Sunday, October 10, 2021
I don’t have family roots in Minnesota, with one exception: during the 1940s, my grandfather was the manager of the Firestone store at 1107 Harmon Place in Minneapolis – i.e., the future site of the law school where I serve as dean. That very modest historical connection to the land where I work today can be a source of encouragement during hard days. Whatever I’m dealing with, it’s helpful to imagine the perseverance of my grandfather, plucked from Ohio to a strange new city and tasked with selling tires in the face of wartime rubber rationing.
Of course, in the long history of human beings living and working here, my roots through that Firestone shop are very shallow. This land was not a significant part of my story, or of my family’s story. Our language, religious practices, and way of life stayed intact when my grandfather was transferred to another store in another state.
Tomorrow is Indigenous Peoples’ Day, when we celebrate and reflect on the many Indigenous communities and cultures that have shaped our nation. One way we do that is by caring about – and being honest about – our history, including the history of the land where we live and work today. St. Thomas Law is on what was Dakota land until that land was ceded to the United States through the treaty of 1851. That treaty called for the payment to the Dakota of what amounted to 12 cents per acre. Treaty negotiations were driven by the American Fur Company, which had been providing supplies to the Dakota in exchange for fur. As the lands were overhunted and European demand for fur dropped, the system collapsed and the Dakota were left owing huge debts to American Fur. Debt payments (inflated by the company) were taken out of the land proceeds before anything was given to the tribe. Essentially, the fur traders were bailed out by the U.S. government, the U.S. government got 24 million acres of land, and the Dakota got almost nothing. This was all made possible by the strategist behind the arrangements: Henry Sibley, who was a partner and agent of the American Fur Company, the future governor of Minnesota, and a lawyer. We need to know these stories.
Like just about everything else in our country today, the choice to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day rather than Columbus Day is itself a political minefield. It’s worth pointing out, though, that even the older holiday’s creation emerges from injustice. As Italian immigration to the United States increased in the late 1800s, so did persecution of the new arrivals. In 1891, anti-Italian sentiment boiled over in New Orleans, and a mob broke into the jail, where they beat, shot, and hanged 11 Italian-American prisoners. The Italian government called for reparations and cut off diplomatic relations. In an attempt to appease Italy, in 1892 President Benjamin Harrison proclaimed a “Discovery Day,” recognizing Columbus as “the pioneer of progress and enlightenment.”
We are stewards of the rule of law, and that means we also have to be honest and unflinching students of our history. Under the gaze of previous generations, what does it mean – what should it mean – to be called to help form the next generation of lawyers and leaders? Are we being faithful to the witness of those who came before us?