We’re all guests here … that thought permeated my being as I made final edits in the stories I wrote about my grandmother and her life as an early 20th-century immigrant, stories about her and her children woven together like a beautiful tapestry. I felt somewhat haunted, as I had skewed history a bit, not with her story, but the underlying story of her newfound life in America.

Visiting the farm north of St. Paul, Minn., where her grandmother lived for nearly a half-century, JulieAnn Heinrich recognized that “my bones and DNA feel so connected to this land, the fields, the woods and river, but there’s a heaviness in my heart knowing … that land did not belong to us.” Photo courtesy of JulieAnn Heinrich

My grandmother emigrated from eastern Germany at age 18, alone, in 1908, with the help of an uncle who had emigrated and settled in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the 1870s. He owned a meat market, had children of his own and purchased tickets from Germany to St. Paul for my grandmother and her brother, who had sailed to America six months before her passage. My Great-Uncle Paul worked for his uncle and my Grandmother Frieda became a live-in maid for a couple in St. Paul. In that neighborhood, my grandmother met a young woman who would introduce Frieda to the man she later married. That’s when my grandmother’s story as an American wife and mother on a farm north of St. Paul began.

My Grandmother Frieda’s story had its highs and lows, with many twists and turns, common for any immigrant, making a new start in America, living through world wars and the Great Depression. In my mind as I edited, a niggling feeling persisted. In painting a picture of her new life and family, I did not write about the underlying currents of the time, well known to us now but not spoken openly in her lifetime. Her husband, my grandfather, was a first-generation American, son of parents who had emigrated from Germany and homesteaded on land purchased in the mid-1800s. The homestead farmland in Minnesota was Native American territory throughout history, but it was confiscated by the federal government, parceled out and sold to immigrants from Europe.

On a recent visit to the farm where my grandmother lived for nearly 50 years, the current owner and I talked about the fields and woods, the river that runs through it, and our love for this still-wild place that was so dear to me and all of my family for decades. It remains a working farm with animals and an apple orchard in a former crop field.

My bones and DNA feel so connected to this land, the fields, the woods and river, but there’s a heaviness in my heart knowing its history. That land did not belong to us. In reality, we were guests on land that belonged to the Sioux and Cherokee tribes. I feel I owe a huge debt to the people of these tribes whose land was my family’s livelihood. This farmland is the most beautiful and peaceful place, and, for 50 years, the land gave life to my family. Gratitude cannot make up for the government’s land grab from our Native tribes, but it’s a step forward.

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