The inclusion of autobiographical material in this book was not my idea. The publisher and Dr. Joy wanted to know about my background, and after I sent it to them, the next draft of the book came back from the editor with my personal history included as most of this chapter. Focusing attention on one's self is something which is not done in Ahnishinahbæótjibway culture. Bragging and boasting are not a part of Aboriginal Indigenous values. This chapter is a part of this book as a compromise. The editor and Dr. Joy argued that many non-Aboriginal Indigenous readers did not know anything about the context of an Ahnishinahbæótjibway's life, and that I needed to explain who I am.
I was born at Red Lake, sometime around June 6, 1928. At that time, Red Lake was still a P.O.W. camp for both the Ahnishinahbæótjibway and the French Métis. The Métis people had to get passes from the U.S. Indian Agent to leave the Reservation, and most of the Ahnishinahbæótjibway weren't supposed to leave at all. I was born in my grandfather's log house, on the shores of Red Lake at Ba-kwa-kwan, where my people of the Bear Dodem had lived in birchbark longhouses for many thousands of years.
The midwife who delivered me was Mrs. John Fairbanks.[i] I was born into the Midé, and my grandfather made sure that what was necessary within the Midé, was done at that time. The Christians put incredible pressure on Ahnishinahbæótjibway to convert, and when my father agreed to my baptism as a Catholic it was a choice of survival or death, but this Catholic ceremony did not cancel out the strength and power of the Midé and my identity into which I was born, Bear Dodem. This is immutably who I am.
My mother died of tuberculosis on June 14, 1931, when I was about three years old. My father was also suffering from consumption. After my mother died, he was sent into the T.B. sanitarium run by the B.I.A. at Ah-gwah-ching, about 75 miles south of Red Lake.[ii] My younger brother and I were taken to the Catholic orphanage at St. Cloud in August, and spent about nine months there. The Catholics were trying to lay claim to us because they had baptized us. I remember the orphanage, and I remember very clearly when my grandfather and my dad came in the spring to take us back. That was one of the happiest moments in my life, seeing my tall grandfather, in his black Reservation hat and the moccasins he always wore, in the waiting room of the orphanage. The moment I saw him, I shouted with joy, "Grandfather, Grandfather!" I called him in both Ahnishinahbæótjibway and English, and jumped right into his lap. I told my grandfather, "Let's go home."
We went to the railroad station in St. Cloud, and rode home on the train. We had to transfer in Bemidji, and at that time the train ran all the way into Redby. My French uncle, the widower of my dad's half-sister, came and got us at the station in Redby, and I rode in the rumble seat of his Model A Coupe to Red Lake. For most of the next four years I lived with my grandfather, who remains the most powerful role model of my life.
My grandfather Bah-wah-we-nind lived in Ahnishinahbæótjibway space and time. Our surviving Dodemian, and the other Ahnishinahbæótjibway elders, were frequent visitors, often sitting long into the soft darkness of the night, smoking kinnikinic, and talking and telling stories. A few times, some of the elders held me too tightly on their laps, and cried--for what had happened and all that they had lost, but also because a few Ahnishinahbæótjibway children were still alive, and there was hope for the generations yet to come.
We would go after water with a big wooden barrel on my grandfather's wagon, through the cedar swamps that bordered Red Lake, to the spring near the lakeshore. In the winter, he would cut his firewood with a crosscut saw, a buck-saw and an axe, and bring it home on his sleigh. We always had a good garden. My grandfather grew traditional Ahnishinahbæótjibway crops including squash, corn, potatoes, onions, and several kinds of beans. He used his ancient Ahnishinahbæótjibway technology of storing food underground for the winter, so that our vegetables didn't freeze. The environment had not been demolished by logging, so we had plenty of fish, venison, partridges, rabbits, and pheasants to eat. My grandfather had maple sugar, and big bags of mahnomen ("wild rice"). We had everything we needed. The Euro-American monetary economy had barely penetrated the Ahnishinahbæótjibway community, and so we retained our Aboriginal Indigenous self-sufficiency. The only things money was good for, were European goods which had been introduced here purporting to civilize us. We had not reached the point of dependency where these introductions were necessities. Our traditional economy had not yet been destroyed by Euro-American economic development and Indian tribal governments run by the White man in Washington, D.C. The Great Depression had very little impact on us.
The Ahnishinahbæótjibway of my father's generation went through a brutal compulsory education, and my father was a broken man who grappled with the European diseases of tuberculosis and alcoholism--and lost. He didn't understand hierarchical thinking, and he didn't speak enough English to have clear insight into the social engineering that was being done at Red Lake. I would have probably gone the same route, and been in the same predicament as my dad, if World War II hadn't provided me with the opportunity to leave the Reservation and get a perspective on what was happening to my people from the outside. At this point in my life I have the advantage of being able to stand in the context of either culture, and see from both the European and the Ahnishinahbæótjibway points of view.
