MORE

No Reservations

Geoffrey P. Kroll

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."

Lawrence says he wouldn't mind an out-of-court cash settlement. But a federal-court victory would be gratifying, as well. Lawrence applauds the minimization of tribal authority. In his view, tribal sovereignty--the notion that reservations ought to be treated as mini-nations, immune from many federal and state laws--is at the root of what troubles Indian country today: bureaucratic graft, civil-rights abuses, staggeringly high rates of unemployment, widespread poverty, educational failures, social dysfunction. "Sovereignty is what maintains the status quo," Lawrence says.

To most fellow journalists, tribal leaders, and treaty-rights activists, Lawrence's position is veritable heresy. Since the Sixties, the Indian establishment has pushed for greater autonomy. And to a large extent, they have been successful, with tribes coast to coast taking hold of everything from education to law enforcement. In Lawrence's view, this has served only to hold back his fellow Indians. Even casinos--the much celebrated "new buffalo," and the most tangible product of expanded Indian sovereignty in the past decade--rankle the publisher. "I think if we had an unbiased study of the effects of gambling, it would show a net negative," he opines. Then he cracks a wry smile. "That's why nobody's done it."

 

In 1994 David Lillehaug, who had just been sworn in as Minnesota's U.S. Attorney, got a call from Bill Lawrence. The publisher wanted a meeting, and Lillehaug, who came to his new job with a keen interest in Indian affairs, obliged. "[Lawrence] came into my office and said, 'I'm here to tell you there's a serious problem with corruption on Indian reservations in Minnesota, and that I and my publication hope and expect that you will make that a high priority. And if you don't, we will point that out,'" Lillehaug recalls. "He was very forward. There was no genuflecting to the U.S. Attorney. But he didn't come in with a grudge or assuming that he wouldn't be listened to. We hit it off pretty well." It didn't take long for Lillehaug to find out that more than a few high-ranking, state tribal officials didn't share his affinity for Lawrence: "I attended one tribal council meeting--I won't say which--and the chair of the band took the first 20 minutes to explain what a scurrilous creature this Bill Lawrence was for having the audacity to bring up an uncomfortable issue. Whenever his name came up, there would be verbal fireworks."

As it turned out, Lillehaug didn't disappoint Lawrence. During his tenure as U.S. Attorney, he presided over the most aggressive prosecution of tribal malfeasance in state history. In the end, his office sent nine tribal officials to prison, including high-profile figures, such as former White Earth chairman Darryl "Chip" Wadena, Leech Lake chairman Alfred "Tig" Pemberton, and former Leech Lake attorney and then-state Senator Harold "Skip" Finn. The scandals, which Lawrence dubbed "Chippygate" and "Finngate," respectively, were tailor-made for the Native American Press. To Lawrence's way of thinking, they confirmed his guiding thesis that because tribal governments lack checks and balances, they are especially susceptible to corruption.

But Lawrence had another reason to be gratified: He'd been chasing Finn for years. Like many of his investigative pieces, the story started rolling when he received an anonymous tip. "Word on the rez was that [Finn] was ripping the tribe off. I'd had several calls about it," Lawrence recalls. "Finally, someone sent me a packet of documents that gave me some leads as to where to start digging." Lawrence would run dozens of stories on Finn, pillory him on the editorial page, and, in 1995, confront the senator on the steps of the state Capitol and publicly call for his resignation. When Finn finally went on trial, Lawrence even coughed up $50 in bus fare to ensure that a prosecution witness from the Leech Lake Reservation would be able to testify. In the end Finn was convicted of masterminding an insurance-fraud scheme that soaked the Leech Lake band for more than a million dollars, and he was sent to federal prison for three years.  

Lawrence regards the Finn investigation as his paper's best moment, even though the extent to which the Native American Press contributed to Finn's prosecution is uncertain. Lillehaug, citing confidentiality rules, declines to discuss the subject. But he does allow that stories published in the paper were "helpful to the federal government": "When Bill Lawrence was on the mark, he performed an important service."

Finn, who finished serving his sentence last November, is still bitter about the role Lawrence played in his downfall. "Neither Bill nor his staff writers put in anything I had to say or gave a damn about my side," he complains. (Lawrence notes that he regularly left a blank space in the editorial column--an open invitation for Finn to respond.)

Finn is also critical of Lawrence's obsession with uncovering corruption in tribal governments and courts, while more significant abuses take place in Minnesota's court system. "There are horrendous civil-rights violations in that system," Finn opines. "Bill could do the Indian community a better service if he'd go on that crusade, instead of always focusing his attention on, say, Red Lake and the Red Lake tribal courts."

