Native grief and resurgence in the Midwest
By Sasha Maria Suarez
2021 left me wrapped up in hauntings. It all started simply enough with White Magic, a collection of newly published essays by Elissa Washuta (Cowlitz), filled with Washuta’s vivid descriptions of places and feelings and including more than a dash of popular culture. What waited for me between this book’s pages unleashed the kind of obsessive melancholy I can only describe as the perpetual affect of someone who studies American Indian history for a career. Washuta was writing about hauntings. More specifically, she was writing about individual and collective hauntings of the past, how in America, Indigenous peoples are made into spectacular ghosts that have been removed and yet remain “tethered to the land.” Washuta writes that “Settlers once so feared the forest that they’d rarely venture beyond their landing spots, but they came to need so much land for villages, fields, and herds that everyone foolish enough to have been living there for thousands of years would have to move or die.”
This settler fear of forests, of the kinds of spirits that live in them, appears regularly in Indigenous literature. Chris Stark’s recent Carnival Lights describes a haunted stretch of forest in Minnesota that drove out settlers. Louise Erdrich’s classic Love Medicine series gives us Fleur Pillager’s stand, which chases out those who would take the forest solely for the fallen trees. Stephen Graham Jones grapples with Indian hauntings in My Heart is a Chainsaw when Native teen protagonist, Jade Daniels, recounts how her hometown of Proof Rock, Idaho is haunted by Stacey Graves, a young Indian girl who died in Indian Lake one summer a hundred years ago. She hypothesizes the sudden gentrification occurring on the previously undeveloped side of the lake has re-ignited Graves’s anger.
The more I looked at my bookshelves, the more I heard the whispers of “Indian hauntings.” You likely know the kind of story I’m talking about, in which vengeful Indigenous spirits torment sometimes well-to-do white folks. As an enthusiast of the horror genre, I’ve seen my fair share of Indian hauntings. It’s not particularly innovative to think about how Indigeneity haunts American consciousness. Tropes of Indian skulls and burial mounds proliferate as if they’re some recurring fever dream of the genre masters, as if this country hasn’t made a business out of grave robbing or building on burial sites. And maybe that’s why Indian hauntings are so common, especially in older works. Most Indian ghost stories share an obscurity of detail, a messiness of the truth behind each story. Much like history, the only thing people are pretty sure of is that there’s a long-dead Indian haunting the very places where they lived and died.
What each horror story fails to account for—what becomes the missing element to all of these long-held anxieties about dead Indians—is the simple fact that Indigenous peoples are still here and, in fact, never went anywhere. We did not vanish into the American past, nor did our pain and trauma, born out of displacement, dispossession, multitudes of violence, and a consistent erasure that marks us as specters in our own homelands. Indian haunting stories often get so close to the truth, at least as I see it: our ancestors aren’t haunting settlers, settlers are haunted by the atrocities that have been committed to assure that these lands are considered American.
I recently moved to Teejop, Ho-Chunk homeland. Today most people know it as Madison, Wisconsin. I’ve spent my life as an urban Ojibwe person living within south Minneapolis (Dakota land) and this move was tremendously uprooting. I found myself again a visitor in someone else’s homelands, but this time I had no lifelong experience to draw upon. The landscape of this city was new, the presence of Ho-Chunk people not always easy to find. I acknowledged that this was, in no small part, due to my lack of relationships. It’s also not unusual to enter urban spaces and encounter no evidence of Indigenous peoples past or present, at least unless you know where to look.
But I was baffled by the silence around Teejop, predominantly because this city sits on top of numerous Ho-Chunk villages and burial and effigy mounds. Nearly every park or public trail I’ve walked has some marker of a mound on a map or a plaque placed alongside it. I knew that there were dozens of mounds on the University of Wisconsin campus, and many have been destroyed. In my short time here, I’ve seen many students shocked to learn these facts too. Tell a student who climbs Bascom Hill every day that, in order to build Bascom Hall in the late 1850s, effigy mounds were levelled, and watch their surprise grow. Such lack of knowledge is perhaps expected in a country where Indigenous histories are erased. When Kendra Greendeer (Ho-Chunk) wrote about UW in 2019, she said, “There are important stories that aren’t yet told by the monuments on campus, and there are stories that are still told exclusively from a settler perspective.”
Still, it’s profoundly jarring to move through a city and not know when or where one might be reminded of the constant desecration of Ho-Chunk sacred sites. Such destruction, such erasure, is juxtaposed with some of the most brutal reminders of removal and genocide in this region—atop Bascom Hill, not far from a new “heritage marker” recognizing Ho-Chunk history and removal, is a statue of Abraham Lincoln that has presided over this high point of campus since 1919.
