Native American Heritage Month Pathway to Progress: Ojibwe Women Transform Working Life in Minneapolis

November 27th, 2019 | Kenneth Quinnell

History has long been portrayed as a series of “great men” taking great action to shape the world we live in. In recent decades, however, social historians have focused more on looking at history “from the bottom up,” studying the vital role that working people played in our heritage. Working people built, and continue to build, the United States. In our series, Pathway to Progress, we’ll take a look at various people, places and events where working people played a key role in the progress our country has made, including those who are making history right now. In honor of Native American Heritage Month, we will take a look at a group of Ojibwe women who helped transform the world of work in Minneapolis-St. Paul throughout much of the 20th century.

In the early 1960s, activism among Native American populations was on the rise. The goal of federal “termination” policy was to integrate Native American tribe members into mainstream American culture with a heavy emphasis on assimilation. With little to no help coming from Washington, the struggle for Native American rights shifted to state and local fights. Those smaller fights would culminate in a wave of activism that stopped bad legislation, won legal protections and ended the termination policy. One of the key battlegrounds was Minneapolis-St. Paul.

The Ojibwe people lived in various places throughout the upper Midwest, but the combination of the termination policy, economic troubles and job opportunities opened up by American foreign policy led them to move in large numbers to Minneapolis-St. Paul. The twin cities were established in the Dakota homeland and tribal people from the prairies and northern lake country began moving into Minneapolis-St. Paul in large numbers, leading to the region housing one of the largest Indigenous populations in the U.S.

Ojibwe women generally arrived in the twin cities with families and friends although some came to search for employment on their own. Life in the city was drastically different than life on the reservation and there were intense pressures to reject their cultural ideas about work to fit in with the white population. In order to survive and prosper, they had to develop new ideas about labor, but they wanted to maintain their link to the values of the traditional Ojibwe economy.

Prior to moving to the city, many of the Ojibwe women, such as Gertrude Howard Buckanaga, worked in agriculture, such as blueberry picking or wild rice harvesting. In the early days, Howard Buckanaga and others would work in the city and travel home for the wild rice harvest. Ojibwe women, for the most part, only had high school degrees or a boarding school education. Neither prepared them for working in the city, but they found ways to transition skills they had used in agriculture to work in the city.

The longer they lived in urban areas, Ojibwe women began to attend community meetings, participate in activism and attend college to obtain higher degrees. The earliest work they found were office jobs, in the Indian Service or as teachers at government boarding schools. Those schools began training Ojibwe girls to be nurses, which led to other job opportunities. Outside that, employers often viewed Ojibwe women as only suited for domestic or factory work and discrimination against them was widespread. De facto segregation was the norm in Minneapolis-St. Paul at the time.

Low-paying jobs, discrimination and segregation put up significant road blocks and the Ojibwe women came in at the lowest rung of the economic ladder in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Social services were few and far between and often didn’t serve Native Americans. This isolation forced Ojibwe women (and men) to create new patterns of participation in the workforce and other organizations and agencies to fill in where U.S. government services didn’t.

One of the most important leaders to emerge from the community was Emily Peake. Peake’s family included French, English and Ojibwe ancestry, and she moved to Minneapolis from the White Earth reservation. Peake signed up for the Works Projects Administration, leading her to jobs in the Minneapolis Public Library and making parachutes for Honeywell. After serving in the Women’s Coast Guard, she moved back to Minneapolis and began working as a community organizer during the years of the federal termination policy.

As the Indian population in the Twin Cities grew, Peake worked together with a group of Ojibwe and Dakota sisters and brothers to create the Upper Midwest Indian Center, for which she would serve time as the executive director. The center provided social service programs for Indian workers and their families and would operate solely off of money Peake and her colleagues raised until War on Poverty grants were made available. The community center idea would soon spread to other cities and these centers not only provided social services, but they interwove Indian values and spiritual beliefs. Other community institutions would be created by Indian activists in Minneapolis and elsewhere.

These efforts would not only lead to increased community and more employment, it set the ground for larger activism as well. The Ojibwe and other Indian women active in the Twin Cities are credited as creating the opening for which the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act would be passed. Other legislation followed. Ojibwe women took leadership positions throughout Minneapolis’ community life, and they pursued meaningful jobs, cared for family and children, mentored other women, and continued to grow the services that were offered. The Minneapolis American Indian Center, for example, has served more than 14,000 American Indians since it opened in 1975.

Women held the majority of the sustained leadership roles in in the Ojibwe community of Minneapolis and their visionary body of work can still be seen today in schools, Indian centers, academic curricula, social services and legislation. Their work not only increased well-being for the Ojibwe and other Indians in Minneapolis, it was instrumental in leading to greater sovereignty for Indian people across the country.

Women like Peake, Howard Buckanaga, Rose Robinson, Frances Fairbanks, Ona Kingbird, Norby Blake, Pat Bellanger, Vikki Howard and others laid a foundation for the institutions and laws that increased the quality of life for many Indians, not only in politics, but in the economy as well. As Bellanger said, “‘Ojibwe women have been strong throughout everything’ and ‘we have kept our ways,’ acknowledging the significance of the women’s work like harvesting wild rice, which ‘has always gone through the women.'”

Source: Brenda J. Child, Politically Purposeful Work: Ojibwe Women’s Labor and Leadership in Postwar Minneapolis

This blog was originally published by the AFL-CIO on November 26, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist. Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.

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