My grandfather died in the Spring of the year I turned 7, and my dad re-entered the tuberculosis sanitarium at Ah-gwah-ching. I saw him once more before he died in June of 1941. After my grandfather died, some Métis relatives moved into my grandfather's house, and took care of my brother and myself until September, when we were put into the Catholic boarding school at St. Mary's Mission, Redlake. We were not put into the boarding school as orphans because there was nobody to take care of us; all of the Ahnishinahbæótjibway children were taken away from their families and put into the boarding schools[iii] under the U.S. Government's compulsory education mandate. The U.S. Government said that the boarding schools were meant to civilize us, but they intended to destroy us as a people--genocide. A large number of children died in these schools.
The policy-makers at the B.I.A. wanted me to leave my Dodem, to discard my ancient and beautiful Aboriginal Indigenous identity, and become their Chippewa Indian. The nine years I spent at St. Mary's Mission School as a political prisoner are covered in a later chapter. The United States Government said that they wanted to turn me into a White man, but they didn't do a very good job. When I got out of the eighth grade, I, like my Ahnishinahbæótjibway classmates, could barely recognize the letters of the alphabet, and had very little language. We had been subjected to violent physical, emotional, and psychological abuse, and inevitably we internalized some of it. Many of my people are still struggling to identify and eliminate this externally-imposed violence, and learning to deal constructively with our anger.
I was fifteen years old when I ran away from the Mission School, in June of 1944. This was during World War II, and labor was scarce. Jobs were easy to get, and I found work right away. People would come up to anyone on the street and ask them if they wanted to go to work. Recently, I was looking through the want ads in a newspaper from 1944, and it reminded me of that long-gone era when the demand was for labor rather than jobs.
When I was growing up, hardly anyone on the Reservation had any money. When the United States entered a wartime economy, people who had been out of work for years finally got a job. In the early years of World War II, White and Métis men would stand around town in the evenings with their hands in their pockets, and sift their silver quarters and half-dollars through their fingers so they jingled. They caressed their money as a symbol of self-esteem and security after long years of going without, and the noise they made with their pocket-change became a ritual of the continual status challenges of White male culture. Social conditions have changed again, and people have become very discreet about the money they're carrying. I don't hear the sound of thirty pieces of silver any more.
I have always been curious about everything, and I have always wanted to learn all I could about the White man: to understand his values, his culture, and the reasons behind the way he acted. A Métis Indian friend and I had saved enough money for fare, and we got on the bus for Grand Forks, North Dakota. I remember the cafes and bars with signs, "no minorities or dogs allowed," but we didn't speak enough English to know what a minority was, so we went in and ate. In Grand Forks, we went down into the Hobo jungles, visited with the Hobos and ate Mulligan stew with them. We hopped the freight cars, going from Grafton and East Grand Forks into the harvest fields, just to experience riding the box cars because we had heard everybody else talking about it. We were young, eager to work, and had strong backs, and wherever we went we found jobs right away. We probably had access to less than 400 words of any language.
One of the things which made a lasting impression on me, was the social classes among the tramps, hobos, and bums, although at that time I didn't understand how a hierarchical society worked. The Ahnishinahbæótjibway are egalitarian people, without social hierarchy. The hobo was a romanticized guy who did odd jobs, an anachronism from the Depression. The hobos rode the boxcars and cooked in the hobo jungles. Beneath him, in the social order of those at the bottom of the White man's hierarchy, was the bum, and then at the very bottom was the tramp. The bums and the tramps ate in the jungles, too, but I remember seeing the bums treating the tramps with scorn.
I worked all through the Red River Valley, plowing and planting, harvesting and working in the potato houses and on a turkey farm. I usually stayed in little bunkhouses that had been built or remodeled for the migrant labor force, of which I was a part. Everybody worked from sunrise to sunset, six days a week, and during the planting and harvest seasons, long into the night. The farm-hands worked right alongside the farmer and his family. This was in the days when bundles of grain were still shocked and stacked by hand, and threshed on steam threshing machines which dated back to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Some of the farmers had made the transition to combines, but most of them still used draft horses. We fed the horses before we ate. In those years we worked hard, and farm families sat down together with the hired help to eat from a heavily loaded table. Those war years marked the close of one of the many facets of the Industrial Revolution, and with the end of World War II both the old threshing machines and the horses went out into the back 40, replaced by combines and a whole new infrastructure in which farm hands and most migrant laborers became obsolete.
In November of 1946, I took the train back to Bemidji, and joined the Army. I had tried to enlist earlier, but they told me I was too young. At that time, I didn't know that I was Sovereign and couldn't be drafted. 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. One of my Métis cousins had refused the draft, on the grounds that the treaty said, "no more war forever;" that Indians could not pick up a gun or have matches. The F.B.I. came after him, and he went into the U.S. Army. The treaty he was misquoting was about land. His misunderstanding of what the treaty said was based on the misrepresentations of the treaty Commissioners, which were preserved in oral history.
When the Army finally took me in 1946, I was still so young that I needed the consent of a guardian. The recruiting office in Bemidji telephoned the Indian Agent at Red Lake, Mr. Bitney, who signed for me. The Army recruiters were laughing when they returned from the back office where they made the phone call, and said "yes, he gave permission as your guardian." I didn't know the B.I.A. had no jurisdiction over me, and enlisted in the U.S. Army for the minimum of 18 months.