Lincoln’s legacy for Indigenous peoples, in the upper Midwest and nationally, is haunted by his authorization of the largest mass execution in U.S. history—of thirty-eight Dakota men on December 26, 1862, following the U.S.-Dakota War in Mni Sota Makoce (Dakota homeland now commonly recognized as the state of Minnesota). Often overlooked because it coincided with the Civil War, the U.S.-Dakota War was many decades in the making as both the state of Minnesota and the federal government failed time and again to uphold or make good on treaty agreements. After the war, Dakota people were also interned at Fort Snelling before being legally and physically exiled from their homelands in 1863. The war allowed the state of Minnesota to “claim” Indigenous lands in its southern and western boundaries without the messiness of treaties (which were abrogated) or the responsibilities that accompany such legal agreements. Quite simply, through Dakota death and exile, the state of Minnesota realized a significant portion of itself as a settler state within the union.
This history is something that I’ve had to contend with as an Ojibwe person living in Dakota land. And yet non-Indigenous Midwesterners have, for the most part, exempted themselves from this reckoning and reaffirm their right to ignore the very history that allows them to live here.
What if we re-interpret Indian hauntings as a nation grappling with its own violence, struggling against the tremendous grief created out of American settler colonialism? What if we attend to the ways Indigenous peoples, our histories, and ongoing relationships to lands have been altered by American settlement?
In October of 2021, Angela Two Stars (Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota) unveiled her new sculpture in the Walker Art Center Sculpture Garden in Minneapolis, a place best known for its iconic spoonbridge and cherry. Two Stars’ piece, titled Okiciyapi, is, as an MPR news story says, “infused with the Dakota language, history and tradition.” It’s a beautiful addition to a frequently visited outdoor space in the city that Dakota people know as Bde Óta Othúŋwe, which roughly translates to the town of many lakes. Its placement in the Sculpture Garden might never have happened if not for the events that occurred in the same garden some four years earlier.
In 2017, news broke that an artist was going to put up the “Scaffold,” an interactive sculpture that drew inspiration from several infamous gallows. Gallows may not be the inspiration you expect to see in the Sculpture Garden, but for Dakota and other Indigenous peoples, what they saw was horrifying. The structure was clearly influenced by the gallows where thirty-eight Dakota men were hanged 155 years earlier in Mankato, Minnesota. The reaction was swift and Dakota people expressed hurt, anger, and renewed trauma. The public quickly learned that Dakota people had not been consulted about the project. The idea of such a symbol being placed in a garden on lands that have been Dakota since time immemorial was unconscionable, intolerable.
Protests ensued, and, little more than a week later, the artist and the Walker announced they would dismantle the sculpture and donate it to the Dakota community, which in turn decided it would be burned in ceremony. Non-Indigenous public opinion might be that this instance of violence has been rectified. And, perhaps, to an extent it has been. Two Stars’ piece does more to educate on the first peoples of that land than a gallows installation commemorating their death ever could. And yet, the memories of that ordeal remind us that non-Indigenous Minneapolitans rarely confront the violent, even genocidal histories of the places they inhabit.
I’m well aware that Indigenous peoples haunt the settler colonial American mind; I’ve been less attentive to the ways that we, too, are haunted. As an Ojibwe person, I’ve become used to hauntings. I’ve been the apparition made visible in classrooms as the only Indigenous person. I’ve been the staunch voice interjecting in American history classrooms. I’ve walked landscapes where settler colonialism strips our presence from the land and leaves barely recognizable Indian place names.
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Histories are wrapped up in traumas and dislocations. Sometimes our mouths, like my own, struggle to make double vowels and strong consonants into the properly conjugated verbs our first-language elders speak fluently. Sometimes Anishinaabe names have been lost and parents can’t fully bridge the gaps between ancestors and us. Sometimes, we cross gichi-ziibiing during draught and remember the threat to her currents from Enbridge’s Line 3 just a bit further north.
Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart (Oglala Lakota) defines historical trauma as the “cumulative emotional and psychological wounding, over the lifespan and across generations, emanating from massive group trauma experiences.” This wounding, which she connects to “historical unresolved grief,” is something nearly every Indigenous person experiences. Historical trauma persists across generations, which often means we walk through grief regularly. We carry it: the grief of boarding schools, land theft, resource extraction, and ceremonial desecration, of massacres, of sexual violence.
These traumas haunt Indigenous peoples in the lands now recognized as the United States. Nearly every day can offer small or large reminders. I don’t say to this to bury the tremendous amounts of Indigenous joy and love, survival and fierce continuance. Rather, it is simply a symptom of living in a country that expects its Indians to be long gone. We carry our hauntings with us, with the constant possibility that we will remember as we walk our dogs or ride bikes or sit in classrooms. This can be its own horror story, one that inverts the very trope of an Indian haunting. It is also a story that Indigenous peoples continue to try to rewrite in the hopes of a different, more healed future for ourselves, our tribal nations and communities, and future generations.
Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (Michi Saagiig Nishinaabe) has written that Indigenous resurgence is so much more than cultural revitalization, and is based in community practices of nationhood that “facilitate radical transformation.” For Simpson and other Indigenous theorists, resurgence offers an Indigenous centering in a way that doesn’t simply replicate settler colonialism. It explains how we learn and uphold Indigenous knowledges that have been stolen from us or driven underground. We can return, reconnect, and reaffirm those connections to all creations in a way that makes us whole.
I think about the resurgences taking place across the Midwest, and I cherish the feeling of hope, of what Simpson refers to as “radical love.” Babies can grow up immersed in our languages, attend language nests and schools like Endazhi-Nitaawiging Charter School in Red Lake, Waadookodaading in Lac Courte Oreilles, or Bdote Learning Center in Minneapolis. I pray that for them it will not be a struggle to think and speak in Anishinaabemowin. I pray that they have access to knowledge about plants, animals, and manidoonsag. May their relationships to our traditional foods be the easiest thing in the world as they fill their bellies with squash and manoomin and fish. May our ceremonies carry them easily across reservation lands, rural lands, city lands, waterways, all the sacred spaces known to Indigenous peoples. May they see themselves everywhere and know that the land and the many peoples who live upon it welcome them.
In 2021 the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe erected signs along the 1855 border of their reservation. These signs read: “Misi-zaaga’iganiing, Mille Lacs Reservation, Established in 1855 treaty.” It’s increasingly common to see Indigenous languages on signs near reservation lands. It’s a reminder of ishkonigan, the left-over lands ancestors fought for despite incredible violence. For Mille Lacs, these signs articulate Ojibwe presence on lands they were determined to remain in, despite nineteenth-century attempts to forcibly remove them to White Earth Reservation. The lands of Mille Lacs have seen fire, blood, and theft. The waters of Misi-zaaga’iganiing have seen white Minnesotans balk and scream about Ojibwe fishing rights. These very signs I’ve described here directly counter Mille Lacs County’s own recent legal argument that “the reservation had been disestablished or diminished” since its establishment in 1855. So, what do Ojibwe signs asserting tribal sovereignty and land claims mean in the context of ongoing conflict with the settler population of the region?
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A sign may seem paltry—mere gesture when erected by settlers, mere reminder when erected by Indigenous peoples—but signs like those at Mille Lacs are doing the work of remembering. Indigenous presence exists. If, as the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe says, their original reservation boundaries remain intact (which was reaffirmed by a federal judge in March of this year), then signage denoting Ojibwe lands not only reinforces tribal sovereignty, but reminds non-Native residents and visitor of Mille Lacs County that Ojibwe people belong to these lands, and that they have and will continue to maintain sovereign relationships with them.
This is perhaps a haunting for settler populations who would rather “honor” and “remember” Native peoples through name only, or distant, ephemeral representations of Indigeneity. But the truth is we’re not just specters in an American landscape, and these landscapes hold vibrant multitudes, alive in every way conceivable. These signs are Indigenous peoples saying: look at us, what has been done to us, and how we continue to not only survive but thrive. We are not ghosts.
These acts of resurgence are about upholding cultural knowledges, which inform Indigenous identity in inherently political ways. Through language, signage, ceremony, harvestings, and so many other practices, we are reaffirming our connections to lands that history says have been wrested from us. Perhaps, you too, can see the poetic brilliance in the answer to Indigenous hauntings being Indigenous life. Indigenous peoples’ resurgence ruptures the Indian ghost and forces non-Indigenous peoples to look at how silences around Indigenous presence have invisibilized us and how, through own reclamations, we are telling a different story.
When settlers speak of Indian burial grounds, of vengeful Native spirits, they recognize not our death nor our disappearance, but the physical vestiges of history. They speak of hauntings as evidence of a past that is ongoing. Our continued presence, our refusal to slip into tales of lore, haunts their own belonging to these lands, exposes the violence that has been carried out and re-articulated year after year. We’re not ghosts, but reminders of lands violently taken and peoples brutally oppressed. We’re not specters, but vibrant reminders that settler colonialism has failed. We have remained, as always, present—and though we, too, are haunted by American history, we see a different kind of future, one where the horror story ends and Indigenous peoples finally walk out of the haunted house and into the sunshine of a bright tomorrow. ■
This story is part of the Indigenous Rust Belt project, supported by Ohio Humanities.
Sasha Maria Suarez, direct descendant of the White Earth Nation (Band of Ojibwe), is an Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin. Her work has been featured in Indian Cities: Histories of Indigenous Urbanization (University of Oklahoma Press, 2022). She is currently working on her first book.
Cover photo: by Joshua Mayer (creative commons).
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