Rez Lifeby David Treuer
A celebrated Native American novelist’s intimate, insider exploration of the history of Indian reservations and contemporary life on the rez.
A celebrated Native American novelist’s intimate, insider exploration of the history of Indian reservations and contemporary life on the rez.
Celebrated novelist David Treuer has gained a reputation for writing fiction that expands the horizons of Native American literature. In Rez Life, his first full-length work of nonfiction, Treuer brings a novelist’s storytelling skill and an eye for detail to a complex and subtle examination of Native American reservation life, past and present.
With authoritative research and reportage, Treuer illuminates misunderstood contemporary issues of sovereignty, treaty rights, and natural-resource conservation. He traces the convoluted waves of public policy that have deracinated, disenfranchised, and exploited Native Americans, exposing the tension and conflict that has marked the historical relationship between the United States government and the Native American population. Through the eyes of students, teachers, government administrators, lawyers, and tribal court judges, he shows how casinos, tribal government, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs have transformed the landscape of Native American life.
A member of the Ojibwe of northern Minnesota, Treuer grew up on the Leech Lake Reservation, but was educated in mainstream America. Treuer traverses the boundaries of American and Indian identity as he explores crime and poverty, casinos and wealth, and the preservation of his native language and culture. Rez Life is a strikingly original work of history and reportage, a must read for anyone interested in the Native American story.
“A gritty, raw, and thoroughly authentic look at reservation life—as experienced from the inside out. Here is modern America glimpsed through a different membrane, narrated in a fresh new voice. In this searching, at times heartbreaking, but often triumphant mélange of history, journalism, and memoir, Treuer loudly proclaims that all reports of the American Indian’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.” —Hampton Sides, best-selling author of Blood and Thunder
“[Rez Life] is not, for all its intimacy, just as it is not exactly a work of reportage or a work of history. Rather, it is a nuanced hybrd, a memoir, broken into six chapters, each of which begins in the personal, then expands outward to a larger theme. Sovereignty, fishing, treaty rights, the tribal justice system, education, language and assimilation—Treuer examines all of it, finding associations between the broadest stories and the most individual.” —David Ulin, Los Angeles Times
“An affecting portrait of his childhood home, Leech Lake Indian Reservation, and his people, the Ojibwe.” —The New York Times
“An invaluable study and vivid account of problematic life on our reservations by a writer—a very good writer!—raised ‘on the rez’ who knows what he’s talking about only too well and also knows how to tell a story, lots of stories, that document and effectively banish a number of misconceptions still held by white society. Highly recommended.” —Peter Matthiessen
“Treuer’s poignant, penetrating blend of memoir and history illustrates that despite long-standing problems, including poverty and high rates of alcoholism, reservations remain strong, proud bastions of Native American life.” —Eric Libetrau, People Magazine
“[Treuer’s] upbringing on an Ojibwe reservation in Minnesota makes him adept at delving behind stereotypes of Indian life and infuses his account with passion and meticulousness.” —The New Yorker
“Rez Life isn’t a voyeuristic march through Indian country’s wrenching ills. While Treuer doesn’t shy from the miserable side of Indian life, he unveils a world—grounded in Minnesota’s Leech Lake Reservation, where he grew up—that is complex and rich. . . . Treuer manages to write a book about Indian life that is often fun and occasionally hilarious.” —Lisa Jones, Outside
“For the past eight years, ever since my tribe announced plans to build a casino in Sonoma County, I have been plagued by questions, in the gym, in the supermarket, regarding how and why American Indians have ‘special rights’ allowing us to do what other American citizens cannot do. I have always launched into an explanation of tribal sovereignty and trust land status, attempting to explain the complicated, and usually misunderstood, history of American Indians, yes, all in a matter of a few minutes, before I can politely escape my interrogators. Now I can refer them to David Treuer’s Rez Life and say no more. . . . Smartly, this book blends journalism, history and memoir . . . to provide both anecdotes of present-day reservation life and history. . . . Treuer’s message—the picture he gives of Indian reservation life today—is not one of defeat or demise but of miraculous survival.” —Greg Sarris, San Francisco Chronicle
“Applied to a book, the word ‘important’ can glaze the eyes. An ‘important’ book sounds like an earnest, educational one you should read, when you get to it, someday, maybe. Rez Life is important in the word’s best sense—one you’ll want to read if you’re at all curious about contemporary American Indians. It’s important in the way Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was when it came out in 1970, deeply moving readers as it schooled them about Indian history in a way nothing else had.” —Pamela Miller, Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“Treuer sees all the poverty, the gangs and the alcohol, but he also sees great beauty in some of the last places untouched by commercial development. He hears the stories of his people in the language of his people, and he sees the pride of survivors.” —Neal Conan, NPR
“Blends memoir and history to reveal what life on a reservation is really like—neither the festival of dysfunction nor the oasis of noble, nature-loving stoics that many non-Indians imagine. . . . [A] blistering, illuminating, ultimately hopeful book.” —Kate Tuttle, Boston Globe
“A poignant book that will leave the reader a truer sense of American Indian history that goes way beyond what others are willing to do or are even capable of doing in depicting Indian life on reservations.” —Levi Rickert, Native News Network
“Acclaimed novelist David Treuer’s Rez Life stands as a revelatory portrait of Indians in modern America.” —Paul Beston, PopMatters
“Treuer systematically dismantles many of the preconceptions—and misconceptions—the general public has about Native Americans, a complex stew born of romanticism, guilt, lack of historical knowledge, and, sometimes, willful ignorance. Treuer’s approach—a unique blend of memoir, history, and journalistic account, interspersed with entertaining forays into topics like the natural history of the walleye and the origins of casino décor—lends a human touch to a story that is not often presented in such terms. . . . Rez Life is a bracing, eye-opening, often moving read. Highly recommended.” —Andrea Appleton, Washington City Paper
“Rez Life is a fascinating, air-clearing look at Native American reservation life, strengthened in equal measure by its anecdotes and its scholarly attention.” —Jonathan Messinger, Time Out Chicago
“Highly recommended for anyone interested in Native American history.” —Jason Zasky, Failure Magazine
“An authoritative and vastly entertaining book. . . . There may be no more accurate, more engaging, more thought-provoking book on contemporary Native American Indian life than this.” —Bruce Jacobs, Shelf Awareness
“As novelist David Treuer wryly observes in this sobering yet quietly redemptive book, in spite of how involved Indians have been in America’s business, most people will go a lifetime without ever knowing an Indian or spending time on an Indian reservation. . . . Treuer’s elegant chronicle of the lives and stories of individuals on his own reservation . . . chips away at the stony structures that embed [negative] views of the reservation in the American consciousness.” —Henry L. Carrigan Jr., BookPage
“A compelling account of life on native American reservations.” —The Christian Science Monitor
“Treuer, a prize-winning writer of fiction and member of Minnesota’s Ojibwe tribe, has fashioned a compelling work of nonfiction, knitting together his own personal narrative, the perspectives of friends and family, and the complex history of reservations and Native and non-Native relations. The result is at once sweeping in its historical and political scope and deeply personal and engaging.” —Julie Edwards, Library Journal
“Rez Life is a powerful, poignant, and beautifully written history/memoir that weaves together strands of joy and tragedy, empathy and greed, hope and despair, and tradition and wrenching change. It is an important and insightful book that should be read by anyone interested in the fascinating role of reservations in America’s past, present, and future.” —Eric Jay Dolin, author of Fur, Fortune, and Empire
“In a book that is part memoir, part journalistic expos’ and part cultural history, novelist Treuer offers a movingly plainspoken account of reservation life. . . . Powerful, important reading.” —Kirkus Reviews
“A striking, chromatic blend of journalism, history, and memory. . . . Cosmic humor is the wild card Treuer holds in his hand, among the aces of family bond, cultural tenacity, and a honed spirit of place.” —Peter Lewis, Barnes & Noble Review
“Free of academic jargon, overflowing with terrific storytelling, David Treuer has given us the best book I have ever read on contemporary reservation life. A courageously intimate memoir of family life and community survival . . . it deftly sashays between gritty everyday realities and their well-researched historical contexts and cultural resonances through the magically readable kind of nonfiction that perhaps only a novelist could pull off. Alive with memorable personalities and harrowing dips into reservation hell, wonderfully observed road trips through Indian country and inspiring examples of traditional subsistence and linguistic renewal, this introduction to Native America is destined to be a classic.” —Peter Nabokov, Professor of American Indian Studies, UCLA, and author of Where the Lightning Strikes
“One of the most provocative voices in American Indian literary writing and criticism, David Treuer turns his piercing eye to the intertwined experiences of Native resurgence and crisis. Rez Life is for those who really want to understand Indian casinos, fishing rights, poverty, alcohol, spirituality, family, crime, war, law, sovereignty, violence, love, dedication, endurance . . . and most everything else.” —Philip J. Deloria, author of Indians in Unexpected Places and Playing Indian
“Rez Life is a compelling and unvarnished look at the unique experience of life on an Indian reservation. With a novelist’s eye for detail and a journalistic grasp of history, David Treuer reveals that this country’s crimes against its original inhabitants were not limited to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This is a must read for anyone who cares about the ongoing plight of our Native Americans.” —Brian Hicks, author of Toward the Setting Sun: John Ross, The Cherokees, and The Trail of Tears
“Out of the people and places of Native America David Treuer has crafted a story of vital interest to all Americans.” —Former Vice President Walter Mondale
“[Treuer] shocks us, he makes us laugh, then he lulls us with poetry before he wallops us with history. I loved that range in writing. I also loved this book for its harsh beauty, its honesty, and for Treuer’s incredible talent at telling stories that mean something. . . . this is an invaluable book for anyone who’s curious or who lives near a reservation.” —Terri Schlichenmeyer, Long Island Pulse
Winner of the Minnesota Book Award
Minneapolis Star-Tribune Best Regional Books of 2012
Apple iTunes iBookstore Top Books of 2012
It was a hot day in May 2006 when two Red Lake tribal conservation officers sped across the mirror-smooth waters of Upper Red Lake, uncased M4 assault rifles and shotguns leaning against the bow of the reservation conservation boat. Officers Nelson and Grolla never left the guns onshore—someone could break into their vehicle and take them. They had been on routine patrol when they saw two white men fishing on reservation waters. Grolla is a big man, an intimidating man if you don’t know him, or, for some, even if you do. He laughs a lot. He weighs nearly 400 pounds. His Ojibwe name is Ogimaa-giizhig (literally “Head of the Sky” but, more figuratively, “Head Thunderbird”) and he belongs to the Caribou Clan, just as his great-great-great-grandfather the famous Ojibwe war chief Waabojiig had. “When I was at the police academy in New Mexico,” Grolla said, “it was like boot camp, you know, like that movie Full Metal Jacket. It was tough. You got yelled at a lot. I saw a few girls cry the first day.
