Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe elder Herb Sam gave a talk on Anishinaabe culture, racism and his own personal experience with reclaiming his heritage Friday as part of Brainerd History Week.
During his talk inside a lecture hall at Central Lakes College, Sam said he was shipped off to boarding school at an early age and indoctrinated against his own culture. Starting from the moment he first got off the bus in 1946, people at the boarding school, including other Ojibwe, told him speaking the language would end badly for him.
"'That is the devil language, don't speak that again,'" Sam recalled a man telling him when he arrived at the boarding school in Pipestone.
As a result, Sam became alienated from his culture. After three years at the school, he came home. When he was reunited with his grandmother, who only spoke Anishinaabe, he recoiled because he had been conditioned to avoid the language in favor of English.
"She hugged me, and I kind of pulled back ... right away there was an immediate wall there," he remembered. "There was a wall there because she didn't trust the language that I was speaking."
Sam grew up to be an alcoholic. He sought help with Alcoholics Anonymous, but received true clarity from grandfather, who told him about a dream he had of Sam running.
"'I see you running, you ran into a thornbush. You've been trying to get out,'" he remembered his grandfather saying. "'What you do is, the way you came in, follow that out.'"
He interpreted that to mean he should connect with his Ojibwe roots, and so he started attending tribal events. Rediscovering his heritage helped him heal as a person.
"I love who I am, and that's who I am," he said.
Racism still surfaces in everyday conversations Sam has with people, he said.
"I understand it, I accept it," he said. "We're still in the process of learning who we are."