I took my Basic Training at Fort Knox. Then, the U.S. Army sent me to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, the staging area for the European Theater of Operations. I was shipped out to Bamberg, Germany, where I had more schooling in the Military Police Academy. The Military Police assigned me two tutors in the German language: one on-base and one off-base. My off-base tutor was supposed to take me to museums and other places of German culture. He conversed with me in German, and sometimes explained in English. These tutors were assigned by the C.I.D. Intelligence training personnel at the Military Police Academy at Bamberg. When I finished my training, they assigned me to the 28th Constabulary at Hof, Germany. When I got to the 28th Constabulary, which was part of the former 6th Cavalry, one of the lieutenants called me an Indian, and laughingly asked, "how does it feel to be in Custer's old Cavalry unit?" At that time, I didn't know much about Custer.
In the Spring of 1947, Hof was on the border between the U.S. zone and the Russian zone of occupied Germany, within a few miles of Russian Czechoslovakia. The Autobahn to Berlin passed just outside of Hof, where the 28th Constabulary were border guards at "Checkpoint Charlie." In 1947, the roads at Red Lake were gravel, and more people traveled by horse and buggy than by car. Even the main highways in the upper Midwest were narrow two-lane roads. The Autobahn amazed me. I was impressed by how technologically far ahead of the Euro-Americans the Germans had come with their war culture. I remember standing on the over-passes and seeing Mercedes whiz by at 90 or 100 miles an hour on the Autobahn. I had never seen anything like the incredible war machine that Hitler built. We inspected the huge artillery built onto railroad flat-cars, two of which were parked near Hitler's hide-out close to Garmisch, south of Munich on the Austrian border. The bores of these Big Berthas were so big that a jeep could drive through them.
After about a year of being stationed in Hof, the Army reassigned me to another outfit at Wieden, Germany, the 94th Constabulary. We spent most of our time patrolling through the German countryside. We patrolled in Regensberg, Burtchesgarten and Nuremberg. Seeing the Germans as a defeated and occupied Nation crystallized my understanding of what was happening to my own people at home. It brought me to a painfully clear understanding of what the United States was doing to the Aboriginal Indigenous people here. The U.S. Army tried to program its recruits to hate both the Germans and the Japanese--their indoctrination was even more intense than the wartime propaganda directed toward the general U.S. population. Although I was wearing the uniform of the conquering and occupying army, I could feel the pain of the German people, and could not act with hatred toward them. I watched the other G.I.s as they made the Germans get off the sidewalk and walk in the gutter, and the countless other humiliations the Army brass tacitly encouraged. As I learned more German and English, I became acutely aware of how patterns that I had known about, fit together. I saw the parallels in the stooped gait and the inner defeat of the Germans and the people at home. Their screaming silence was deafening, as they walked with downcast eyes. I understood with painful clarity that it was the same kind of occupation in Germany and on the Indian Reservations. I understood the reasons why people in the White communities bordering Reservations acted as though they hated us. I came to the realization that I had to do something about it, but first I had to come to grips with who I am, and reclaim my Ahnishinahbæótjibway identity that the United States had tried to take away in the boarding school.
During the Winter of 1947-48, one of my assignments was to guard a coal-yard as the partner of a German police officer. As we stood at the coal-yard in the night, he reminded me, "der Kinder..." referring to the children who we could see stealing coal. It was cold that winter and there was no fuel for the German families to heat their homes. Who was I to begrudge the German children their own coal to keep warm? I shouted "rouse" to the children to fulfill my duty. Then, the German police officer and I went into the guard-house, and let the children take the bits of coal that they needed. I had been in German families' homes where the only heat was the cattle kept underneath the house. One moment I was looking at the high technology of the Autobahn, and the next I was looking at technology that hadn't changed since medieval times. The Germans kept honey-wagons under their houses--instead of going into a cesspool the sewage went into the honey-wagon. When the wind was blowing just right, across the army barracks so that the U.S. occupation forces were downwind, the Germans dumped their honey-wagons, spreading the contents onto their fields as fertilizer. The stench seemed a pungent German protest of the U.S. occupation.
I shipped back to the United States, and mustered out of Camp Kilmer on September 15, 1948. I came home to the Reservation and drew my 52-20, which was $20 a week compensation for returning veterans after World War II. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do.
When the money ran out, in the Spring of 1949, I left the Reservation and went to Montana. The U.S. Department of Agriculture gave me a one-way train ticket to Silver Springs, Montana, to work at cutting pulp-wood. I worked there about a month, and then said "this is no life for me, climbing up and down mountains trying to cut down the forests," and so I packed my bags and hitch-hiked into Great Falls, Montana. The next morning, I went to the employment office and got a job right away. My employer drove in from twelve miles out of town, and picked me up to go to work at his concrete block factory, where I worked almost three years.
Then, I went to Seattle and worked on a trout farm, and did some pulp cutting. I was studying the White man, and looking for somewhere I could comfortably assimilate into his world. I was offered a job on a fishing boat, salmon-fishing in Alaska, but I'd had enough of ocean-going boats in the military. When I came back from Europe on the troop-ship we went through a typhoon; after that experience I didn't want any more of being tossed around by huge waves. As we came into New York Harbor, past the Statue of Liberty, a little short guy from the Texas Panhandle said to her, "you old bitch, if you ever want to see me again, you'll have to turn around." He wasn't about to ever get on a ship again, either.