"He just prints untruths about things, speculation, and all of that," seconds Bobby Whitefeather, tribal chairman at the Red Lake Reservation, which is often the focus of Lawrence's harshest critiques. "There are so many things he's twisted, it just wouldn't do justice to name a few. It's just a slam on his own people." Pressed for an example, Whitefeather complains about a factual error in a story the Native American Press wrote about his heart by-pass surgery. Yes, Whitefeather says, he had surgery recently; but it was at the University of Minnesota, not at the Mayo Clinic.

Lawrence's aggressive style has also raised eyebrows among his colleagues in the Indian press, particularly because of the paper's heavy reliance on unnamed sources. "Bill Lawrence is not a journalist, and his paper lacks journalistic standards," argues Mark Anthony Rolo, the executive director of the Minneapolis-based Native American Journalists Association. While Rolo credits Lawrence for scoops scored during the Finn and Wadena investigations, he questions the methods used: "If you look at those stories, I'd venture to say he went about it in a way few journalists would approve. He uses way too much gossip and rumor that he could have in no way known was true." Rolo also argues that Lawrence's philosophic agenda, his push to place new limits on tribal sovereignty, flies in the face of the Indian community's core values. "It's more than muckraking. It's a step beyond that. He's basically saying, 'I'm going to use my pen as a sword to take down tribal government.'"

Paul DeMain, editor of the respected national biweekly News From Indian Country, agrees that when Lawrence uses unnamed sources or relies on single sources without confirmation, he opens himself up to slander and libel claims. "If he ever gets sued and has to go out of business, he'll have no one to blame but himself," says DeMain. The Native American Press has been sued for libel three times. Twice the paper successfully fought off the charge, including a dismissal following a jury trial in which Lawrence acted as his own attorney. In February Lawrence settled out of court with AIM leader Vernon Bellecourt, who had sued Lawrence for publishing a series of letters to the editor charging Bellecourt and his brother Clyde with everything from drug dealing to physical abuse of elders. (Lawrence would not comment on the financial terms, citing a confidentiality agreement. Bellecourt did not return City Pages' repeated calls.)

DeMain's chief misgiving about Lawrence is that he used the newspaper as a springboard for two unsuccessful runs at the Minnesota State Legislature in 1998 and 2000. "As a journalist, I don't care to see that," DeMain says. "When you decide to cross over into politics, I think you should get out of the media." Still, he sees value in the Native American Press: "I don't pick up his paper and read it for pleasure or comfort. And I think he presents an incomplete picture. But the paper serves as a watchdog. People operate knowing that Bill Lawrence isn't afraid to write about and expose scandal. He gives a voice and an ear to the political opposition on reservations. And he serves as a watchdog. It just happens the watchdog is a vicious one."

Lawrence is unapologetic. "We're an advocacy newspaper. People know that. But at least we're independent." He points out that a vast majority of Indian newspapers are owned outright by the tribes, and that results in muted criticism. "I don't recognize them as newspapers. They're company papers. They're just gonna print what they're told to print." And if he sometimes bends the rules, or violates journalistic decorum, so be it. There are open-meeting laws and Freedom of Information acts in place to protect mainstream reporters. Those covering tribal governments have no such guarantees. "I'm dealing with 11 governments that deny people basic rights, so I have to get in an advocacy role," Lawrence argues. "No one else gets the information. No one else will write the stories we write."  

 

Since childhood, Bill Lawrence has been both insider and outsider, moving back and forth between vastly different worlds: Indian and white; jock and student; military man and civilian; political candidate and activist publisher. The youngest of Joseph and Stella Lawrence's five children, he was born in 1939 on the Red Lake Reservation, in north central Minnesota. Today Red Lake remains the most independent--and, to many minds, most sovereign--of the state's 11 reservations, one of just two "closed" reservations in the country. (This peculiar legal status derives from the historic refusal of the tribe's 19th-century leaders to submit to the federal government's policy of distributing tribal lands to individual Indians; as a result, the land is still held communally and, unlike the other reservations in the state, has retained its original boundaries.)

When Lawrence was a toddler, his father Joseph, a onetime semipro baseball player then in his 40s, suffered a heart attack while playing town ball. He never fully recovered, so, come Bill's fourth birthday, the family moved to Bemidji, some 30 miles away. Ostensibly, they made the move so Joseph would have access to better medical care. But Bill says his father had also become pessimistic about life on Red Lake. One of Joseph's brothers had died under mysterious circumstances on the reservation and, while the death was ruled a suicide, the family suspected foul play. Joseph said he wanted more for his children. "On his deathbed, my dad told my mom, 'Keep the boys off the reservation, and see that they get an education,'" Bill recalls. Shortly after the family moved to Bemidji, Joseph passed away, and Stella honored her late husband's wishes. "Too proud to accept welfare," according to Bill, she supported the family as a waitress and cook. And although Bill returned to the reservation for regular vacations and visits with relatives, he came of age in Bemidji.

At the time there were only a handful of Indian families in town, and the color line was still bright. Until 1953 Indians couldn't even buy a beer at a town tavern. But Lawrence quickly found a way to fit in. Following in the footsteps of his two brothers, Bill put his energy into sports. Football, basketball, baseball, he loved them all, and did well. R.A. "Jim" Randall, a judge on the Minnesota Court of Appeals who is now a friend and ideological ally of Lawrence's, remembers watching him play in the state basketball tournament in 1956, when Bemidji High School took the title. "He was one of the most prominent high school athletes of the Fifties," Randall recalls. "If you followed sports in the state, you knew about him, and you knew about his brothers." By his senior year, Lawrence was All-State in three sports.

Out of high school, Lawrence accepted a football scholarship to the University of Minnesota. He didn't care for the Twin Cities, though, and after injuring an arm playing freshman football he left school and signed a contract with the Detroit Tigers baseball team. He pitched through two spring trainings and one full season in the minors. "I think I had a chance to make it," Lawrence says. "But I had trouble with my arm. I could feel it wasn't right." He went back to college, this time to Bemidji State, where he got a degree in business administration. After graduation, Lawrence wanted adventure and enlisted in the Marines, where he eventually worked his way up to the rank of captain. In 1962, on summer leave, he married Judy Hagburg, a white woman from Bemidji with whom he would have three children. (The two divorced several years ago.) In 1965, while stationed in California, he signed on for another tour of duty. Two weeks later he was given orders to report to Vietnam. "My biggest objective was to get my ass out of there in one piece. After a month or two, you could see the futility. Not just the waste of life, but the tremendous waste of resources," he says of the experience.

Returning to the States a year later, Lawrence settled in Bemidji, dividing his time between starting a family, attending law school at the University of North Dakota, and making a living. In 1968, after working construction at a taconite mine on the Iron Range, Lawrence landed a job as industrial-development specialist at Red Lake. Lawrence figures he was one of the first Red Lakers to return to the reservation with a college degree. And at the time, he was certain he could make a difference. Gerald Vizenor, a former reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune and professor of Native American Literature at the University of California-Berkeley, met Lawrence in the late Sixties and chronicled his efforts to bring economic development to the reservation in his book The Everlasting Sky: Voices of the Anishinabe People. "Bill persuaded the tribal government to support the development of services on the reservation, simple things like a Laundromat, gas station, grocery stores. Before that, all the money left the reservation," says Vizenor, who has since forged a lasting friendship with Lawrence.  

In 1970 Lawrence tried his hand at politics for the first time, running for the office of tribal chairman against 12-year incumbent Roger Jourdain. Jourdain, who held Red Lake's highest office for three tumultuous decades, remains a legendary figure in Indian politics. He is renowned for his skills in bringing federal dollars to Red Lake, for his close political ties to Hubert Humphrey's DFL establishment, and, in the eyes of critics and admirers alike, for his willingness to run the reservation with the savvy of a big-city party boss. Jourdain was also Lawrence's godfather, but the kinship belied harsh differences that emerged during Lawrence's year and a half as a tribal employee.

When the votes were tallied, Jourdain was once again victorious. Lawrence, who says he heard rumors of disappearing ballots, was convinced the election was stolen. On and off for the next two decades, Lawrence feuded with Jourdain, denouncing his regime as corrupt, inept, and overly dependent on federal subsidies. Ultimately, Lawrence's falling-out with his powerful godfather would send him into the newspaper business.

 

After his first electoral defeat, Lawrence spent 18 years bouncing between Indian country and the private sector. In the Seventies he worked as a business manager for a small California tribe. Then he took a job in Arizona as an agency superintendent for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the agency that administers federal funding for reservation governments. Among the first generation of administrators hired under Indian preference rules, Lawrence thought the BIA, notorious for its poor management and outright corruption, could be reformed. At the time, his mother discouraged him. "She said, 'You don't want to work for that dirty, rotten, filthy outfit,'" Lawrence says. As was the case with his stints in the military and at Red Lake, Lawrence became disillusioned during his time at the BIA. He says management of the agency did not improve, and boondoggles were more the rule than the exception. In 1982, Lawrence decided to move with his wife and three school-age children back to Minnesota, landing a job in Honeywell's military avionics division.

Once again Lawrence was paying attention to the happenings on Red Lake, when an unexpected opportunity presented itself. In 1987 Roger Jourdain and the Red Lake tribal council had decided to provide backing for a newspaper on the reservation. Tim Giago, a well-known Lakota journalist, was recruited to run the operation. The paper, dubbed the Red Lake Times, quickly ran into trouble. According to Lawrence, Giago and Jourdain quickly locked horns over story choice and staff. In less than a year, Giago left town and the paper went belly-up.

