At a gathering in northern Wisconsin about twenty-five years ago, Ojibwe fishers were telling their stories to an invited group of non-Native guests. We were sitting together in a circle in a room on the Lac du Flambeau Reservation, passing an eagle feather from person to person, so each person would speak from the heart and tell the truth. Tribal members of the Wa-Swa-Gon Treaty Association told the non-Native members of the Witness for Nonviolence about growing up on the reservation, fighting for the treaty right to spear fish outside the reservation, and defending that right from violent anti-treaty protesters. They answered questions about how they continue to practice their traditional lifeways, about why they love the lakes and rivers and fish and wild rice, because that is just who they are.
When they were done speaking, Wa-Swa-Gon chairman Tom Maulson turned the questions around. “We’ve told you who we are, and why we’re here today,” he said, “now we want to know: What brought you here? Who are you?” Asking “who are you” was partly a question and partly a challenge, from tribal members tired of the long line of do-gooders coming to reservations to “help,” of New Agers attending tribal gatherings to appropriate a Native identity, of academic researchers seeking to extract Indigenous knowledge, or of politicians and activists trying to fit the centuries-long battle for Native nationhood into a temporary political agenda.
In Indigenous nations, the protocol of introducing oneself is the most important first step in building a diplomatic relationship. All of the European American members of Witness for Nonviolence in the room could answer the first question of what motivated them to come, but few could answer the second question of who they are, because they felt too disconnected to their own cultural and spiritual heritage and their extended families. When the eagle feather came to me, I had to think deeply about these two questions, and I have been trying to think about them ever since.
I am the first on both sides of my family to be born and raised in North America. My parents both immigrated as kids from Hungary in the late 1940s and met as teenagers in Buffalo, New York (which made them settlers in Haudenosaunee territory). They never would have met in the Old Country, because my father was a Jewish city boy and my mother was a Catholic farm girl. My dad lost nearly his entire extended family in the Holocaust, except his mom and aunt. When I was a kid, he told me stories of being interned in Budapest, of his many relatives being deported to Auschwitz, of the Nazis executing his father by the Danube on New Year’s Eve 1945, and of his mother escaping the Jewish ghetto with him (by pretending to be the widow of a corpse being taken to burial). Today on the banks of the Danube, a moving memorial of bronze shoes marks the spot where my grandpa and other Jews had to remove their shoes before being shot.
From my dad’s side, I understood that genocide is not a historically distant, abstract concept, but affects families many decades later. I learned to mistrust cultural pride and difference, because of the horrors it could lead to, and to instead find and appreciate similarities among peoples that transcend religious, ethnic, or racial divides.
My late mother was from a small village in western Hungary, where her family still lives today. Many relatives emigrated to work as steelworkers in Pennsylvania, but most returned home before the war. My mom and grandma emigrated after the war to live in Buffalo’s large Hungarian community. Grandma worked as a seamstress in Buffalo, lived there until she passed in 1994, and never had to learn English. She baked Hungarian pastries to show her love—stretching the paper-thin strudel dough over her kitchen table to toss on the cherries or poppy seeds—and sent them in perfectly wrapped boxes for my birthday and Christmas. In the conformist 1950s, my mom distanced herself from her culture, and lost her accent, to become more American and “modern.” I never adequately learned the (difficult) Hungarian language. When I was seventeen, I visited my mom’s birthplace and family with her and my grandma. My first visit will always be a treasured memory, of smelling the fruit trees and hearing the wild stags and boars in the deep forest where my ancestors had lived.
From my mom’s side, I understood that cultural assimilation destroys beautiful cultures and languages, homogenizing them into a generic American melting pot. I learned to value ethnic identity, and to find and appreciate the differences among peoples, and the importance of cultures having their own space to grow and flourish.
All my life I’ve been a contradictory mixture, with these two sides of my heart and mind in constant struggle. One side wants people to unite around their universal similarities (such as economic equality or the environment), but the other side wants people to respect each other’s particular cultural differences and identities. As one side asks, “Can we all get along?,” the other side asks, “Why can’t you just leave people alone?” In academic-speak, these two ideas are called “universalism” and “particularism,” but I didn’t know that until years later. The idea of relating unity and autonomy, of reconciling the teachings from the two sides of my family, has infused almost everything I’ve done.
I was born in Chicago in 1962 and spent my grade school years in Salt Lake City. My father was a law librarian and chair of the Utah chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). When I was eleven, his was the only ACLU chapter to defend American Indian Movement (AIM) activists arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation during the siege of Wounded Knee, at the site of the infamous 1890 massacre. The stories of the outgunned Lakota holding off federal armor on the Pine Ridge Reservation morphed in my young mind with the stories of partisans in the World War II anti-fascist Underground. The Americans who turned a blind eye to repression of Native peoples reminded me of the “good Germans” who just followed orders, and I quietly vowed to be a “bad German” like those who hid out Jews or resisted the Nazis. I personally had a privileged life as a white, straight, male citizen of the United States, but my family history told me not to trust the system and to side with those who challenged the status quo.