I worked in Seattle in the winter and spring of 1950-51, then went back to Montana and worked as a gandy dancer on the railroad. I quit because almost all we did was load and unload tools onto the little hand-cars used by the crews, taking the car onto and off of the tracks for passing trains. I don't know how many times a day we loaded and unloaded all of the jacks and sledge-hammers and crow-bars and spike-pullers and tongs--it seems like we spent more time loading and unloading that little car than we did working.
I was 23 years old in the fall of 1951, when I came back to Minnesota and got married. I went to work for Land-O-Lakes in their chemical fertilizer factory. It was a dusty place. I worked there almost a year, then for the next several years I worked as a grocery warehouseman, loading and unloading trucks. In the fall of 1954 we moved back to Red Lake, and in February 1955, the Bureau of Indian Affairs gave us a one-way ticket to Oakland, California, dumping us off the Reservation on their relocation program. I worked testing wiring for General Electric, and in August we came back to Minnesota. There was no community life, no socializing, no way to find other Aboriginal Indigenous people, or even Indians. Everything was foreign and unfamiliar. Also, my wife missed her family.
In 1956, I spent about four months on the assembly line in St. Paul, putting together 1957 Fords. The Ford plant was a closed shop of the U.A.W. Union. I found out shortly that U.A.W. stood for "U Ain't White." When my probationary period was up, I was told to attend a Union meeting, and the Union fired me. I didn't see anybody except White men working at that Ford Plant then--not even as janitors. After I lost my job at the Ford Motor Company for being the wrong color, I drove tractor-trailer over the road: hauling furniture and lumber, until I hurt my back in the summer of 1959 unloading a trailer. I was laid up for eighteen months and did odd jobs: carpentry, electrical work, plumbing.
In 1960, the Civil Rights Movement had started to gain momentum. Just before Christmas of that year, J.D. Holtzerman came over to my house, and asked if I wanted to work for him. Holtzerman was a Harvard Graduate, a retired Colonel who had been in the Army S.I.S., which during World War II was part of the Military Intelligence operations. Holtzerman had a nursery, and he also had a store which sold Christmas ornaments from Germany year-round. Going into Holtzerman's was like stepping into another world, where it was Christmas in old Europe all of the time. It was an astonishing, beautiful store, stocked with finely made arts and crafts from Germany, especially Bavaria. Holtzerman also had a liquor store in downtown Minneapolis, where I stocked shelves, clerked, and delivered liquor to much of South Minneapolis. I worked for Holtzerman full-time for a couple of years, as a general all-around handyman, and also chauffeured him around.
In 1963, I went back to driving truck, this time as a Teamsters Union 544 driver for Custom Cartage in Minneapolis. At the same time, I was attending meetings where we talked about social change, trying to find a way to apply the strategies of the Civil Rights movement to the problems of the "red ghetto." I continued working week-ends for Holtzerman, helping him out when he needed me. Holtzerman was a good man, a decent human being, and a mentor to me. I made a point of listening and remembering what he said.
I drove truck until 1970, and 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 they think and do.
I was a part of the group which started the American Indian Movement in 1965. A.I.M. began as an alcohol self-help group. Due to our excessive drinking--living out the vicious White man's stereotype of "drunken Indian," about a dozen or so Indian and Aboriginal Indigenous people in South Minneapolis started our own Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. This grassroots alcohol group went beyond the standard A.A. Twelve Steps, and tried to deal with inequities in the Euro-American cultural fabric through social change, rather than by drowning our troubles in a bottle, or following the A.A. doctrine of simply living with the pain. The State saw where we were headed, and took this catalyst away from the community. They didn't want a bunch of recovering alcoholics like Pat St.Clair, who understands the racist heritage of Euro-American culture from the bottom up, making changes in the foundations of their hierarchical class system.
The State has centralized alcoholism programs, hiring chemical dependency experts who understand alcoholism in the theoretical abstract, rather than through experience. Pat St.Clair pulled himself out of the gutter on skid row, and knows every trick and scam of an alcohol addict. He has twenty-seven years of sobriety, and a deep personal commitment. In the 1970's, he used his own money to buy a half-way house--he gave people a place to get off the streets and a chance to sober up. There were a lot of professional Indian activists full of rhetorical concern, but when it came down to actually helping do something, none of them were there. Pat is a sober role model who really cares about the people he's working with, teaching them how to help themselves. He's worked for years without pay, cutting firewood to buy groceries and gas, because he's not a White-certified chemical dependency expert. If the State was really committed to solving alcohol problems, they would come to people like Pat.
The assumption is made in the field of chemical dependency that alcohol causes acute alcoholism. A.A. tells people, "you are an alcoholic, just one drink away from being a drunk," and puts the responsibility and blame on the individual. The mainstream A.A. gives many White people the tools they need to solve the personal causes of their alcoholism, and for these people the residue of social problems can then be resolved. But, for many non-whites, alcohol is a non-prescription medicine that people use to treat the symptoms of societal problems. Alcohol is addictive poison, but it is not what causes addictive behavior. The people who started A.I.M. understood that alcoholism needs to be addressed on both an individual and a structural level.