A lot of those guys had never been yelled at before, they didn’t know how to do anything for themselves. I was glad I was raised the way I was. I grew up hauling wood, doing chores. At the academy all that work I did growing up helped. A lot of guys didn’t know how to do laundry or how to press their clothes. I knew all of that. When I got back from the academy I got my class number tattooed on my shoulder: IPA 71. I was half the size I am now. I was about 235 pounds. I could bench three hundred-something. Now I eat all the time. Because of the stress, I think.” Grolla used to work for the Red Lake police force, but he switched over to conservation in 2000, largely because of the stress. “A lot of guys quit this job. They do it for a few years and get tired of it and become what’s called being ‘retired on duty.” They just don’t care anymore. I was getting to that place. I just didn’t care anymore and I didn’t want to be like that. It got to be too much. So I switched to conservation. I like being in the woods more.” Grolla’s partner, Corporal Tyson Nelson, is also imposing: dark, six feet tall, 235 pounds. Nelson is a boxer, one of the best from Red Lake, a place that has produced many good Golden Gloves.
Grolla’s shoes and socks were on the floor of the boat. He raced across the water wearing only his pants and shirt. His gun belt was off. Later, during the trial in Red Lake Tribal Court, his manner of dress would become an issue. “You looked like you were ready to tango, like you wanted to fight,” said Jerry Mueller, one of the fishermen. “No. You learn pretty quick not to go on the water wearing heavy boots. If you go over you could drown,” says Charley.
Grolla and Tyson had been watching as the boat with the two white fishermen neared the reservation boundary, marked onshore with a sign and on the water with white plastic buoys. Sport fishermen often ripped down the signs and cut the buoys. Only a road remains as a reminder of where the reservation boundary lies. Even though Jerry Mueller and his son-in-law were close to shore and could see the sign, they did not turn around; they continued fishing on Red Lake waters until they were a mile inside the reservation. When Mueller saw the conservation officers approaching he started his boat, gunned it, and then stopped—clearly the officers had the faster boat. “He knew where he was,” recalled Grolla. “We took him in and he was cooperative at first. He played stupid. “We didn’t know,” he said. “We didn’t know.” But we were really respectful, professional. Even though they saw the signs down everyone knows where the boundary is. You can see it on the shore. And it was totally calm. How could you drift a mile over the boundary when there’s no wind at all?”
Grolla and Nelson powered up alongside Mueller and his son-in-law (the case is referred to as the Mueller case although the boat actually belonged to the son-in-law), took hold of the 1984 Forester seventeen-foot fiberglass boat, and said that they were fishing on Red Lake Reservation waters and that the boat, motor, and fishing gear were being confiscated.
“If I’m on the reservation, I’m real sorry for this,” Mueller recalled saying. “I had no intention of fishing on your side of the lake.”
Mueller claimed later that Grolla said, “Your apology don’t hold no weight with me.”
The officers moved their assault rifles to the stern and commanded Mueller and his son-in-law to get into the bow. With the boat in tow they proceeded back to the boat landing. The son-in-law was polite, even contrite. He paid his fine and got his boat and trailer back without complaint. Mueller was a different story. When he returned home he received a summons to appear in Red Lake Reservation tribal court or to pay a fine of $250 for fishing illegally in Red Lake waters. He said that he would not obey the summons, and that the fine was unfair. Many other whites agreed with him. He received pro bono legal representation to help him fight the fine in tribal court. A nonprofit citizen action group called Citizens for Truth in Government, based in Bagley, Minnesota, was formed in part because of the issues of water rights and fishing rights stirred up by the Mueller case. The action group argued, among other things, that Red Lake Reservation shouldn’t have sole jurisdiction over the waterways inside the reservation, that it had no right to fine non-band members or confiscate their property, and that the reservation shouldn’t receive any money from the state for schools on its land. “The reservation is set up to fail,” says Terry Maddy, the secretary-treasurer for Citizens for Truth in Government. “I want to be clear: I’m not anti-Indian. I’m pro-Indian. I’ve got a lot of Indian friends. And let me tell you—when they come visit me they don’t want to park out front. They’re scared to be seen with me because Buck Jourdain [the chairman of the Red Lake Tribe] has got spies. They’re scared to death of him. He gets a cut of everything up there,” contends Maddy. “Like a kingpin. If people speak out publicly, they’ll die. We’re not anti-Indian, we’re anti-reservation, because reservations are keeping people down. No one’s happy up there. And it’s because people feel entitled. They get special treatment, special rights.” A coalition of sport fishermen vowed to form a floating blockade of Red Lake waters with their fishing boats. What might have been an instance of willful trespass or simply a navigational blunder looked as if it would become a serious challenge to the sovereignty of Red Lake Reservation.
Doug Lindgren, a Republican candidate for the state legislature in 2006, made Red Lake his main campaign issue. “It’s been upheld in the highest court in the nation,” said Lindgren, “that Red Lake belongs—and this is from the U.S. Supreme Court—is that they are saying that the navigable waters belong to the state of Minnesota. If Minnesota has the right, through the laws, then yes, Minnesota should step in and have all control over what goes on on the Red Lakes.” Michael Barrett, a Republican running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, said, “This is not meant to be racist in any manner. In fact, the opposite is true. This is a statement that identifies that we’re all Minnesotans, that we should all have the same opportunities and we should all live by the same rules. We have to have a state and a nation that embraces equal rights and equal access for all, not special privileges for a few.”
It’s the idea of ‘special privileges’ that upsets people so much. But what Barrett, Lindgren, and Maddy don’t realize is that tribes and tribal sovereignty allowed there to be a state of Minnesota in the first place. Without the concessions made by tribes during the treaty process there wouldn’t be anyplace for white people to settle. Be that as it may, Terry Maddy, the treasurer for Citizens for Truth in Government, summed up Red Lake’s position by saying they’ve “long had a tradition up there of having their cake and eating it, too.”
