This is a fierce book, fiercely written, with a truth telling that pierces the heart of the reader. Its author, Wub-e-ke-niew is a man who has dwelt in many worlds, Aboriginal, Euro-American, European, has worked every job and condition, known many realities, but is the committed citizen of only one, the Anishinabe Ojibway. He makes it clear that he is neither an "Indian" nor a "Native American," denigrating terms that are inventions of Euro-Americans, and which replace with stereotypes the immense complexity and variation among indigenous cultures.
This man of vast human experience and possessed of the deep spiritual ways of his culture is also a voice crying in the wilderness for the sovereignty of indigenous people. Raised in traditional Anishinabe Ojibway ways by his loving grandfather, he was upon his death, placed in the concentration camp confines of a Catholic mission school, taught only a very limited English, beaten and derided for his culture and forbidden to speak his native language. Joining the army he was sent to Germany after the end of World War II as a member of the military police. There, he studied the ambiguities of European culture, and found them shocking. As jack-of-all-trades and master of many he has been farmer, fire fighter, electrician, truck driver, stevedore, journalist, one of the founders of the American Indian Movement (A.I.M), and presently, the chairman of the Economic Development Committee for the Red Lake Peoples Council. But always he has been and continues to be the careful and conscientious researcher into the terrible facts of what has been done to the aboriginal indigenous people of the Americas. He offers us in painful and painstaking detail, the strategies for genocide that have been laid upon his people over the centuries. For there is not question but that Aboriginal history after the coming of the Europeans is a saga of horror. In the case of North America, no payment made for lands and rights, a sham of treaties, few kindnesses given for many kindnesses received, only disease, war, racism and the desire to see the original people of this country totally extinguished. Certainly there have been humane exceptions to the litany of our cruelty to the native populations, but they are dwarfed by the harsh realities of conquest and genocide, the refusal of sovereignty and the betrayal of treaties, policies that remained part of our official stance for too long. Perhaps the wrongs we have inflected are so stunning that we literally are incapable of taking them in, and so we shut them out and make ourselves blind and deaf to the consequences of our prejudices in action. Or we declare often enough to persuade ourselves that it is true, that we were really bringing the great gift of civilization to the "uncivilized."
Yet we of the "civilized" West have brought the world to the edge of ecological disaster, and to the demeaning of spirit and people of spirit in favor of economic expansion and material success. We have declared war on the Earth for the sake of fleeting pleasures and compromised our very souls in the savagery of that pursuit. Wub-e-ke-niew holds up the mirror to Euro-American society and finds it wanting: the cold abstractions of its hierarchical language, its religion based on the beating and bloodshed of its "savior", its reality riddled with "masochistic mind games...fraught with paradox".
"We Have the Right to Exist" was as difficult a book to write as it is painful and necessary for us to read. The author says, "I have lived under the oppression and genocidal tactics of which I write, and writing about what has happened re-opens the old wounds. I see the Anishinabe Ojibway whom I knew as a child. I can hear their voices again, these, my people, who died along with their whole families, for the White man's greed. Both myself and my children have been attacked, physically beaten by the Euro-Americans, for no reason other than that we are Anishinabe Ojibway. I do not want to dwell on the pain of the past, but it is necessary that it be addressed, because it is an inherent part of the larger structure of Western European Civilization and it must be dealt with openly. The past and the present must be addressed honestly and fully in order to build a decent future for everybody."
This decent future may depend upon our willingness to learn humbly what the aboriginal indigenous people can teach us about relating to each other and our earth. These people hold a knowing that invites true reason and yet exceeds all rational discourse and can access the great connection between mind and nature that brings us home to our true place in the order of things. The Anishinabe Ojibway at Red Lake in Northern Minnesota are themselves a sovereign nation, one of the last of the aboriginal indigenous people to still live on land that they have dwelled on for millennia. They are one of two Reservations in the United States not to have been divided up and allotted in parcels. An egalitarian and not violent people with a profound sense of the great circle of life, with a language and spirituality, as rich as any every known, they have always practiced ecology with the earth and partnership between men and women, have always known the true meaning of tolerance and valued each persons contribution to the life of the whole. The depth and beauty of this culture shines forth from these pages and offers true contrast to the life that so many of us have been forced to live.
This book in its scholarship and its passion is one of the most powerful indictments ever written about the treatment of aboriginal indigenous people, both here and abroad. But it is also a call to a new fairness and equity between peoples, one that can restore autonomy to those cultures upon which our continued life on this planet may depend.