Monthly Archives: April 2012

Breaking Down the Border Town

After finishing David Treuer’s Rez Life a couple weeks back, I thought to myself, Well, someone has managed to write about the rez in a way that isn’t completely depressing. My eyes then drifted to The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder, and Other True Stories from the Nebraska-Pine Ridge Border Towns. Continuing my over-wrought inner dialogue, I said to myself, Well, if a book about the rez by an Indian is not completely despairing, I bet this book about border towns by a white guy is definitely going to be.

I guess that makes me a person who likes to be sad because I went right from the rez to the border town.

If suburbia and the rez are like twins, and I’ll let you decide which is the evil one, then what does that make the border town? Much like David Treuer’s assertion that reservations are both the most and least American places, the prologue to The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder quickly declares that reservation border towns are “quintessentially American,” despite the fact that the image most associated with a border town is the Mexican-American town racked by drug cartels and border control police. Most people have probably stopped thinking of the signs that read “Now Entering [Reservation Name Here]” as demarcating any sort of real border, but of course that ignorance as to what a reservation is, what an Indian nation is, is very much a quintessential American quality.

One thing that the border towns that reach the nightly news and those that are intentionally ignored have in common is that both are always defined as places to be avoided, sore spots with an ugliness we would like to be rid of but cannot. Border towns are always violent.

In the town of Gordon, Nebraska, on the Pine Ridge Reservation border, this characteristic violence is often committed not by powerful gangs with American-made weapons but small groups of bored teenagers. Yet, both are backed by a corrupt police force and a long history of conquest and colonialism. Such was the case on the night of February 12, 1972 when a series of events was started by a group of drunken twenty-somethings that would eventually lead to the untimely death of the quiet, Lakota ranch hand Raymond Yellow Thunder.

The story of Raymond Yellow Thunder– how he was kidnapped, beaten, stripped and pushed naked into the American Legion Hall, sent back into the night only to be re-kidnapped later and put in a car trunk before being finally released into the freezing cold night with no way home and nowhere to stay but a police cell and then an empty car where he would slowly die, his brain hemorrhaging from an exterior wound– this story is the starting point from which Stew Magnuson will trace the history of white-Indian relations in Sheridan county. As you might be able to tell, it has all the trappings of tragedy that people usually associate with Indians while also addressing the border town culture of violent racism  people usually try to deny.

In its examination of Nebraska border towns, the book zig-zags through time like the drunken drivers that populate its stories, describing at once the American Indian Movement protests brought down upon Nebraska like a firestorm forty years ago, going further back to the history of white settlement in the plains and the greed that fueled it, then jerking forward again to the massacre at Wounded Knee, which hangs like a specter over all that happens at Pine Ridge. Despite the wild veers from one period to the next, the narrative is whole, highlighting the reality that much of what happens in the border town has happened before.

There is a sense that every instance of violence and anger has a history behind it stretching all the way back to the original violence inherent in the arrival of settlers on Indian land. People in the book are always introduced by where they came from, when they arrived, and who their parents were. They become characters in a book that is not completely made of facts, a book that takes what is written along with what is said and re-imagines it much like a novel. Is this a fuller version of the truth or only history made palpable with imagination? Magnuson fully admits that he is constructing the story as “narrative non-fiction,” taking perspectives which did actually exist and interpreting them through his own idea of the story. Perhaps it is not all that different from most versions of history.

Much of his narrative centers on alcoholism, a curse-like condition Magnuson sees as near inevitable when living in a place with few opportunities for a meaningful career let alone a meaningful weekend night. Magnuson rightfully takes time to cast doubt on the popular idea that Indians are somehow biological unable to hold their liquor, a trait attributed to the so-called Indian-alcoholism gene, which some say causes an enzyme deficiency needed to break down alcohol but which has never actually been proved to exist. The fact is America needs its Indians to be drunk in order to deem them unfit owners of the land government and industry always want more of.