Red Lake Reservation is mostly water. It is a beautiful place, unlike any other in America. For starters, Upper and Lower Red Lake are almost completely undeveloped. Elm, ash, and maple march down to the water’s edge. In a time when lakeshore property on sandy lakes in Minnesota and Wisconsin with good fishing has been almost completely divided and developed, sand beaches stretch for miles on Red Lake without interruption. Red Lake is actually two lakes—Upper and Lower Red Lake—connected by a narrow channel. The southern Lower Red Lake is sandy and shallow, and its 152,000 acres sit completely inside the reservation. Upper Red Lake is divided more or less in half—the 48,000 acres of the northern portion of Upper Red Lake are off the reservation; 60,000 acres of the southern half are within the boundaries of Red Lake.
There aren’t really any farms on Red Lake Reservation, and there are only a few backwoods businesses advertising welding, small-engine repair, or logging. There are only four convenience stores I know of on the rez—one each in Little Rock, Red Lake Village, Redby, and Ponemah. The village of Red Lake has a grocery store and a Laundromat. Other than these small convenience stores, there is no place to buy gas or food. There were no hotels until the spring of 2010, when Red Lake opened a casino on the southern boundary, far from the lake. There are no hair salons, Starbucks, Einstein Brothers Bagels, cell phone stores, RadioShacks, Jiffy Lubes, McDonald’s, Arby’s, Rent-A-Centers, car dealerships, Gaps or Old Navy Stores. There aren’t even any real billboards. What signs do exist are often small, hand-painted on plywood, and as often as not propped against a tree rather than planted in the ground. The first sign you see upon driving into the village of Red Lake on Highway 89 is nicely painted and reads ‘don’s West-End Video,” in red block letters written freehand on whitewashed half-inch plywood. All of this . . . this nothing, on a reservation the same size as Rhode Island. Until the new casino was built in 2010, the biggest building on the rez (except for the hospital) was the BIA jail.
The reasons for this apparent nothing are varied. Red Lake suffers from some of the most crippling economic conditions of any community in the country. Unemployment stands at 60 percent. The average income at Red Lake is well below the poverty level. High school graduation rates are the lowest in the state.
The village of Red Lake, arguably the capital of the rez, since that’s where the high school and government offices are, doesn’t offer much to look at. There is the former Red Lake Trading Post, which is now called Red Lake Foods. It is a combination grocery store, gas station, convenience store, Laundromat, and check-cashing place. There are government buildings, a few houses, a small casino, the grade school, the high school, and the powwow grounds next to the old casino. All in all, the village has a meanly municipal feel to it.
All land is held in common by the Red Lake Band, so no non-band member can own or rent out any house on tribal land. Charley Grolla, the officer who arrested Jerry Mueller, is an enrolled member of a different reservation, the small backwoods community of Nett Lake in northeastern Minnesota. “When I was real little my ma was going to go to an AA meeting in the Cities. So she dropped me and my brother off with Dale and Sandy [Johns] at Red Lake. She didn’t come back for a few weeks. When she did come back she was kind of drunk. Dale said, “You can stay if you want. You got to do what you’ve been doing, work hard, work around the house, take care of yourselves.” So I went out and told my mom I was going to stay. She said OK, and I didn’t see her again for three or four months, maybe.” Grolla went back to his biological family at Nett Lake later, but life was much the same. More chaos. More drinking. ‘my mom had been drinking and stuff. I was fourteen. The uncle I was going to stay with, my favorite uncle Ike Leecy, he happened to do some time in jail. I was going to stay with him but I couldn’t. So I hitchhiked back to Red Lake. A couple of weeks later the social workers came over. I told them I’m not going to go back. I gotta live my life, too. So I showed up at court and told them why I didn’t want to live with her. It was a good life at Red Lake. A forest life. Set nets, did sugarbush, picked blueberries. And that’s where my Ojibwe stuff started, with my grandmother Fannie Johns. When I first learned my trees I learned them in Ojibwe. I didn’t even know the English words for the trees. Birds, too. There’s that one, she called it “Manoominikenshiinh.” It runs on the water in the rice. I still don’t know what it is in English.” So Charley grew up with a prominent Red Lake family, living a Red Lake life. He got married to a member of the Red Lake Band and they lived there and raised their kids there. But when he and his wife divorced, he couldn’t live at Red Lake anymore. He is engaged now to a Red Lake tribal member.
While non-band members can’t, as a rule, live on the rez, there is an exception, which has led to perhaps the strangest sight in the village: the Compound. Situated alongside the main highway, number 1, the Compound houses the Indian Health Services Hospital, the Jourdain Perpich Extended Care Facility, and all the “foreign” workers—government officials, doctors, teachers, and so on—who have jobs on Red Lake but are not band members. Some of the houses, known as “Walking Shield” houses, were moved here from an abandoned air force base in North Dakota. There are two batches of them, and after they were moved from North Dakota all of them had to be stripped and abated because they were insulated with asbestos. Some of the other houses were built on site. The HUD planners who designed the arrangement were smitten with the winding streets and culs-de-sac of American suburbia, and they let their love show: the Compound’s ramblers and split-levels grace curving streets with curbs and streetlights, but no sidewalks. And until recently the whole thing was encased in an eight-foot-high Cyclone fence. Some people joke that the fence was there to keep Indians out. (And this is possible. When the old agency building and hospital were on the other side of the creek, they too were enclosed in a fence and referred to as “the compound”; but when the hospital and other facilities moved to where they are now, the old compound became known as “Pill Hill” because that’s where everyone used to go to get medical care.) Clearly, outsiders have a complicated stake in Red Lake.
The high school sits just past the compound on the other side of the creek. It is a large, modern affair, built with bonded state and federal money in the early 1990s. Despite all the troubles that plague the reservation—crime, gangs, unemployment, suicide, and low graduation rates—the whole community is very proud, especially proud, of this school. It is the most important, most central, most conspicuous building on the reservation.
To an outsider Red Lake could look like a great nothing. But what appears as a great nothing, an economic disaster, is linked to a particular Red Lake phenomenon of independence. The “nothing” is the result of character and leadership stretching back over 150 years. Red Lake Reservation, unlike nearly every other reservation in the United States, is a closed reservation. No one can live, work, travel, or fish anywhere within the reservation boundaries without the tribe’s blessing. Mueller and his son-in-law were fishing on the wrong side of the rez.
When Terry Maddy said that the Indians at Red Lake were used to having their cake and eating it, too, the “cake” he was referring to was sovereignty, and it had been baking for more than 400 years before Jerry Mueller’s boat was confiscated by the sovereign nation of Red Lake. There is probably no aspect of Indian life more misunderstood by Indians and non-Indians alike than sovereignty.
Sovereignty in the Western sense—the supreme independent authority over a land or territory vested in a people or a government—predated the conquest of America. So when tribes began making treaties with colonial powers and later with the U.S. government, sovereignty, as a concept, was well in place. It was out of this concept that reservations were, in large part, born. There were ad hoc arrangements that resembled, to some extent, modern reservations, dating back to the early seventeenth century. The Delaware from New Jersey, for example, had one such arrangement. The Delaware were also the beneficiaries of what could be considered the first ‘reservations’ in the United States, when, in the early 1700s, they were promised land that would exist under their authority in Chester County, Pennsylvania. The Province of Maryland created a 5,000-acre reservation for the Nanticoke Indians in 1698, and created another reservation of 3,000 acres in 1711. The first and last reservation in the state of New Jersey was created for 200 Brotherton Delaware on August 29, 1758, in Evesham Township, Burlington County, New Jersey. Despite the reservation created for them in New Jersey, the Brotherton Delaware became one of the most nomadic tribes of all time. The Brotherton Reservation fell into decline almost immediately after it was created, mostly because the community’s benefactor, John Brainerd, became ill and left in 1777. The Oneida of upstate New York invited the Brotherton Delaware to live with them in 1796. The Brotherton agreed. They had no power or protection in New Jersey. Instead of growing, their numbers had shrunk from 200 in 1758 to a mere 85 in 1796. They sold the reservation to New Jersey and moved to New York in 1802. The stay with the Oneida in New York was short. Some of the Oneida planned a move to Wisconsin—having lost land, rights, and villages during and after the rampages of the Revolutionary War. The Oneida, having sided with the Americans, returned to their villages to find them burned and looted by the British, the Americans, and even some of their own Indian allies. And this after the Oneida men had carried 600 bushels of corn on their backs to relieve the famine at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777-1778. An Oneida woman named Polly Cooper accompanied the men and showed the soldiers how to prepare the corn by soaking it in lye and rolling it into hominy. So grateful were Washington and his troops that Martha Washington personally presented Polly Cooper with a bonnet and shawl. That gratitude was short-lived. After the war the Oneida suffered and sought better conditions out west. The Brotherton Indians accompanied them. Other Delaware moved to Indian territories in present-day Oklahoma. Still others fled to Canada.
