It's Proud to Be Indigenous Week, and I've written this piece in honor of my cousin Mel Rasmussen of Lac Du Flambeau, who recently (May 11) passed to the other side.
You are on Indian Land.
Over the past twenty years I’ve written and published a lot of controversial stuff--I still receive hate mail in response to an article first published in 1996, and probably would be getting a lot more if more people bothered to read half of what I’ve written. Thank god for small miracles like too little time, short attention spans, limited vocabularies, lack of interest and intellectual curiosity deficits!
Recently, with the publication of a kinda-sorta memoir, a friend of mine hooked me up with an interviewer, saying “this is what happens when you write a controversial book, people wanna interview you.”
I don’t get what’s so controversial about telling the almost-absolutely true story of a lived life. It’s just what happened--the story of the life I’ve lived, with the exercise of some creative license in its telling. It’s not as though it’s the story of a serial-rapist, a serial-racist, or some other breed of repeat offender. Nor is it like I got a multi-million-dollar advance on a book about all the crimes I’ve committed, then hired some idiot to plagiarize my story from the internet because I’m the kind of guy who can become president of the United States, but can’t construct one grammatically correct sentence without the aid of an English tutor or the Internets.
If you believe in karma, though, you gotta wonder what I was up to in some other lifetime!
Still, of all the statements I have ever made—in print, in public speaking engagements, in college classrooms, in invited lectures, or in airport smoking lounges—the most controversial of all is this simple five-word statement culled from a bumper sticker I purchased in the early 90s at a powwow in northern Wisconsin: You are on Indian Land.
My problem is: I’m a sucker for truth. I cannot tell a lie. At the time, what I liked most about the bumper sticker was its naked truth. I knew that once I placed that bumper sticker on the back of my car, the statement would have to be recognized as true as far as that car could take me. Considering that it was a ’68 VW bug picked up for 500 bucks at a police auction in Minneapolis in 1993, the car wasn’t likely to get me very far. But still. The thought was enough: this is a true statement, and it will be true for as far as this car (or any other vehicle on this continent) can travel—you are on Indian Land.
Maybe that statement was more controversial in the northwoods of Wisconsin and Minnesota. In Last Standing Woman, Winona LaDuke wrote about the particularly virulent form of hatred that prevails in these areas—stemming from three generations of complicity in the theft of Indian Land.
That might explain why once, while heading to Sawyer, Minnesota with a load of food and other stuff from the city to spend a weekend with a tribal elder (Esther Naghanab) on the Fond du Lac Reservation, I was almost run off the road by a carload of translucent teenagers gone wild in their daddy’s SUV. I took down the license plate number, stopped at a gas station along the way to call the police and report the incident. I don’t know whether the kids targeted me because of the bumper sticker, or whether they were just young and full of themselves and mine happened to be the only other car on the road at the time. But the fact is, the bumper sticker on my car flashed those ultra-controversial five little words in bold red-white-and-blue at them: You are on Indian Land.
I don’t know, either, whether it was the bumper sticker that caused a state trooper to detain me for over an hour at the Wisconsin-Minnesota border in Hudson late one night while making the hour-and-a-half trek home from Minneapolis to Eau Claire after a long day of teaching peace through drums to inner city kids in St. Paul. The only thing I was charged with was DWI: Driving While Indian. I’d been stopped for expired plates, but had promptly pulled a receipt from the glove box demonstrating that the registration had been paid, the tabs just hadn’t yet arrived in the mail. It should have entailed a ten-minute stop. I still don’t know why it took over an hour. When I finally got home after midnight, I looked at the bogus citation and saw that my race had been identified as “Indian”.
I subsequently spent a couple weeks going back and forth on the phone and in letters to the cop’s supervisor, Chief Trende, explaining, among other things, that the state trooper’s actions were counterproductive since—as an inner city educator—I was providing a service that made their jobs easier because it involved a particularly effective form of violence prevention among inner city youth. The police chief conceded to all my points: yes, the citation was made in error; yes, it was counterproductive for a state trooper to detain an inner city schoolteacher for so long at the end of such a long day.
Then I brought up the business of the DWI.
“There is one more issue that concerns me, Chief Trende,” I’d said, “And that is the identification of my race on this citation—it says here ‘Indian’. I can assure you, Sir, that neither I nor any of my ancestors have ever been to India, so at the very least, your officer would had to have identified me as AMERICAN Indian, or Native American. Here on the Wisconsin-Minnesota border crossing at Hudson, it might have been safer to assume Anishinabe or Ojibwe: heck, even Chippewa would have been a better shot in the dark than ‘Indian’.”
What ensued was a discourse on the subject of geographic disorientation and dislocation dating back to Columbus. The end result was that Chief Trende decided the state trooper in question would be forced to attend sensitivity training to prevent future incidents of this nature from occurring.
That was twenty years ago, and I’ve spent the past twenty years trying to figure out what is so controversial about that simple statement of truth. Twenty years thinking about what it means to say “you are on Indian Land,” and whether or why this statement should mean different things to different people: Is it the who of it, the you of it, as in: who the hell are you to tell me “you are on Indian Land”? I still cannot say. The best I can do is clarify what the statement means to me.
You are on Indian Land. What does that mean? To me, it means every step I take, every move I make on this land is one that will either honor my ancestors, or insult them. When I stand at the places where pipestone runs through its veins in the earth, I feel the pulse of their blood beneath my feet. When I bike the shore of Lake Michigan, I hear the beat of their hearts roar at my ears. When I clambor down to the spot where the water meets the roots of Manido Gizhigans to place a pinch of tobacco there, the ancestors speak, telling me to be like that tree--to draw nourishment from waters running beneath the stone, to survive on the strength of this collective Indian soul-source even as bodies are beaten, fettered and unfed by above-ground forces. Nind anishinabe, the Little Cedar Spirit tree tells me.
