PREJUDICE & ME & MENDOTA

Back in the days when we were protesting for Civil Rights and an end to our involvement in Viet Nam, Dick Gregory, black comedian, leading activist in both movements, came to Minneapolis. During a press conference he was asked how Minneapolis compared to other major cities as far as racial discrimination against blacks was concerned.

He said he found very little black prejudice compared to other cities; but before Minneapolitans had to chance to take bows, he explained why. He observed there were so many Indians in Minnesota that were the brunt of prejudice, white folks didn’t have time to bother with the small black population.

There wasn’t any prejudice against Indians in the village/township of Mendota where my roots were. Mendota was a settlement across the river from Minneapolis and St. Paul, older than both. Outside of a few outsiders like my dad, who married into it, we were descendants of French/Canadians or Mendota Sioux or a mix of both. No bona fide Mendota resident had to go back too many generations to find a common ancestor with any other bona fide Mendota resident.

There were some inhabitants that people did not like; but it wasn’t prejudice because they might have Indian blood, it was because they were jerks.

From the time I was a toddler, one of my best friends was Fred La Batte, grandpa’s hired hand. He claimed to be 100% Mendota Sioux; and when questioned why he had a French name, he always answered, because his Sioux name was too hard to spell. I enjoyed being around Fred and I learned a lot from him, including a few English and French words that I found out the hard way to never use within my mom’s hearing distance.

When I acted up and Fred told me to stop it, I stopped. Not to would cause him to shake his finger at me warn me what would happen if kept misbehaving. He would put me in a gunny sack and take me to Chicago. When I asked him about Chicago he told me it was a place worse than even Minneapolis. Yes sir, I obeyed Fred.

Fred also taught me a lot about horses. Come time to cultivate the corn, Fred would hitch Dick, grandpa’s sorrel gelding to the one-row cultivator. Many a hot summer day you would see Dick still hitched to the cultivator munching on the grass in the ditch by the highway. No sign of Fred because Fred had flagged down a ride to Huber’s for a couple cold beers. When I asked Fred how he got the horse to just stand there for such a long time and not go anyplace or turn around and eat the corn stalks, Fred said he warned the horse if he misbehaved he’d get a gunny sack over his eyes and…

and, and, you’ll take him to Chicago. Right, Fred?’

You learn real good, little Donny.’

The first lesson I received in prejudice was from Mrs. Benson, who taught all eight grades in the one-room schoolhouse I went to. Now even though she was a Lutheran Swede from Minneapolis, we all liked her, students and parents both. She only taught us one year because her husband got polio and required her help at home.

(Polio was the first pandemic that I lived through. We survived because the politicians united and left finding the cure and vaccine to the medical experts, like Dr. Jonas Salk.)

Mrs. Benson’s teaching of prejudice was straight forward. She said that we should accept or reject people as individuals and not because of culture or color…Prejudice was wrong. Prejudice was stupid. Prejudice hurt both the person it was directed against and the person who directed it.

In addition to her talking about it, she gave us a list of books that would teach us more about prejudice.

We were to pick out a book, read it, and then stand in front of the room and tell the rest of the students what we learned about prejudice from the book. She eliminated the first three grades as far as reading a book was concerned; but they could tell us about prejudice they had witnessed, or comment on what they heard. The lesson was in the first hour of class when someone was ready to speak.

After she finished laying out the groundwork, she handed note books she had purchased with her own money and told us we were to keep a record of what we were learning about prejudice, starting with what she had said that morning.

Now any questions?

About six hands went up.

 ‘Mrs. Benson, how do you spell ‘prejudice’? 

I reread Huckleberry Finn from the school’s library, which had about two hundred books in it and which I had already finished reading all of them. I gave my report on the relationship between Huck and Jim, the runaway ex-slave about five days into the project. I was the first to make a report.

So to keep me actively involved in the project, Mrs. Benson lent me her personal copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Now that really showed me a world unlike the one grew up in. I read it twice before I gave my report.

Mrs. Benson suggested I read yet another book. She gave me some suggestions but this time I went out on my own read my dad’s copy of The Vanishing American by Zane Grey. I had heard it a radio program once. Since she wasn’t aware of the story, she consulted with her husband, who was a Zane Grey fan. When he told her it was a tale about the loss of Indian culture and of love between  a Navajo man, a white woman.

Mrs. Benson suggested that she and I talk over my report before I gave it. She wanted to make sure her project on racial prejudice did not turn into a sex education class. She didn’t have to worry. I concentrated on the prejudice and loss of the native culture, not the mushy love stuff. I also tied in a lot of things that Fred LaBatte had told me, like why he had a French last name.

( Today the Navajo nation is vanishing, not the culture, the people. They are hardest hit segment of the killer virus in America. In the early days of the virus, those days the president assured us not to worry, within a couple weeks the few virus cases in the US would disappear, a prominent Navajo leader died and people came from all over the Navajo reservation, the largest reservation in the US. The lack of early knowledge and prevention, the arid harsh land, the abject poverty, the scarcity of medical facilities, and the total disregard of the Federal government have fueled the virus wildfire and the vanishing of the Navajo is another type of genocide that has permeated the our nation since the first day Anglos set foot in New England.)

So my growing up in Mendota and my education from Mrs. Benson, pretty much laid down the foundation of my feelings about racial prejudice. I never had much experience with blacks those early years , except for playing against some in sports. Then I went in in the Army!

