Church’s solidarity among Indigenous peoples in Minnesota shines light on long-ignored history of exploitation

Posted By on Oct 8, 2021 |

Mike Kornezos, a member of the Bois Forte Nation, and Thomas Jones, of Leech Lake, having been harvesting wild rice together on Minnesota’s lakes and waterways for about a decade. Kornezos is junior warden at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Cass Lake. Photo: Lynette Wilson/ENS

[Episcopal News Service – Bemidji, Minnesota] In mid-August, Mike Kornezos and his longtime ricing partner Thomas Jones were out on the lakes checking the readiness of wild rice. Harvested in early fall, wild rice – along with fish, wild berries, migratory ducks and garden-grown vegetables – has long sustained the Anishinaabe, as the Indigenous peoples of northern Minnesota are called.

Hot days, cold nights make for the best conditions, they said. In the following weeks, they would spend most mornings on the lakes in a canoe: Kornezos standing at the stern like a gondolier with long metal pole forked at the end to better use the muddy surface below as he propelled the boat along the water; Jones kneeling using the “knockers,” the smoothly carved sticks, one to hold the rice stalk steady, the other extended in one smooth, swift extension of the forearm from the elbow to thrush the rice kernel into the bottom of the boat.

A protein-rich plant, wild rice historically has grown in abundance in northern Minnesota,


The Office of Indigenous Ministries will host, “Native Voices: A Response to The Episcopal Church’s History with Indian Boarding Schools” on Oct. 11 at 5 p.m. Eastern. For more information or to register, click here.

a region of pine forests, peatlands, rivers and lakes; it’s a cultural and culinary mainstay of the Anishinaabe, who across the Upper Great Lakes region are also known as Chippewa and Ojibwe.

“We produce more rice here, naturally, than we do anywhere else in the states,” said Elaine Fleming, an instructor at Leech Lake Tribal College, a Cass Lake community college where she teaches Anishinaabe studies and Leech Lake Nation history and nationhood, as well as survey courses on Indigenous peoples of the Americas.

“We are a nation, not a reservation,” Fleming made clear in an interview with Episcopal News Service from her home in Cass Lake on the Leech Lake reservation. “And a nation,” she said, “has four elements: language and culture, history, a land base and its own governance. When I teach, I like to break things up like that so they [students] can understand themselves as a nation. In the fall, ricing is part of that. In the spring, it’s sugarbush.”

The ability to feed itself—to have food sovereignty—is part of being a nation, she said.

In June, Episcopalians from across the United States joined with the Anishinaabe in a non-violent protest at the headwaters of the Mississippi River – Bear Creek as the Anishinaabe call it – to try to stop the pipeline. Beginning in 2016 with the Dakota Access Pipeline and the camp at Standing Rock, North Dakota, The Episcopal Church has joined interfaith solidarity actions as Indigenous peoples and other “water protectors” have stood up to multinational corporations’ energy exploration, drilling and transportation infrastructure projects. These non-violent actions have centered on water quality; they’re also about human rights violations and the rights of sovereign nations. The church also has stood with Native Alaskans, the Gwich’in, in their struggle to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil exploration and development. Oil drilling in the refuge poses a threat to Porcupine caribou, animals the Gwich’in depend on for food and cultural survival.

General Convention sets The Episcopal Church’s priorities. Its solidarity with the Anishinaabe is fixed in a 2018 resolution reaffirming the church’s repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery and support for Indigenous peoples’ sovereignty over territorial resources. The resolution specifically noted the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe’s concerns regarding the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline. When the Anishinaabe ceded territory to the U.S. government in 1855, they did so with the understanding that they would maintain their rights to hunt, fish and gather wild rice on the land.

With more than 10,000 lakes, Minnesota and Lake Superior hold a fifth of the world’s freshwater. Wild Rice has historically grown in abundance here. Photo: Lynette Wilson/ENS

On Oct. 1, after a six-year legal and regulatory battle, the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline became operational. The $9.3 billion, 338-mile pipeline replacement and expansion project carries oil across northern Minnesota, where 85% of Minnesota’s Indigenous population now live on a patchwork of reservations. The pipeline runs along reservations and ceded treaty lands. With more than 10,000 lakes, Minnesota and Lake Superior hold a fifth of the world’s freshwater. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has given Enbridge permission to use 4.5 billion gallons of groundwater annually.

“When people like Enbridge come in, we will battle them,” Fleming said. “We have a say about what they are doing with the land and what happens with the water, and it’s not just about us. Everybody needs the water to be clean and useable, so we’re not just fighting for Leech Lake or White Earth. We are fighting for the land and for the people.”

