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Winona LaDuke, Published December 15 2012

Letter: A ‘Bright’ evening in Fargo

I recently attended the Robert Feder Humanitarian Award ceremony, recognizing Federal Appeals Court Judge Myron Bright for his humanitarian work. What a pleasure. That event caused me to pause, and perhaps rethink Fargo.

Bright is a remarkable human being. We met on a flight from Minneapolis, where we sort of cuddled up and yelled at each other about the Constitution and justice. Both of us a bit hard of hearing, I am sure everyone else in the first-class cabin heard our discourse. Since then we’ve been friends.

Bright’s career is luminous. He is the longest sitting judge in the 8th Circuit, a 40-plus year legacy. He has made countless decisions opposing discrimination in all forms – freeing unjustly imprisoned people, and challenging, in his most recent insightful dissent in the U.S. v. Deegan case, the misapplication of mandatory sentencing guidelines. The majority decision upheld a 10-year sentence for a native woman, when a non-native woman received probation for a similar crime. It was affirming to hear lawyers and judges discuss how remarkable he was, and I kept thinking, at some level, “We should all be so remarkable.” But, at the evening’s end, what I realized was that Fargo was changing.

Fargo memories

As a young woman, my first Fargo encounter was in Federal District Court (Judge Paul Benson presiding), in the same courthouse where Bright has his chambers. It was the Leonard Peltier case in 1977, a room filled with native people who had come to support a man we considered a champion of justice, who defended native people in a firefight with the FBI. I remembered the tension. The city seemed hostile to native people and a political trial.

My second memorable Fargo encounter was as a homeless person. I had driven to the Sisseton, S.D., reservation for a meeting, and became stranded in a snowstorm. I had no friends and no money. I went to a homeless shelter to find safety. I ended up sleeping in a kitchen with a group of nuns, looking out at a gymnasium full of poor, homeless, and many native people.

Fast forward. Fargo 2.0.

Honoring Bright was a special event. I looked around the room and saw, for the first time collectively, some of the beauty of Fargo. I saw Karen Burgum, of the Hotel Donaldson. When we met, I asked her what she was doing, and she responded, “I am going to make Fargo the kind of place I would like to live. …”

That Temple Beth El sponsored the event, and that a community honored a great man, gives me hope for the Fargo I knew 35 years ago.

It was a good evening for me. And a great evening for Fargo. I wish Bright the best always, and hope that we all can be as remarkable … to treat each other with respect and dignity, fight for the underdog, and work for social justice. I hope Fargo continues to celebrate the outstanding efforts of humanitarians such as Myron Bright.

I’m looking forward to Fargo 3.0.

LaDuke is an American Indian activist. She is executive director of the White Earth Land Recovery Project on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota.