Tribal elders connect with U students

Nina Petersen-Perlman

Today’s American Indian youths need to listen to their elders’ teachings to revive their communities, said speakers at a meeting of the University of Minnesota American Indian Council of Elders.

In the first in a series of three events created in response to March’s Red Lake shootings, 13 elders from the University and surrounding area spoke Monday in a traditional “talking circle” format at Coffman Union’s theater.

Barbara Bettelyoun, program director at the Academic Health Center’s Office of Education, estimated that 80 to 100 people attended the all-day event, billed “A Time of Truth: Let us put our minds together.”

“Across all tribes, there is a belief that everything is a gift from the creator,” she said. “Our job is to find out what that gift is. Today, the elders are taking responsibility for what our youth are lacking – that’s the gift in this tragedy.”

Marisa Carr, a transfer student in family social science and American Indian studies, said she attended Monday because she missed being around her elders from home.

“Walking into the union and smelling the smudge all the way down the hallway was awesome,” she said.

Smudge is a combination of four sacred medicines (sage, cedar, sweet grass and tobacco) that is burned in a shell so the smoke can cleanse and purify people and places, Carr said.

At the beginning of the ceremony, Robert DesJarlait, the event moderator from Red Lake, passed the smudge around to the elders sitting on the stage and to members of the audience.

“What do we mean by ‘A Time for Truth’?” DesJarlait asked. “Part of our truth is the disintegration of our moral fabric. We have a youth crisis with broken families, lack of tribal identity, abuse, racism, substance abuse, peer pressure and gangs.”

Don Blackhawk of the Ho-Chunk tribe said American Indians have come to a crossroads and need to do something.

“We can’t push things so fast; there’s no time to reflect,” he said. “Our teaching is to stop, look and listen. Make sure you know who you are.”

Bettelyoun said the three-forum series was started at University President Bob Bruininks’ request to create an appropriate response to this spring’s school shooting in Red Lake, where 10 people died.

Bruininks has committed to hearing American Indian students’ stories Feb. 13. Sometime next spring, American Indian professionals will talk about what it’s like to walk in two worlds – tribal and professional, she said.

Bettelyoun said she intends to distill the three forums in some sort of publication, probably a CD, to be available next summer.

Former University professor Carolyn Schommer of the Upper Sioux said she is dedicated to the younger generation.

“Our young people are pretty special people,” she said. “Our blood flows through their bodies. The Council of Elders is taking a step in the right direction (in having these discussions).”