Teresita Diaz, 17, a junior at Park Rapids Area High School, grew up on the White Earth Reservation and attended Pine Point School through eighth grade.
Saying the Pledge of Allegiance was not part of their school day, so when she came to Park Rapids and saw everyone standing for the pledge she joined them.
"Everybody else stood up, so I stood up, too," she said. "I didn't know what rights I had or what it even meant, but then I started thinking more about the words and what it means, and and I realized I don't really agree with parts of the pledge and I don't want to stand up for something that is not true."
Diaz respects the flag
Last year in her English class, Diaz said she and three of her friends sat down respectfully for the pledge, quietly facing the flag.
"Someone said something about being disrespecting the flag, and I got mad and said I have every right to sit down just like they have every right to stand up," she said. "Someone else jumped in and pretty soon the whole class was attacking us and it made me so upset we went to speak to the principal."
Diaz said she has always respected the flag, and even has one tattooed on her forearm to show her Puerto Rican Pride. Her father, Ivan, is Puerto Rican, while her mother, Neegonee, is Anishinaabe.
"The flag's really important in our Native American culture," Diaz said. "We have it at every powwow raised higher than any other flag and we have songs set aside specifically for the flag that everyone stands for. Sitting down for the pledge isn't saying I don't stand for the flag. I stand for the flag, just not for what the Pledge of Allegiance says."
Native Americans have a proud tradition of serving in the U.S. military, "higher than any other race," she said. "The flag song is a very powerful song and everyone at the powwow stands for it unless of course you're in a wheelchair. It's very respected. Veterans always start the powwow because they are held in really high respect also."
The two parts of the pledge Diaz said she disagrees with are "one nation under God" and "liberty and justice for all."
"'One nation under God' wasn't even in the original pledge," she said. "Not everyone in the United States has that belief. It's like when they came across the ocean and made us believe in Christianity. I'm not saying you're wrong if you believe in God, but I don't think it's right to put that in there because not everyone shares that belief. There are atheists and there are different religions."
The second part she "100-percent does not agree with at all" is "liberty and justice for all." "Through the years, America has gotten way better giving women and African Americans rights and letting Native Americans be citizens, but there's still a lot that needs to be changed. I believe that if there was justice for all then there wouldn't be stuff going on like Native Americans fighting to not have a pipeline because it violates one of their treaties, or people protesting about African Americans being shot by police officers over putting their hand by their pocket. If there was justice for all, people wouldn't be putting down immigrants just because they came from someplace else. It's not right."
Diaz said she was both sad and mad when people got mad at her for sitting for the pledge.
"People were saying stuff like it's disrespectful to our military, or 'You must hate America,' but that's not the case," she said. "If you ask every Native American student who is here if they know someone who's in the military, I guarantee they are going to say their uncle or aunt or grandpa were."
She said their principal came down to Indian Education teacher Danette Larson's room and talked to them about what had happened, listening to each student's views and opinions. "He wanted to understand our reasons and he was 100 percent OK with that once we explained it," she said.
She said when another student said, "This is America and you need to stand for the flag," she felt sad. "They don't understand the history," she said. "It wasn't that long ago we were even be able to be citizens in a place we were already living."
Diaz said it makes her feel great when she sits down for the pledge.
"I'm standing up for myself and exercising my rights like freedom of speech and freedom of religion," she said.
Cultural understanding needed
She said her experience of coming to Park Rapids Area Schools from the reservation was "culture shock."
"It's so segregated here," she said. "You have the Hispanics, the Native Americans and then the rest of everybody else. They grew up not learning about other cultures because they weren't exposed to them."
"They grew up doing the pledge and knowing you're supposed to stand so they think that's all that's right, so when they see someone else sit down they get really angry, but they don't even understand why. Half the people who got mad don't even know why they're standing or what they are standing for."
Diaz said she hopes people from different cultures will learn more about each other.
"They could have an Ojibwe or Hispanic culture class here," she said. "We need something to help people learn more about others. A lot of people don't know about Native Americans. When we come here, nobody talks to us. They don't know anything about our culture because they don't ask and nobody teaches them. We come and we're like the outsiders and it's like going to a small reservation school my whole life everybody knows how you feel and then you come here and it's complete culture shock because there are so many people and you're basically alone."
She said Native American Education class with Larson really helps out because "then I can be with my Native American friends and we all understand each other."
"I love Dannette," she said. "She has an open-door policy. Just because it's Native Ed doesn't mean only natives are allowed. Anybody can go in there, whether they are African-American, Hispanic or white. It's very welcoming and I feel like I wouldn't have been able to do it if Dannette wasn't here for me and all my other Native American friends because they know how hard it is to come to a situation like this where people are judgemental or think bad things about you because they don't know you. Having Native American Education means being with people who understand you because they grew up the way you did and are going through the same stuff by coming here."
Diaz said this year the school had a Native American speaker come in and do a powwow dance and talk about his culture. "Everybody was really quiet during the whole speech, listening and really engaged," she said. "They enjoyed it and that helped a lot to get people interested in learning more about us."
Two powwows are being held at Pine Point School this week, the first on Thursday and the second on Saturday. They are free and open to the public.
"One of the things about Native Americans that's really nice is like when you go to powwows if you're not of the Native American race, no one's going to look at you funny like you can't be here because everybody is accepting," she said. "Anyone can go out and dance. You don't even have to have an outfit. Two years ago, I brought my friend who was white and I let her wear my old regalia so she could go out and dance, and everybody thought it was nice that she was interested in our culture."