No Reservations

For 13 years publisher Bill Lawrence has specialized in tales of graft and greed on the rez. He knows it's a dirty job, but no one else is doing it.

Typically, Bill Lawrence spends Thursday mornings in a two-room office suite in downtown St. Paul. As publisher and editor of a weekly newspaper, the Native American Press/Ojibwe News, he finds there are always plenty of last-minute details to tend to before the paper goes to bed. On this May day, though, he has a court appearance scheduled in northern Minnesota, so he is speaking with his one full-time employee, writer Clara NiiSka, via cell phone--fine-tuning copy from behind the wheel of his 1991 Honda Civic. As it happens, this week's issue marks the 13th anniversary of the paper's publication, and Lawrence has chosen to open his column with a brief note of self-congratulation, along with a thank-you to the paper's readers.

That the Native American Press has endured for so long is, Lawrence acknowledges, something of a minor miracle. For most of its history, the eight-page broadsheet, with a circulation of about 8,000, has teetered on the edge of insolvency. A few years ago, Lawrence mortgaged his home to keep the paper afloat. "It's been a struggle. Up and down," he shrugs. "Of course, we haven't gotten much help from the tribes." That's not surprising. In both his editorials and news stories, Lawrence has consistently criticized, often in highly acerbic tones, the tribal governments on Minnesota's 11 Indian reservations. "Somebody's got to stir the pot," he says, chewing on an unlit cigar. "It's the only way we can effect change. And that's why we live in this country. So people can stir the pot." Lawrence's demeanor stands in contrast to his maverick sensibilities and sometimes inflammatory rhetoric. Now 61 years old, he seldom raises his voice, instead offering his complaints as though he were reading a grocery list aloud.

Swinging through the Minneapolis suburb of Maple Grove, Lawrence stops to pick up one of his paper's regular contributors, Jeff Armstrong. The scruffy, laconic 35-year-old squeezes into the back seat, beside Lawrence's dog, an impish Pekinese named Bea, and they set out on the two-hour drive north to the Mille Lacs reservation. For Armstrong, the trip constitutes a return to the scene of one of his more peculiar reportorial adventures. For Lawrence, it's another opportunity to stir the pot.

In October of 1997, Lawrence dispatched Armstrong to Mille Lacs to cover a meeting of the executive committee of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. As a representative of the Native American Press, Armstrong had grown accustomed to getting the cold shoulder from tribal officials. "They generally won't talk to me at all," he says now. Still, he guessed he could sit through the meeting and file a story on the executive committee's deliberations over a controversial land settlement with the federal government. He was wrong. A tribal leader named Norman Deschampe, then the president of the committee, asked all non-Indians to leave the meeting. When Armstrong refused, he was placed under arrest by tribal police, cuffed, and hauled off to the Mille Lacs County Jail, where he was held until the meeting adjourned four hours later. Incensed, Lawrence and Armstrong filed suit in U.S. District Court in Duluth, charging the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, its police force, and the county with violating Armstrong's civil rights. Last year U.S. Magistrate Raymond Erickson ruled that Armstrong and Lawrence would have to take their case to tribal court before pressing a federal claim. So, in November, Lawrence filed an identical suit in Mille Lacs Tribal Court.

As they take their seats in the small, well-appointed courtroom at the band's newly built government center, Lawrence and Armstrong make for an odd couple. Lawrence is dressed formally: blue blazer, tie, white button-down shirt, and neatly pressed gray slacks. His hair is short and carefully combed. As he plucks a pair of reading glasses from his pocket, lays out a blank legal pad on the burnished wood table, and begins poring over paperwork, he looks positively corporate. Armstrong looks like he might be headed for a Phish concert. He wears jeans and a T-shirt emblazoned with the words Free All Political Prisoners and featuring a drawing of Leonard Peltier, the celebrated American Indian Movement (AIM) activist who is serving a life sentence for the shootings of two FBI agents in 1975.

After a few minutes, Joe Marshall, a Twin Cities attorney representing the band, enters the courtroom and greets Lawrence. "How things going with the newspaper?" asks Marshall. "I got more than I can handle," Lawrence answers. There is some awkward small talk. Marshall asks Lawrence, who graduated from law school at the University of North Dakota but didn't pass the bar, whether he has considered taking the exam again. If the remark is meant as a dig, Lawrence doesn't seem to care. "Well," he deadpans, "there's 25,000 lawyers in Minnesota, but only one Indian newspaper publisher."

At that, B.J. Jones, an Ojibwe judge from North Dakota, strides into the room and court is called to order. As Lawrence predicted, it is a boring hearing, resulting in a long list of motions and deadlines stretching into August. Afterward, Lawrence and Armstrong head off for coffee at the nearby Grand Casino. Armstrong figures it was a minor victory for the paper. "At least we didn't get thrown out today," he says. As Lawrence sees it, the suit may not stand much of a chance in tribal court. But he figures he'll be able to appeal any decision in federal court, where he likes the odds. "If they were smart, they would try and settle this thing. They've got a lot to lose," he says. "Their lawyers ought to be concerned that if I'm a horse's ass enough to make an issue out of this all the way up the line, we can beat 'em."

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