When winter storms sweep across the northland and the roads are slick with black ice or obscured by blowing snow, it can take a long time to drive the eight miles from Redlake to the south boundary on Highway 89, especially in an old vehicle with worn ball joints and consequently somewhat capricious steering.
On a clear day when the roads are dry, it takes less than fifteen minutes.
I don’t remember whether or not the sun was shining on May 26, 1998. The roads were dry, I think, and the buds of the deciduous trees must have been opening into a delicate haze of spring green sweeping through the woods, because that’s how it always was in late May at Red Lake. North of the continental divide, just a few miles downstream from the headwaters of the Hudson’s Bay watershed, Spring came late and tender garden annuals planted before the second week of June risked frostbite.
It was “jacket weather” that morning, and I wore the black leather motorcycle jacket that Wub-e-ke-niew had bought for me at a garage sale the previous Summer.
I’d worn that jacket that fall … on October 17th, when I helped to dig Wub-e-ke-niew’s grave and buried him under a certain old oak tree – where he’d told me he wanted to be buried, “the old way,” wrapped in a blanket, with his head to the North and his feet to the South. I wore it as I “kept fire” for four days and nights after we buried him, they say “to light the way to the next world,” mostly staying awake through those four days and nights, occasionally napping on the frosty ground next to the fire, wrapped in just in a thin blanket so that when the fire got low the cold would wake me in time to add more wood and keep the fire burning.
I was wearing that jacket on the evening of October 22nd, when they threw me out of the house Wub-e-ke-niew and I had built together thirteen and a half years earlier. They threw me out with the clothes on my back, and since I’d been wearing that jacket I still had it.
A bit more than six months later, about mid-day on May 26th, I stood in the parking lot outside the Red Lake law enforcement center. Since then, a new multi-million dollar law enforcement center and jail has been built at Red Lake, although there are a number of problems, including inadequate plumbing, with the over-budget project and the building isn’t in use. At that time, in the Spring of 1998, the law enforcement center-jail-courthouse was on the south side of the road toward the east end of town, a white-painted building surrounded by chain-link fence topped with coils of razor wire, across the road from the old B.I.A. Agency. That building had been in use as a law enforcement center since shortly after the 1979 revolution, when the revolutionaries let all the prisoners out of jail, then burned the old law enforcement center and all of the police cars parked there.
Almost exactly nineteen years after the revolution, I stood in the parking lot wearing the black leather jacket Wub-e-ke-niew had given me. I was talking – more-or-less chatting – with the policeman who had escorted me out of the courtroom where the tribal court was proceeding with something they called an “Indian probate.” The only people who’d been in the courtroom when they took me out were Bruce Graves as associate judge, Negoni Neadeau as clerk of courts, Valerie Blake as petitioner, and my friend Mary Harding, who’d come to court with me as a witness.
The policeman asked me where my car was, and I said that I’d left my car parked off the reservation and rode to Redlake with my friend Mary. He asked me about my property. “I have a list,” I said, gesturing with the sheaf of papers in my hand but not really showing them to him nor giving them to him, “but there are jurisdictional problems.” I was telling him that, in my understanding, the property was not under the jurisdiction of the Red Lake tribal courts – or the Red Lake police. He understood what I was saying, and changed the subject.
We talked about Wub-e-ke-niew. “He’s my relative,” the policeman said, adding that his mother was a Downwind (Wub-e-ke-niew’s mother was related to the Downwinds).
The policeman and I conversed a little while longer, and then Mary walked out of the building. “They said it was a ‘closed hearing,’ and asked me to leave,” she told me.
I shrugged and said that we might as well go. We walked toward Mary’s pickup truck, a brown Chevy Ranger, unlocked it, got in, started the engine. The policeman walked over to his patrol car. Mary drove out of the parking lot and onto the highway, heading west toward the junction with Highway 89. The police car followed us, staying just slightly closer behind us than a courteous rural following distance.