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries up to the Revolutionary War, there were a series of arrangements, trade relationships, and antiaggression treaties between many tribes and the many European colonial powers in North America, chief among them the Spanish, Dutch, French, and English. These relationships varied among tribes and colonists, with some tribes playing both sides because they could. In many instances, as late as the mid-eighteenth century, Indian tribes controlled the natural resources, the routes of travel, and the technology to effectively control large areas of North America. The Indians in the Great Lakes region showed they were powerful enough to make any colonial power in North America think long and hard about how to deal with Indians. Nowhere was this more clear than during the Seven Years’ War. When that war began in Europe in 1756, it involved every major European and colonial power, making it what some call the first world war. Great Britain and its allies (including Prussia) fought against France, Austria, Saxony, and Sweden. When the war was done, between 900,000 and 1.4 million were dead. The major clashes between Great Britain and France had been far from their own homelands; these took place in America during the French and Indian War, which was really the North American theater of the Seven Years’ War but was so vast, long, and bloody that many people have come to think of it as a separate conflict. The very name of the war can be confusing—the conflict was not between the French and the Indians but rather between the French and their Indian allies and the British in North America. At the outset of the war in 1754 the British maintained a strong presence on the eastern seaboard from North Carolina to Maine, whereas the French occupied the territories farther north and west. Mixed in with the French and British colonies were many Indian tribes—Seneca, Mohawk, Ottawa, Ojibwe, Hurons, Delaware, Shawnee, Winnebago, and others—whose territories often overlapped those of the French and the British. Most of the Indian tribes sided with the French, who were, by colonial standards, somewhat decent neighbors and trading partners. Some tribes, notably the majority of the Iroquois Confederacy (which comprised the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora but in this case was minus the Seneca), joined the British. The war—brutal and total—lasted from 1754 until 1763, when France gave up most of its New World possessions at the Treaty of Paris, though it left its citizens and traders in their former holdings.
When, under the leadership of General Jeffrey Amherst, the British took possession of the French territories around the Great Lakes, they made a number of mistakes. They understaffed the forts and shortchanged their new Indian trading partners. Most of these errors resulted from Amherst’s low opinion of Natives. He thought them disorganized, weak, and worthless. Whereas the French treated the Indians as allies and urged, through diplomacy and trade, the creation of mutually beneficial alliances, the British treated Indians as a defeated people. They did away with the symbolic and quasi-religious gifting ceremonies the French had observed, during which village chiefs were presented with blankets, guns, and trade goods. Amherst’s general approach was desultory and his attitude derisive; he cut rations and instructed traders not to sell gunpowder to the Indians. Few French colonists made inroads into Indian territories, but the British came in waves. And finally, the great tribes of the East had enough.
An alliance was forged between three different tribal regions: the Great Lakes tribes, consisting of the Ottawa, Ojibwe, Huron, and Potawatomi; the tribes from Illinois country to the west, made up of Miamis, Kickapoos, Mascoutens, Weas, and Piankashaws; and the tribes from the Ohio country, including Mingos, Shawnee, Wyandots, and Delaware. These came together largely under the leadership of the Ottawa chief Pontiac and Kiywasuta, a Seneca leader. The Seneca, having long supported the British, were disaffected. They threw in their lot, and their many warriors, with the tribes allied against the British. When fighting started at Fort Detroit in the spring of 1763 and lasted until late 1764, the Indians used every strategy they had. They sneaked in concealed weapons, pretending to want to have a council. The leader of Fort Miami was lured out of the fort by his Indian mistress and killed by Miami warriors lying in wait. The most daring method of capture was used when the Ojibwe and Sac staged a lacrosse game outside the gates of Fort Mitchilimackinac. They threw the ball in past the open gates and chased after it (nothing was “out of bounds’ in early lacrosse). Once inside the fort the lacrosse players grabbed weapons smuggled in earlier by their women and opened fire, killing fifteen of the fort’s thirty-five soldiers; five solders were tortured to death later.
During the conflict many hundreds of British soldiers and civilians were burned, tortured, and scalped. One was ritually cannibalized. The British, for their part, weren’t very nice either. During the siege of Fort Pitt General Amherst wrote to Colonel Bouquet, who commanded a force sent to relieve him, “Could it not be contrived to send the small pox among the disaffected tribes of Indians? We must on this occasion use every stratagem in our power to reduce them.” Colonel Bouquet agreed heartily: “I will try to inoculate the bastards with some blankets that may fall into their hands, and take care not to get the disease myself.” This was Amherst’s response: “You will do well to inoculate the Indians by means of blankets, as well as every other method that can serve to extirpate this execrable race.” Even in Pennsylvania, far from the fighting, fear and tempers ran high. Around Paxton, Pennsylvania, rumors circulated that a war party had been seen in Conestoga. A local militia, later known as Paxton’s Boys, grabbed weapons and attacked a peaceful village of Christian Susquehannock farmers, killing six of them. The rest fled to Philadelphia with fifty Paxton Boys right behind them, but they were protected by the British and a local militia, led by Benjamin Franklin.
When it was all over, 500 British troops were dead and 2,000 British colonists had been captured or killed. The number of Indian dead is unknown and hard to estimate—smallpox claimed many, including many who weren’t involved in the conflict at all. The war ended in a stalemate. The Indian alliance wasn’t able to drive out the British, and the British weren’t able to subdue the Indians. Such an outcome had long-lasting effects. British policy toward Natives was hastily reconfigured in the Royal Proclamation of 1763. In it, the British restructured their trade and social relations to mimic those of the French and drew a boundary between British and Indian lands that ran from the Appalachians to the Mississippi River and from Florida to Maine. The land to the west of the Appalachians was considered “Indian land” and British colonists were warned to leave it alone. Conciliation and compromise rather than all-out war became the method of dealing with Indian tribes. And Indians were understood to have individual and collective rights to their lands. Indian tribes also understood that pan-Indian alliances were the best way to deal with colonial outsiders. This was a major shift in policy and in thinking on both sides.
Then the Revolutionary War broke out. Indian tribes on the eastern seaboard and in the Ohio River valley were actively courted by the British and the colonists. Some tribes picked sides; others played both sides. By 1778 the Continental Army was in deep trouble and looking for help from every quarter—from the French and Germans, naturally, but also from the Indian tribes: the Tuscarora, Shawnee, Delaware, Seneca, Cayuga, Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Wyandot, and Munsies. Some of these tribes sided with the British. Some, like the Delaware, threw in their lot with the Americans. None of the tribes fared well in the end.
As Pontiac’s War of 1763-1764 proved, the Indians at the western edge of the colonies were a force to be reckoned with. As of 1778, the United States could not afford to fight the Indians of the eastern Great Lakes as it fought the British to the east. It desperately needed the Indians’ neutrality, if not their help. The offer from the revolutionaries (and evidence that, though the outcome was not clear, they already thought of themselves and their Indian neighbors as nations) to the Delaware came in the form of a treaty. The Treaty of Fort Pitt, signed on September 17, 1778, was to set the tone for future formal treaties between Indian nations and the U.S. government. In it, the United States recognized that the Delaware were a sovereign nation, not beholden to any rule other than their own; the treaty guaranteed their rights to administer their own affairs and to protect their territories, and recognized the “usefructory” rights of the Delaware, that is, the right to hunt, fish, gather, log, build, and otherwise dispose of the resources within the limits of their territory mentioned in the treaty. The Continental Congress also promised to build a fort for the tribe, most likely to protect the Delaware against retaliation by the Wyandot—enemies of the Delaware who sided with the British. In return, the Delaware promised to allow Continental troops to pass through Delaware land, and to provide warriors to fight alongside the colonists. The United States was so keen to enlist the support of the Delaware that it made an unprecedented and never-repeated gesture: as a term of the treaty it offered the Delaware the opportunity to become the fourteenth state of the union. “It is further agreed on,” reads the treaty, “between the contracting parties should it for the future be found conducive for the mutual interest of both parties to invite any other tribes who have been friends to the interest of the United States, to join the present confederation, and to form a state whereof the Delaware nation shall be the head, and have a representation in Congress.” Sadly, it never happened. The promise was not made in good faith and the negotiations were not conducted with any faith at all. “There never was a conference with the Indians so improperly or villainously conducted,” wrote Colonel Morgan, one participant in the proceedings. The Delaware were invited to an early version of an “open bar” and in the general inebriation the translators (in the pay of the Continental Congress) deliberately deceived the Indian delegates. The Delaware were betrayed almost immediately. White Eyes, one of the Delaware chiefs who signed the treaty and who was one of the staunchest supporters of the United States, was murdered by his allies within a month; his death was covered up and officially attributed to smallpox. So much for the first formal, written treaty between the United States and an Indian tribe.