The mainstream A.A. program was designed by White middle-class Protestants, and meets the needs of those people. For a person who is not a part of that group, their A.A. meetings are almost like going into an empty room, or being treated as though you don't exist. If another White person asked those people if they were racist, they would probably say, "of course not." But, most of them don't know how to interact with non-White people, and have a very difficult time getting beyond the black-and-white categories of their language, the pervasive cultural images they have of people of other groups. Alcoholics Anonymous has helped a lot of people find sobriety, but more than a few A.A. groups have become social clubs and cliques, just like many churches, and are an uncomfortable place for outsiders. Because of their historical legacy, and the hierarchical structure and cultural dynamics of the society which engenders and defines them, A.A., the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Christian Churches are all racist institutions.
Dealing with personalities and individual racism will not solve the problems of structural racism, and name-calling and blaming other groups for being racist further entrenches the system. Many apparently racist individuals are operating within the context of the institutions that they represent, and have no inkling of the racism that they convey. In order to address racism effectively, we must deal with the institutions that support the Euro-American hierarchy, the underlying thought patterns that mold the institutions, and with the legacy of racism in the English language. The legislature, the police departments, the I.R.S. and the schools are all racist institutions because they are designed to favor the people in the upper levels of the social hierarchy--the Whites whose ancestors brought their social system with them from Europe.
Western European thinking is hierarchical thinking, and because of this, individual racism is not the core problem. Until the Lislakh world-view becomes integrated and desegregated on this Continent, the racism built into the Euro-Americans' language and their culture will continue to be a problem. This racism is also embedded in their imported Roman Law. When all peoples, of both genders, become full and equal partners of the economic, policy and law-making structure, then this will a better world.
There were some particular incidents of outright racial discrimination at the Minneapolis Alcoholics Anonymous, and it became clear that the established White A.A. could not address our needs, and so we formed our own group. Our struggling for sobriety, and trying to solve the problems which confronted us in both the Indian and Euro-American culture was what gave birth to the American Indian Movement (A.I.M.).
The Métis and White Indians could not get away from their Euro-American values, and so the American Indian Movement eventually also became a racist institution, as have other Indian organizations. The Minneapolis Indian grassroots organizations of the 1960's and 1970's: the Indian Center, the Indian Health Board, the Indian Neighborhood Club on Alcohol and Drugs, the American Indian Movement, the Indian-run housing programs, were reformulated so they could be funded through centralized institutions in the White hierarchical context, and all of them eventually reverted into racist institutions which discriminated against Aboriginal Indigenous people and other non-Indians. One irony is that our tax dollars are being used to transform our grassroots organizations into centralized charities operating on a White agenda.
We who started the alcohol program which became A.I.M., came full circle on the problems we were trying to address. Even breaking away from the Whites did not address the problems which continue to confront recovering Aboriginal Indigenous alcoholics. The Indians are caught in the same hierarchical thinking as their White patrilineal relations. Indian is a dishonest identity, and until the people who try to be Indians come to terms with who they really are, they will remain caught in the Lislakh webs of racism and externally-defined identities.
By the early 1900's, the Ahnishinahbæótjibway were already outnumbered by the Indians. There were only a few Aboriginal Indigenous people in A.I.M.--most of us still keep to ourselves, living quiet lives trying to survive, and don't join the Indians' organizations. Because they have hierarchical Lislakh values, the Indians set themselves apart, and even within their own group they get caught up in social manipulation, and end up spinning their wheels, competing with each other rather than joining together to solve their common problems. There is not one issue about which the Indians can gather together in solidarity.
People caught in the Lislakh paradigm have followed the pattern of escaping from being the victim of social problems, only to become the perpetrators. The Pilgrims escaped from religious persecution only to turn around and become intolerant themselves. One of the reasons for the intense discrimination against Aboriginal Indigenous people is that the immigrant Americans fear that we will do the same thing to them as they have done to us. They cannot conceive of anything else because this pattern is built into their language, and they have found no other way of thinking. But, the Ahnishinahbæótjibway and other Aboriginal Indigenous people are different--it is our job to break this vicious cycle. We cannot go the European route. Our philosophy is harmony and non-violence, and our egalitarian values preclude our having or wanting power over others.
For years, I struggled alone with the conflicts between the Indian identity and the Aboriginal Indigenous identity. I knew that there was something wrong, that there was a difference, despite what the Indians tried to tell me. I know who my people are, my Dodemian, and the other Ahnishinahbæótjibway. But, there was no one with whom I felt I could discuss this, and at that time I had no idea how to go about getting the documentation to substantiate what I knew but could not explain clearly or prove. We, the Ahnishinahbæótjibway have always known that the Métis and White Indians were not our people, but had no independent proof of what the elders had told us when I was a child. The Métis called the Aboriginal Indigenous people indianish, a Chippewa word meaning "backwards" and "nobody," which was their way of saying that they were a different group of people. Their hierarchical thinking is very obvious when they try to put down the Aboriginal Indigenous people and say that Indians with White European ancestors are superior.
The Métis and Chippewa Indians are minorities, European subject people. The Ahnishinahbæótjibway are completely outside of the Lislakh systems. We are not a minority, no matter how few our numbers, and we remain a Nation on our own land. This is one of the things which we, the Ahnishinahbæótjibway, have been saying in our own language for more than a century.