Thomas Jones demonstrates how the “knockers” are used to thresh the wild rice from the stalk. Photo: Lynette Wilson/ENS

When European settlers first arrived in North America, Indigenous peoples by some estimates numbered in the millions. By the 1890s, warfare, disease and starvation had decimated the tribes, and some 249,000 remained in the United States. Those who survived the genocide lost territory when they signed treaties designed to open the land to logging, mining, homesteaders and farming. Forced from their land, Indigenous peoples began to lose access to the fish and game, plants and berries that sustained them. When the U.S. government began issuing rations to reservations, further disrupting Indigenous peoples’ cultural and culinary traditions, the government used food and harvest season as a tactic.

“They would give us food, and a lot of times the food didn’t come on time. Sometimes the food was rotten. They would be selling [us] the food so they could profit off of it,” Fleming said. “But the one thing we could always depend on was the rice … Rice is something you can keep. For at least 10 years, it’ll be good. They understood that, and when they were treating with us, they would hold their treaty meetings in the fall purposely to influence us to sign treaties – like the Nelson Act – because they knew we wanted to get home, that we needed to be ricing.”

The Nelson Act became law in January 1889. It attempted to relocate all the Anishinaabe in Minnesota to the White Earth Reservation in the western part of the state. The expropriated land went to the timber industry and white settlers. The remaining Indigenous lands were further divided into family allotments that encouraged subsistence farming and commodity food consumption, undermining the Anishinaabe way of life.

The Anishinaabe’s “stories, mythology and cosmology all centered on honor and respect – and to this day they are fighting for the federal government to honor treaties,” the Rev. Matthew Cobb, a priest a diocese the Episcopal Church in Minnesota, told ENS. For the last four years, he has been based in Bemidji, a “border town,” at the center of three nations’ reservations extending like a wishbone with Red Lake due north, White Earth to the southwest, and Leech Lake to the southeast. He has learned to speak Ojibwe and serves three Indigenous congregations and one predominantly white, Scandinavian-heritage congregation. Cobb wrote the 2018 resolution.

Mike Kornezos, a member of the Bois Forte Nation, talks about how wild rice is a source of protein and a mainstay of the Anishinaabe diet. Photo: Lynette Wilson/ENS

The first Episcopal missionary arrived in Minnesota in 1828. The diocese was founded in 1857 and two years later, in 1859, Bishop Henry B. Whipple was elected and moved his family from Chicago’s South Side to Faribault, 50 miles south of Minneapolis. Whipple quickly established himself as a force, a successful mediator between the warring Dakota and Ojibwe tribes. As he moved his ministry north, “he controlled the territory, the missionaries of any denomination that operated in the territory,” Cobb told ENS.

“He wielded a lot of temporal and spiritual power … People recognized him as a holy man and someone they could trust. He was given an Ojibwe name meaning ‘straight talk.’ He was seen as an honest man who didn’t talk out of both sides of his mouth,” Cobb said.

Whipple saw the treaties as “covenants between the U.S. government and the Anishinaabe,” Cobb explained, and he served as a negotiator between the two as settlers and the timber industry arrived in the state.

“[So] the treaties are signed and right from the beginning they were fraudulent. Right from the beginning, Whipple says in his autobiography, the whole process the Commission on Indian Affairs was involved in was fraudulent, and, of course, he was complicit … and that was the moral duress he was under at the end of his life,” Cobb said.

Cobb expressed hope that Episcopalians can use their baptismal vows and the Eucharist, its common table, to help them confront the church’s involvement in the exploitation of Indigenous peoples and their land.

“If we were to begin to face it, we would then be able to work through that shame and get to a place of courageously honoring the treaties and respecting the dignity of every human being like it says in the baptismal covenant,” he said. “For me, the violation of that treaty rights is also a violation of our baptismal rites. And so right and rite are very closely linked.”

Fleming, who is not an Episcopalian, when asked what Episcopalians can do to become better allies, said this: “They need to learn about us … That means learning about the treaties and their violation, learning the truth about what happened in the boarding schools, the man camps, Enbridge Line 3 – and how they’ve taken the water out. But it also means learning about the people and what they’ve accomplished.

The murals at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Cass Lake on the Leech Lake Nation signal cultural inclusion. Photo: Photo: Lynette Wilson/ENS

“Like for our people, I think we’re pretty spectacular. We’re the ‘shining people,’ because traditionally, we had this philosophy and relationship with the Earth and the skies. And it was about respect,” Fleming said. “Learn the real history of the peoples, not just about us here but wherever you live. Understand what happened to the Indigenous peoples there so that you can teach that to your own compatriots.”

Then, she said, advocate for changes to the education system to teach about Indigenous peoples and the true history of what happened in the United States of America.

“I think in America, they all need to know the history of our peoples, the genocide of our peoples, and then what we’ve done to heal,” Fleming said. “You don’t need to come to try to heal us, you need to heal yourselves, your own minds, your own souls, and respect the world.”

The Episcopal Church repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery in 2009, joining a wider movement among Christian denominations at a time when few people understood its premise, said the Rev. Brad Hauff, The Episcopal Church’s Indigenous missioner, who is a member of the Lakota Nation.

