A split Northfield City Council has opted to reference “ongoing injustices” against the Dakota Nation in a land acknowledgement statement.
The council passed the statement by a 4-3 vote during a Nov. 17 meeting. Councilors Brad Ness and David DeLong and Mayor Rhonda Pownell voted no.
Land acknowledgement statements are considered formal and presented at the beginning of public events and gatherings. The approved council action includes the statement: “We stand on the homelands of the Wahpekute Band of the Dakota Nation. We honor with gratitude the people who have stewarded the land throughout the generations and their ongoing contributions to this region. We acknowledge the ongoing injustices that we have committed against the Dakota Nation, and we wish to interrupt this legacy, beginning with acts of healing and honest storytelling about this place.”
Ness, whose unsuccessful proposed resolution replaced the words “we have” to have been” in the last sentence, said several Northfield residents have told him they would not attend city-sponsored Martin Luther King Jr. Day events if the entire statement was delivered due to objections over the collective reference to ongoing injustices. To Ness, moving ahead with the shortened statement would be more unifying.
DeLong agreed, adding he found the collective references related to past and ongoing injustices to be “blaming” the community. He said white European settlers and Native Americans both engaged in past abhorrent behavior.
“It’s a two-edged sword,” he said of past injustices.
Councilor Erica Zweifel pushed back against the comments. She said she didn’t support the shortened statement due to the continuing racial gaps on education and housing, noting 75% of childhood COVID-19-positive tests come from Black, Hispanic and Native Americans.
“I won’t be voting for this compromise,” she said of the shortened version. “I’m close to speechless myself from what I am hearing tonight.”
“I can’t accept this compromise,” added Councilor Suzie Nakasian.
Fellow Councilor Clarice Grenier Grabau said the collective reference to injustices is about the community taking ownership of the injustices committed against Native Americans.
“To take out those words to me is significant,” she said.
“I’m proud to put the motion as originally written on the table.”
To Councilor Jessica Peterson White, the full statement can be “extremely painful” for white people to read. She said that feeling is evidence of white fragility, the title of a New York Times bestseller penned by prominent critical race theorist Robin DiAngelo. To Peterson White, the placement of white people on top of the societal power structure necessitates a societal response to change.
DeLong said by passing the resolution the council was telling the community how to think despite not being “the arbiter of morality.” To him, the actual impact of the action on addressing past injustices was minor.
In also expressing her support for a shortened proposal, Pownell said she was not aware of the city as a whole having committed atrocities against Natives.
“The main reason that I couldn’t vote in favor of the final adopted motion was because from my perspective I was speaking on behalf of the city of Northfield as an entity,” Pownell said. “It was in that capacity that I felt I couldn’t say that we the city of Northfield acknowledge the ongoing injustices that we the city of Northfield as an entity committed against the Dakota Nation. I understand and respect that others don’t view the statement in that way; however, I do. It’s really important that we hold space for one another to express differences of opinion without marginalizing or assigning motives to one another. There are bound to be strong opinions on this, but we should be working to build bridges and treating one another with respect.”
Peterson White pushed back against her comment, adding Northfield wasn’t immune to racist actions against Native Americans.
In public comments received before the meeting, Northfielders Evelyn Bury, Alyssa Melby, Phyllis Milbrandt, Elizabeth Olson, Joan Janusz and Dorothea Hrossowyc; Cannon River Watershed Partnership Executive Director Kristi Pursell and Dacie Moses, Julia Uleberg Swanson and Garda Kahn expressed support for adopting the statement.
“In order for deep healing to happen in our country, we must first acknowledge a deeper and much more complex history of who we are and how we came to be on this land,” Swanson said.
“You might not think the statement is perfect; words generally never are,” Melby added. “But the action of adopting the statement speaks loudly and beyond any of the individual words of the statement. I urge you to begin this process of honest storytelling.”