Treaties were based on two suppositions that reflect a history of thought rather than fact: that tribes were nations (in the European sense of “nation”) and that negotiation was preferable to all-out war. Treaties were not made between nations and lesser states, or between colonies and nations—they were made between sovereign nations. At the time—and later, during what has been called the “treaty period” between 1783 and 1889 (though the U.S. government officially stopped making treaties with tribes in 1871)—Indian tribes were considered nations, and though circumstances varied greatly, the U.S. government made treaties with Indians for two main reasons. First, the United States had to make treaties, because Indian tribes were powerful. They had command of routes of travel, many warriors, and plenty of resources when the United States had very little of any of these. The second reason was cynical: paper was cheaper than bullets. Despite the power of Indian tribes, it was often the case that the United States had no intention of honoring the treaties it made. Treaties were a way to reduce the power of tribes. Nonetheless, Indian tribes were so much on the mind of the revolutionaries that they included a special clause in the U.S. Constitution: only Congress had the power to regulate trade with Indian tribes and, furthermore, only the federal government (the president and the Senate) had the right to make treaties, as the ‘supreme law of the land,” with Indian tribes. In the 1870s, the House of Representatives, which felt left out of the treaty-making process, effectively put a stop to the process unless the representatives could be involved.
Treaties—between tribes and European colonial powers, and between tribes and the newly formed U.S. government, had long been the “law of the land,” but it wasn’t until the Indian Appropriations Act of 1851 that the modern Indian reservation was born. At the time the U.S. government was in a quandary. It felt it needed room for the country to grow—and except for overseas colonial expansion, the only direction in which the country could grow was west—but Indians were in the way. All-out war with the tribes would be too costly, and the outcome—given the strength and position of many Indian tribes—would be far from certain. The U.S. government wanted to avoid the kind of conflict that had hurt the British so badly during the Seven Years’ War and Pontiac’s War. To repeat, then: frontier wars were costly and bloody, and their outcome (since they are fought against shifting tribal alliances of Indians who knew and controlled the terrain, with extended supply lines, and with so many unprotected settlers at risk) was unclear. Until 1851 the U.S. government had used two conflicting policies—assimilation and removal. But with the Appropriations Act, the policy became removal and containment. Instead of large tracts of land positioned in the way of western expansion, smaller, contained parcels of Indian land were seen as the answer. The Indian Appropriations Act, the first step in this process, empowered the U.S. government to enter into treaties with Indian tribes and to set aside land, money, and supplies for their establishment.
Following the passage of the Indian Appropriations Act of 1851 the United States embarked on an almost compulsive policy of making treaties with tribes, most of whom wanted some certainty of their continued existence and some autonomy in the face of increasing pressure from white settlers. From Texas to Minnesota and from Lake Michigan to the Pacific, tribes great and small found themselves at the negotiating table with the United States. The usual formula, if not the result, was quite simple: Indian tribes relinquished title to some of their lands and reserved the remainder for themselves. These remaining portions were called ‘reservations.” In Ojibwe the word for ‘reservation” is “ishkonigan,” which means, rather sardonically, “leftovers.” In addition to the reserved land, where Indians were supposed to be able to live unmolested and on their own terms, the treaties usually had other provisions involving what are known as “treaty rights.” These rights—to hunt, fish, gather, harvest timber—were many and usually extended to the territories outside the reservation that the tribe used to control, known as ceded territories.
Reservations sprang up from Oklahoma to Neah Bay, in the remote northwest corner of Washington state. Some of them were established in the ancestral homelands of the tribe in question. The Sioux of Pine Ridge, Rosebud, and Cheyenne River live, more or less, where they always did, in portions of their original homeland. The Pueblo still occupy the pueblos they have lived in for thousands of years. In fact, one of the oldest continuously occupied cities in North America is Acoma Pueblo; people have been living there nonstop since the twelfth century. But some reservations were established hundreds of miles away and the tribe, as part of the treaty, agreed to move to its new land.
This is what happened to some of the Ho-Chunk, formerly called the Winnebago. They were once the dominant force on the western shores of Lake Michigan, but their population plummeted from about 20,000 in 1620 to about 1,000 in 1820. Beginning in the nineteenth century many, but not all, Ho-Chunk were moved from Wisconsin to Minnesota, from there to South Dakota, then to Iowa, and finally to Nebraska. Many did not like their new reservation and, traveling at night, walked back to Wisconsin. In all, the Ho-Chunk were subjected to nine removal orders, and their survival and expansion in the twentieth century are a heartening story of toughness, tenacity, and courage. Likewise, some Seneca from upstate New York were removed to Oklahoma. Sac and Fox from Wisconsin wound up in Iowa, Oklahoma, and even Mexico. Apache were sent from the southwest to Florida. Seminole were removed from Florida and sent to Oklahoma. Connections to place and culture were compromised and sometimes totally destroyed.
The early to mid-nineteenth century was dark for Indian tribes. White encroachment continued. The newly formed reservations mostly were run under the auspices of an Indian agent, commissioned under the Department of War. The Indian agent hired tribal police, administered annuities and other treaty payments, and was responsible for economic development. More often than not Indian agents were drawn from unscrupulous people. Fraud, cronyism, nepotism, double-dealing, skimming, and outright murder were common.
By the early 1880s—just 100 years since the Treaty of Fort Pitt and three decades since the Indian Appropriations Act had ushered in the modern reservation period—almost everyone recognized that the reservation system was a failure. The policy of containment and control funded by the Indian Appropriations Act hadn’t really done away with Indians as hoped—the Dakota Wars in the 1870s were costly proof of that. And as far as Indians were concerned, the reservation was not what they expected, either: a place to live unmolested and on their own terms. A new policy of “allotment” was put in place with the help of the Dawes Act of 1887. The act authorized the United States to survey and divide lands held in common by Indian tribes and allot them to Indian individuals. Any “extra” land was to return to the U.S. government, which could then give it to settlers, lumber companies, mining companies, and railroads. On some reservations Indian agents became the largest landholders in the region. Reservations, once places for Indians and Indians only, became a checkerboard of Indian land, white farms, and federal lands. As of today, on Leech Lake, like many other reservations, the tribe owns roughly 4 percent of the land within the reservation boundaries. The rest of the land is divided among county, state, federal, corporate, and private owners.
One of the most serious misconceptions about reservations is that they were a kind of moral payment: that the U.S. government, motivated by pity and guilt, “gave” reservations to Indians along with treaty rights, which functioned as a kind of proto-welfare program. This is not the case. Reservations and treaty rights were concessions negotiated for the right to settle and develop new land. People like Jerry Mueller and Citizens for Truth in Government don’t like this arrangement. I think most Indians would be glad to abrogate our treaties. We will “give up” our reservations and our treaty rights, and all the non-Natives can move east of the Appalachians. Or if they don’t want to move they can pay rent. It would be useful for most Americans to keep in mind that after they pass those mountains they are living, driving, eating, breathing, and walking on land that at one time or another was negotiated for, not fought for. More so than wars, agreements opened the part of America from the Appalachia to the Pacific to non-Indians. Reservations and their sovereignty are the remaining small result of those agreements.
All of this explains and yet does not quite explain Red Lake and why a white trespasser was arrested and fined by Red Lake Reservation conservation officers. Unlike most other reservations in the United States, Red Lake was not created by treaty. The government officially stopped making treaties with Indians in 1871. Red Lake Reservation was established in 1889 by a congressional act. In the years before—as tribes were encouraged and sometimes forced to the treaty table, reservations were established, and communities were moved—the Red Lake Ojibwe watched. They witnessed the treaties of 1825 (Prairie du Chien); 1836 (Michigan); 1837, 1842, and 1854 (Wisconsin and Minnesota); and 1855, 1863, and 1864 (Mississippi and Pillager Bands in Minnesota)—and they watched as the provisions of those treaties were ignored. They watched as faith was broken. Red Lake was forced to the treaty table in 1863 but was in a position of relative strength. The Red Lake people ceded some territory but retained their land around both Upper and Lower Red Lake. The treaty of 1863 did not create the Red Lake Reservation. What it did was reduce the size of the Red Lake Band’s territory. When the U.S. government quit making treaties with Indians in 1871, Red Lake still retained title to more than 3 million acres in northern Minnesota, and when the “allotment” provided by the Nelson Act was pressed on tribes to the south in 1889, Red Lake knew better than to agree to it. The Red Lake leaders rejected the proposition (though they ceded some acreage) and maintained that all land on the reservation should be held in common. One story has it that the old war chief Medwe-ganoonind (aptly, “He Who Is Heard Talking”) was firmly against allotment. As the story goes, during a council meeting he slammed his war club (a club that he had used to kill not a few of his enemies) on the table and said, If you think this is such a good idea, fine. If you want to vote for it, fine. But you’ve got to fight me first. If you win, you can vote yes. No one wanted to fight him. Red Lake voted against allotment. This may be a legend, but what is not legend is that during the days when the federal commissioners were at Red Lake to push for allotment, the council ended up voting against the provision three times. Each time the council voted it down, the commissioners begged for a recess, during which time they threatened, cajoled, baited, and bribed the council members. Each time the issue came to a vote the council turned it down again.
