from the Ahnishinahbæótjibway (We, the People)
Wub-e-ke-niew of the Bear Dodem died Thursday, October 16, at home with his Ahnishinahbæótjibway land which, as he said, “has been in my family for hundreds of millennia.”
Wub-e-ke-niew’s patrilineal great-grandfather was Bah-se-nos of the Bear Dodem, who lived with his wife Nay-bah-nay-cumig-oke in a birchbark longhouse at Be-kwa-kwan, part of the Ahnishinahbæótjibway land of the Bear Dodem. His grandparents were Bah-wah-we-nind, also of the Bear Dodem, and Ke-niew-e-gwon-ay-beak of Leech Lake. Wub-e-ke-niew was born in Bah-wah-we-nind’s log house, also at Be-kwa-kwan, about June 6, 1928. His parents were Bah-wah-we-nind’s son Wub-e-ke-niew, and Delia Lufkins of White Earth. Wub-e-ke-niew explained that his father was “given the name Francis Blake in order to impose an artificial Indian identity on him,” and often added that, “my Indian name is Francis Blake, Junior.”
Wub-e-ke-niew spent most of his “formative years” with his grandfather Bah-wah-we-nind. After Bah-wah-we-nind’s death in 1935, Wub-e-ke-niew “spent nine years as a political prisoner” in the Catholic boarding school at St. Mary’s Mission, Red Lake. Then, he worked for two years as a part of the migrant labor force in the Red River Valley. In 1946, he joined the United States Army, and after schooling in the Military Police Academy, served with the 28th Constabulary in Germany. Wub-e-ke-niew wrote of his military service, “I didn’t even realize that I was not a U.S. citizen. Indians were made U.S. citizens in 1924, but in 1946 I hadn’t learned enough English to figure out that I’m not an Indian. I enlisted, rather than waiting to be conscripted, because I figured that if I had to go, I might as well get it over with on my own terms.”
Wub-e-ke-niew worked after the war in Great Falls, Montana and in Seattle, and then moved to Minneapolis, where he married Norby Fairbanks of White Earth in September, 1953. In the 1950’s and early 1960’s, he worked in industrial labor, as a handyman, truck driver, and for J.D. Holtzerman of Minneapolis. In 1963 he was a Teamsters Union 544 driver for Custom Cartage in Minneapolis, and he drove truck until 1970. He wrote, “I was teaching myself to read during the time that I was parked at the docks waiting for a load, or waiting for my turn to unload the truck. Sometimes I would spend half a day waiting at the dock, and so I kept an assortment of magazines and books and a dictionary with me in the truck. Whenever I got to a word I didn’t know, I would look it up in the dictionary, and then write it down. I have always spent time observing people: their dialect, their accent, how they used their words and their body-language, what they said and what they meant. The English language and the Euro-American culture are still foreign to me—although I understand the immigrant peoples fairly well by now, I’m still astounded by some of the things that they think and do.
In 1965, Wub-e-ke-niew was part of the alcohol self-help group which started the American Indian Movement. From 1971 to 1973, he served as the Treasurer of AIM. He wrote, “The way I initially saw AIM, was that this organization was going to create a vehicle for Aboriginal Indigenous people to take back our identity, and re-empower ourselves and our community. As I look back on it now, this was a big mistake.” While Treasurer of AIM, he “managed to get the first American Indian Movement Survival School,” Heart of the Earth Survival School, started in Minneapolis. After the occupation of Wounded Knee, Wub-e-ke-niew resigned from AIM in June of 1973. AIM, Wub-e-ke-niew wrote, had an “implicit charter with the White liberal organizations, who wanted to support AIM in working toward social change, but not in actually making structural changes to society. The kind of Indian leaders the White man supports are professional Indians who talk a fine speech, but who are European subject people. When it comes to reality, many of these externally-supported community leaders value their job and superficial prestige more than they do their own community, and can be manipulated into stealing from even their own children. BIA Commissioner John Collier described these Indians as having a ‘white-plus psychology’.” He continued, Métis people have their own identity, and the capability of realizing themselves as a people in their own right, but they cannot do it from within the Indian identity, because that’s owned by the White man. I can’t speak for anyone else; it is up to each person to figure out who they are and to chart their own destiny. The only thing that I will say is that the Indians are not the Aboriginal Indigenous people of this Continent, and that they do neither themselves nor us any good by pretending that they are.”
After he resigned from AIM, Wub-e-ke-niew “devoted more attention to politics, still trying to make positive change from within the system.” He worked with his family in the Jimmy Carter campaign of 1975, then after the election, went to Kansas City, Missouri. While there, he worked as an apartment caretaker and as a jack-of-all-trades for an office supply company. He also helped organize the Longest Walk through Kansas City, and wrote that at that time he “did not know what it was supposed to accomplish,” although he came to “understand why this kind of demonstration, although the participants feel a fleeting moment of release and unity, is inevitably a charade and a waste of energy.”
