Preserving and resisting at UD’s Native People of the Americas conference

By Whitney Bell

Photo: Writer and artist Heid Erdrich, Ojibwe, graces UD Nov. 14; photo: B-Fresh Photography

Heid Erdrich is a writer, artist, teacher, and collaborator with two kids and a big family. She’s coming to the University of Dayton Nov. 14, as the keynote speaker for the Native Peoples of the America’s Colloquium, where other writers, teachers, artists, and collaborators will join in addressing indigenous language preservation and cultural resistance.

The two-day colloquium starts Monday with topics that include “LGBT Native American Activism in the United States and Canada” by Daniel Rivers, “Lakota/ Dakota Language Revitalization” by Sunshine Carlow and Nacole Walker, and “Oshkizhitwaawinan: New Traditions” by Margaret Noodin. During lunch, Alicia Pagan and Raymond Two Crows Wallen (Ga-Li) will present “The Universal Language of Music and Storytelling: A Native Perspective.” In her keynote, Erdrich will present poetry, poem-films, and food stories from the Indigenous Upper Midwest.

On Tuesday, Nov. 15, Linda and Luke Black Elk will speak on “The Standing Rock Nation vs. the Dakota Access Pipeline: Context.” Chief Vincent Mann and Lee McCaslin will present “ReZpect Our Water,” and Leon Briggs will teach “Free to You from the Creator’s Garden: Native Plants and Herbs.”

Keynote speaker Erdrich defines “cultural resistance,” the theme of this year’s colloquium, as “expressions that help with the resurgence of cultures that have been oppressed… whether that is language, or art, or food…” When asked if she uses her poetry and film to promote cultural resistance, she replies, “Absolutely.”

The author of four collections of poetry, Erdrich’s writing has won awards from the Minnesota State Arts Board, Bush Foundation, The Loft Literary Center, and First People’s Fund. Her book National Monuments won the 2009 Minnesota Book Award. And in 2013, she was named one of City Pages Artists of the Year.

Erdrich’s “poem-films” have been screened widely at festivals and have won a Judges Award, a Best of Fest, and a Best Experimental Short award. She is an independent scholar and curator, a playwright, and founding publisher of Wiigwaas Press, an Ojibwe language publisher. Erdrich grew up in Wahpeton, North Dakota, and is Ojibwe enrolled at Turtle Mountain. She lives in the Twin Cities and teaches the MFA Creative Writing program at
Augsburg College.

Erdrich uses her poetry and film to preserve her own native Ojibwe language, as well as to educate others. The title of her keynote is “Call and Response: Poems and Films Honoring Ancestors and Elders.” When asked if there is a balance between art and activism, she says, “Activism is seeking to address imbalance.”

Though Erdrich adds, “I think all art is political,” the activism isn’t overt in her poem-films entitled “Undead Faerie Goes Great with Indian Pale Ale,” in which she addresses the popularity of zombies, or within “Indigenous Elvis Works the Medicine Line.” However, in the 2013 poem-film “Pre-Occupied,” co-directed by R. Vincent Moniz Jr., the words “pipeline” and “hydro-fracking” feature alongside imagery and metaphor of a river.

Perhaps one of the most public American imbalances right now has to do with a controversial oil pipeline in Standing Rock, North Dakota, the state where Erdrich was born. Thousands of “water protectors” have gathered to sing, pray, and demonstrate their opposition to the pipeline. According to Erdrich, the predominantly white city of Bismarck was allowed a vote on the presence of building the pipeline, and Bismarck voted against it. The native citizens of Standing Rock were not offered a vote.

“I know many people who have been coming and going,” Erdrich says of the camp that has been set up on the land, considered sacred, which hovers over Standing Rock’s main water supply. Mostly though, she’s been keeping up with the events through social media and a few of her friends on the ground at the camp.

In response to the water protectors’ presence, more and more police have been commissioned to Standing Rock, including sheriffs and police officers from other jurisdictions, the National Guard, and even 37 Ohio State Highway Patrol officers. Water protectors report being attacked by dogs, shot by rubber bullets, pepper-sprayed, strip-searched, arrested, and shot at with sound cannons that can result in hearing loss. Journalists, actors, and even presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein have joined the protest and called upon the government to halt the pipeline and listen to the people of Standing Rock.

One of the concerns is that the pipeline will poison Standing Rock’s water, and, according to Erdrich, this is not just a Native Peoples’ issue. “It’s happening everywhere,” she says. A pipeline just burst in Pennsylvania two weeks ago, spilling almost 55,000 gallons of oil into a tributary of the Susquehanna River. “They all leak,” she says.

In Erdrich’s words, “It’s going to be the biggest issue of the century.”

The Native People of the Americas Colloquium takes place Monday–Tuesday, Nov. 14–15 at University of Dayton, 300 College Park. Heid Erdrich presents ‘Call and Response’ Monday 7–9:30 p.m. in UD’s Kennedy Union Ballroom. Events are free and open to the public, but registration is required for some events. To register or for more information on the colloquium, please visit 

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