In the early twentieth century, when the federal government once again tried to dissolve and diminish Indian control of Indian land, this time through a law that gave states criminal and civil jurisdiction on the reservation, Red Lake said no—even though that meant they could lose much of their funding for schools, hospitals, roads, and police protection. The reservation then built its own schools, paved its own roads, and built its own court, police station, and hospitals without state or county support and with little help from the BIA.
This is why Red Lake can and does retain complete control over its lands and its rights, and why officers Grolla and Nelson were within their rights and acting in accordance with the spirit of tough independence particular to Red Lake when they uncased their assault rifles, confiscated Jerry Mueller’s boat, and fined Mueller. This wasn’t the first time the Red Lake Nation had fined a trespasser. In winter of 2002 a man landed his floatplane on Lower Red Lake, within the reservation boundary, and began fishing. The tribe confiscated the plane, and the pilot had to pay more than $4,000 in fines and fees to get it back. When Officer Grolla cited Jerry Mueller, Mueller was cooperative at first, as Grolla remembers it. But later, when he appeared in Red Lake tribal court to argue his case, he was belligerent and hostile. “If a Red Lake boat crossed the line and wasn’t licensed through the state, it would be the same thing,” remembers Grolla. “Just the other way around. But they act like we’re terrorizing them. What they don’t understand is that the reservation is the only place Indians feel safe. There’s a story that my grandma Fannie Johns used to tell. That story still makes me mad. She used to tell this story how they were coming from Thief River in a wagon. It was Fanny and her grandma and her uncle. Her grandma was alive during the Dakota Wars, that’s how old her grandma was. She didn’t have an English name. Her Ojibwe name was Ikwezens. And her uncle’s name was Me”asewab. They were coming from Thief River; they went over there by wagon to get supplies. They couldn’t make it back to the rez. There was kind of a rule that Indians couldn’t be off the reservation after dark. They went every month to buy stuff like flour and whatnot, to sell blueberries. They were coming back and they couldn’t make the reservation. They ended up parking alongside this trail, this wagon trail. They made a fire and made some soup. They saw these lights coming from far away. They watched those lights for hours as they got closer. They kept watching and these three white guys show up in a Model A Ford. And these white guys started in giving them shit. “Hey, you want to sell your women,” saying things like that. Giving them shit about being off the reservation. Her uncle started getting pissed. He pulled out a lever-action rifle and said if they didn’t leave he’d kill them all. These guys took off. Fannie and her grandpa tried to sleep but her uncle stayed up all night, keeping watch, on the lookout for the white guys. I just hated that. I hated it that my grandma got terrorized just for being Indian and being off the reservation. When it got light they packed up and drove the wagon as fast as they could back to the rez. And guys like Mueller and other guys like that are telling me that Indians are terrorizing them. It pisses me off that they cry around about stuff like that.”
There still exists a lot of hostility between Indians and whites in northern Minnesota—especially between Red Lake and its white neighbors. But the waters Mueller was fishing on were troubled for other reasons, too—related to Red Lake’s sovereignty. Sovereignty means that you can determine your own lives, but it has a downside: you also have the latitude to destroy them. The one industry that Red Lake could claim in an otherwise economically depressed region was the commercial fishing of walleye pike. The walleye pike is unique to North American waters. It is the Minnesota state fish, and by the 1990s Red Lake was the last remaining natural fishery for walleye in the United States. The Red Lake Band had overfished the lake, and the effect was catastrophic, both economically and culturally. Until that point, the walleye was the principal resource of Red Lake and its dominant cultural icon. Much of Red Lake’s material and social culture was based on the harvesting and use of walleye. This continued slowly until the fishery collapsed and was shut down in 1997.
A distinctly New World species, walleye are found throughout Canadian and northern American waters. They can be found in lakes and rivers in cold northern areas and get the name “walleye” because of the way their eyes reflect light, like the eyes of cat. They school during the spring spawning, which usually occurs in late April or early May in Minnesota, and a little later in colder waters farther north in Canada. The rest of the year they hunt alone, though groups of walleye will congregate in productive habitat like sandbars, rock piles, and the edges of weed beds: places where small bait fish congregate. Their eyes allow them to see in cloudy or disturbed water, giving them an advantage over their prey. They are not fussy fish, like brook trout or brown trout. You don’t need to be an analyst to catch them, worrying over presentation, lure color, or insect. They are, however, excellent fighters and are considered by many to be the best-tasting freshwater fish on the continent. Moreover, they don’t grow to an impressive size and aren’t even really a “pike.” Walleye belong to the Percidae family—technically, this makes them perch. They live, on average, nine years and grow to a weight of about five to seven pounds and a length of twenty-four to twenty-eight inches. The largest walleye ever caught was forty-two inches long and weighed twenty-five pounds. The oldest walleye on record (age is determined by measuring the layers of bone—like the layers of a pearl—on a special bone in their head called an otolith) was twenty-nine years old at the time of its capture.
These statistics don’t really compare to those of true pike—known as northern pike and muskellunge—which are found in northern waters across America, the British Isles, Scandinavia, Russia, and Siberia. These monsters can grow up to six feet long and weigh well over thirty pounds. The largest pike on record weighed seventy-seven pounds. They are ferocious fish that will attack and try to eat just about anything—from their own young to frogs, mice, and ducklings. They have teeth, like walleye, but bigger. One friend of mine describes them as being 50 percent teeth and 50 percent appetite. They are also, unlike the walleye, a storied fish. The hero of the Finnish epic the Kalevala made a musical instrument out of the jawbone of a pike. The U.S. Navy named a total of five submarines after the pike, and an entire class of Russian submarines from the Soviet era, the Victor III Class, was nicknamed ‘shchuka,” Russian for “pike.”
Nor does the walleye measure up to the sturgeon, which still surfaces from time to time in our larger and deeper lakes. This prehistoric fish is found throughout America, Europe, and Asia and can grow up to eight feet long. Some sturgeons caught in America are estimated to be more than 200 years old. Frederick the Great released a great number of sturgeons in Lake Gardno in Pomerania in 1780. Some of them were still alive in 1866. John Tanner, during his travels in the 1790s, was canoeing up the Mississippi with a party of Ojibwe warriors when they all leaped out of the canoe and charged through the shallow water. He thought they were under attack. Rather, they had spied a sturgeon grounded on a sandbar. The warriors beat it to death with their clubs. It took four men to lift it into the canoe. Once back in the village they cut it up and fed an entire village of over 200 Ojibwe for a week.
But Minnesota loves its walleye. Minnesotans and nonresidents came together in 2006 to buy 1,371,106 fishing licenses and used them in Minnesota’s 5,493 fishing lakes and 15,000 miles of streams. Although panfish like bluegill, crappie, perch, and sunfish are the most commonly caught fish (with an annual harvest of 64 million pounds), most people come to Minnesota for walleye. Sport anglers take 35 million pounds of walleye annually. And the state of Minnesota restocks its 3.8 million acres of fishable waters with 250 million walleye fry (newly hatched fish), 2.5 million walleye fingerlings (infant fish), and 50,000 walleye yearlings every year. The financial statistics are staggering: more than $1.58 billion is spent every year by anglers, most of them trying to land a walleye or two.
Walleye also appears on most menus in the state, usually fried, sometimes herbed, rarely baked or poached. It is delicious, even if you don’t like fried fish. It has a clean taste, and firm, white, flaky flesh that comes off the spine in thick, moist shingles. The meat near the tail, where the rib bones and other substructures disappear, is the best part—the firmest, sweetest, most delicious freshwater fish this side of trout you will ever taste. It is difficult to buy the fish anywhere outside the state, and expats often order it from online retailers just for a taste of home.
