By Michelle Morris, Director of Community Philanthropy, Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation

Take a moment from the demands of your beckoning calendar to consider this with me:

Visualize yourself with your family and friends enjoying the places you feel most connected with and doing the things that make you happy and fulfilled. Pause while the sights, sounds and smells bring you a sense of calm and you might even be smiling a little.

Now imagine that this place is no longer yours. You cannot be here anymore. You, your family and your friends can no longer do those activities that brought you joy. Imagine that having lost what makes you feel complete, you courageously raise your voice to express that this is not right and draw attention to it. Not only are you not heard, you are spoken over by a louder voice using words that are distorting what you are saying.

“That could never happen,” you might be thinking; or you might be feeling sorrow, fear and anger at the thought of this; or maybe this has happened to you, your family, and your friends. The Dakota men, women and children of the Standing Rock Tribe have had spaces and traditions that are deeply a part of who they are taken and threatened. They continue to be spoken over and experience the pain of violence. This is reality. This is today.

Many people heard about the Standing Rock “protests” in the news, and perhaps you shared these stories, too. Think back. Where did you hear and read these stories? Who was telling them? As you consider this, are Dakota tribal members coming to mind as prominently as the journalists and activists? Very likely — no. As you consider losing what you care most deeply about, imagine your outrage at this violation: Not only are you not heard, the reality of your experience is being invalidated and erased.

I am challenging myself and you, particularly if you have white skin like I do, to amplify the voices of people of color telling their own stories. “Our people need to tell our story,” I heard a Standing Rock tribal member say at the PLACES Fellowship’s place-based learning experience.

What many people do not know is that the Standing Rock situation began as prayers by community members. Their prayers were co-opted by primarily white activists and were distorted into violent protests. The damage continues to affect members of Standing Rock, and not for the first time. While visiting a memorial for Chief Tatanka Iyotake — Sitting Bull — it struck me how similar the present is to the past. The memorial reads:

“Tatanka Iytake was killed by Tribal police at his home near Grand River on December 15, 1890. Tribal police were acting on orders to bring him into the agency in order to quell the Ghost Dance [a ceremonial dance they believed would bring back the old ways of life].”

Silencing by dominating the narrative and perpetrating violence against Native Americans continues today.

In addition to stories, consider another of our dominate ways of knowing, often more accepted as truth and upon which big decisions are made: Data. Numbers. Quantified measures. When you have finished reading this post, look up the demographic data that informs your own and your organization’s decision-making. Take note to see if Native Americans are included or if this entire group of people(s) have been excluded from the report, perhaps because of low numbers or because the data is aggregated across tribes making is less locally relevant. This is vital information when we apply it to philanthropic efforts for educational access and economic opportunity. We must support Native American communities collecting their own data to tell their own stories.

Along with the influence of stories, consider the influence of our dollars, both personally and professionally, and how they flow through our communities. Which businesses owned and operated by people of color do you utilize? One extraordinary business leader I met during this experience is Holly Doll, President, president of Native Artists United. The mission of Native Artists United is to support “the livelihood of Native artists by advocating for presence and opportunities to gift knowledge and skills, build capacity, and showcase Native art.” Consider how you can identify more businesses owned and operated by people of color and include them in your routines — see how your philanthropic dollars can also support developing entrepreneurs of color in your community. This flow of money is vital to the financial stability of communities of color.

A quote from Chief Tatanka Iyotake written on his memorial continues to come to my mind after this site visit that needs honest recognition and reparation still today: “What treaty have the Lakota made with the white man that we have broken? Not one. What treaty have the white men ever made with us that they ever kept? Not one.”

It is now a federal felony to protest pipelines. This does not align with Tribes being able to assert their sovereignty. As white citizens of the Unites States, we must participate in this democracy and hold our government accountable. As one tribal member said, “Treaties are the supreme law of the land. When the United States upholds them, then we can address social determinants of health and economic development.” Recovering from traumas will require going back to tribal ways and traditional culture and spirituality. Restoring connections with culture and the land is vital to the Standing Rock community.

There are two values I want to share that I brought home from the Dakota and Anishinaabeg cultures that I believe, if we all practiced them each day, would create drastic change:

1. Rather than say “that was powerful”, speak and act upon “that made me feel humbled.”

2. We must lead our lives for the world seven generations to come.

One last time, take a moment with me to consider the values that matter to you personally and those of your organization. How have you acted upon them already today? How will you include them in your time to come?

About The Author

Michelle Morris is Director of Community Philanthropy at the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation. She advances the Foundation’s mission of private giving for the public good by partnering with nonprofit organizations and community leaders throughout northeast Minnesota and northwest Wisconsin to create positive outcomes through grants and scholarships. In addition, Michelle coordinates grantmaking for three initiatives: 1. Closing the opportunity gap by building a community that embraces diversity and inclusivity, where all children have abundant opportunities, and feel respected, safe and secure; 2. Increasing communities’ abilities to prepare for, respond to and recover from disasters, while particularly focusing on the community members who are most vulnerable; 3. Attracting and retaining young adults in the region through civic engagement, entrepreneurship and high quality of life.

Michelle earned her Master’s in Public Health from Columbia University, focusing on social determinants of health and health equity within health promotion. Michelle brings to her role experience in program design and management, evaluation through qualitative and quantitative research methods, community-based participatory research, and grant proposal writing and review.