In short order, two of the former staffers at the Red Lake Times, looking for financial backing, contacted Lawrence to fill the vacuum. "I thought, What the hell?" Lawrence remembers. "I figured I had a decent group of guys to put the paper out, and I could provide some financing and some good management." From the outset, the Ojibwe News was an in-your-face publication--or, more accurate, an in-Roger Jourdain's-face publication. The first issue, published in May of 1988, led with an exposé of financial shenanigans at Red Lake. Subsequent editions featured similar stories, along with stinging editorials authored by Lawrence denouncing everyone from the "dictatorial" Jourdain (and "his ten little Indians" on the tribal council) to the bureaucrats at the BIA, his old employer.

"I didn't get into it with the intent that I would own it for any length of time. We really just started the paper with the intent of getting rid of Jourdain," Lawrence says. Behind the scenes, Lawrence had a financial and ideological falling-out with his original partners. Following their parting, Lawrence found himself assuming a larger role. He wrote stories at night after coming home from his day job at Honeywell, and he hired college students from Bemidji State to handle day-to-day editorial duties. Still, the paper was losing money. For a spell, Lawrence switched to a biweekly schedule. Then, less than two years after the paper's founding, the neophyte publisher got a major psychological boost. Roger Jourdain was defeated as tribal chairman. One of the paper's missions had been fulfilled. (At the time, Lawrence editorialized that Jourdain "didn't cheat enough to win.")  

"After that, the paper just kind of took on a life of its own," Lawrence reminisces. "Initially, it was just a Red Lake paper, but then people from other reservations came to us, saying, 'We've got so much corruption here, you've got to help us.'" Two years later, Lawrence resigned from his job at Honeywell and turned to muckraking full time. (In the years since, Lawrence and Jourdain have reconciled. "We buried the hatchet a long time ago. Why fight? He's my godfather," says Lawrence. And Jourdain professes nothing but admiration for his godson: "Of course he irritates people from time to time, especially on the tribal councils, but I've got a lot of respect for him.")

In 1991, looking to expand his market by appealing to Indians living in the Twin Cities, Lawrence started a second paper, the Native American Press. A year later Lawrence merged the two papers into the Native American Press/Ojibwe News. For most of the decade, Lawrence published the combined paper in Bemidji. Two years ago, he moved the operation to St. Paul, figuring he could keep a closer eye on the state's legislature and courts. The change in locale, however, didn't have much bearing on the paper's content. Lawrence and his writers continue to hammer away at the usual themes.

Through the years, the paper has also pounced on stories that the mainstream press has ignored, from Lawrence's own experiences in tribal court to sordid domestic crimes to detailed accounts of graft. "Sometimes you end up hurting people," Lawrence says, acknowledging he has occasional regrets about stories he has published. "Look at [Skip] Finn. He has a wife and kids. You feel sorry for them. But there are a lot of people who get hurt when the system is abused. What about the people of Leech Lake? They are out a lot of money. You have to feel sorry for them, too."

For all the criticism he has taken from tribal officials and other members of the Indian establishment, Lawrence has also won the respect--sometimes grudging, sometimes effusive--of dissidents and skeptics, both on and off the reservation. Minnesota Appeals Court Judge Jim Randall, who still remembers Lawrence as a high school athlete, finally met the publisher face-to-face in 1996, after he published a dissent in Cohen v. Little Six. In the opinion, Randall argued that Sylvia Cohen, a nonnative patron at Mystic Lake Casino, should be allowed to pursue a personal-injury case against the Shakopee Mdewakanton Dakota tribe. The majority of the court ruled that Cohen, who had fallen out of a chair at the casino, should be required to exhaust her remedies in the tribe's court. In the 69-page dissent, beginning with a quote from the 19th-century Oglala Lakota warrior chief Red Cloud, Randall tartly declared tribal sovereignty "more illusion than real, a Potemkin Village, and a throwback to the separate but equal doctrine."

Awed by the dissent, which he would publish verbatim in his paper, Lawrence marched up to the state courthouse from his Robert Street office and straight into the judge's chambers. It was a vintage moment. "He stuck his hand out and said, 'I'm Bill Lawrence, publisher of the Native American Press, and I've been waiting for your opinion for 28 years,'" Randall recalls. The admiration was mutual. Randall soon discovered he had lots in common with Lawrence. They shared the same birthday, they are both ex-Marines, both love sports, and both had concluded the notion of tribal sovereignty was a sham: "The more I learned about what he's doing, how he feels, the more I became convinced he was on the right track," Randall says. "And he has the clearest mind of any writer working today on what are the problems in Indian country."


Sponsor Content

Newsletters

All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >