I’m not halfway through Louise Erdrich’s The Night Watchman—and I’m uncomfortable. Erdrich is Turtle Mountains Chippewa. The Turtle Mountain Reservation is about 200 miles due west of Fosston, Minnesota, where I was born and started growing up. Her book is set in the 1950s, with the story of her grandfather fighting Termination at the heart of it. I was born in 1942, and remember northern Minnesota—the summer heat and bugs and winter cold; ice skates too big with paper stuffed in the toes; Lutheran churches and church potlucks; summer baseball, and on and on. But I don’t remember The Night Watchman’s world.Read Rich’s Post →
Small world—and invisible Indians
Winona LaDuke was at Winter Fishtrap this weekend. She is an enrolled member of the Mississippi Band of Anishinaabeg on the White Earth Reservation in Northern Minnesota and a global activist on behalf of Indian rights and sustainable natural resource use.
Winona is not bitter or self-pitying, but straight forward, proud, realistic, rational, and spiritual all-together. Seven of the eight million dollars spent on food on her reservation go immediately off-reservation, she said. Some huge percentage of electrical energy is spent in the mining and transportation of fuels and the transmission across far distances. On her reservation they will grow and produce more of their own food; they will build wind turbines and develop wind energy.
People hovered after her talk. I approached slowly and introduced myself as having been born and partially raised in Fosston, Minnesota, at the edge of the White Earth Reservation. “My father was born in Fosston, in 1929,” she said. (He later went to California where he was an Indian in the movies—“an extra $25 if you fell off your horse”—and where Winona was born.). I said that an uncle had a small fishing resort called the “Hideout” on Island Lake right after the War. “That would have been off county road #4,” she said.
There were no Indian kids in school—my guess was that they went to small country schools on the reservation. “Probably until eighth grade,” she thought, as that was as far as her father had gone. Only now I think that some of the Indian kids must have been hustled off to boarding schools in other places. I didn’t think to ask her about boarding schools.
Indians were invisible to us. We didn’t know any Indians. On county road #4 we saw a few shacks and big cars. We thought that when Indians got money they bought Cadillacs and got drunk. We didn’t know about the kids, though our parents pitied them.
Then I remembered trips to Itasca State Park, the headwaters of the Mississippi River—“that’s on the Reservation,” Winona chimed—and that for a quarter I had my picture taken sitting on an Indian chief’s lap (why do I remember the quarter?). I don’t know what happened to the picture, but I remember that the Indian had a large feathered headdress and wore buckskin. “That was probably my grandfather,” said Winona.
This is all sixty years ago, and it pains me to write it. I’ve gone to good schools and traveled far, lived for 40 years in Nez Perce country in Oregon—land the Indians were driven from with broken treaties and threats of war. I spend some of my time now going through the books and articles written by the late Alvin Josephy, my mentor still.
Americans have always tried to do away with Indians, Alvin said. We killed them first with diseases, wars, and broken treaties. And for the last hundred years have worked hard at killing “Indianness,” the Indian in them. This has been called assimilation, integration, termination.
Oh, we love them too—love what they were or we imagined them to have been. Alvin called these ideas “Nobel Savage” and “Vanishing Indian.” Indians were idealized by Rousseau and other European intellectuals, and captured in ethnographic studies of language and culture as the same languages, dances, and songs were outlawed on the reservations. They were photographed, most famously by Edward Sheriff Curtis, in regalia they no longer wore. He would pay them a few dollars for changing from regular clothes—often rags—into regalia.
Most importantly, Alvin said, they have often been “omitted” from history. The many languages—over 2000 mutually unintelligible at time of European contact, diverse cultures, arts and artifacts that display skills in engineering, math, and trade, Indian contributions to world agriculture from potato to tomato, and the very way they strove—and strive still—for harmony within the natural world have for the most part been absent from histories and textbooks.
Maybe the books are better now, but I wonder how far we have really come from the days of Winona’s father and grandfather and me in northern Minnesota, when Indians were Tonto on the radio, a photo chief at a state park, and invisible where they lived….