The way I initially saw A.I.M., 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. The Whites have always picked the leaders for the Indian community, because they created the Indians.
In the late 1960's and early 1970's, community organizations were springing up around the Cities--alcohol programs, health programs, education programs--which were attempting to address the problems in the communities, with the support of Johnson's War on Poverty (which was lost with heavy casualties). One organization asked me to address the Lutheran Synod, of which Paul Boe was Executive Director at that time, and present a proposal. A meeting was arranged, and Dr. Paul Boe flatly refused to even look at the proposal. He said, "Clyde Bellecourt is the leader in the Indian Community, and you have to get his approval." We asked him, how did Clyde Bellecourt become the leader in the community? The Lutherans had unilaterally appointed him, democratically voted on him in their Executive sessions, and paid him to become the Indian Leader for the whole community. Externally choosing leaders of those defined as subject people is a classical strategy of Western European occupation under their Roman Law of war and peace.
As soon as A.I.M. began to get outside funding from such organizations as the Lutheran Church, it was no longer an autonomous organization, and was caught up in a situation where those individuals who were favored by the White organizations were in positions of power within A.I.M. At that time, I did not fully understand the English language, and did not clearly see how Euro-American institutions manipulated and eventually took control of what began as a community grassroots organization.
From 1971 to 1973, I served as the Treasurer of the Minneapolis American Indian Movement. After the occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, from February to May of 1973, I said to some of the people who had been made into Indian leaders, "We have their attention now. We don't need to demonstrate anymore; we can concentrate on making this a better community." The White-appointed Indian leadership of A.I.M. wanted personal glory in the media, and like many of their White relatives, did not and still do not idea of the meaning of community. I resigned from A.I.M. in June of 1973. I saw that A.I.M. was going to go nowhere because of the restraints put on the organization by the White community. The people who were supported as A.I.M. Indian leaders by outside White organizations, including the National Council of Churches, had Lislakh values. Although there are certainly some pressing and legitimate issues for the so-called Indian community, as long as these people are caught in the Indian identity, they are stuck and powerless.
As treasurer of A.I.M., the first thing I did was get a tax-exempt number as a non-profit organization, and straighten out our accounts with the I.R.S. A.I.M. had been getting funding from the Lutheran Church, and we didn't even have a tax-exempt number. The I.R.S. told us that we owed them $13,000 dollars and unsuccessfully tried to close us down for back taxes which were incurred before I had anything to do with the finances. After straightening out A.I.M.'s bookkeeping, the priority for which I pushed was economic development, including such things as an A.I.M. grocery store in South Minneapolis.
I managed to get the first American Indian Movement Survival School started, in Minneapolis. I really believed in A.I.M.'s rhetorical goals and objectives, particularly starting a school which addressed the needs of our people, rather than forcibly programming Aboriginal Indigenous children to fit the agenda of the White society. When a free school offered us desks, blackboards, books and other physical necessities for a school, I went and looked and said "I'll take it." I rented a U-Haul truck with my own money and rounded up every able-bodied guy I could find to help move the school equipment. After working for hours, we provided these people with an A.I.M. lunch, which at that time (we hadn't learned about good nutrition yet) was a baloney sandwich, potato chips, and pop. Everything but the school bus was donated to us as a non-profit organization, and I bought the school bus on credit, until A.I.M. held the next board meeting, because there were two signatures needed on the check. When I presented it to the A.I.M. Board, they agreed unanimously to a school "in theory," and when I said that we needed to purchase a bus, they agreed to that, also. When I presented the check for the chairperson to countersign, she called me a "son-of-a-bitch." The White Indians hadn't wanted anything more than a goal of having a school. They wanted to get money to talk about it, rather than to see it really happen. However, the school was already open, and the momentum and support for the school were there in the community. A real school rather than a goal of a school, was breaking the implicit charter with the White liberal organizations, who wanted to support A.I.M. 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. B.I.A. Commissioner John Collier described these Indians as having a "white-plus psychology."[iv]
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 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 they are.
During the early 1960's, there was the Federation of Indian Organizations, which was later joined by A.I.M. During its first years, before A.I.M. was organized, that Federation wrote up a well-documented report about the problems in the community. Those same problems are still here. It seems the White hierarchy gives people from oppressed communities money to talk about the problems and selects the community leaders to publicly lament the problems, but never gives money or other support to solve the problems.
After I resigned from A.I.M., I devoted more attention to politics, still trying to make positive change from within the system. During the Jimmy Carter presidential campaign in 1975, my family and I did canvassing and door-knocking, and attended political meetings. After the election I left Minneapolis for Kansas City, Missouri, and worked there as a caretaker for the landlord of an apartment building, and as a jack-of-all-trades for an office supply company. In Kansas City, I was asked to help with the Longest Walk. I did not know what it was supposed to accomplish, but I helped with the Longest Walk through Kansas City. Now, I 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.
