Teaching About Native Activism

Guest blogger: Rich Updegrove, Duluth East High School

Our way
Image from University of Minnesota Press website.

As a high school social studies teacher I have the opportunity to work with young adults as they navigate their way through the complex world that exists beyond the walls of our schools. A section of that map that all of our students need is a working knowledge of political activism in the Native American community. Minnesotans in particular have a rich local history of indigenous activism that includes the founding of the American Indian Movement, the many struggles to preserve treaty rights, and the international recognition that Winona LaDuke brings to our state.

One of the best experiences that I have had with high school students is using Mary Losure’s 2002 book Our Way or the Highway: Inside the Minnehaha Free State to teach contemporary political activism and indigenous histories of Minnesota. The books tell the story of “a diverse coalition of Native Americans, neighborhood residents, and young anarchists” who attempt to prevent the rerouting of Highway 55 in Minneapolis during the late 1990s and early 2000s. The fact that indigenous issues are woven together with national environmental organizations, state politicians, and local political activists helps illustrate the interconnectedness of all histories, indigenous and otherwise.

In terms of demonstrating how Native American history influences the present, Losure’s chapter “Little Crow’s Children” is particularly artful. In that chapter, students get a 300-year history of the Mdewakanton people that includes meetings with French Canadian fur traders in the 1700s, and protest letters to Indian Country Today from the 1990s about membership in the Shakopee Mdewakanton Dakota. Students come away from that chapter alone with a better understanding on how the past is continually revealing itself to present, if you know where to look.

When I first used Our Way or the Highway, I was teaching at Community of Peace Academy in St. Paul, and the local connection had a greater impact than it does at Duluth East High School where I now teach. However, the eccentricity of the people involved, the fact that the initial raid is considered by many to be the largest police action in Minnesota history, and the engaging and approaching writing style of Mary Losure, make this book an exciting and unique avenue to reach students around the state.

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