We lived in Minneapolis all through the 1970s, at the height of AIM, which was headquartered in the Franklin Avenue neighborhood. After learning how the government “reign of terror” in South Dakota might be linked to uranium mining, I got involved in the Black Hills Alliance, which brought Lakota defending their sacred hills together with environmentalists and ranchers, to defend their water from mining. Only six years after Wounded Knee, some white ranchers began to see the universal similarities they had with the Lakota and also came to appreciate Native treaties and particular cultural differences. Their mutual love of the land united them together, and their diversity gave them the strength to chase off the mining companies. I volunteered to help in organizing the 1980 Black Hills International Survival Gathering, which drew eleven thousand people to the spread of rancher Marvin Kammerer, and my life of activism began.
When I went to college that same year, the best way I could figure out the transformation from conflict to cooperation was through combining geography (the study of change over space) with history (the study of change over time). As I majored in geography and history at the University of Wisconsin– Madison, I studied the relationship between “universalist” working-class movements and “particularist” ethnonational movements. I also visited the Philippines to look at how Filipino leftists fighting the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos and class inequalities worked together with Indigenous peoples fighting hydropower dams and other corporate development that threatened their waters and rice terraces.
I worked as a professional cartographer for fourteen years, making curricula and maps for encyclopedias, textbooks, and a state historical atlas. But all along, I learned far more from community organizing and alliance building than from either my schooling or employment. I learned the most from my partner and future wife, Debi McNutt, who had grown up on a Wisconsin dairy farm and had closer ties to the people and the land, as we worked together in all these struggles.
That’s how the story comes full circle back to that talking circle, where Debi and I and other non-Native community organizers had gathered with our friends from Lac du Flambeau. In the late 1980s, Ojibwe spearfishing outside the reservations had been recognized in federal courts, and hate groups organized mobs of white sportfishers to harass and attack the Native families at the boat landings. We were among the co-founders of the Midwest Treaty Network, which coordinated with Witness for Nonviolence to train thousands of treaty supporters to deter and monitor anti-Indian violence and harassment. As the anti-treaty groups became more openly racist, and their claims that the Ojibwe were destroying the fishery and tourism industry were discredited, they declined in the early 1990s.
Around that same time, mining companies were trying to open metallic mines in Wisconsin and viewed treaty rights as a potential legal barrier to their plans. We worked with some white sportfishing groups to stop arguing with the tribes over fish and to start joining with the tribes to protect the fish from mining pollution. For ten years we saw the growth of an amazing grassroots alliance of Native peoples, rural environmentalists, and sportfishing groups, which confirmed my previous experience in the Black Hills Alliance and took it to an even higher level. Some of the Native leaders (such as Tom Maulson and Walter Bresette) who had been the most adamant about defending treaty rights from the white sportsmen were the most adamant about urging the so-called rednecks to join them against the mining companies.
Around the same time, I went to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin–Madison to earn my PhD in geography, with a graduate minor (the highest degree available) in American Indian studies. I examined some of these questions of interethnic relations and settler colonialism—whether in Native America, East-central Europe, the Middle East, or U.S. immigrant communities. I wrote my doctoral dissertation in the midst of participating in the anti-mining alliance. After graduating from twenty-second grade, I taught for three years at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire, before being hired in 2005 at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and becoming a settler in Coast Salish territory. Olympia is near the rivers that had seen a previous fish war and near tribes (such as Nisqually) that had joined with non- Native governments and neighbors to repair and restore fish habitat.
Although I teach in Native American and World Indigenous Peoples Studies, that doesn’t mean I teach about Indigenous cultures, a responsibility that is best left to Native peoples themselves. So please don’t ask me about Ojibwe ceremonial rituals, your Cherokee great-grandmother, or the latest internal tribal faction dispute. I learn and teach mainly about Native/non-Native relations, including white racism and anti-racism toward Indigenous peoples, and about U.S.-tribal government relations and common-ground issues between reservations and their white “border towns,” such as responding to climate change and fossil fuel shipping. As a non-Native academic and activist, my responsibility has been to help remove the obstacles put up by my governments to the sovereignty of Native nations and barriers put up by my communities to Indigenous peoples who are trying to decolonize their own lands and lives.
I’m also writing mostly about the region I know best: the “northern tier” between the Pacific Northwest and the Great Lakes. I’ve lived and worked as an adult in these states, with my place identity stretched along Interstate 90/94. Most rural counties where I’ve done my activism and research usually have a white and Native population and not many other groups.
Although I teach about all parts of the country, I don’t have adequate knowledge to write about the older colonial processes in the Northeast, or the historically triangulated relationships of whites and Indians in the Southeast (with African Americans), or the Southwest (with Chicanos or Mexican Americans), or U.S. colonialism in Alaska and Hawai’i. Although I follow First Nations politics very closely, this study also doesn’t incorporate Canada, which has a vibrant array of local and national alliances—particularly since the advent of the Idle No More movement—but also deeper public awareness of and scholarship on Indigenous politics than in the United States. I’ll leave it to better-qualified others to interpret alliances in these places.
I hope this book functions as a type of guide to Native and non-Native community organizers and leaders in the beginning stages of building alliances against new mines, pipelines, or other projects, to see precedents elsewhere in the country and what strategies have worked and not worked. I also hope that the book can stimulate discussion among students, faculty, and researchers studying innovative ways to alleviate racial/ethnic conflict, create populist movements across cultural lines, and roll back the centuries of dispossession and colonization of Indigenous nations.
I hope this preface has first addressed a legitimate question: Why would a Hungarian-American secular Jewish-Catholic radical geographer pay attention to Pine Ridge, Lac du Flambeau, or Nisqually, much less write a book about them? My answer: because of who I am. Who are you?