Indigenous alumni talk activism, experiences

Indigenous alumni talk activism, experiences

Anthony Reynolds, Staff Writer

On Thursday, Nov. 3, a panel of Indigenous Macalester alumni came together to talk about Indigenous activism. The panel, featuring Chris Griffith ’92, Janice Lefloe ’92, and Jennings Mergenthal ’21, brought a broad range of perspectives and stories about their history and experiences in activism.

After a brief introduction from Rabbi Emma Kippley-Ogman, Mergenthal, a community engagement specialist at the Science Museum of Minnesota, opened the panel by sharing what activism looked like during their time at Macalester.

“The biggest piece of native-centered student activism when I was here was the Humanities Building un-naming,” Mergenthal said. 

Mergenthal spoke about the building’s previous name, Neill Hall, after Edward Neill, the founder of Macalester, who had several racist public statements during his time as president of Macalester.

“There was an ongoing campaign to have a broader reconsideration of how people are commemorated and placed on pedestals and what honoring an individual in this particular way looks like,” Mergenthal said. “[Former] President of Macalester College Brian Rosenberg said ‘Actually, no, let’s not have that broader conversation. Let’s just rename this specific one building.’” 

Griffith, creative director and co-founder of Z Puppets, then talked about his experience with Lefloe when the pair organized the first powwow on campus.

“We found every administrative office on campus and we just walked in uninvited, knocking on doors, introducing ourselves to every adult we could [and] saying ‘We’re gonna have a powwow, how are you gonna help us?’” Griffith said. “That is one of the biggest lessons in activism that I carry with me still — you just have to knock on doors.”

Lefloe, founder and primary guide at Montessori American Indian Childcare Center, spoke about her experience organizing the first Anti-Columbus Day Bonfire in 1988, which was opposed by the administration. 

“There was not a lot of love or understanding about what [the Anti-Columbus Day Bonfire] really meant to native people and Indigenous peoples as it emerged over the years,” Lefloe said.

She elaborated on her experience when she took her activism off campus where she found a much different environment than what she was used to. 

“You get to be in a secluded world when you’re in college, and in this setting, the acceptance of students walking into your office to talk to you about an event you want to have was something that took a lot of courage but something that was kind of expected,” Lefloe said. “When we went out into the community, those walks on Grand Ave to do some fundraising were not always welcomed.”

She reaffirmed that this off-campus presence was important and helped her develop her activism in ways that she still carries with her today. 

The panel then answered a question about how Macalester has changed in response to Indigenous activism. Griffith spoke about the importance of forms of activism that are sometimes overlooked or underappreciated.

“Getting land acknowledgments at Macalester is amazing,” Griffith said. “I know that for some people it can feel performative, and something that maybe isn’t always backed up with action, but I have to tell you that sitting here in this room and hearing that being read moved me.” 

He also spoke about how different approaches to activism — whether that be direct action with protests, working on a more individual level or activism online — are all important to changing systems overall.

“There’s room within activism for many different approaches and I think we need all of those approaches, there’s no one answer,” Griffith said.

Lefloe discussed her experience after college and how different it is, as people are less willing to have tough conversations about activism and about Indigenous life outside of an environment where that is encouraged. 

“Beyond college, depending on how and where your life goes, folks don’t always get to have those protected, guided conversations,” Lefloe said. “One of the biggest growths I hope you’ll all experience is knowing how to do that in a way that acknowledges common ground and is respectful of differing opinions.”

Mergenthal then transitioned to talking about how students learn about Indigenous life, and that historically it has been other students teaching students. However, they acknowledged that recently the administration’s investment in the college, through decisions like the professors it chooses to hire, is changing that.

“[Investment changed] in ways that have started to shift the burden of responsibility of educating from the students [at Macalester] to people who are paid to educate here,” Mergenthal said. 

Next, the panel spoke about decolonization surrounding educational institutions and whether that is possible. 

“Institutions cannot be decolonized in any meaningful sense,” Mergenthal said. “In order to exist in a form that is recognizable as Macalester, [it] will still have to own this land, have to occupy and use it in certain ways and will still have to have what is in many ways an extractive relationship with the communities and students.”

However, they clarified that there are still things that need to be done and ways to improve the institution. 

“A more helpful framework is: what [does] meaningful Indigenization of an institution look like?” Mergenthal said. “It looks like continuing investment in hiring more Indigenous professors, having more Indigenous people in positions of power and retaining more [Indigenous students].”

Lefloe then transitioned to talk about individual decolonization on a personal level and its importance for a community.

“How am I decolonizing my own mind and my own way of thinking?” Lefloe said. “Macalester is honestly a great place [to do that work] because that intellectual community is huge.” 

Griffith then spoke about how his perspective on decolonization changed from a “gasoline and matches” mindset which prioritized decolonization through tearing down colonial institutions to one that focuses on individual change. Although he still holds some of those beliefs, he also thinks that other forms of decolonization are important as well. 

“A lot of the work I’ve done since then has felt almost more subversive and more revolutionary because it’s in places [you] don’t expect to see it at all, like in a children’s puppet show,” Griffith said.

He ended the panel by giving advice on how to be a good ally to Indigenous people without overstepping and dominating the conversation. 

“It comes down to being present, listening, asking questions, being willing to make mistakes and being okay with making those mistakes, because it’s about those relationships,” Griffith said. “If you are able to build relationships with people, … a conversation can happen.”

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