. Indigenous people faced barriers to living there, such as racial covenants and redlining. There also was the practical reality of social isolation from other Native families.

But just like many non-Native people, home ownership and better educational opportunities for their children are drawing Indigenous people to the suburbs, said Dr. Kasey Keeler, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a scholar of suburban American Indian history.

Dr. Kasey Keeler.

“We live in an Indigenous landscape,” said Keeler, who grew up in Coon Rapids. “Suburbs are historically Indian places. … It is a place that we have always been and a place where we belong.”

Note the increased percentage of Native Americans living in Minnesota suburbs over time. Image: Keeler, 2022. Created for Keeler’s upcoming book: American Indians and the American Dream: Policies, Place, and Property in Minnesota. (Note: The bars for any given year don’t always add up to 100% due to challenges with the census data.)

Valley Community Presbyterian Church in Golden Valley contracted with Keeler to do an Indigenous oral history project around the Bassett Creek Watershed, which covers 40 square miles and nine cities.

The creek joins the Mississippi River just above St. Anthony Falls. In Dakota, it’s called Ȟaȟa Wakpadaŋ, or Falls Creek.

Keeler, who is an enrolled tribal citizen of the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians and a direct descendant of the Citizen Band of Potawatomi, presented her preliminary findings to the church and community members on June 4. (Video here.)

Suburbs are historically Indian places. … It is a place that we have always been and a place where we belong.

Dr. Kasey Keeler

This project grew from the church’s Land Acknowledgement Task Force, Keeler said.

The church’s Land Acknowledgement Statement, now included in the church bulletin each Sunday, reads in part:

We acknowledge the ongoing injustices that we have committed against the Dakota people and pledge to interrupt this legacy. We will educate ourselves about Indigenous history and recognize, support, and advocate for our Native neighbors.

During the June 4 event, Pastor Richard Buller said he was excited to have the statement. “We are in the ‘Now what?’ stage,” he said. “That won’t stop. It’s a continuous state of what’s next.”

The oral history project is part of the “what’s next.” (The church website lists other possible “next steps.”)

“We live in an Indigenous landscape.” Image: Keeler, 2022. Katherine Koehler (mapmaker) and Dawi Huha Maza (Dakota translations). Created for Keeler’s upcoming book: American Indians and the American Dream: Policies, Place, and Property in Minnesota.

The growing institutional use of Land Acknowledgement Statements has its critics. An article in the Atlantic calls them no more than “moral exhibitionism,” relieving “the speaker and the audience of the responsibility to think about Indigenous peoples, at least until the next public event.”

There’s some truth there, but not the whole truth. Think of the Parable of the Seed. Land Acknowledgement Statements are seeds; some seeds never sprout, some grow a little and die, and some sprout and flourish.

Valley Community Presbyterian has planted a seed. It’s starting to sprout, but how it grows remains to be seen.

Keeler interviewed 10 Indigenous people from the area and plans doing a few more. The interviews explore how participants experience the suburbs as part of their historic and contemporary cultures.

“These voices of Native people that live in the suburbs have never really been collected or shared or uplifted before,” like stories from Native peoples living on reservations or in the urban core, Keeler said.

Interviewees so far are: Eric Buffalohead, Roxanne Gould, Debbi Kinaka Williams, Samantha Majhor, Jim Rock, Tawnya Stewart, Grant Two Bulls, Cathee Vick, Diane Wilson, and Benjamin Yawaki.

They wrestled with the question: “What does it mean to be a Native person living in a suburb?”

For some, education was a key in choosing where to live. One of the participants said “I looked at the different school districts’ Indian Education Programs … and then I chose which area I should move to for my kids. … I moved to the Robbinsdale District.”

Those who moved to the suburbs for home ownership opportunities expressed some tension around their comparatively well-off status – good homes, good education and stable jobs – compared to friends and family living on reservations.

Some expressed a feeling of isolation in the suburbs, too.

They wrestled with the question: “What does it mean to be a Native person living in a suburb?” Keeler said.

Interviewees spoke of the need for stewardship of the Ȟaȟa Wakpadaŋ watershed, “and caring for the more-than-human world.”

“We have to be vigilant,” Gould said in her interview. “We have to start today. … The creek itself and the wetlands around it need to be restored. Not just taken care of, but restored.”

Pollution sources in the Bassett Creek Watershed. Image: Bassett Creek Watershed Management Commission.

The oral history project also is building relationships.

More than 100 people attended Keeler’s June 4 presentation, including people who had participated in the interviews.

Golden Valley’s Mayor Shep Harris attended and thanked the church for its leadership. “I have knocked on too many doors over the years to tell you that people want this to happen.”

Catherine Chesnik, Chair of the Bassett Creek Watershed Management Commission, also attended. “I am very excited and grateful for the Ḣ̇aḣa Wakpadaƞ oral history project,” she said. “It is so important to remember and respect the Indigenous wisdom of the Ḣ̇aḣa Wakpadaƞ land, waters, and peoples.”

Representatives from the Hennepin History Museum and the Golden Valley Historical Society also attended. The Hennepin History Museum will hold the oral history project once it’s done.

As a Post Script, the name Bassett’s Creek deserves scrutiny.

Bassett Creek is named after Joel B. Bassett, who came here in 1851 and opened a lumber mill where the creek runs into the Mississippi River.

Bassett also worked as an Indian Agent at Crow Wing from 1865 to 1869, a post he turned into personal gain through his lumber mill.

He was one of three U.S. treaty signers to the Treaty of 1867 with the Chippewa (Anishinaabe) Indians. The treaty “was engineered to … open valuable pine forests to logging,” the Why Treaties Matter website says.

Men with large load of logs on sled pulled by a team of four horses in Park Rapids, circa 1895. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

According to a story in The Duluth Evening Herald, June 28, 1895, Bassett and other prominent businessmen had been “devastating the northern part of the state, denuding the territory of its timber.”

That included illegal harvesting.

After years of litigation, U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1902 that J. B. Bassett & Co. and other lumber company defendants were liable for illegally taking timber from the Mississippi Indian Reservation. They had contracts to collect 2.8 million board feet of dead and downed timber. Instead, defendants took 17 million board feet, including standing timber.

Of that total, J. B. Bassett & Co. admitted having received more than 4 million board feet of lumber.

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