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Breaking the Mold of Racism
By Leif Enger
May 5, 1999
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The recent Supreme Court treaty affirmation capped a decade of friction between American Indians and their non-Indian neighbors. We're now left to digest not only the impact of the decision, but also the shouting, defensiveness and political manuevering it followed. But there is a less-told story here. A story of people who have reconciled with a larger culture; who've grown so comfortable in that culture, they no longer see themselves as minorities.

AFTER 20 YEARS IN THE PULPIT, Curtis Stempf says he's more grandfather than preacher; more friend than missionary. Energetic and concise in his 70s, Stempf leads services at the tiny Vineland Indian Chapel on the west side of Lake Mille Lacs.

This morning's turnout is small - about a dozen people - and informal. During the sermon, two little girls leave their seats to stand with Pastor Stempf; sometimes climbing the lectern, sometimes leaning against him to listen. To Stempf, the relaxed tone is just right.

Stempf: You can't go in there as a white man and carry on in that manner. You have to go in as I'm here because I love you people. I want to be a blessing to you. I'm not here because I have something new for you to accept. "
As Stempf puts it: he's always drifted toward American Indians. He grew up near the White Earth reservation, at ease in the homes of Indian neighbors. They were his fellow soldiers in World War II, his closest friends afterward, while working in Onamia. At some point, he says, it occured to him his "drift" was actually his calling.
Stempf: The Lord has an agenda for us through life. He arranges circumstances to put us into his program. Color means nothing to me. The church is built on the same principles. We are family. There is no racial thing with us. I don't see them as Indian people. I see them as my family.
The Vineland family has seen big changes during Stempf's two decades here. The 80s - economic high times for many - saw per-capita income actually fall among outstate American Indians. Joblessness rose to 55 percent. When he arrived, one in three Indian children lived in poor households; by 1990 it was one in two. Then, in the early 90s, the Mille Lacs Band made two provocative choices: to sue the state for long-extinguished fishing and hunting rights, and to build casinos. Though reluctant to talk politics, Stempf says many non-Indians refused to look at those issues from a native viewpoint.
Stempf: Our chief then was Art Gahbow, and his goal was to better the lot of the people. And Margie came in after he died and she followed what he started. And I have noticed nice homes, nice streets, beautiful schools, a beautiful clinic. If you go around that village and see what they've got, I think there's something wrong with someone who would condemn the casino straight out.
"There'll be things I don't agree with, and there'll be things you don't agree with. But we'll go on regardless. And how many families do you have where you don't have friction? There'll always be differences, but that's not the end of things. It's the beginning of things."

- Curtis Stempf
Stempf says he's glad the treaty-rights case is over, but that in truth he rarely discussed it. He says for non-Indians especially, the case became a stumbling block. A detour away from things that matter.
Stempf: Let us go on and be family. There'll be things I don't agree with, and there'll be things you don't agree with. But we'll go on regardless. And how many families do you have where you don't have friction? There'll always be differences, but that's not the end of things. It's the beginning of things.
It's hard to pinpoint why some adapt well in a different culture and others don't. Researcher John Poupart, whose American Indian Research and Policy Institute is headquartered in St. Paul, says focus-group sessions suggest few people ever grow comfortable living or working as cultural minorities. He says those who do usually share some of Pastor Stempf's traits. They ignore politics. They pay attention to history. They listen more than they talk.
Poupart: It's very abstract. You've got to pick up on nuances and on silence as a means of communication. It's given with respect only when it's asked for with respect. I think there are a lot of white people who've mirrored the Indian way of life, not even knowing they were doing it. When you look for those kinds of reflections in the non-Indian world, it can lead you to understanding that there is a bridgework.
Poupart believes the recent Supreme Court treaty affirmation injected reason into an emotional war. In the calm that follows, he says, it might be easier for individuals on both sides to disown racism. Poupart says reconciliation is almost always a long story.
Poupart: I think there are people who are quite willing to extend the olive branch. But I would caution them: don't organize in a human-relations committee, or an anti-racism committee. Because then you buy all the frame of reference that goes with fighting racism. Rather than work against something, why not work for something? Where do we want to be? And how can we make that happen?
At Central Lakes College in Brainerd, Dennis Eastman keeps one eye on a skins-and-shirts game at this end of the gym, and one on his 10-year-old boy Zack shooting hoops at the far end.

Eastman is CLC's athletic director and a successful football, basketball and volleyball coach. He's a member of the Crow tribe, an heir to centuries of tradition and history he knew nothing about for the first 30 years of his life.
Eastman: That's when President Johnson was in office, and he was trying to get rid of the reservations. So they were taking people off the reservations and sending them to different areas to work, and Dad ended up going to Los Angeles. He was so bent on fitting in, he didn't want to be unusual. I think he wanted to fit in so much he just buried this stuff in his soul.
Eastman says he understands his parents' decision not to raise him in the Crow culture. There seemed to be no future on the Montana reservation, and the magic word of the early 60s was "integrate. " But having no history put him at a disadvantage as the only Indian in his Los Angeles neighborhood, and even more so on trips back to Montana.
Eastman: I was always called "the apple." That means you're red on the outside but white on the inside. So I was kind of beaten up by both sides. You roll up that thick skin, and let it hit you, and keep on moving.
Dennis Eastman did keep moving: to Utah, then North Dakota in the 70s, then to college in Moorhead. At a wedding dance he met Pam, the daughter of Scandinavian beet farmers.
Pam: Honestly, when I met Dennis, I didn't know what nationality he was. I just thought he was good-looking, that I wanted to go out with him. But I had a picture of him and I showed my parents and their eyes got kind of big. And they started talking. it was hurtful at first. At first it was like, "oh, we want the best for you, how are you going to deal with this, you're going to have racial things thrown in your face, we don't want to see you get hurt, how about your children, " you know. I remember feeling very angry with them.
Dennis and Pam have been married 17 years. They say in mostly-white Brainerd they're still occasional targets for racial suspicion. But three years ago, something happened that removed most of the sting. Dennis's father moved back to the reservation. He broke his silence about Crow traditions. Dennis immersed himself in his history.
Dennis: I think for the first time, I really understood what I was, and who I was. When I walk into someplace and people say what are you? "Well I'm a Crow." I used to say "well, I'm Native American" or "I'm Indian." Now I say, "I'm Crow. Crow. From Montana. I'm from the Whistling Water clan. " I can tell these things, who I am and where I'm from. It's a different type of confidence.
The Eastmans say they're passing on these lessons to their children whom, they hope, will find it easy to live in either culture, instead of difficult in both.