Over the weekend, Duluth City Council member Renee Van Nett got a Facebook notification asking her if she would like to be tagged in a photo.
She checked out the image, she says, and just “sat with it for a few minutes.”
“My first response was just ‘wow,’” she says.
The picture was a hokey old cartoon of what appeared to be a handful of people sitting around a fire and passing around a long-stemmed pipe. Several were wearing buckskin or blankets or feathers. Some were wearing cowboy attire. But all their faces were replaced with mugs of the Duluth City Council and mayor.
Van Nett was tagged in the bottom lefthand corner, right above a caption that read, “Explaining Duluth City Council priorities.”
A few days earlier, Mayor Emily Larson proposed removing the word “chief” from a few city job titles – like “chief administrative officer.” It’s a word that’s been used in sometimes offensive or belittling contexts to refer to Indigenous folks, and Larson told MPR she thought the move just made sense. After all, “city administrator” works just as well. (Larson wasn’t available to comment.)
Not everyone on social media believed that was a valuable use of the council’s time – and the cartoon appeared to be a particularly colorful (read: flagrantly racist) expression of that sentiment.
Van Nett was actually the first Native woman elected to the council, according to the Duluth News Tribune – and she’s its sole Native member. Stuff like this, to her, is nothing new, really.
“It’s almost every day,” she says. “Especially with Indian people and Native folks. It’s just a thing we go through.”
When she was done processing, she accepted the tag request. She figured whoever made the image might as well know she’d seen it. But she says she felt bad for her fellow council members. They’re not used to being treated this way, she says, and it didn’t feel good to see them dragged into that world with her.
To her relief, what followed was an immense wave of support from both her colleagues and fellow community members. She got comments like “We’re with you,” and “This is not okay.” Minnesota’s Council on American-Islamic Relations sent out a statement calling the image “racist, hate-filled stereotyping.”
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Some commenters said, on the plus side, the fact that someone had bothered to make this image at all showed Van Nett was making some kind of impact. She’s leaving the experience feeling, overall, “good” about people.
“I’m an optimist,” she says.
The photo has since disappeared from Facebook, except in screenshots.