Reflections from the Ah­nish­i­nah­bæójib­way (We, the People)   -  October 17, 1999

In memory of Wub-e-ke-niew

portrait of Wub-e-ke-niew
Wub-e-ke-niew ... walked-on two years ago this month

            Two years ago, in the autumn-golden sunlight of a mid-October afternoon, Wub-e-ke-niew and I finished cutting, splitting and stacking our firewood for the winter.  It was nearly evening when we stood together admiring our woodpile.  “We have enough,” Wub-e-ke-niew said, “to last the winter.”  During the previous few days, we had talked—long, intense conversations—about the possibility that he did not have much longer to live, and our neat rows of firewood were a palpable affirmation of hopes for at least another few months of life ... plans, dreams ...

            Three days later, Wub-e-ke-niew died.  He had lived in the deep non-linear context of Ah­nish­i­nah­bæót­jib­way time, and had written about the natural cycles of life-and-death.  “Death,” he told me, “is a natural part of life,” and he commented that when he died he would like to make a detour through Hell on his way to the Ah­nish­i­nah­bæót­jib­way “next world,” so he could “kick Theodore Roosevelt’s ass”—Roosevelt’s policies of Manifest Destiny included a genocidal agenda of “pulveriz[ing] the tribal mass”.  I wasn’t listening for Roosevelt’s screams from Hell during the first four days after my husband’s death; perhaps he did.

            Wub-e-ke-niew was a profound and complex man, and his legacy is not a simple one.  He touched the hearts of many: during the past two years countless people across this Continent have shared their memories of Wub-e-ke-niew with me, often of just one conversation, or of having read his writing.  Wub-e-ke-niew described himself as “an ordinary human being,” but from an Aboriginal Indigenous understanding of what it means to be human, and it seems that was a part of what affected so many, so deeply.

            From what friends, relatives and colleagues have said—and not said—to me, Wub-e-ke-niew’s death left a real void in the hearts of many people.  The spoken memories are fragments at the surface: recollections of coffee and donuts ... sitting by the fire in our sugarbush ... intense political discussions and decades of political action ... hunting and cutting wood ... talking and writing ... giving away homegrown cucumbers, potatoes and maple syrup ... visiting around the kitchen table ... conversing about genealogy and times past ... repairing pickup trucks, plumbing and societal infrastructure ... remembered moments bespeaking time and deeply human connections shared across years and interwoven lifetimes.

            Wub-e-ke-niew was acutely aware that he was among the few surviving Ah­nish­i­nah­bæót­jib­way of the Dodems at Red Lake, and when we buried him, we returned his generation to Grandmother Earth.  The Holocaust of the Aboriginal Indigenous people of this Continent was an omnipresent reality for him.  He wrote about the genocide: in his book, We Have the Right to Exist he wrote with meticulous historical documentation and in his columns published by Press/ON he sometimes used “pugilism” and sometimes satire or ironic humor.  He wrote not only in remembrance of “my relatives who were killed in the continent-wide holocaust of half a millennium,” but also out of his understanding that, “if you want to create a decent future for your next generations, you had better take a long, hard look at your history ... until you face reality, the violence of the American Reich will circle back around on you, again and again and again.”  A part of Wub-e-ke-niew’s legacy is that he refused to “vanish in silence,” and a part of it remains his urgent reminder to “face reality”—his call for honest and open dialogue about history, about language and about the social pathologies and ecocide in present-day Euroamerica.

            The struggles in which Wub-e-ke-niew was involved still go on.  The destruction of the ecosystem continues: clear-cutting at Red Lake, on the “ceded lands” and throughout the north-brush, plundering and polluting the future of the next generations out of greed and perhaps ignorance, ravaging Grandmother Earth.  Many people at Red Lake and elsewhere remain trapped by the identities, values and definitions imposed on them by Euroamerican colonizers: arguing about “blood quantum” and Euroamerican “Indian enrollment,” caught up in short-term disputes and personal quarrels, and apparently blind to the long-range consequences of internalizing the colonizer’s paradigms, “man-made identities” and language.  They do not seem to think about the systems they are entrenching and what these will do to their future generations; they are evidently trapped by the White man’s lies.

            Some of what has happened during the two years since Wub-e-ke-niew’s death is a terribly potent affirmation of what he said and wrote, including his occasional quotation of former Indian Commissioner John Collier’s 1936 description of Indians who have a “white-plus psychology.”  Some people were apparently upset by some of what Wub-e-ke-niew said and wrote, but were afraid to discuss it with him while he was still alive.  Our property (including our books, documents and a computer containing our genealogical databases) was seized a week after my husband’s death.  I.R.A. Chairman Bobby Whitefeather issued an order to exile me, and his I.R.A. Council “enrolled” Wub-e-ke-niew as a “Chippewa Indian”—after he had died.  Several people working for the “Indian” courts, including judges Bruce Graves and Wanda Lyons, seem to have colluded in “legalizing” the seizure of our documents and other property.  Wub-e-ke-niew enjoyed his occasional “hate mail,” understanding the letter-writer’s irrational anger as an indication that what he wrote was uncomfortably true ... Can the realities of history and colonization be silenced by seizure of documents, or by exiling one who might speak out?  I think not.

            Wub-e-ke-niew was a deep, brilliant and beautiful human being.  He was deeply committed to making this “a better world for all human beings” ... and he was gentle, kind and honest.  He courageously stood “out in front,” speaking and writing about controversial issues, trying to “debunk the White man’s lies.”  He was deeply loved, a cherished husband, father and relation, a beloved friend to many, an inspiration ... and some found their own anger and fears reflected back to them in Wub-e-ke-niew’s writing.

            Wub-e-ke-niew of the Bear Dodem of the Ah­nish­i­nah­bæót­jib­way of Red Lake bequeathed a wealth of memories and a complex and still-unfolding legacy.

            Clara NiiSka

garter snakes sun themselves on the woodpile
Garter snakes sunning themselves in the solarium made by vinyl sheeting
covering the woodpile.

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