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Know your neighbors: Circle of Healing builds welcoming communities through understanding and appreciation

Circle of Healing members on tour of Vermilion Indian Boarding School.

sprig by Posted in Vibrant Rural

What does a welcoming rural community look like? Is it the shower of smiles you get while walking down main street? The sign at the town’s entrance shouting WELCOME in all CAPS? Or the local cafe where the many faces of the community come together for coffee? Creating a welcoming community, for newcomers and for existing residents, is vital for workforce recruitment and retention, increased civic engagement, and the potential for greater innovation and creativity. While the exact formula for a welcoming community has yet to be discovered, we know that building an understanding of, and appreciation for, your neighbors goes a long way for all people to feel welcome in their community.

This has been the goal of the Circle of Healing for four years. The Circle creates and supports conditions for Native and non-native people to connect in ways that promote mutual growth and cultural understanding. An Itasca-area group of Native and non-Native residents, the Circle of Healing has undertaken projects like:

Recently, the Circle of Healing toured the site of the Vermilion Lake Indian Boarding School and the Boise Forte Heritage Center in northeastern Minnesota to deepen their understanding of how the Native experience at Indian boarding schools in Minnesota and throughout the United States forever changed the way indigenous families connect to their past and act in the present.

Noreen Hautala, a Circle of Healing member, shared her experience in Sunday’s Grand Rapids Herald Review. Here is a snapshot of her learning:

The Vermilion School was built in 1899 for Bois Forte children and drew youths from other tribes across Minnesota, northwestern Wisconsin, and parts of Canada, Anderson said. Once at the boarding school, children had to give up their language, dress, and customs. Their hair was cut short, and they were made to wear uniforms or dominant culture clothing. Children were severely punished if caught speaking “Indian.”


[Dr. Linda LaGarde] Grover [of University of Minnesota associate professor of Native American Studies] told the members of the Circle of Healing that the Vermilion Lake School and many like it across the United States have had a profound impact on Native Americans. The boarding schools severely disrupted Indian families, she said, leading to many of the current crises among families and individuals. Efforts to assimilate served to terminate a way of life that had been vital, successful, and healthy for Indigenous Native People for many generations.


When asked by a member of the Grand Rapids visitor group why people should care about the history of the boarding schools, Grover said, “Building awareness and understanding among all people about the assimilation and termination policies of the United States government is important. People need to understand that we have been victimized but that we are not victims. I am proud of the courage my relatives had who survived the boarding schools. I am proud of their ‘Indianess.’”

Next Monday, October 12, the City of Grand Rapids and the Grand Rapids Human Rights Commission will celebrate its first-ever Indigenous People’s Day in Grand Rapids. The Circle of Healing is a partner in this work to create conditions for new connections and understanding. The community is invited to enjoy a mini powwow to celebrate the culture indigenous people bring to the area.

Stay tuned as we continue to dig deeper into what it means to be a welcoming community, following the work of the Circle of Healing and other welcoming efforts in rural Minnesota.

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