Nick Vander Puy | Mellen, WI
When I was ten years old, one of my uncles said, ‘There’s a powwow at Lac du Flambeau on Thursday night and we’re gonna go. But I have to warn you about one thing. During the performance, someone throws a silver tomahawk up into the stands and it lands in the heart of a white boy.’
This was back in 1965 or 1966. My uncle had gotten to know and admired a fishing guide from Lac du Flambeau, who invited him to the powwow. He told me that I too might grow up to be a great fishing guide, which I did. The powwow was in the Indian Bowl in Lac du Flambeau and people were wearing regalia and dancing. Nobody ever threw that silver tomahawk up into the stands. But something was planted in my heart that night and it came to fruition nearly twenty years later.
So fast forward to the early eighties, I’m this hot shot fishing guide. Guiding involves taking tourists out on the lakes to show them a good time catching fish. The old school guides like myself often cooked a lunch of fresh-caught fish, potatoes, and beans over an open fire. Around this time I read about the Tribble brothers and the reversal of Judge Doyle in 1983 and I read the legal brief. I learned, really learned, about Indian sovereignty. That’s actually what the legal battle was about, sovereignty.
The U.S. Constitution promised that treaties with indigenous nations shall remain the supreme law of the land. When treaties were being made between the Federal government and tribal nations during the mid 1800’s, the Ojibwe had agreed to share their land with settlers, but retained the right to fish, hunt, and gather on those lands.
When the Tribble brothers, who are Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe, set out to exert those rights in 1974, they were arrested and Judge Doyle ruled that the rights no longer applied. But that decision was appealed and later overturned by a three-judge panel in 1983. This led to strong, and often violent, opposition by sports fishermen and others during spearfishing season for many years following the ruling.
I helped organize some treaty support groups. There was a press release the Lakeland Times put out about the Wa-swa-Gon Treaty Association and how they were inviting non-Indian support. So I went over to the Bingo Hall in Flambeau, and I met a lot of people from Lac Flambeau: the late Ben Chosa, Virginia Chosa, and Betty Jack. They were making plans, and we got to be a part of carrying those plans out.
Life changed for me then. I was an ally all through the treaty struggle and then, around 2003, I transformed from a fishing guide into a public radio journalist. I did stories on social action and Native culture, but it wasn’t enough for me, and I finally left public radio to work full time as a water protector. By then threats to our lakes, rivers, and streams from mining, pollution, and climate change seemed to me to be large enough and dangerous enough that I wanted to dedicate the rest of my life to fighting them. I’ve always had a deep connection to water from about the age of five when my Dutch and German grandmothers encouraged me to catch fish for the elders.
I set up a camp in the Penokee Hills and ever since then, have been doing whatever I can to help stop mining in that area and to prevent companies from running pipelines through Wisconsin or Minnesota. Those pipelines are often routed through Indian reservations because the companies believe they will encounter less opposition.
I lived in a wigwam for a big chunk of that time, and have welcomed scores of other water protectors, Native and non-Native, who have come to participate in the protection. Some people probably think I’m nuts, but I feel like I’m living my life with purpose. I’m against destroying our environment for profit. I’m for learning to live in harmony with nature, and with each other. I made a choice to try to live the way I believe, not just talk about it.
I’m beginning to realize that there are some things that are not going to be resolved with the dominant society. I’m living in a modest indoor apartment right now, but I get out to that camp a lot. I don’t have a lot of things, but I am more than rich in experiences and in learning. I’m close to the heart of life. I have been so fortunate to have worked side by side with many Native people to help protect this earth. We’re fed by this land. The Crow elders recommend going back to the bush for at least one month out of every year. Being off grid.
As a white man, I realize I grew up on misinformation, lack of information, and myths about indigenous culture and tradition. I am working to change that, and producing good podcasts is a great way to share information. I was at Trees for Tomorrow, an environmental education center, in Eagle River the other day getting training from some young people on how to do that in a good way. Podcasts allow us to become our own radio stations.
We have so much to learn from indigenous wisdom and traditional values. I feel more than grateful to have had the opportunity to do some of that learning in this way of life I have chosen.
Wisconsin Humanities funded the Ogichidaag Storytellers project, a video series about treaty rights struggles faced by Ojibwe tribes in northern Wisconsin and Michigan during the 1960s-1980s. This short video highlights both Red Cliff and Bad River Tribal communities in their struggle to retain harvesting rights.