The Aboriginal Indigenous spiritual elder who was with the Longest Walk in Kansas City was a Dakota man, Ernie Peters. A Methodist minister from the Kansas City upper crust, I think he was the coordinator for all of the Methodists in the area who had contributed funding to the Longest Walk, asked me if I could get an interview for him with Ernie Peters. I said I would try. When I asked Ernie Peters, he said, "yes," he would agree to meet him on a certain morning. So, I told the Methodist minister that he would have to bring tobacco, and when he heard about it, a Mormon minister also wanted to talk with Ernie Peters. Both ministers brought their tobacco. The Methodist minister was dressed up in his finest tailor-made suit and Florsheim shoes. The Mormon minister was dressed modestly; he was a more down-to-earth man. I introduced them. Ernie Peters was sitting on a log where he had set up an altar as the Plains peoples do. He was stripped down to the waist, with paintings on his body, and his long braids hung below his belt. Ernie Peters told the Methodist minister, "you are in my church, now. Here it is." He motioned with his hands in all directions, and said, "this is my church. The sky is the dome of my cathedral." He said, "I do not have fancy churches like you do, with all the gold in it. This is the way I live, humbly." Then I left them alone and did not hear the rest of the conversation.
I spent a few more years in Kansas City, and in 1981 I moved back to the Reservation and have been here ever since. I finally realized that I needed to become 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 Midé religion, my place with Grandmother Earth.
After I came back to Red Lake, I drove school-bus for awhile. I then attended Bemidji State University, where I took a writing class and learned how to write in English.
In 1986, I was appointed chairman of the Economic Development Committee for the Red Lake Peoples Council, a grassroots community organization on Red Lake Reservation. We tried to get community-owned economic development going on the Reservation, where the real unemployment rate remains over 90%, and the per-capita annual income is in the third-world poverty range.
We spent two years working with one of the top grant writers in the State of Minnesota, who donated hundreds of hours of his time polishing and submitting grants for the Red Lake Peoples Council. Much to the distress of the grant writer, we could not get any foundation funding. The Boards of the Foundations to whom we applied for seed money grants thought everybody on the Reservation was part of the same group of Chippewa Indians, and privately told the grant writer that they had been "burned" by the U.S. Government-supported Indian Tribal Councils in this area, which they probably were. 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.
We worked on a gardening project for several years. We focused on the Ahnishinahbæótjibway tradition of gardens in part 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 B.I.A. has encouraged. As soon as community enthusiasm for gardens began to build, the B.I.A. started telling people that they couldn't use land for gardens. Using rumors and innuendo, the B.I.A. also discouraged gardening by humiliating people who had gardens.
The Red Lake Peoples Council got a newspaper going. A number of people put sweat equity into starting a community paper. Access to the press has changed the politics and the political leverage of both the Indians and the Ahnishinahbæótjibway. Bill Lawrence, who put an enormous amount of his own resources into the paper, is now the publisher and owner of the present Ojibwe News/Native American Press, which came out of the Red Lake Independent, the Red Lake Times, and the Ojibway Times.
I came back to the Reservation in 1981, with the intention of living the rest of my life on my own land. I wanted to live harmoniously with the Indian community here, so I played by their rules, and applied to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and their Indian Tribal Council for Federally funded community services under the so-called Indian programs that would have been helpful: housing, employment, running water, electricity, eye glasses. But, at the behest of the U.S. Government, the inter-related clique which forms the White Indian élite would only read me their so-called Indian laws: "you can't do this, you can't do that." The only service they wanted to give me was to boss me around, providing "law and order" in the sense of "we'll give you orders and tell you 'it's the law'." The law they were abusing was the blank-check plenary power claimed by the U.S. Congress over their subject Indians. Being blacklisted from employment and denied basic services is a colonial practice which is applied to Aboriginal Indigenous people; using a foreign infrastructure to separate us from our lands. The U.S. Government used their Indians to tell me I was not welcome to live 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 B.I.A.'s Tribal Council, "go play Indian some other place." Because I am not an Indian, I do not need, and I do not want, U.S. Government Indian services.
The B.I.A. 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. Every election, contenders blame the incumbents for the problems, and nothing ever changes, because the racism is a part of the institutional structure, into the halls of Congress and beyond. The externally-supported positions of power within these institutions corrupt even the best-intentioned people, dehumanizing them and making them take on the identity and values of the institution.
After being laid off from my once-a-week route in a dead-end school-bus driving job, because I wasn't one of the Indians who the Bureau wanted on the Reservation, I decided enough was enough. I wrote a short letter to the school, about the ways in which the quality and safety of the school bus operations needed to be improved. Bob Hoag, who was at that time Superintendent of Schools, put my letter up on the school bulletin board, following the Bureau's old tactic of publicly humiliating people into not writing letters. For the last fifty years, whenever a person wrote a letter, it was circulated among the B.I.A.'s White Indian puppets, who then started vicious gossip about the letter-writer, shaming him back into the B.I.A.'s fold. This is one of the colonial strategies of social control used by the B.I.A. I was surprised when people started telling me that they had read my letter and that they agreed with me. I lost my Union job because of this letter, but the abuse made me angry, and I started writing more.
