"On Mapping and Urban Shamans"
On that same Wisconsin Newberry journey we met a wonderful old storyteller whose encounter with mapping seems symbolic to me of twentieth-century absurdities. A Bad River tribal member whose livelihood had always involved the hunting, fishing, and gathering guaranteed by treaties, he became caught up in the Wisconsin Chippewa tribes' battle for government recognition of those rights. During his many years, he told us, as he went 'bout setting nets for fish, he frequently ran afoul of the then rules of the Department of Natural Resources...."Every time I turned around," he laughed, "I was getting arrested."
After certain landmark legal cases had been decided in favor of Native American tribes and had upheld their treaty rights, the Lake Superior Chippewa, too, decided to challenge the law. But, suddenly, neither my storyteller nor his fellow tribal members could get arrested. "I tried for two years. I couldn't get arrested!" So they began an earnest campaign to accomplish what they had tried to avoid for years: to be arrested. The fishermen went so far as to put their names on their illegal nets. The nets would be found and confiscated, but no one came to charge them. Finally an arrest was made, and a target case wound its way through the court system. The tribe won. The Voight decision upheld treaty rights.
But in the negotiations that followed, an odd sort of compromise split the waters into parcels with certain sections being tribal waters, certain public, and they were separated by imaginary lines of demarcation. And so one morning my storyteller was out on the lake fishing when he was approached by another boat manned by the game warden. Once again he found himself accused of illegal activities with the familiar cant this time transposed to a new level of ludicrousness: "You're fishing on the wrong side of that imaginary line." And his response is perhaps the finest, wisest map for our time: "Well, god dammit! I imagine it's over here!"
This may be just another fish story. Or it may be a parable for our time with lessons about mapping and power. It may say life is absurd and we shouldn't take it too seriously. It might say that if you are a Native American you will always find yourself on the wrong side of that imaginary line. It might say that it is time Indian people begin to imagine clearly their own lines, against all authority. I know this: I may be perched uneasily on some borderline made especially for Indian academics, but that story gives me a safe passage home.
From the essay "On Mapping and Urban Shamans" in
As We Are Now, Mixblood Essays on Race and Identity (1997)
Used with permission of the author.