Border towns are also fulled with white drunks for whom the “poverty, hopelessness, and grief” that Magnuson cites as causes for alcoholism are also pressing realities. The big difference is that while the white drunks are protected by power, Indians, drunk or not, are pursued by power. Plenty of people, white and Indian, walked the streets of Gordon smashed, but in the history of the town’s records only Indians had ever been thrown in jail for “public intoxication.” Though it was hardly talked about or even acknowledged, people deep down knew that in Gordon, there were two types of justice. One worked for whites and the other worked against Indians.

On that February night in 1972, Raymond Yellow Thunder told the police what happened, that he had been beaten up by four white boys and pushed naked into the American Legion Hall. Lee Le Hare was heard loudly bragging about his role in the incident in a diner on the outskirts of town. Nobody asked Raymond if he wanted to press charges; nobody questioned the Le Hare boys about what they had done; and when Raymond’s family came to the police station looking for him, nobody bothered to tell them what had happened. It was obvious from the beginning that the Gordon police force couldn’t care less about another dead Indian.

Raymond Yellow Thunder was not the first victim of border town violence and he most certainly was not the last. He was the first however to bring political protests to Gordon, the “little town with a big smile” that claimed it didn’t have a problem with Indians. When the Lakota community decided to pursue the case against Yellow Thunder’s tormentors and the town that protected them, they sought out a new organization, the American Indian Movement (AIM), to help them organize their protests for justice.

AIM was eager to prove themselves to the reservation residents. Until then, their followers had been urban Indians, many with some college education, who had been inspired by the civil rights movement. They knew if they wanted to go big, they had to win over the rez. Border town campaigns were to become one of their favorite tactics.

Magnuson draws a clever parallel between the prairie fire hysteria of the 1880’s, when the ghost dance was taking hold and settlers of Gordon were convinced wild Indians were readying for a massive attack, and the prevalent fear in 1972 that AIM was going to lead an armed assault of angry Indians against the people of Gordon.

There was no armed assault (this time) when the AIM leaders, Dennis Banks, Clyde Bellecourt and Russell Means, came to Gordon. Instead there was an organized march through town, an occupation of the city center, and an all-Indian grand jury where citizens spoke their grievances against the town for two hours. Means made his typical brand of fiery speech laden with anger and pull quotes to the press. In the end, the big three were granted a meeting with Sheridan County Attorney Michael Smith, an emissary from the governor’s office, and other city officials. Magnuson describes the meeting as a compromise from the start: “AIM leaders wanted a piece of paper that would show their followers that they’d made the white man bow, and Smith didn’t want to give away anything of substance.”

The two sides agreed on the suspension of one of the more notorious Gordon police officers, a second autopsy of Raymond Yellow Thunder (AIM didn’t realize this was already under way), and the formation of a human relations council  of clergymen and Lakota to mediate problems. AIM leaders were ecstatic but for little reason: of all the city’s “concessions”, only the, ultimately ineffectual, human relations council would be carried out. But armed with their paper victory, AIM was now a force to be reckoned with in Sheridan County. They would return time and time again to protest the racist border town brand of justice.

Unfortunately, it remains unclear whether AIM’s presence in Gordon, Whiteclay, and other border towns was ultimately successful in improving Indian’s control over their own lives. The organization was racked with in-fighting as strong personalities jockeyed over power. While AIM was responding to very real problems in Indian’s lives and their leaders were truly passionate about fixing those problems, their bull-headed, macho tactics often led to disastrous results.

Pine Ridge for instance was consumed in the 70’s by a dirty war between the corrupt tribal government and AIM members who challenged their power. It was an important battle to wage, but instead of only being directed at a corrupt tribal government and the colonial government that backed them, it became an all out war between mixed bloods and traditionalists. Many innocent people lost their lives and AIM leaders always seemed to high-tail it out of town before things got ugly.

The second chapter of The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder takes a turn for the moribund. Magnuson describes in detail AIM’s 1999 takeover of Whiteclay after Ronnie Hard Heart and Wally Black Elk were found beaten to death in a road-side ditch. After describing each demand during that time, he solemnly repeats “not a damned thing changed.”