Oops! What started out as one blog post has gotten away from me. Par for the course. I will close out this post and will continue my experience in prejudice in the Army, deep in the heart of Dixie, in another post.

I will close out this with a quotations I was introduced to last week in one of my favorite blogs:

Playamart – Zeebra Designs A blog of beautiful art, great photos, and fine prose by Lisa, a talented Mississippian now living in Ecuador.

 Blacks and Native Americans share one thing. Native Americans had their land stolen, and their culture systematically crushed. Blacks – it’s the opposite; they were stolen from their land, and they had their culture systematically crushed. We can’t begin to imagine what it takes to come back from that…” – Greg Iles – excerpt from 2017/National Writers Series interview –

And that’s a wrap for today. Stay Safe

24 thoughts on “PREJUDICE & ME & MENDOTA

  1. You’ve nailed it in so many ways: humor, facts, personal anecdotes. I’m signing up for more of your stuff, especially if you continue to talk about teachers you had since I’m a retired educator myself. And some of my assignments were as confusing as your prejudice one. Thanks for making me love Fred, a man I’ll not ever meet in person. And for loving your blog!

  2. Oh, love your words. Praise coming from a school teacher, a major hero. If you want to read more of my posts just click on the links, there’s close to 200. Now here’s three past posts about teachers:
    ODE TO JOE APTITUDE/ATTITUDE MISS FEE;THE DIAL SWITCHER
    PS: Sounds like you are a teacher I would have loved to have. Our daughter-in-law, Shannon, is retiring this year. She taught 1st grade in the same school for 30 years. She can’t go anyplace without somebody running up and telling her how she was their favorite teacher. And her second son works with disabled students in high school. Love teachers.

  3. I knew you were from Minnesota, but I had not realized you were from Dakota county. I lived in Burnsville (actually closer to Apple Valley off county road 11) for five years. It was great to hear of some of the history of that area. I really loved your insight on prejudice. Thanks for speaking out. (Another by the way, Lisa is a good friend of ours. I hope you get the chance to meet her someday.)

    • Had a lot of relatives and worked a lot of farms in that neck of the woods.
      As much as I would like to meet Lisa in person, I am afraid that at my age the furthest I will ever get now would be Farmington.
      I’m glad you liked my post

  4. Another endearing and insightful post from you. I looked up Lisa’s site, and noted this quotation, too. “It’s going to take a long time, and it’s going to take white people admitting what we did was pretty damned bad.” – Greg Iles – 2017 National Writers Series interview
    Yesterday, our Prime Minister blotted his copybook by claiming Australia never had slavery. I was so riled I made a statement on Facebook, using the example of the Aboriginal girl depicted in this old post of mine. Although the rest of the post veers off this topic, I’m including it all here as I thought you might like some of the military history. I don’t think we were connected at the time I wrote it. https://garrulousgwendoline.wordpress.com/2016/07/17/bye-bye-to-broome-darwin-is-calling-may-2016/
    Bottom line, even our PM is one white person who cannot admit the wrongs of the past.

  5. I’m happy to hear you liked it, Gwen. I had my eye on Iles’ quote also. I have never read any of his novels but I see a lot of his writing about what is happening in America today on various FB sites.
    So your PM says Australia never had any slavery. He must come from the same planet Trump came from.
    I remember that post of yours but rereading it now I see so many things in a different light. Thanks for the suggestion to reread it. The statue of the pearl diver is beautiful that’s true but…Here in the US since George Earl was murdered by a cop, (Just about ten miles from here), there has been a mass destruction of the statues of Confederate ‘heroes’, AKA traitors. Yesterday a group went on the State Capital Grounds in St, Paul and toppled the statue of Christopher Columbus, the so called discoverer of America. I hope both our countries can write thier true histories.
    My thoughts and prayers. Stay Safe.

  6. I wasn’t raised prejudice and try to live my life that way, so I find the riots we had when we were young and those now…. looting, rioting, ambushing cops, burning down whole streets’ worth of businesses, ground glass in pizza sent to the National Guard, taking over part of Seattle and demanding shake-down money from the businesses – no I don’t understand.

  7. I think your teacher is what the world needs now, not Donald Trump or Narendra Modi, both of whom are racist to core, and hence the friendship between the ‘birds of a feather’. I hope, through words and daily actions, we are able to create a world that understands and ends racism so that my daughter can live without fear and hold her head high…

    • With your example I am sure she will continue to help create the world we both dream about. And someday the likes of Trump and Modi will never again achieve any elected office or a platform to preach hate.

    • Yes, Charlotte. And your field of art has always been a leader in positive education. You and George continue to ‘teach the world to sing’. And please, please, stay safe.

  8. The teaching you received is a good example of what must surely be lacking in many schools today. What you learned back then has stayed with you, proving how effective it was.
    Best wishes, Pete.

  9. In Arizona, we have the four corners and various reservations. My son in the Army married a Navajo woman. She went to Iraq with him. They had two children. Though their marriage did not make it, I spend a lot of time with them. Racism is taught, that’s for sure. I know it’s human nature to be influenced by our vision. I’m a historian and teacher, so I try very hard to influence my students against racism. I think we all would like to think we are not racist. Anyway, I enjoyed your post.

  10. I am glad you liked my post, Cindy.Your blog and two novels are excellent examples of your accepting people for who they are no strings attached. I hope your family is safe, I think of you every time I see how bad the virus is in Arizona.

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