Same Country, Different Nation

The Real Red Lake

In some senses, it does. Now home to about 7,000 people, Red Lake bears a unique legal status as Minnesota's only "closed reservation," meaning that all the land within its borders is held communally. The legacy is historic. In 1863, in its first treaty with the federal government, the Red Lake Ojibwe ceded vast tracts of lands to the government. As pressure built to open more Indian land to farming and timber harvest, congressional agents returned to Red Lake with the aim of forcing the tribe to surrender more land and, in accordance with the policy of the time, to divvy up the remaining holdings among individual tribal members. Over seven days of negotiations, Red Lake's leaders--led by the 82-year-old head chief May-dway-gwa-no-nind--agreed to turn over nearly 3 million additional acres, but steadfastly insisted that the remaining land be owned in common. (The old chief also demanded that alcohol be prohibited from the reservation, saying, "It would be the ruin of all these persons that you see here should that misfortune come to them." To this day, the reservation remains legally dry, though that policy is regularly violated.)

The decision to resist allotment, as the policy was known, has allowed Red Lake to stave off incursions from non-band members. On Minnesota's other Ojibwe reservations, many tribal members, either through naïveté or desperate circumstance, sold their allotments; consequently those reservations lost 90 percent or more of their original land base over the years. In practical terms, this has meant that places like Leech Lake and White Earth are much more integrated, and--to the eyes of outsiders, at least--less Indian and less set apart than Red Lake.

It is worth noting, too, that of the seven Ojibwe bands in the state, Red Lake is the only one that is not a member of the umbrella organization, the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. The sheer size of Red Lake (it's slightly larger than the state of Rhode Island) distinguishes it as well. Its vast pine and mixed hardwood forests seem to stretch on forever. The shoreline of the enormous lake that gives the reservation its name is mostly undeveloped. There are no strip malls, fast food restaurants, motels, or movie theaters, only the most basic commerce. It is also a place where the "vanishing American"--as Natives were called in a more paternalistic time--seems to retain an unusual degree of freedom from the larger society. White people typically come only as visitors, academics, or employees. Or when something awful happens, as journalists.

But the fact that Red Lake is a remote and insular community does not make it tight-knit in every sense. Red Lake's extended families, clan affiliations, and shared culture do foster an unusual degree of connectedness. At Red Lake, people know each other better than do people in similar-sized towns or suburbs elsewhere in Minnesota. Yet, the Red Lake of today is as much unraveled as tight-knit, riven by generational divides, clannishness, violence, and seemingly endless political tumult.

It has been that way for a long time. For most of the late 20th century, Red Lake was ruled by one of the best-known Indian leaders of his generation. A hard-nosed pragmatist, tribal chairman Roger Jourdain was especially adept at negotiating with the white institutional world. In part, this was a product of his disarming bluntness. In the 1960s, upset with the level of federal aid the reservation was receiving, he told one government official, "You are not giving us anything. You are merely returning a finger of sand for all you have taken."

During Jourdain's tenure, from 1959 to 1990, the tribe made strides toward modernity with massive improvements to its housing stock and infrastructure. Jourdain had a militant streak that was unusual among elected Indian officials of his day. For a time, non-band members doing business on the reservation were required to apply for passports, and in the early '80s the tribal council twice passed resolutions barring the news media from the reservation. The mantras of contemporary Indian identity, sovereignty and pride, have long been espoused at Red Lake. (It was the first tribal government in the country to issue its own license plates.)

But Jourdain's time as tribal chairman was also characterized by periods of considerable unrest. To his opponents, he was an outright autocrat who ran roughshod over anyone who disagreed with him. In 1979, after the Jourdain-led tribal council fired the secretary-treasurer, a riot erupted. Armed dissidents chased away the police before burning down Jourdain's home (effectively driving the chairman off the reservation), a new law enforcement complex, and about a dozen other buildings. In the melee that followed, two teenagers died of accidental gunshot wounds in the alcohol-fueled outburst, and Red Lake found itself in the national spotlight for the first time in the modern era.

The political tumult since then has been considerably more muted but has never stopped simmering. Some of the reasons are economic. For generations, the mainstays of the reservation economy were logging and commercial fishing. But in the mid-'90s, the walleye fishery at Red Lake collapsed, a result of mismanagement, over-harvest, and, as many would later admit, greed. With private industry scarce on the reservation and the closest city, Bemidji, 30 miles away, most jobs at Red Lake still involve working for the tribe in some capacity. As a result, elected officials at Red Lake wield more power over the lives of their constituents than do their counterparts in municipal and state government. In the view of critics, the governance at Red Lake often bears more resemblance to old-style city machine politics, with its ward-heeling and patronage, than the celebrated consensual process of tribal lore.

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