In the end, this continuous harping on failures and self-destruction becomes another exercise in the genre of doomed Indians. Instead of describing the dismal situation in border towns  in order to create discussion of how to change the reality, Magnuson seems convinced history is a curse that cannot be unbroken. Going back to Treuer’s Rez Life, the two’s views could not be more different. Treuer looks back at the history not to despair but to move forward.

This difference between Treuer’s and Magnuson’s works hint at a more general difference between Indian and white accounts of America’s relation to indigenous people. One is truly invested in critiquing the past in order to create a future, while the other is attached to the notion of an inescapable destiny defined by moments of death and only rarely shot through with hope. Magnuson’s uniqueness in this genre comes from his insistence that white people, in a betrayal of the frontier myth of endless opportunity, are also doomed for the same grave and it is a grave they had a big hand in digging. In short, crime (as in the crime of settler colonialism) doesn’t pay.

Raymond Yellow Thunder’s story and the stories of border town violence that continue to occur every year are not some kind of destiny. This is not some Greek tragedy that is doomed to play over and over, destroying the lives of those unfortunate to fall into its story. These are stories with concrete causes that can be addressed. Stew Magnuson has written a good book, many of his peers have called it an important book, but he has not written a good ending. Only we, the indigenous, the strong, the critical,  can write the good ending.



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Baseball: The All-Native-American Game

Choctaw and Lakota stick-ball players-- predecessors to the modern game of baseball? Perhaps! Source:

Ah, baseball season has arrived, and I couldn’t be happier. I haven’t watched many major league games on TV yet, but just seeing kids warm up in the park, catching those wild-eyed too-early-to-tell predictions on the radio, thinking about all those men in pinstripes, makes me feel like fizz in a freshly cracked can of beer. Much like my love for old-timey country music, I constantly feel this pressure to explain why I, one who so often rallies against the American mainstream, would be so in love with America’s national past time.

For while football, with its great commercial possibilities, has risen to the top spot of late, the original sport chosen to symbolize the American soul was baseball. It came to define everything this great nation held dear: the national anthem, hot dogs, racial segregation, etc.

It is also a classic display of America’s complete self-obsessiveness in that the championship series of baseball is called the World Series even though almost all the teams are American (and that one from Canada). Pretty small conception of what constitutes the “world”, don’t you think? Of course, that doesn’t mean American franchises don’t rely on people of color to generate their profits. While players such as Albert Pujols, Mariano Rivera, David Ortiz, Jose Reyes are all amazing in their own right, it says a lot that the only way for them to compete at a high level is to come work for American companies. Baseball may no longer be a sport of American-born citizens but it certainly is a healthy industry for many.

Though there are only three tribally-enrolled Native players in the MLB, that is still more professional Native players than there are in the NBA and NFL, combined. Those three players are one of the big reasons I love to love baseball. They include Kyle Lohse, starting pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals and of the Wintun Nomlaki tribe of Northern California; Joba Chamberlain pitcher for the New York Yankees and of the Ho-Chunk tribe; and lastly the baseball man of my heart, Jacoby Ellsbury center fielder for the Boston Red Sox and of the Navajo Colorado River tribe. All three Native MLB players have been hugely valuable for their teams. Ellsbury had a fantastic year last season and Lohse opened this season with an eight inning no-hitter. These players may not just be creating a new tradition of Native baseball, some believe they may actually be continuing a tradition started long ago.

Baseball has a strange origin story that is not surprisingly (when one considers it is the mirror of America) linked to the Civil War, the event that fomented America’s consolidated sovereign power. For a long time and for no reason the man who fired the first shot at Ft. Sumner, Abner Doubleday, has also been credited with creating the game of baseball. Doubleday never even laid claim to this himself and it is widely believed that the game was played well before his invented invention. Many historians have traced baseball back to English stick and ball games that were brought over the pond, though hard-headed Americans have insisted that baseball has nothing to do with those European variations.

According to LeAnne Howe, author of Miko Kings:An Indian Baseball Story, the game may be more indigenous to America than most Americans realize. In her historical novel, she looks back to stick-and-ball games played by the Choctaws long before Abner Doubleday was around. Using this tribal history as her foundation, the book centers on the Miko Kings team of Ada, Oklahoma in the year 1907– the same year Oklahoma became a state. They are gearing up for a showdown with their archenemies the Seventh Cavalrymen for the Twin Territories Pennant, while also bracing themselves for the incorporation of Indian Territory into the Union and the privatization of much Choctaw land. Like a good baseball game, the drama centers around a cast of quirky characters, from the wild-armed pitcher to the amateur quantum physicist Ezol, the team’s biggest follower.  Told through the eyes of Ezol, a female survivor of boarding schools and the tribe’s visionary historian, and Lena Coulter, a contemporary Choctaw writer cut off from her people, the book becomes an attempt to write back in an erased history and re-invent the ways history can be told or made.

It can be an instructive book not only as a glimpse at how the greatest game on Earth was played at the turn of the century but also as a reminder that the things that seem the most “American” sometimes only seem that way due to processes of seizure and erasure. Or if we want to stop thinking about American colonialism for a night, we can as Crash Davis says in Bull Durham, “Relax! Let’s have some fun out here! This game’s fun, OK? Fun goddamnit.”

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What We Talk About When We Talk About The Rez

David Treuer setting beaver traps with his nephews at Leech Lake. Source: The New York Times (don't sue me, please.)

Suburbia and the rez. The two couldn’t be farther apart could they? One the billboard of American mainstream success, the bittersweet promise of a normal childhood, the grand illusion of efficiency atop a machinery of excess. The other the setting for an eternal tragedy of an impoverished people, the dark secret of America’s bloody settlement ignored, ridiculed, and attacked. Yes, suburbia and the rez may seem like opposites, but they are rather more like two sides of the same American identity. They are as David Treuer, author of Rez Life, notes both the most and least American places of all.

Positioned geographically at the margins and in between legal statuses, the reservation is a paradox of pain and pride, colonialism and sovereignty, death and survival. To explore these tensions, Treuer timetravels between the rez as it is now and the formative moments that made it that way. Whether he is out fishing with his friends at home in Leech Lake, or checking in at the Mdewakanton Sioux’s casino/resort, Treuer constantly has his eye on the past looking at the court cases, battles and protests that made the present possible.

It is an ambitious framework for the book, and the prose often sags under the pressure to explain the historical background for nearly everything with the plodding  narrative  of a textbook. Treuer is predominately a novelist (Little, Hiawatha), and while his historical archeology is admirable, he is most successful talking about the people and settings he has known firsthand.

Such as the “track,” where the connection to suburbia is found in the dismal design of tract housing replete with absentee sidewalks, cul-de-sacs and boredom. The tracks are known as extremely violent places, so-called “red ghettos”, where poor, drunk Indians are struck for the rest of their lives. Or at least this is the image must people associate with the rez– Treuer recalls one white journalist not believing she had crossed the border until the track was in sight. It is another in a long line of images that seeks to connect Indians to an inescapable destiny. Most Americans view Indians as not only stuck in this hopeless place but also in an out-of-synch time.

Take for instance the incident with Robert Kohl, a radio announcer in Bemidji, Minnesota, who suggested on air in 1966 that the American government should “’let disease and malnutrition…weed out those at the very bottom of the heap…[those] so low on the human scale that it is doubtful they will ever climb upward.’”

Treuer sardonically points out that Kohl’s racism probably prevented him from understanding that Native people know how to listen to the radio. In fact, many were listening to Kohl that day and weren’t too happy about what he had to say about them. Within days, the Native residents of Leech Lake, White Earth, and Red Lake, the three reservations surrounding Bemidji, agreed to boycott the town. They refused to spend any money in Bemidji until Kohl was fired and a public apology was issued by KBUN, the local station.