“How can you repudiate something when you don’t even know what it is?” he said. For instance, he added, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” the God-given unalienable rights given to all humans and upheld in the Declaration of Independence did not apply to “the merciless Indian savages,” according to Thomas Jefferson.

“I think a lot of people have never read the Declaration of Independence,” Hauff said. Its denigration of Indigenous peoples “has tended to be pushed aside or ignored. People don’t talk about it. But recently, people have been talking about it, that Jefferson really was a proponent of these genocidal processes.”

Thomas Jones determines the wild rice’s readiness. Photo: Lynette Wilson/ENS

Examining history from the cultural perspective of Indigenous peoples requires people to be willing to look critically at American and Episcopal Church history, while at the same time having the integrity to examine themselves from within, Hauff said. “In America today, even in The Episcopal Church, there are a number of people who are just fine with the traditional Columbus-discovery, Manifest Destiny-narrative. That’s their narrative. They’re proud of it, they don’t want it to change. They want Columbus Day to stay Columbus Day, not to become Indigenous Peoples Day. And these people are very vocal and politically active right now.”

Hauff noticed a shift take place nationally and in the church around 2018, around the same time General Convention called for education around the Doctrine of Discovery. By 2019, some dioceses had begun adding Indigenous Peoples Day to their calendars. Absent a formal federal declaration, Americans increasingly refer to the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples Day instead of Columbus Day. The Episcopal Church recently endorsed legislation supporting it as a federal holiday.

Last week, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry joined his Lutheran and Anglican counterparts in North America to designate Sept. 30 as a day of commemoration, truth and healing in solidarity with Indigenous peoples. In a statement, the leaders recognized that the churches’ repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery begins with telling the truth; and that both U.S. and Canadian education systems perpetuate white supremacy by teaching narratives that glorify settlers’ contributions to building societies and delete or ignore those of Native Americans and First Nations peoples.

Earlier this year in July following the discovery of unmarked graves at a Canadian boarding school, Curry and House of Deputies President the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings condemned the schools, describing instances of forcible removal of children from their homes, forced assimilation and physical abuse as a “cultural genocide” that sought to erase their identity. They acknowledged that The Episcopal Church was associated with residential schools in the United States during the 19th and 20th centuries, and said the church needs to understand the legacy and commit to truth and reconciliation. The church also supported federal legislation that would establish a formal commission to investigate, document and acknowledge past injustices of the federal government’s Indian boarding school policies.

Like Fleming, Hauff stressed that American history and Indigenous peoples’ place in it include historic contributions. For instance, Fleming said, 75% of the vegetables grown today were first cultivated by Indigenous peoples in North and South America.

“We had cities,” she said. “You cannot feed yourselves by hunting and gathering when you have a city of 40,000 people. So in summer, we garden.”

Hauff stressed how Indigenous and European-American worldviews differ.

One of the murals at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Cass Lake pays tribute to U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary. Photo: Lynette Wilson/ENS

“Indigenous people do not teach human dominance. We see humankind as having a place in the ecosystem of the universe. But it’s not a place of dominance, we do not have the right and we are not free to change the order of things as has been set by the Great Spirit. The Euro-American worldviews differ from that,” he said. “I believe that is why we’re seeing what is happening to our planet, and to our climate… the consequences of what happens when you teach and practice human dominance. Indigenous people have a lot to teach the dominant society about that if the dominant society would only listen. I don’t believe that we’d be in the situation that we’re in right now, with regard to the planet and the climate, if human dominance were not taught.”

Though General Convention sets the church’s priorities, much of the work happens locally. Minnesota Bishop Craig Loya joined the solidarity action in June and then, in mid-August, spent a week in residence in the state’s northwest, including Bemidji, Brainerd, Rice Lake, Cass Lake, Red Lake and Leech Lake. He visited congregations and met with tribal leaders to learn about Anishinaabe history and culture, to connect more deeply with the Episcopal Church in Minnesota’s Indigenous faith communities, and to listen and learn about both the beauty and challenges of those communities today.

“It has been such a gift to spend time with these communities, hearing stories from the past and from today. Our indigenous congregations are particularly gifted at sharing Christian life together, from baptisms to funerals and from harvest time to the dinner table. I have felt welcomed not just into worship services, but into full, rich, communal lives. I can’t wait to share that story more widely around the diocese,” Loya told Episcopal News Service during a conversation in Bemidji.

As part of his residence, the bishop spent a day with a tribal conservation officer learning about the wild rice harvest and features of the land, and how they connect to Anishinaabe history and culture. They talked about Enbridge Line 3’s threat to wild rice, the way of life centered around the rice harvest and its role, past and present, in sustaining both life and culture.

“It’s not just about the land itself but about the peoples’ generations-long relationship to the land, and to the plants and animals that populate it. That profound recognition of our interconnectedness with creation is another story I’m excited to tell,” Loya said. 

-Lynette Wilson is a journalist and managing editor of Episcopal News Service.