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."