Anton Treuer’s newest work, Warrior Nation: A History of the Red Lake Ojibwe (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2015), is a highly readable book tracing the history of Red Lake through its leaders. At the same time it reflects the history of all of Indian Country, despite its focus on the unique traits of this Native nation.
Photo: Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society Press
Treuer has devoted much of his career to uncovering the history of the Ojibwe people and preserving the Ojibwe language. He has had a dozen books published on those subjects.
His latest work, released this month, is intended to record the history of that nation and to contribute to the community conversation already underway to refresh the Red Lake Nation Constitution.
Warrior Nation traverses four centuries of Red Lake Ojibwe history through the lives of seven important, and mainly political, leaders. The project was completed at the urging of the tribal government, which allowed Treuer, a professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University in north-central Minnesota, to take a different approach than usual.
“I didn’t feel terribly restricted,” Treuer said in a recent interview with Indian Country Today Media Network, even though some tribal council and staff reviewed the book during the editing process. More of an influence perhaps was Treuer’s acute awareness of the descendants from all leaders profiled, even to White Thunderbird, the first one featured.
“Hundreds of family members are living today,” Treuer told ICTMN. “It wasn’t like writing about some ancient historical figure. They’re all going to read this book.”
That enhanced his rigor for expressing the full subtleties of these lives and how they shaped a truly unique place in Indian Country.
“Ultimately, my job is to be a historian,” the author said. “I tried to provide a full picture.”
The word “unique” accurately applies to the Red Lake Nation, federally designated as the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians. Unlike every other reservation, its remaining 636,954 acres of land surrounding all of Lower and most of Upper Red Lake are still communally held, never allowed by tribal leaders to be divvied up under the Allotment Act of 1887 or any similar moves that followed. Thus Red Lake is not splintered with “checkerboard” ownership on reservations where privately held lands were sold off – voluntarily or otherwise—to non-Natives. (One interesting side note: Treuer documented historic evidence that tribal lands should include all of Upper Red Lake. The tribal archives, he said, house “some critical sources for understanding how the lake was promised and taken.”)
Map from Warrior Nation, A History of the Red Lake Ojibwe
Boundaries of the Red Lake Nation
Retention of communal lands defines much of Red Lake’s past and present, Treuer found.
“Ultimately, you can see it in the words of people who had to fight off allotment,” he said. “That wasn’t like a bullet that had to be dodged just once. With each battle, people said, ‘We don’t want individuals to own land here. It’s Mother Earth, and we know that individuals will make mistakes.’ That’s very, very different than the Western world of individualism, competition and materialism. Avoiding allotment was the wisest course of action. It would have been anywhere and everywhere else.”
Red Lake bore an economic burden for not accepting allotment, being sometimes isolated and without outside resources. The ultimate benefits, though, have been significant for the people of Red Lake.
“They have a deep sense of place and community—one that is elusive in other places in the world,” Treuer said. Environmentally, he added, “Red Lake has the cleanest aquifer in the state of Minnesota.”
Given the desirable fishing and recreation available on Red Lake, Treuer said that had allotment been allowed, “there would be more white folk than Indians” by the lake now.
The communally held land does not, however, represent a locked mind-set. Always independent minded and hence frequently contentious, the extended community of Red Lake produced powerful and equally contentious leaders.
Today tribal enrollment for Red Lake is 11,422, but Treuer’s profiles recall two vital leaders who would never meet today’s blood quantum requirement for enrollment. White Thunderbird, a Dakota child adopted around 1770, retained his Dakota clan of Kingfisher, which became one of seven traditional Red Lake clans. Born around 1872, Peter Graves was the son of Gichi-gamiiwikwe (Lake Superior Woman) of the Leech Lake Ojibwe and a non-Native refugee from the Louis Riel Rebellion. Gichi-gamiiwikwe, later baptized Elizabeth Graves, was the widow of a Red Lake band member.
The list of acknowledgments plays as much of a role in the book as the history itself. Three oral history projects done through the Red Lake School proved invaluable. Treuer also benefited from work by his father, author Robert Treuer, who possessed the only known copy of an unpublished autobiography from Roger Jourdain, the controversial tribal chairman whose iron-fisted leadership ignited 1979 riots (which led to the burning of his house) but also forged powerful alliances.
Treuer, whose mother is a tribal judge at Red Lake, had met Jourdain and some others featured in the book. He respected that these strong-willed leaders were neither fully heroes nor villains, but the dynamic result of an equally strong-willed Red Lake Nation.
“I was surprised at every phase of this thing, even when I thought I understood Jourdain’s story,” Treuer said. “For me, that was one of the most exciting parts about the research processes.”
Treuer found that Peter Graves, the controversial chairman who preceded Jourdain, left positive legacies, too. Graves was ahead of his time on environmental concerns. He and Jourdain also insisted on drafting legal documents in Ojibwe.
“He was about 100 years ahead of anyone else on use of language,” Treuer said. “People are just getting there now. Each chapter, someone was maintaining what was ancient and building what was new, a phoenix rising out of the lake each time.”
Treuer ends with a contemporary keeper of tribal spiritual and cultural traditions, Anna Gibbs. Because Red Lake political leadership historically was held by men, she is the only woman profiled, although Treuer mentions many other important women.
“She exemplifies the political, cultural and social dynamic—empowerment, service to others, the role of cultural continuity and cultural change,” he said. “She’s a direct descendant of White Thunderbird, a dynamic cultural carrier. At the same time, she’s somebody who has changed [traditional] roles of officiating at funeral or running ceremony.”
Gibbs has taken on once male-only leadership roles at the request of community members. She was a valued spiritual comforter after the 2005 shooting at the Red Lake School.
“She has not thrown everything out, but she had evolved the culture of that place,” Treuer said. “Her story is a great window into how that happens.”
While honoring the qualities of Red Lake and its leaders, the book does not ignore their frailties. As such, this history, Treuer hopes, can help to build the future.
“Everything that’s wrong in Red Lake can be fixed by what is right in Red Lake,” Treuer said. “And that’s what it means to be sovereign.”