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We're All on the Planet Together
By Frank Clancy
Part of MPR's Hidden Rainbow Series.

AS AN INDIAN BORN AND RAISED on the Fond du Lac Indian Reservation, near Cloquet, Minnesota, Bonnie Wallace spent her childhood on the front lines of the battle for rural diversity. "Even though downtown Cloquet was only three miles away," she recalls, "there was this invisible boundary between the reservation and town. We knew we had to behave differently when we crossed that line. We didn't know it was racism, even though, on reflection, that is exactly what it was."

"Racism perhaps has diminished a bit, but so many people suffer from this sickness that this country has. And it is a sickness. It truly is."

- Bonnie Wallace, an American Indian
Nowhere was that boundary harsher than in the Cloquet elementary school that she attended. On Monday mornings, the Indian children were lined up, in front of the class, to get free lunch tickets. On Tuesday, nuns came to take them to catechism, even though it was a public school. On Wednesday they were checked for lice.

Her experiences were not uncommon. "I don't think many of us had a very good experience in the public school system," Wallace says. "I don't think many of us had good experiences in boarding schools. Education has failed Indians miserably."

The reservation, in contrast, represented all that was good in the world: safety, comfort, security, friends, a large extended family.

But not many jobs. At eighteen, Wallace moved to Minneapolis, where in the 1970s she earned a degree in social welfare from the University of Minnesota. She worked for more than 20 years at Augsburg College in the school's American Indian Support Program. Augsburg had an 85 percent retention and graduation rate, Wallace says with pride.

Though Wallace spent more than 25 years in Minneapolis, she visited Fond du Lac often, and always considered the reservation home. Three years ago, she left her job as director of Augsburg's support program and returned to the reservation when her uncle and youngest sister both became seriously ill. Now in her 50s, she serves as scholarship director for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and chair of the board of directors of Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College.

Despite the many American Indians who live in Minnesota, Wallace still suffers the indignities of racism: the sideways glances in a grocery store when shopping with her elderly mother; being stopped by police because she has tribal plates on her car. Hearing others claim casinos have made all Indians rich. The governor's comments about treaty rights.

"Racism perhaps has diminished a bit," she says. "But so many people suffer from this sickness that this country has. And it is a sickness. It truly is. . . ."

"We're all on this planet together. We've got to do something. If we don't want to take the time to understand all these other cultures around us, then we at least have to learn to be more accepting. We have to be more tolerant. It's my fight too. I have my own biases."