Native American Press / Ojibwe News

March 29, 2002
Roger Jourdain's funeral procession winds down the hill toward the creek on the west side of Red Lake

Chairman Jourdain laid to rest

Roger Jourdain, born July 27, 1912, the son of Joseph “Shorty” Jourdain and Margaret née Johnson, died on March 21, 2002 was buried on March 27th. He was 89 years old; his wife Margaret née Beaulieu died in 1992.

Roger Jourdain, along the Red Lake “Young Man’s Council”—and his father-in-law Paul H. Beaulieu—played a pivotal role in the transformation of the federally-recognized tribal government at Red Lake. Jourdain was at the helm of the movement replacing the council often known as Peter Graves’s General Council, established in 1918, with the Red Lake Tribal Council. When, after months of hiatus in federally-recognized government, the “Revised Constitution of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians” was approved by Acting Secretary of the Interior Elmer Bennett on November 10, 1958, Roger rapidly stepped into power as Chairman of the Red Lake tribal council. With Roger’s death, the last surviving signatory of the 1958 Constitution is Byron L. Graves, Peter Graves’s son.

Roger remained in power as tribal chairman for thirty-one years, surviving factious Indian politics and, on May 28, 1979, a revolution in which his home—as well as most of the rest of the town of Redlake—was burned. Roger was escorted from the reservation by FBI agents, but continued to rule from Bemidji.

Roger was finally voted out of the chairmanship in 1990, when he lost the tribal election to one of his long-time supporters, Gerald “Butch” Brun.

During the years that he was chairman at Red Lake, Roger was a nationally powerful Indian politician. He was a close supporter and friend of Hubert Humphrey and changed his political affiliation from Republican to Democrat during his association with Humphrey.

More than 500 people gathered at Red Lake Middle School gymnasium for Roger Jourdain’s funeral, held at the Red Lake Middle School gymnasium. They included old friends, young relatives, coworkers and associates from Roger’s long years in government, and US Senator Paul Wellstone, who was the only area politician. “He made it impossible for people in Washington or St. Paul to ignore people in Indian Country,” Wellstone told the crowd at Roger’s funeral.

“This man we called The Chairman was known and loved by many people, and feared by many others,” Larry Aitken, Leech Lake Ojibwe historian and educator, said in delivering Roger’s eulogy. “He was a man who kept you on task on everything you did in the political arena,” Aitken told the crowd gathered at the Red Lake Middle School Gym. Aitken acknowledged the role Roger played in bringing federal dollars to Red Lake. “He wasn’t afraid to go to Washington and say, ‘We need housing. We need education. We need respect’.”

Roger’s administration spanned the federal government’s ‘war on poverty’ era and he was in during the years when federal anti-poverty money began flowing onto reservations through a myriad of federal programs. “Before him, the roads in the towns weren’t tarred and we didn’t have running water,” said one of Roger’s relatives, Clayton Strong.

US Senator Daniel Inouye, chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, sent his condolences and written remarks, in which he called Roger, “one of the greatest Indian leaders of all time.”

Fran Ayer, one of the Red Lake Band’s former attorneys, said, “Every time he spoke, he talked about tribal sovereignty.” Roger vigorously denied that the government which he helped create in 1958 was subject to the US Indian Reorganization Act, and along with his longtime friend and associate, Apache tribal chairman Wendell Chino, Roger Jourdain was active in a number of national Indian organizations advocating tribal sovereignty.

About a dozen people spoke about Roger during the 3 ½ hour services on Wednesday afternoon, which included a Catholic mass conducted by Fathers Patrick Sullivan and William Mehrkins. Red Lake Indian medicine man Tommy Stillday had conducted a pipe ceremony and traditional American Indian funeral services earlier in the day, at Little Rock Community Center west of Red Lake.

A photo retrospective of Roger’s life was displayed to the public at the wake and at the service., and included pictures of Roger as a three-year old in 1915, to his posing at the height of his political career with dignitaries like Hubert Humphrey and Rudy Perpich. Clarence Stateley, Roger’s grandson and one of the pall-bearers, received his grandfather’s eagle wing fan. His eagle feather headdress, in which he made many public appearances, will also remain in the family.

Roger’s sister, Ruth Fevig of Redby, said that he continued to be known as an important figure even in his old age. She said that a nurse in the North Country Regional Hospital expressed excitement at having someone so prestigious to care for.

Current tribal chairman Bobby Whitefeather, whose four years as tribal treasurer (1986-1990) were as a part of the Roger Jourdain council, said that wherever he went people asked after Roger: “Oh, you’re from Red Lake. How’s Roger?”

Whitefeather said he will have to now respond, “Roger’s done his service and gone home.” Reflecting on all Jourdain taught him, Whitefeather said, “I guess I can’t say miigwech enough.”

Roger’s funeral procession from the Middle School gymnasium to St. John’s Episcopal cemetery at Red Lake, where he was buried next to his wife Margaret, was headed by Roger’s casket in a horse-drawn wagon. Roger’s longtime friend Wendell Knudson, who owns the team of matching blond Belgian horses, drove the wagon on the one-mile trip from the Middle School to the cemetery.



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