In 1981, Wub-e-ke-niew returned to the Ahnishinahbæótjibway land of his Bear Dodem, where he spent the remaining sixteen years of his life. He wrote that he “realized that I needed to become a part of the land again, and regain my roots and my identity. I was born here, and I will die here. This is my land, my Ahnishinahbæótjibway philosophy, my spirituality, my place with Grandmother Earth.” Wub-e-ke-niew married Clara NiiSka by the Ahnishinahbæótjibway tradition, on his land in 1984.
Wub-e-ke-niew drove school bus for several years, then attended Bemidji State University, where he “took a writing class and learned how to write in English.” In 1985, he began writing Freedom of Information Act letters to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, as well as doing political writing protesting the “colonial practice which is applied to Aboriginal Indigenous people; using a foreign infrastructure to separate us form our lands. The U.S. Government used their Indians to tell me that I was not welcome on my own land, which has never been ceded or sold by my people the Ahnishinahbæótjibway, whose land this is. As far as I am concerned, the so-called Indian government could leave tomorrow, and take their Indians with them. I have told the White people on the BIA’s Tribal Council, ‘go play Indian some other place.’ ... The BIA and the Tribal Council are classic examples of racist institutions. No matter who fills the positions, the structure of the institution compels them to behave in a racist way.”
In 1986, Wub-e-ke-niew was appointed chairman of the Economic Development Committee for the Red Lake Peoples Council. He wrote, “we spent two years working with one of the top grantwriters in the State of Minnesota,” trying to build community-owned economic development on Red Lake Reservation, but “could not get any foundation funding. ... There seems to be plenty of grant money to study problems, to promote Indians, or to fund institutions which address the symptoms on the surface, but none at all for Aboriginal Indigenous grassroots organizations to address the problems on our own land, at the root causes.” He also spent several years working on a gardening project. He wrote, “We focussed on the Ahnishinahbæótjibway tradition of gardens partly because, for anybody, growing one’s own food brings a person back in touch with the land. Connection to the land is the foundation of a healthy society. We were also addressing the serious health problems caused by poor diet, and wanted to change the cutting-the-forests-to-buy-supermarket-food economics which the BIA has encouraged.”
After having spent more than two decades “trying to make positive change from within the system,” Wub-e-ke-niew decided to heal the “deformed culture” which the Euroamericans brought to his land by going to the root causes. He began doing research and writing We Have The Right To Exist, reading archival and historical documents validating what he had “always known but couldn’t prove.”
In December of 1990, Wub-e-ke-niew wrote to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior that, “I will no longer be identified by your racist term of ‘Indian.’ I am not an ‘Indian,’ I am not a ‘Chippewa,’ and I am not a ‘Native American’.” He explained that, “If I allow myself to continue to be falsely identified as ‘Indian’ I am guilty of complacency and conspiracy; I want to part whatsoever of the fraudulent Indian identity that the United States Government is still using to destroy the legitimate people of these two continents. ... I wipe my hands clean of being identified in the same category as those who are contributing to ongoing genocide, dispossession and destruction of my own Aboriginal Indigenous people and my own Traditional Aboriginal Indigenous culture. I’m sending my ‘Indian Identity Card’ by certified mail to the Supreme Court. I am turning it in as a false document issued with felonious and genocidal intent by the United States Government in collusion with their colonial Indian Reorganization Act ‘Tribal Councils.’ I am not an Indian!” In accordance with provisions of the U.S. Constitution, Wub-e-ke-niew sent his Indian Identity Card to Chief Justice Thurgood Marshall of the U.S. Supreme Court, who kept it, and so Wub-e-ke-niew legally regained his own real identity, Ahnishinahbæótjibway of the Bear Dodem.
In 1995, Wub-e-ke-niew’s book, We Have The Right To Exist, was published after nearly ten years of research and writing. Wub-e-ke-niew wrote columns for the Native American Press/Ojibwe News for many years, and did other writing and public speaking. He was also studying language, comparing the harmonious male-and-female balance of his egalitarian Ahnishinahbæótjibway language, with the violent hierarchical abstractions of male-dominated languages like English. He had begun writing two novels.
Wub-e-ke-niew gardened for many years, and maintained his ancient Ahnishinahbæótjibway permacultural tradition, making maple syrup and maple sugar in the sugarbush of his Bear Dodem. He cut his own firewood, repaired his own vehicles, and led an active life. In collaboration with Jean Houston and the Mystery School in New York, he was working to establish a radio station as a memorial to the indigenous people who were killed in the genocide of these two continents.
Wub-e-ke-niew was buried on his land Friday by family, joining his ancestors “who are a part of every handful of this Earth.” His legacy includes the decades of his work “to make this a better world for all human beings.” Wub-e-ke-niew described himself as, “just an ordinary human being.”