Here in the city where I live—city of broad shoulders, city of spring’s first fruits, city of school closings, gun violence and astronomical homicide rates--a small patch of Indian Land was ceded to the United States government in the Treaty of St. Louis concluded on August 24, 1816 by the United Tribes of the Ottawa, Chippewa and Potawatami. On August 25, 2009, I bought that piece of land back, and when I am up to my elbows in its soil, my hands are guided by the voices of ancestors beseeching me to find non-chemical ways to allow the aggressive silver maple living on the parkway to coexist peacefully with the roses I have planted beside the fence in my yard just because they are pretty. Because for centuries, revolutionaries of every stripe have known: meaningful life is sustained not only by bread, but by roses too. But the silver maple on that devil’s strip of parkway was here first, and as much as I might like to simply have it removed, I won’t. It, too, stands on Indian Land, just south of the boundary line. And it was here first. I am a newcomer to this piece of Indian Land.
These ancestors tell me great gardens have less to do with green thumbs than with dirty knees and dirty nails. Ten hours with a spade in hand will do more than a 10-gallon jug of Round-up. But yes, you do have to pick up the spade, dirty your hands, and dig deeply to stop the roots of the silver maple from growing wild as wasichu, sucking all the good stuff from the soil and strangling everything in its path. Peace never comes easy. Not even here in the garden on this small piece of Indian Land.
You are on Indian Land. It would be presumptuous to make any broad brush claims about what that statement means to every Indian everywhere or to any Indian anywhere. I can only say what it means to me, and speculate about what may make it seem so controversial to others.
Let’s face it: whoever you are, wherever you are on this continent, you are on Indian Land. You know it. I know it. We all do. We know, too, that no amount of geological cosmetic surgery will restore the Black Hills to their pre-Mount Rushmore glory, that the streets of this city cannot be un-asphalted, and that there’s little point in talking about the current property value of Manhattan. It’s an Ecclesiastical truth: What’s done is done, and there is nothing new under the sun.
If the intent of the statement “You are on Indian Land” is interpreted to be “Shame on you, you, you, wasichu, you who would plunder, pillage and prey on the land,” this sense of recrimination would explain the controversy attached to these five simple words. Nobody wants to be the one who did the undoable, the unthinkable, the unfathomable: no one wants to admit to having done the dastardly deed. No one.
In my classes at the community college down the street—also located on the Indian Boundary Line—I explain my understanding of the statement “You are on Indian Land” this way: I say, “You know, when you throw that bag of McDonald’s trash out your window on the highway, it’s like ‘Hey, thanks for throwing your garbage in my dead grandmother’s face.’ Or, when you dump your baby’s pooped-up Pampers on the ground in the parking lot, it’s like, ‘Wow, thanks for crapping on my cousin’s gravestone’.’”
Maybe I’m wrong about this, but when I put it that way, my students do seem to get it, and I like to think they will remember this the next time they are tempted to engage in any one of these or similar activities.
I know these small efforts and the impact they may (or may not) have won’t stop a pipeline from being built, won’t stand in the way of another dam; they won’t get Peltier released from prison or provide heat to elders dying at Pine Ridge and Rosebud each winter because they can’t afford to pay the gas bill. They certainly pale by comparison to the bold acts of today’s indigenous youth on the Journey of Nishiyuu, to Theresa Spence’s courageous stand against the Harper regime, or to my recently deceased cousin Mel’s participation in the year 2000’s Walk to Remember around Lake Superior.
But I think it’s important to find a way to put a positive spin on this statement You are on Indian Land for everyone, not just for Indians. What Walt Bresette said about the people of Lake Superior also holds true for all the people who live (and die) here, on Indian Land: "We need to talk to each other about what is happening in our villages and our communities, to share our experiences, our concerns, and our hopes for the future. We need to meet our neighbors and learn from them."
So, in my classes at the community college, I’m not content to stop at the point about the pooped-up Pampers on my cousins’ gravestones because these are not just my students, they are my neighbors, too, and I need them to understand what I mean when I say “You are on Indian Land.”
If what it means to say “You are on Indian Land” is that every step I take on this land will either honor my ancestors or insult them, then the question this statement poses for everyone living on Indian Land is: where do the spirits of your ancestors roam? How many generations have you been here? Two, three, five? Whether you boast about ancestors who arrived on the Mayflower or raise fists in righteous outrage over the way your ancestors arrived chained to the floor of the Amistad, where are those ancestors now? Where do your ancestors go when they die? Back to Europe? Back to Africa? To Asia? To Egypt?
Does entry into the spirit world endow the ancestors with the magical power to fly or to swim across oceans? What if the journey to the other side—wherever that other side happens to be configured in the spiritual imagination of any human individual or collective—is made on foot? What if spirits walk to the other side? What if they can’t fly, can’t swim, can’t walk on water when they die…where do they go?
Doesn’t that mean that when I say “You are on Indian Land”, I could just as easily be talking about your ancestors, not just about you, whoever and wherever you are on Indian Land?
Fri May 24, 2013 at 2:41 PM PT: With all the support this piece has received--especially in the form of the republishes--I feel an update of gratitude is in order. Thank you so much for all the support. I am also grateful for the discussion that's ensued. Peace don't come easy....Thank you so much. :)