Visiting Ancestrial America

February 18, 2011
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In the summer of 1973, preceding my senior year in college, I arranged a special sociological field work project to take place in and around Duluth, Minnesota. The topic of my research paper was the American Indian and the recent cultural clashes with U.S. authorities and, moreover, the current state of reservation affairs. For companionship I took along my then girlfriend.

I’m a quarter American Indian (my grandmother on my father’s (father #1) side) and so it was more or less a natural inclination to want to learn something about my own cultural heritage. If you see my oh, so pale self you might wonder how this might be possible but the Scandinavian bulk of my background apparently had the Indian part surrounded.

You’d think a trip to Wounded Knee, South Dakota, where just that prior February members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) had occupied the town, forcing a violent confrontation between the tribal members and the likes of the FBI, might be a better bet than Duluth for where the action was but there were good reasons for choosing Minnesota:

  1. Minnesota has a very large Indian population and there were many AIM sympathetic reservations (mostly Chippewa) throughout the state and my plan was to make an unannounced visit and hope for the best.
  2. Just to the south of us, in St. Paul, AIM leaders like Russell Means and Dennis Banks would be meeting the Secretary of the Interior and we were sure we could weasel in as faux journalists.
  3. Finally, and this was the best part, my great aunt, whom we would be staying with, knew of a fella by the name of John Costa, the resident of a shack down by the railroad tracks (yes, my friends, there are actual souls who live in cracker boxes with just the bare minimum of amenities). He was a loner who happened to have made it his passion in life to study the various tribes that make up the Sioux nation. He agreed to talk to me in advance so it was only a matter of going there. John, so we were told, knew everything about the culture one could know and not only knew many of the historical figures personally but spoke the language fluently.

John lived in a small ramshackle trailer, piled high with the Indian studies that he so thoroughly digested and a mound of dirty dishes that indicated his priorities. This might have been a mini-episode of television’s Hoarders but for the fact that John hoarded very little and it was more a relation to the size of his space. He was more minimalist than hoarder. Everything about the space related to his sole presence so when we got there, accommodating two more guests required some precise rearranged seating.

He had worked, and still worked occasionally, for his neighborhood railway but, at the time, was largely retired to his private research. Why, exactly, he cared so much about Indian culture, I’m not quite sure and I was certainly remiss in not asking but I suspect that he, like me, had some ancestry there and it drew him to want to learn something about it. It’s probably something akin to why I wanted to know more about my biological father, in the hopes that I’d discover something about myself in the process.

Crazy Horse

Crazy Horse

He told us endless stories of spending time with the son of Crazy Horse and other notable figures and tried to help us understand the mindset of a race that had been marginalized on such a massive scale that it was astounding that there were not riots in the streets of every reservation in the country. Reservations, he explained, were almost universally poor on a scale that would shock most Americans (this was long before casinos would dot the map like car dealerships).

But he also talked of the traditional lifestyles, religion and lore of the Sioux, even taking time to tell us some children’s stories and how those stories fit into the overall culture of the tribe. Not only speaking in English, he often inserted the native language where appropriate and where we would understand, and sometimes he would stop to educate us on various word meanings and intent.

The multiple days we spent visiting with him were enriching far beyond anything that I’d known of Indian life prior to the trip and by the time we were ready to leave Duluth we felt, at least, marginally empowered by out newfound knowledge. But this is where education and experience often do not totally reconcile. It’s one thing to learn things intellectually and entirely another to experience them first hand and that became the next task at hand.

So between Duluth and St. Paul (and the AIM convention) we were heading directly into a woodland reservation where we, standing out among the residents, were surprisingly approached by a man at the reservation gift shop asking us why we had come there and how he could help. I thought, ‘wow, what luck’ and I didn’t hesitate to ask if there was anyway we could see the reservation beyond the facade that is there to serve white visitors. He enthusiastically offered to show us his own home and around the area where he lived. Again, what great luck…sort of.

Sure enough, we saw his family’s house, which upon first glance seemed much nicer than what I had expected, thanks to an arm of HUD (Housing and Urban Development) that had constructed the homes under a federal grant. But as he took us inside it was in striking contrast to the exterior in that there were no inner walls and, hence, no insulation. Keep in mind this was Minnesota. What had appeared as a modest, but pleasant, suburban home was really nothing more than a shell. Inside, heat was provided by a pot belly stove and little else. The only other notable amenity was a small television in almost every room (apparently cheaper to acquire than walls). What must winters be like in a house like this?

He also showed us a rough, clapboard shack on the side of their house that they used to dry meats and hides. Almost as an aside, he added that before receiving their present house/frame, the entire family lived in that little shack. Oh my.

We were very young and not savvy enough to understand what was transpiring here. A man approaches us and becomes our very own guide through a neighborhood that is very depressed and hardly display-worthy and as we drive around we see that people are giving out those looks that meant we were unwelcome. It took longer than it should have but my naiveté finally made an adjustment and I realized that we had to leave there. This was disconcertingly personal and, as I was told later by another tribal member, our effervescent guide was commonly referred to as an Uncle Tomahawk, a pleaser whose only interest was in what we might eventually give him, monetarily or otherwise.

I was a little embarrassed but also enlightened as to how native Americans lived in this country and throughout the rest of our trip, and to this day, I carry those images with me, which makes me somehow cheered at the thought of another Indian casino opening. Maybe this shakedown of willing white people with cash to burn is partial revenge for years of humiliation and hopelessness. Even so, while casino funds bolster communities as a whole, per capita income levels on many reservations are still at poverty level.

And the reward for our intrusion into their privacy? A full scale attack of ticks, gotten by walking through a small cemetery plot with our guide. Our parting gift had to be removed one at a time and took about a day to locate in their entirety.

Happy Trails.

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