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Celebrating Chiefs' Day

A group of native students and Ojibwa tribe members mark the start of Chiefs' Day with a traditional drum and song. The event was held Wednesday at the White Earth Community Center.

When Presidents' Day was celebrated Monday, many did it with a day off and reminders of great men who came before us.

But when the sounds of celebration faded, one could faintly hear the sound of drums.

These were the traditional Native American drums being played in a community that does not always feel quite as celebrated in mainstream America.

The Ojibwa Indians on White Earth Reservation are hoping to change that, as they marked the first ever Chiefs' Day on Wednesday.

Over 200 people filled the White Earth Community Center for a four-hour celebration of chiefs and ancestors.

The man behind the idea is Robert Shimek, or Animikiiwaanakwad, (his spirit name meaning "Thunder Cloud").

Most just call him Bob, though.

Shimek works in environmental justice and is the local foods coordinator for the White Earth Land Recovery Project.

He says he wanted to begin a new tradition for the Ojibwa people, which can help instill a sense of history and pride, particularly among their Native youth in Minnesota.

"If we can convey to these young people that hey, it was more than just George Washington, Abe Lincoln or Governor Ramsey, there were chiefs who were involved with setting up treaties that make Minnesota even legal to exist the way it does today," he says.

Native American students from Detroit Lakes, Waubun and Circle of Life took time out of school to attend the event.

DL Senior Jennifer Doxee says she thinks things like this help her and her peers to think about their history so they can learn from it.

"And instead of learning a little from a classroom, we get to come here and learn a lot as a people," she says.

Fellow Laker, Justin Stallman, a ninth grader, says he doesn't think they learn nearly enough about Native history in school.

"I never even knew about these treaties they were talking about today. I know about some, only because my aunt has told me about them, but these were new to me."

Professor of Ojibwa and author of "The Assassination of Hole In The Day" Dr. Anton Treuer was the special speaker for the event.

One of many messages he had for his fellow Natives was one of responsibility and self-reliance.

"It has not always been a fair hand the Ojibwa people have been dealt, but at the same time, it is not up to the federal government to give us everything we want. If we want sobriety, we must take it. If we want more land rights, we must begin the negotiations..." he told the crowd.

By negotiations, these Native Americans are talking specifically of the land involved with the Treaty of 1855.

This was the treaty that ensured an inter-tribal right to co-manage, (with the U.S. government) hunting, fishing, and gathering on the 13-million acre territory, which was ceded to the Union in 1854.

Many Native Americans in the region feel these rights have been wrongly diminished, and they took this day to make their case for support for their reaffirmation efforts.

According to Shimek, they wanted to carefully craft the message to cause controversy, but in a way that is productive, instead of divisive.

"We are all in this together...legally, politically, socially and economically. Those treaties in the 1800s still dictate a lot of what goes on today, and they belong to all of us, not just the Native Americans. We have so much more in common through these treaties than we do differences."

Commonalities or differences aside, Treuer said he believes events like this can open up a dialogue for Natives among themselves and across racial lines.

"I think Native Americans are often imagined and rarely understood. Some believe Indians are all rich from casinos; some believe Indians are all living in squalor and 'why can't they just pick up the trash in their yards?'

"The truth is, our reality now is complicated and there are no easy answers."

While one four-hour event may not be the answer to some very complicated relationships and issues, it was still a day these natives considered historical in and of itself.

Shimek says, "Everything we can do to gain a better understanding and a deep appreciation for the respective histories that all went into making the current geo-political situations we have today, the better off we all are."