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Listening circle brings Fargo leaders, Native Americans together after fatal police shooting

A listening circle is a meeting where a sacred object — like a rock or a feather — is passed around a circle of people, according to even organizer Stuart Lohnes. During Tuesday’s session, they passed around an eagle feather.

A man in a button-down speaks at the center of a circle of seated people.
Willard Yellow Bird Jr. introduces the Fargo Listening Circle and how it will be completed by passing around an eagle feather to speak. The event, held by The Indigenous Association, allows Native American residents to talk to city officials about changes that are needed in Fargo, Yellow Bird said Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022.
Alyssa Goelzer / The Forum
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FARGO — More than 30 people, including Native Americans and city leaders, met during the first Fargo Listening Circle on Tuesday, Sept. 13, to discuss issues related to the city and the area’s Indigenous community.

Before the listening circle began, attendees, which included Mayor Tim Mahoney, city commissioners and others, sat around tables inside the Indigenous Association at 720 First Ave. N. for American Indian tacos, prayer, a smudging and Native American drums.

The purpose of the Fargo Listening Circle was to eliminate ignorance on all sides by having a chance to sit down and hear each other, said Stuart Lohnes, a member of the Spirit Lake Nation who was an event organizer along with Paige Dauphinais.

A seated man in a blue button-down and black beanie speaks while holding an eagle feather.
Stuart Lohnes speaks while holding an eagle feather next to his father during a Listening Circle held by The Indigenous Association on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022, in Fargo.
Alyssa Goelzer/The Forum

Lohnes’ idea began taking shape after the July 8 fatal shooting of Shane Netterville, a 28-year-old Native American man from Jamestown, by Fargo Police Officer Adam O’Brien, who is white.

Lohnes and others tried to address the Fargo City Commissioners during a regularly scheduled meeting, but tensions were high, and given the two-minute time limit, many could not adequately express themselves, Lohnes said.

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Some people also felt the city’s response to Netterville’s death treated it as more of a Native American issue, not a human issue, he said.

“So, I thought it would be a good idea to let them listen to us for once. Our community is scattered, so how do we all get along and sit down and talk about what is wrong? That is what this is about,” Lohnes said.

He brought the idea of the listening circle from the reservation and described it as a meeting where a sacred object — like a rock or a feather — is passed around a circle of people. During Tuesday’s session, they passed around an eagle feather.

“Only the person holding the sacred item can speak, and because they’re holding a sacred object, this brings calm to a meeting,” Lohnes said. “In our ways, when one person speaks, the others listen, and if we don’t have that, it could be a lot of chaos.”

He is hoping to make the Fargo Listening Circle a regular occurrence, to help communication between locally elected officials and the Native American community.

People to through a cafeteria-style line.
Community members and Fargo officials such as Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney, candidate for North Dakota House of Representatives Lillian Jones, and Fargo City Commissioner Denise Kolpack get served fry bread tacos ahead of a Fargo Listening Circle held by The Indigenous Association with city leaders to talk about how things need to be changed in Fargo on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022, at The Indigenous Association in downtown Fargo.
Alyssa Goelzer/The Forum

“You don’t build relationships by meeting with your partner, or whoever, once a year,” Lohnes said.

Fargo City Commissioner John Strand attended the listening circle and introduced himself by saying he grew up in a small town where he never had the opportunity to learn about Native American issues.

“What I do know is we can always learn and benefit from listening to each other,” Strand said.

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People hold their palms up and arms open in front of them as a man in a button-down wafts sage smoke over them.
City Commissioner John Strand is smudged with sage by Willard Yellow Bird Jr. during The Indigenous Association’s Fargo Listening Circle on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022, in Fargo.
Alyssa Goelzer / The Forum

Some people around the circle said city leaders need to be held more accountable and that Netterville’s killing was not justified. Others tried to express to Mayor Tim Mahoney and city commissioners Strand and Denise Kolpack their fear of police, which stems from persistent mistreatment on and off reservations.

Tanya Redroad, of the Little Shell Band of Chippewa, descendant of Turtle Mountain, has been active on panels that are preparing to address Native boarding school issues and said she and her daughter knew Netterville.

"When this came up, she was shattered, I was shattered, we didn’t know what to do,” Redroad said.

Tracie L. Wilkie, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, said, “This week, I watched the murder of Shane Netterville, and that really bothers me. I worked in criminal justice for 20 years, and I’ve known many, many innocent people to be murdered by police.”

Kolpack broke down in tears before speaking with the eagle feather in hand, eventually saying she was raised to believe we were all equal.

“I believe in Fargo, and that Fargo can do better,” Kolpack said.

Barry Nelson, a member of the Human Rights Commission, said he discovered the world Native Americans live in differs from what most white Americans can understand, and for some Natives, their biggest worry is how to safely send their children out from the home.

A woman in black wipes tears from her face while a woman in a red T-shirt next to her speaks and holds an eagle feather.
City Commissioner Denise Kolpack wipes away a tear as Lillian Jones, a candidate for North Dakota House of Representatives in District 41, shares a personal story during a listening circle put on by The Indigenous Association on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022, in Fargo.
Alyssa Goelzer / The Forum

“It’s a totally different world from what my wife and I were experiencing. I know this is the world we live in, and these talks go on day to day, and it’s a reality and it’s sad, and I’m not sure what I’ve done in these 15 years to change that. But it starts by having a listening mind,” Nelson said.

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Sitting at the end of the listening circle, Mahoney, who said he was originally from Devils Lake, nodded when Lohnes told him he was from the same place.

“You know, we come from the same area, but we led two completely different lives,” Lohnes said.

“There is pain and suffering in this world, and I heard many stories tonight that were hard to hear. The city is very concerned. What I need from you here is (to tell us), what do we need to do? How can we help with addiction?” Mahoney said.

C.S. Hagen is an award-winning journalist currently covering the education and activist beats mainly in North Dakota and Minnesota.
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