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

Wednesday, November 27th, 2019

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.

Employee Rights Short Takes: GOP Private Club Sued For Race Discrimination, Latino Discrimination On The Rise And More

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

It’s a political week, so here are a few short takes – admittedly- with a political twist::

GOP Social Club Sued For Racial Discrimination

The National Republican Club of Capitol Hill, an exclusive club known to be the place where the DC Republican “backroom deals” get made, is being sued for raImage: Republicance discrimination by its former human resource manager. The plaintiff, Kim Crawford,  alleges that she was repeatedly passed over for raises while “less qualified, less deserving male and white counterparts were given” increases.

Crawford also claims she was fired in July after investigating a racial complaint from the club’s acting executive chef. Race discrimination in employment and retaliation are prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. For more about it read here.

Being A Liberal And Hating Sarah Palin May Be Genetic

I must say this story caught my eye – particularly since we have three generations of Sarah Palin bashers in my immediate family. A new study in the Journal of Politics, as reported in Time,  says that there’s a biological explanation why some people favor big government, oppose the death penalty and can’t stand Sarah Palin – and it’s called the liberal gene.

The DRD4-7R gene affecting the neurotransmitter dopamine has already been linked to a personality type driven to seek out new experiences. Researchers from the University of California, San Diego and Harvard University hypothesized that this predisposition might affect political beliefs.

The researches suspect that the D4 novelty seekers would have more exposure to a wider variety of lifestyles, a wider circle of friends and more exposure to broader  views, attitudes and beliefs. Apparently, all of this does have an effect on D4 inidviduals’ political views and the new study bears out their hypothesis  —  those born with the D4 gene are more liberal. It’s all quite interesting. I wonder if we’re going to hear about a conservative gene too?

More Latinos Concerned About Discrimination

Nearly two thirds of Latinos in the United States think that discrimination against Hispanics is a “major problem” according to a new study from the Pew Hispanic Center. There are 47 million Latinos in the US, which make up 15% of the population and constitute the nation’s largest minority group. According to the study:

Asked to state the most important factor leading to discrimination, a plurality of 36% now cite immigration status, up from a minority of 23% who said the same in 2007. Back then, a plurality of respondents-46%-identified language skills as the biggest cause of discrimination against Hispanics.

The Pew study was released days before the mid-term elections in which the Latino vote is expected to play an important role, particularly in the Florida gubernatorial race and Nevada Senate contest between Senate Majority leader Harry Reid and Tea Party Republican Sharon Angle. Anlge has been sharply criticized for ads run in recent weeks which portray Latinos as menacing interlopers. 17% of voters in Nevada are Latinos who are expected to vote in high numbers this Tuesday.

images: ktnv.images.worldnow rlv.zcache.com politicalmuse.com

This article was originally posted on Employee Rights Blog.

About the Author: Ellen Simon is recognized as one of the leading  employment and civil rights lawyers in the United States. She offers legal advice to individuals on employment rights, age/gender/race and disability discrimination, retaliation and sexual harassment. With a unique grasp of the issues, Ellen’s a sought-after legal analyst who discusses high-profile civil cases, employment discrimination and woman’s issues. Her blog, Employee Rights Post has dedicated readers who turn to Ellen for her advice and opinion. For more information go to www.ellensimon.net.

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