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 k / o
                                       politics + culture

Thursday, November 24, 2005

thanksgiving roots

I am home tonight in the house my parents have lived in for 35 years.

Here in St. Paul the past is all around us. In the corner of my dad's office is a wooden rocking chair from my grandmother, Mary. In various corners of the house are fine examples of Red Wing Pottery, woolen blankets from Faribault Woolen Mills, a stolid chest of drawers that belonged to my Czech great-grandfather Edward...all artifacts of 19th century life in Minnesota.

Just the other day, my dad and I drove through Stillwater, Minnesota, on the border with Wisconsin, which served as a staging area for so many "Minnesota pioneers" and he recalled how his grandfather, George, bragged of swimming under the logs on the St. Croix River there. Timothy Shields, George's father ran a hotel in Stillwater. Timothy arrived in Stillwater after leaving County Roscommon Ireland for America in 1836. (Grandpa George, it should be said, noted that swimming under logs meant you really had to hold your breath.)

The past, of course, is all around us. I learned today, as my mom dug through a file folder full of careful notes mailed by a relative years ago, that my great great grandfather, a man named Jan Hoodecheck born in 1840 in Sloupnice in the Czech Republic, and who emigrated to Racine, Wisconsin in 1855 as a teen, had served in the 22nd Wisconsin in the Civil War. The 22nd was known as the "Abolition Regiment" for incorporating freed slaves into their ranks and refusing to release fugitive slaves back to slavery. (They were also some of the first troops into Atlanta under Sherman...and, at wars end, paraded in the Grand Review of Armies.)

What seems the remote past is not so far distant as we think. My father, as a child, played with his brothers in a log cabin (yes, you read that right) that my grandfather, James, used as a ice house...with ice he cut in the winter from Lake Dora in Le Seuer County and hauled back to Doyle, the "one family town" of which he was the founder and where he operated a general store and grain elevator. When I showed my dad a picture of a "pioneer cabin" and asked if he knew of any in his area growing up, he laughed, and said..."Seen one? I used to play in one!"

History points in other directions too. On the other side of my family, my grandfather Richard often found Native American arrowheads during spring plowing on the banks of the Crow River, in McCleod County, where my mother grew up. So much so, that he assumed there had been a longstanding settlement near his farm. I remember, as a kid with my cousins in the 1970s, asking my uncle to take us to see the Indian burial mounds on a bend in the Crow River...near where some of my relatives still live. My uncle knew where they were because my grandfather had shown them to him. And standing in the woods that day...we were kids...I defintely remember a hushed feeling when my uncle told us that other families had lived here on the river. Other people had called it home. In fact, some of them were buried right there in the woods.

Of course, that is true of St. Paul, my home town, as well. St. Paul was earlier known as the Mdewankton settlement of Kaposia, near what is now called Mounds Park. As a kid, my family would often hike on Pike Island, just below Fort Snelling, where after the Dakota War in 1862, 1300-1700 Dakota people were held in a concentration camp...later moved to what is now the site of the Mall of America...before being expelled from Minnesota in an 'ethnic cleansing.' Two winters ago, hiking in the snow on Pike Island, my dad and I found a memorial to this concentration camp consisting of one hundred or so wooden stakes in a circle and driven through the snow...each with a red ribbon and a Lakota name written on it. It was a moving sight in the silent winter woods.

That story connects to my family in a closer way. In 1863, Taoyateduta,known as 'Little Crow', leader of the Lakota people in the Dakota War, was shot while gathering berries with his son along the Crow River outside Hutchinson...just miles from where my mother grew up.

The Crow River is a part of my childhood. We ice skated on it in winter...hiked along it in spring and summer. Working with my grandpa and uncle, I would help herd cattle across it from the far pasture. The Crow River made an 'S' shape that encircled the farm my mom grew up on. The history the river represents...complicity, settlement, genocide, family...is hidden in its curves.

To put that history in the past, as we so often do on Thanksgiving...is in some ways to ignore it, to deny it, to put ourselves outside it when, in fact, we live side by side with it. It is a part of us. That can arrive for us in surprising ways...I remember visiting a friend in Minneapolis and seeing the photo of her American Indian grandparents in the 1940s on the fridge...standing in dress clothes in front of a teepee. Or it can arrive in more official ways, like being a guest for wild rice and walleye dinners at the Minneapolis American Indian Center. Our past, in this regard, is very much our present. That is the point. History can be mundane and still powerful and real.

Yesterday, shopping with my sister and my one and half year old niece for Thanksgiving groceries on Lake Street...it was remarkable...the mix of faces shopping for groceries for the holiday. There were many, many American Indians from South Minneapolis's large Indian community, moms, kids, grandmas...but there were also African Americans, Hmong, and East African immigrants as well. My sister and I, as European Americans, as grand children of settlers and pioneers...carried our history with us somewhere yesterday, too, as we went about our holiday shopping. Our intermingling, our shopping, the hellos between the children and adults were so matter of fact. Yet even in the grocery store we are, as a community, side by side with our shared history as well. Our task on Thanskgiving, while we celebrate our loved ones and the new histories we are making, is to remember our past, to look, and see with new eyes: our surroundings, our neighbors, and, finally, ourselves.



  • Not to know what happened before one was born is always to be a child.

    By Blogger A. Citizen, at 7:54 PM  

  • Excellent and articulate commentary..as always!

    Enjoy your time with your family and travel safe :-)

    By Anonymous Kath, at 10:36 AM  

  • hi Kid
    happy thanksgiving. I'm wondering if any locations, artifacts or local memories would refer to the minnasota farm labor party from the middle of the last century. Or to the earlier populist movement

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:46 PM  

  • Hi,
    Just wanted you to know I am a relative. My Great great grandfather was also Jan Hoodecheck
    (Jan Hudecek) who is buried in Silver lake cemetary outside of Glenco MN. Interesting finding out about the Wisconsin regiment.

    By Anonymous Kathy, at 3:12 PM  

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