The walleye has also been implicated in a high-level culinary intrigue that some have called “Walleyegate.” In 2004, Minneapolis-based KARE 11 News went “undercover” to expose a “walleye scam” being perpetrated in restaurants near Minneapolis and St. Paul. Evidently, the news program had been tipped off that many of the restaurants advertising walleye on their menus weren’t serving walleye at all.
Walleye retails at about five dollars a pound, but a European fish called zander—which has the same texture, size, and flavor—sells for two dollars less per pound. For a restaurant like, say, the swanky Tavern on Grand in St. Paul, which sells 50,000 pounds of walleye a year, the switch could mean more than $100,000 in savings. KARE’s reporter ordered “walleye” at about twenty restaurants in the area and sent samples to a laboratory in New York that specializes in testing fish and animal DNA. In half the cases, the results came back as zander, not walleye. One wonders if the switch is important enough to merit such careful undercover work; after all, no one could tell the difference. But according to their DNA, zander and walleye went their separate ways at least 12 million years ago, and ‘species substitution” is illegal under U.S. law. Restaurant managers mostly refused to talk on film, saying only, “No comment.” One manager, however, did say that he had been assured by his vendor that what he purchased was walleye. Zander, he was told, is a different name for walleye. He went on the record as saying that his company was “embarrassed” but had been “led astray.” Even the Ojibwe community of St. Croix was selling zander as walleye in its casino in Turtle Lake, Wisconsin.
It seems ironic that Indians, long imagined (by ourselves and by others) as ‘stewards of the land”—that is, as possessing, by virtue of culture or blood, a unique and wholesome relationship with the natural world—are, in numerous cases, primarily responsible for the destruction of the ecosystem that gave us life.
When Ojibwe first came to Red Lake in the 1600s—encouraged by the fur trade to expand and control new trapping grounds, and engaged in wars to the east, north, and west—the lake was a paradise. There were certain requirements that a place needed to meet in order to be suitable for settlement, and Red Lake met them all. It had abundant wild rice beds, diverse forests (a mixture of pine and hardwood excellent for building), easily navigable water, and a recurring and stable source of protein: the walleye. There are many kinds of fish in the world, and all contain protein, but not all are easy to harvest with primitive methods. Some, such as northern pike, are so widely dispersed throughout a lake that it is impossible to catch them in large enough numbers to feed a village. Others, like trout and eelpout, run and live so deep that retrieving them with nets or traps is difficult. Walleye are the perfect fish for surviving on medium-size inland lakes. They don’t live deep in the water. They spawn at regular intervals in very shallow water. They are big enough to satisfy. They school up rather than spread out. Other large Ojibwe settlements were supported by other fish; the settlement at Sault Sainte Marie on the narrows between Upper and Lower Peninsula, Michigan, is one example. This community lived off the whitefish that ran in the cold current. Some explorers wrote that during the spawn (which occurs in the fall) it was possible to walk from one side of the Sault to the other on the backs of the fish. The Indians of the northwest coast have salmon. The plains tribes have buffalo. The Ojibwe have fish. Red Lake, in particular, has, or had, walleye. Like the buffalo for the Blackfeet, the Dakota, Nakota, Arikara, Cheyenne, and Nez Perce, the walleye gave the Ojibwe of Red Lake life. And so, after a series of bloody wars, the Ojibwe drove the Sioux west and took control of Red Lake.
Fishing at Red Lake occurred at a subsistence level for about 400 years with little change in the technology used to harvest the fish. They were speared from a canoe by torchlight in the shallows and netted and noodled (lifted out with the hands) in small streams during the spring spawn. Spears were made of pliable, sharpened deer and porcupine bones. Nets were woven out of twine made from the fibrous innards of stinging nettle stalks. The canoes were made of birch bark. In the 1800s iron replaced bone. Commercial twine replaced nettle. In the 1900s canvas and wood canoes replaced birch bark. By 1917 fishing was done from the decks of motorized boats. Nets were remarkably strong and much lighter. It was at this time that the first commercial fishery opened at Red Lake.
During the final years of World War I, there was a food shortage in the United States. The federal government saw that fish, such as the walleye at Red Lake, could be an easily harvested and renewable food source. In violation of Red Lake’s sovereignty, which the band was not in a position to enforce very well at the time, the federal government established a state-run commercial fishery in the village of Red Lake. It was one of the largest commercial fisheries in the United States. Hundreds of thousands of pounds of walleye were caught in Red Lake, dried, and shipped south by railcar. In 1930, as a result of some hard lobbying by Red Lake leaders, the fishery was turned over to the Red Lake tribe, and the Red Lake Fisheries Association (RLFA), a fishing collective made up of Red Lake Band members, was founded. The RLFA issued licenses and quotas from the fishery, to whom members would sell their fish. Everyone would receive money for poundage sold as well as a dividend of profits from the export of the fish to wholesalers in the region. Whenever fishers exceeded their quota, all they had to do was apply for a supplement, which was never denied. Then they could go out and get more fish.
Beginning in the 1970s the lake started on a boom-and-bust cycle, which should have been seen as a warning sign that the lake was trembling under the pressure of fishing. Some years the fish were caught by the hundreds of thousands, as they had been for centuries. In other years the fishing wasn’t so good. No one listened to the lake—not the Red Lakers netting fish in the south and not the sport anglers catching them with hook and line in the north. No one listened to other lakes where the same thing had happened.
There are two other large, shallow sandy lakes in Minnesota that once supported huge fisheries—Lake Winnibigoshish on the Leech Lake Reservation and Lake Mille Lacs, closer to Minneapolis. Both lakes were overfished and eventually collapsed; they yielded next to no walleye—but not before the same erratic pulse, the same boom-and-bust cycle, was evident. Neither lake has ever come back to the levels of fish and fishing it once supported.
Fishing continued on Red Lake in the 1970s and 1980s as before. There seemed to be no end to the fish. By the early 1990s the RLFA membership had swelled from 200 to 700. The annual harvest stood at 1 million pounds, with an estimated additional 1 million pounds of walleye sold on the black market. Gary and Jane Bymark own a resort on the northern shore of Red Lake, off the reservation. Gary said in an interview that he watched pickup trucks drive past with walleye mounded up in the back so high he could see them from behind the bar. He also remembered Red Lakers coming into the white-owned resort to sell fish: “Like when you’re sitting at the bar here, and any one of them Indians come in and say we got walleye for a dollar a walleye, cleaned and everything, they’re going to buy them. Two or three guys would come in here and walk out with a hundred walleyes.”
A few hundred walleye were small change. One former fisherman told me he would gut his fish, pack them in the trunk of his car, and drive the five hours to Minneapolis, where he sold the fish to the Asian markets. The Hmong were the best customers, he said. They wanted the whole fish—head, fins, tail—not just fillets. So it was easier and you got more poundage. He’d dicker with them and threaten to cross from north St. Paul over to Minneapolis and sell them to the Chinese and Koreans instead. The Hmong would hurriedly buy the entire load at three dollars a pound: three times what he was paid by the RLFA.
Fish came to function as a kind of currency. In the early 1980s my mother, a lawyer then in private practice, was paid in fish; one client gave her 500 walleye fillets and his JVC stereo to settle his bill. “If you didn’t have a job, set nets, sell fish,” says Greg Kingbird, a spiritual leader and lifelong resident of Ponemah. ‘make enough money, sit back for a few days. Run out of money, go set again. That was a way of life. You could go out there any day, get something to eat.” Also, the sport fishing on the north end of the lake was out of control. Ed Hudec, a resort owner near the town of Washkish on the north shore of Red Lake, remembers seeing 10,000 boats on Upper Red Lake during the fishing opener in mid-May.
All this came to an end in 1996. That was when the last mature and healthy year-class of fish was taken from the lake. Instead of millions of pounds, fishermen were able to take only 15,000 pounds in total. It was a disaster. The fish were gone. In 1997 Red Lake stopped commercial fishing, and a year later it closed subsistence fishing as well. In 1999 the state of Minnesota followed suit and closed state waters in Upper Red Lake to sport fishing. A moratorium was in effect. The band and the state would try to bring the fish back.
Red Lake’s sovereignty had, in some ways, led to this. The band could determine—without consulting the state or anyone else—how much fish could be taken and in what ways and by whom. And, as many Red Lakers admit, greed was allowed to run its course.
