McGrath: In honor of, and in spite of, Columbus
By David McGrath firstname.lastname@example.org October 11, 2013 7:28PM
Updated: November 14, 2013 6:21AM
HAYWARD, Wis. — In anticipation of Columbus Day, I visited the Lac Court Oreilles Ojibwa Casino in northwest Wisconsin.
It was not a prank, along the lines, say, of celebrating Labor Day by visiting Jimmy Hoffa’s grave — if they ever find it. For Columbus does deserve credit for his science, daring and navigational courage, which matched or exceeded that of explorers such as Magellan or Louis and Joliet.
Yet historians agree that he persecuted innocent Native Americans. He enslaved some and subjected others to war and eventual destruction. And Columbus opened the way for European colonizers, whose wars and infectious diseases wiped out 75 percent of the native population while exiling the rest to remote reservations.
Ever since, Indian people have been oppressed — robbed of their lands and betrayed by a U.S. government that capriciously violated their treaties. In the 1980s, the cultural conflict led to violence between Indian people and whites in Wisconsin and Minnesota, when Ojibwa bands tried to assert their rights under U.S. treaties to spear fish in ceded territory — rights ultimately upheld by the courts in 1983.
But with the passage of the Indian Gaming Act in 1988, the tables were turned for the first time in 500 years. Tribes began acquiring the money and power to extricate themselves from the depths of poverty and oppression. In 2012, 410 Indian-owned casinos nationwide took in nearly $30 billion in revenue — 45 percent of all casino income in the country, including Las Vegas.
That’s why it seemed an appropriate venue for a Columbus Day celebration was at a Native American-owned casino. The LCO Casino and Convention Center is on six acres outside Hayward, the “Muskie Capital of the World,” where hundreds of Chicago-area residents vacation. It’s not as large nor as rich as Mystic Lake in Minnesota or the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut, which have made millionaires of tribal members, but the modest LCO casino has changed the lives of its Ojibwa inhabitants.
The casino’s annual revenue, estimated at between $20 million and $50 million per year, has improved the health, education and quality of life of the 7,000 or so tribal members. The casino supports the reservation’s health clinic, its schools and a two- year college, community housing, a food pantry and elder care and is the largest employer of both native and non-natives in Sawyer County.
A walk through the casino at 3 p.m. on a Friday afternoon gave me a fair idea of its importance on the reservation. The blackjack dealers, the security guards, the tellers, the bartender, the restaurant wait staff and the maintenance workers are overwhelmingly home-town Ojibwa.
The patrons are primarily vacationers, playing 600 slot machines, about a dozen blackjack tables and a roulette wheel. There are separate rooms for bingo and Texas Hold ‘Em poker. I could not stay very long because the casino is one of the few in the Midwest where smokers rule, and both visibility and clean air are in short supply.
Mic Isham, who was elected tribal chairman in July, credited the casino with helping to rejuvenate the ancient culture.
“The United States Government spent millions of dollars and a lot of time and effort to try and wipe out our ways, our religion, our hunting-and-gathering lifestyle, but after all that we are still here!” he said.
And the most promising sign that they will continue to go forward is LCO’s unique Immersion Language School, according to David Treuer, author of “Rez Life” (Grove Press, 2012). Also made possible by casino revenue, the school doesn’t just teach young children to speak the Ojibwa language but to live Ojibwa all day long — to think in Ojibwa at recess and mealtime, in the classroom and at home.
It’s one of several native-language programs conceived in Indian country that is reseeding the culture so that the unique tribal identity is insured to endure.
And the best thing I can hope about Columbus on his special day is not that he is turning over in his grave but breathing a sigh of relief.
David McGrath, a former resident of Evergreen Park and Oak Forest, is an emeritus professor of English at the College of DuPage. He also taught Native American literature there and is author of the novel, “Siege at Ojibwa.”