All of my life, I have known that there were things wrong at Red Lake. But, the Ahnishinahbæótjibway have never had corroborating documentation to support what our elders told us: that most of the Indians, particularly the ones kept in power by the B.I.A., are not Ahnishinahbæótjibway, most of them are not Aboriginal Indigenous people at all, and that they were brought into Ahnishinahbæótjibway land by the United States Government as an occupation force. In 1985, I started writing Freedom of Information Act letters to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, as well as writing. If the Bureau wanted to file, copy and circulate my letters, they were going to be busy. In 1970, A.I.M. calculated that there were 18 U.S. Government bureaucrats directly involved in Indian Affairs for every Indian. I knew the Bureau keeps meticulous track of every Federally Recognized Indian, and uses their Indians as well as White bureaucrats to watch Aboriginal Indigenous people. As long as all those bureaucrats were going to feed on my resources and property, I figured I might as well make them work for their money. I was also coming to appreciate the power of the written word.
The Ahnishinahbæótjibway now have new means of non-violently defending ourselves from the Indians, and from the White institutions which control those Indians. One of these is that a number of Ahnishinahbæótjibway are becoming fluent in English. Being able to defend ourselves in their language changes everything, as do the copies of archival documents which have circulated in the Ahnishinahbæótjibway community. Now, when the Indians start to act overbearing, all the Ahnishinahbæótjibway have to do is say, in the English language, "I know where you come from," and the would-be Indian bullies hang their heads and walk away without looking back.
A person outside of Aboriginal Indigenous traditions might not realize the deep significance of the Ahnishinahbæótjibway having access to historical documents--which should have always been available. History and genealogy are a part of our traditional oral culture, but because of the Métis and other Indians who have been packed on top of our community by the U.S. Government, it has been absolutely crucial to have this information in documentary form. Every community, and for that matter every individual, should be able to get information about their genealogy and their history, but the Bureau has consistently told Aboriginal Indigenous people that this information was confidential, or that the records had been burned.
The information which has been so vital to the community has also been kept away from the Ahnishinahbæótjibway in the past through financial engineering. In the lower socio-economic strata into which Aboriginal Indigenous people are channeled, there has not been the kind of money necessary to do extensive archival research. The U.S. Government has supported itself for two centuries by appropriating Aboriginal Indigenous peoples' resources and land--why would they fund the very people from whom they've been stealing, doing research to uncover the details of their crimes? We acknowledge, and thank, the generous individuals whose support has made the research for this book possible.
The U.S. strategy of Manifest Destiny was to completely annihilate the Ahnishinahbæótjibway, obliterate every trace that we ever existed, and replace us with Indians. We caught them before it was too late. This research has allowed people to reclaim their pride and self-esteem. The Ahnishinahbæótjibway, as well as the Indians, are strengthened by not having to live within a dishonest identity. This has to be made into a better world for the next generations. We must go back to a harmonious relationship with grandmother Earth, to non-violence, and to our Ahnishinahbæótjibway values.
For the last few years, I've been writing a column for the Ojibwe News/Native American Press. Access to certain information has improved, some things we would have formerly had to twist bureaucratic arms with increasingly tough F.O.I.A. letters to obtain, are just faxed into the newspaper. The Ahnishinahbæótjibway say, "keep writing, you have helped us to find our own power and walk proud."
What the Ahnishinahbæótjibway have been saying for centuries, ever since we came into contact with the Euro-Americans, can finally be written in English. We have been saying it in Ahnishinahbæótjibway, but nobody understood us.We, the Ahnishinahbæótjibway have a right to exist as a Sovereign people in our own land. We intend to press for international recognition of Aboriginal Indigenous peoples' autonomy, and restore our community to the harmonious and self-sufficient conditions we maintained for eons. We were self-supporting before the Europeans got here, and we will be self-supporting again. This is our land.
[i].Recorded on my birth certificate as Mrs. John Fairbanks. There were several women at Red Lake who were referred to by that name.
[ii].Section 69 of the Law and Order Provisions written by the Bureau of Indian Affairs for Red Lake Reservation read:
Any Indian who shall neglect or refuse to go to the Sanatorium for treatment when found to be afflicted with tuberculosis, or leaves the Sanatorium and returns to the Red Lake Indian Reservation without being discharged by the Superintendent of the Institution shall be deemed guilty of an offense and upon conviction thereof, shall be committed or returned to the Institution. The court shall issue a commitment for the patient and deliver it to the proper official to be executed. Any other Indian who aids, counsels, conceals, or in any way assists a patient to remain on the Reservation while their condition is contagious shall be deemed guilty of an offense and upon conviction thereof, shall be sentenced to imprisonment for a period of not to exceed sixty days or a fine not to exceed $120.00 or to both such imprisonment and fine with cost. Penalty imposed to be determined by the nature of the offense.
[iii].Section 27 of the B.I.A.'s Law and Order Provisions read:
Any Indian who shall, without good cause, neglect or refuse to send his children or any children under his care, to school shall be deemed guilty of an offense and upon conviction thereof shall be sentenced to imprisonment for a period not to exceed ten days, or to a fine not to exceed $20.00 or to both such imprisonment and fine with cost. The court may double the penalty for each additional offense.
to Allan G. Harper, November, 1936, Collier papers, as quoted in The
Deal and American Indian Tribalism, The Administration of the Indian
Reorganization Act, 1934-5, Graham D. Taylor, University of
1980, page 53.