So there is sovereignty, but of a special kind. Tribes can’t keep standing armies (though some have done so). They can’t issue their own currency (though some have done this, too). Most can’t have border patrols and can’t require passports (though some, including Red Lake, do or did). In July 2010, the Iroquois national lacrosse team—which has been traveling to lacrosse tournaments around the world on Iroquois Confederacy passports for thirty years—was barred from traveling to Britain on these passports because of newer restrictions stemming from the Patriot Act. The team refused to use U.S. passports and in the end missed competing in the championship of the sport the Iroquois invented.
When Floyd “Buck” Jourdain was voted in as chairman of Red Lake in 2004, he saw the plight of the fisheries and what it meant for Red Lake—for its economic health and its sovereignty—as the biggest challenge facing the tribe. Instead of pulling in and protecting the reservation from outside scrutiny, the Red Lake Band launched an aggressive program, along with the state of Minnesota, the federal government, and local resources, to restock the lake. It was a long process. The participants assessed water quality, breeding habitat, and genetically tested fish to find which strains were best suited to Red Lake’s waters. They had to enforce a strict ban against fishing on Upper and Lower Red Lake. Between 1999 and 2004 Red Lake and the state of Minnesota dumped more than 105.2 million walleye fry into Red Lake. By 2004 the fish were reproducing on their own. And hook-and-line fishing (not commercial netting) reopened on Red Lake in 2005.
It was in these troubled waters that Jerry Mueller and his son-in-law crossed onto Red Lake Reservation. After Jerry Mueller’s boat was confiscated in May, Citizens for Truth in Government threatened a blockade of Red Lake unless the tribe effectively gave up its sovereignty. Many people, from Republican hopefuls to white anglers and resort owners, were still upset at what they saw as Red Lake’s mismanagement of its waters. Michael Barrett and Doug Lindgren leaned on the federal government to intervene—clearly trying to make Red Lake a campaign issue in the elections during the fall of 2006. The situation came to a head on August 14, 2006, when Michael Barrett, the Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives from the 7th District, scheduled a speech at a fund-raiser in Bemidji. The fund-raiser was held at the Rotary Pavilion on the Bemidji waterfront, where Indian burial mounds had been razed in the 1920s to make room for a fairground. About forty-five people sat on folding chairs in the pavilion while forty more, mostly Indian, stood outside, ready to question Barrett about Red Lake. Barrett—a pharmacy manager—didn’t show up. He had planned to announce his desire for the federal government to enforce a 1926 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that the state of Minnesota had jurisdiction over a drained lake bed within the ceded territories but not on the Red Lake Reservation itself. It was an obscure ruling that in no way spoke to the sovereignty of Red Lake. Barrett, Lindgren, and Citizens for Truth in Government had been using this case as ammunition to shoot down Red Lake’s sovereignty despite the response by the state and federal government that it didn’t apply.
Although Barrett didn’t show up, Doug Lindgren did. He raised the issue and got into a shouting match with the Red Lake Nation tribal historian and tribal secretary Kathryn “Jodi” Beaulieu, who called Lindgren and his position racist.
Other Republicans present tried to backpedal and distance themselves from Barrett and Lindgren. “He went about it in the same way Mike is going about everything—head down and head first, like a bull in a china shop,” said the chairwoman of the Beltrami County Republicans, Kath Molitor. Mark Kennedy of the U.S. House of Representatives was surprised by the hubbub and didn’t know how to answer questions about Red Lake’s sovereignty. He said he’d never been to Red Lake but would love to visit. This gave the fiery Red Lake treasurer, Darrell Seki, the opening he needed. Seki is from Ponemah, is a fluent speaker of both English and Ojibwe, and is not known, generally, for holding his tongue or for keeping his opinions to himself. He’s a fighter, not a diplomat—and with his severe face, shaded glasses, and glossy hair, he cuts an imposing figure. “Any non-members are welcome to come to our lake,” he said in response to Kennedy, “and I hope they bring their equipment, because our DNR [Department of Natural Resources] needs equipment. Tell the non-members to come to our lake—we’ll arrest them. We’ll take their equipment, too.” He concluded by saying, “It’s our lake, it will stay our lake. We, as a Tribal Council, will protect our lake and our people. All the lands are ours and we are going to protect them.” One got the feeling that Seki had stopped just short of saying “by any means necessary.” What was clear was that Lindgren and Barrett, under the mask of favoring “fairness’ and opposing ‘special rights,” were trying to turn Red Lake into a campaign issue. Red Lake Reservation, with nearly 10,000 members, is a huge voting bloc in the region and has the highest voter turnout in the entire county: according to some statistics, more than 90 percent of Red Lakers go to the polls. Of these, 90 percent vote Democratic. Reservations, after all, are covered by congressional districts, county districts, and sometimes local government as well. And while enrolled band members of tribes can vote in tribal elections, they are also U.S. citizens and can vote in the same elections as their non-Indian neighbors.
As these campaign issues raged, there were other elections under way that summer. Buck Jourdain was running for a second term as tribal chairman against the tribal secretary Judy Roy. On July 19, 2006, Jourdain defeated Roy by a margin of seventy-one votes. Shortly thereafter, a Red Lake tribal member, Archie King, filed a complaint with the General Election Board alleging that Jourdain had bought votes and had used tribal funds for his campaign. The board agreed and ruled that a new runoff between the candidates was in order. Jourdain not only denied the allegations but said that the General Election Board did not have the right to call a new election. As for the complaint, Jourdain said that the “election was fair and my campaign was conducted in accordance with all election laws.” Furthermore, he argued, “According to the Red Lake election code . . . all challenges must be submitted and received within five days of the public posting [of election results] by the General Election Board.” The election issue was covered in the local paper, in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and in the New York Times. Ultimately, the candidates squared off again. Jourdain won.
What is clear is that, taken together—the mismanagement of the lake and the fish, problems with the police force, election disputes—all missteps and even the perception of incompetence, let alone corruption, do threaten the sovereignty of a place like Red Lake. Whenever something does go wrong—and things go wrong all the time—someone raises the issue of sovereignty and suggests it should be done away with. But then again, all nations make mistakes. During the lobbying scandal involving Jack Abramoff, the Enron affair, Iran-contra, Teapot Dome, and the Whiskey Ring, to name a few, no one said, “Well, clearly the Americans can’t manage their own affairs; it would be best if the United States reverted to British control and became, once again, part of the British Empire.” And people often forget: the only reason there were fish to overfish in the first place (and the only reason the fish have been able to come back so strongly) is that since Red Lake is a closed reservation, there is no development on most of its shoreline—there are no sewage treatment plants, no resorts, no houses perched along the shore, no vacationers pulling up the bulrushes and cattails, no fertilized and pesticide-drenched lawns. Everyone has Red Lake and its leadership to thank for that.
No wonder that Mueller was not cut any slack: the boat was taken, he was summoned, and Red Lake stood its ground. Reflecting back on the case, Grolla seems proud to serve Red Lake and the community he calls his own. “We’ve got a mind-set, you know. It stretches all the way back to when we fought the U.S. government, when we fought the Sioux. We’re used to warfare. We’re used to fighting. That’s who we are. People talk about how we’re a gentle people, you know. How we respect everything. We do, but we’ve had to fight for it. It’s kind of a curse sometimes, you know. I mean, hypothetically, let’s say a girl gets raped Back of Town [a neighborhood in the village of Red Lake] and then her brothers take after the guys who did it, beat them up, burn their house down. Then the perp’s family comes after the girl’s family and on and on it goes. They fight until people are in the ground and nothing is left standing unless you catch them and arrest them and stop it before it really gets going. That attitude, that fighting attitude, goes back to Chief Bagonegiizhig and Changing Feather, back to those guys. Maybe it needs to change. But it’s kept us alive, too. We’re alive because we don’t back down. There’s a message in that, maybe.”
In the end, Jourdain was reelected, the Republicans lost their elections, and the Democrats won (largely because of the support they received from Indians in northern Minnesota). There was no flotilla of angry fishermen. Citizens for Truth in Government has not been able to persuade the state of Minnesota or the federal government to change its attitude to Red Lake, which still exists on a government-to-government basis, as all sovereign nations relate to one another. Jerry Mueller appeared in Red Lake Tribal Court in October 2006. He probably felt the way Indians on the rez feel all the time: surrounded, outnumbered, and unloved by people different from himself. He argued his case, and his defense was based on “Officer, I didn’t know and I’m sorry.” He lost. He paid his fine, and if he has fished on Red Lake since then, he has probably stayed far away from the reservation boundary. Terry Maddy was wrong. Red Lake can have its fish and eat it, too.