As Treuer puts it “Local businesses, which had haughtily made Indians wait by the back door…began to feel the pinch immediately. And that pinch hurt…” In two weeks, Kohl was sacked, a public apology was issued, and local businesses agreed to hire more Indians. The hire agreement was huge. Before 1966 not a single Indian, besides those white-looking enough to pass, had been hired to work in Bemidji. The people of Leech Lake, White Earth, and Red Lake weren’t going to allow that anymore. Treuer is similarly not willing to allow the same images of poor, tragic Indians to continue either.

Ironically, these days the defining image of the rez is no longer the track but the tribally owned casino and what once may have been considered an oxymoron, the rich Indian. Treuer takes us to reservations in California, Florida and New England to visit the sprawling multi-billion industries that have helped fund scores of tribal programs and created huge disparities in wealth. Treuer is neither completely celebratory nor completely critical of the recent explosion of casino money. He ambigiously mentions feeling “very American” as he walks through the sliding glass door of the hotel lobby and one gets the feeling that isn’t entirely a good feeling.

As always, he is attuned to the irony that allows tribes such as the Seminoles and the Pequots to realize the American dream, by taking advantage of the one thing that makes them different from America– their immunity to state taxes and laws. Treuer is proud of tribal people for fighting the long, hard battle to have their sovereignty recognized and take control of their financial future for the first time in 300 years. But, as he looks at the wealth is has reaped, he and I can’t help but wonder, “Is this what we fought for? Is there something more than simply being rich?”

The response at Leech Lake is, “Yeah, we may not have millions of dollars for golf courses and lincolns, but our kids speak our tribal language and that’s worth a lot more.” The language and the lifeways it embodies, that which makes Indians different from Americans, is what matters most to many. While a large part of life on the rez is still about survival, Treuer also sees it as a fight to stay different, to stay tribal, to prevent Indians from becoming “the worse kind of Americans” concerned only with mainstream success. Either way, whether fighting for economic independence or fighting to keep what they have, it is always a struggle. As Lorena from Red Lake points out, “’They get mad at us for being poor, and then when some folk do all right, they get mad at us for being rich.’”

Setting out to go fishing with his friends at Leech Lake, the past taps Treuer on the shoulder again as he looks back to see the angry white protestors who not so long ago stood at the dock with signs that said “Save a Walleye-Spear an Indian.” In 1985, the US Supreme court ruled that the Wisconsin Ojibwe had retained the right to fish and hunt on ceded land as agreed to in treaties made with the government. The decision angered sports fishermen and those who make a buck on fishing tourism who didn’t want the Ojibwe fishing walleye to eat when they needed the walleye to create a nice vacation for someone.

These white residents saw treaty rights as “special privileges” given to the Ojibwe, rather than ways of life the government agreed to let tribes continue after taking swaths of their land. For several years, an Ojibwe fisherman or woman couldn’t get in their boat without violent rhetoric and sometimes physical objects being hurled at them. Eventually, when the public realized the decision was there to stay, they had no choice but to go home, and the Ojibwe just kept on fishing perhaps a little more proud of their traditions and the struggle to hold onto them.

The confusion over treaty rights and special privileges is similar to how most Americans view reservations in general. The idea that reservations or fishing and hunting rights are something the Americans “gave” to the Indians after defeating them in war is absolutely ridiculous. Reservations are instead usually the one thing the Americans didn’t take after forcing Indians to compromise over endless war or peace. The Ojibwe word for reservation, ishkonigan, also means “leftovers.” The “welfare” the U.S. government gives to recognized tribes every year for healthcare, housing, food, etc. are terms the government agreed to in order to take the land. And they took almost all it. Even on reservations themselves, there are more white residents than enrolled tribal members. Of course, if the Americans are really upset about the terms of the agreement, they can always give back all the land or maybe start paying rent.

Yeah, I didn’t think so.

Book I talked about:

Rez Life: An Indian’s Journey through Reservation Life, by David Treuer, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012.

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