Mary drove through the town of Redlake, past St. Mary’s Mission, and turned south on Highway 89. The speed limit’s 55 miles an hour along that stretch of rural highway, and I think she was driving just slightly slower than that. Even though the sun might have been shining, in my memory that day seems unremittingly overcast and gray. Along with the property list, I held in my hands the “order of removal” that the policeman had handed me just before he escorted me out of the tribal court proceedings.
Lifetime exile, unless revoked by the tribal council, that piece of paper proclaimed. By order of the tribal council chairman, Bobby Whitefeather.
Mary drove south on Highway 89, staying just below the speed limit: seven miles, at about 54 miles an hour, to the south boundary. What must have been about eight minutes seemed frozen-time through leaden gray space, the patrol car staying that same precise distance behind us, the moments of each second and each bit of highway congealed in nascent shock. I did not look with long lingering glances at each familiar landmark, savoring every last glimpse of that beloved place, seeing intensely in the light of future memories. I sat, instead, in the passenger side of Mary’s pickup truck, tense, numb, stunned, the reality of my exile not yet fully apprehended.
Finally, after some incalculable time, we crossed ‘the line.’ The patrol car followed us until we were on the “state” side of the line, then spun around in a U-turn on the reservation side of the boundary, and went back north.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have just walked out of the courtroom, when they asked me to leave,” Mary said to me. I told her I thought what she did was fine, that resistance – even fine-fettle passive resistance – wouldn’t have made any difference, that they would have just delayed the proceedings until she was removed from the courtroom.
Mary was a cherished best-friend, and my anguish on that interminable forty-five mile trip to her place along a curve of the Mississippi River southeast of Bemidji was as much for her as for myself. Having a friend share the one’s experience of being exiled is a terrible thing to do to the friend.
The possibility of exile hadn’t even crossed my mind as I prepared to make what lawyers describe as a “special appearance” at the Red Lake tribal court that morning. My intention had been to object to the tribal court – technically, a “Court of Indian Offenses” – asserting probate jurisdiction over my deceased husband’s estate, since he had renounced his tribal membership and was thus legally a non-Indian and not subject to Indian court jurisdiction.
The argument I was prepared to make, the jurisdictional objections in support of which I had filed thousands of pages of documentation along with my “notice of special appearance,” was the argument that Wub-e-ke-niew had been consistently making during the seven years prior to his death. I believed him to be legally correct, and was also well aware of the tribal council’s opposition to his stance.
At Red Lake, the tribal court was widely perceived as a “kangaroo court,” a politicized un-court that often did not make even a bare pretense of fairness. I went to the courtroom intending to make a legally solid but likely-to-be-ignored objection to the tribal court’s assertion of jurisdiction, a principled stand on behalf of my deceased husband. I was prepared to be arrested, had made arrangements for bail if necessary, and had considered and accepted the possibility of spending several weeks in the Red Lake jail while writs of habeas corpus wended their way through the federal courts.
Exile hadn’t occurred to me
 C.f. “The Red Lake jailhouse blues,” by Bill Lawrence, Native American Press/Ojibwe News, Feburary 20, 2004, page 1.
 Order of removal of a person from the Red Lake Indian Reservation, dated May 26, 1998, signed by Bobby Whitefeather. http://www.maquah.net/AhnishinahbaeotjibwayReflections/1998/1998-05-28_Whitefeather_exile_order.html, accessed October 13, 2004. “Widow of Wub-e-ke-niew removed from Red Lake probate hearing, Whitefeather issues reservation removal order,” Native American Press/Ojibwe News, May 29, 1998, p. 1, http://www.maquah.net/AhnishinahbaeotjibwayReflections/1998/1998-05-28_Widow_removed.html, accessed October 13, 2004.
Wub-e-ke-niew renounced his tribal membership to the U.S. Supreme Court. See December 1990 letter to the
Secretary of the Interior, copy courtesy of Noam Chomsky,
accessed October 13, 2004; slightly abbreviated version was published
9, 1991, in the Ojibwe News,
accessed October 13, 2004.