Critique of Bear Island (Part 3)

Bear Island 1


The third section, Hole in the Day: Grafters and Warrants, begins with turbulent natural images around Leech Lake, and transitions into the equally turbulent social conditions on the reservation as a result of demeaning “treaty ties,” “federal legacies,” and “shady agents.” Then Vizenor begins to elaborate on the main character of this section, Chief Bugonaygeshig, Hole in the Day, who, the reader found out earlier, was disrespectfully called “Old Bug” by the local long knives.

Vizenor brings out alleged facts not touched by himself or Weaver in the foreword or introduction. He contends that along with the misappropriation of government funds and supplies allotted to the Indians (which were previously mentioned), Colonel Tinker and Marshal Morrison were also gaining bounties in the form of “head count court money.” And he implies the court system knowingly instituted “bogus” trials in Duluth, a hundred miles away, in order to procure the allocated funds for the greedy manipulators of the system.

Unfortunately, for the discerning reader, the additional contention in the poem appears to contradict what was presented in the foreword and introduction. We had been told that Chief Hole in the Day was angry after being left to find his own way back to the reservation a hundred miles away, and by the time he returned he was dead set against ever cooperating with the White man’s court again. Yet in the poetry section Vizenor creates the image that the chief is valiantly taking a political stand against the corruption associated with bounties the system hierarchy allegedly gains at the expense of the Indians. And Vizenor paints the picture like the entire clan is equally so inclined to revolt. When the chief is shackled and calls for aid, the foreword’s description of twenty men coming to his aid has now poetically multiplied into “twenty warriors, shrouded women, brave children, shy mongrels, and the autumn wind circled the marshal’s bounty posse.” And then, out of chronological order, Vizenor recounts the chief being stranded after the earlier court case. And he creates the impression that Chief Hole in the Day has always been apprehensive toward the White ways.

It is highly likely that corruption was occurring on the reservation. But when the reader is told one thing at the beginning of the book, and something else later in the text, the lack of consistency sparks doubt. And the same goes for the entire clan’s involvement. If the clan was so united against the corruption and willing to rise up on the word of Chief Hole in the Day (as implied in the poem), why was it only the nineteen men with warrants against them who hid out at Sugar Point? Why was the chief not present if he was gallantly leading an alleged revolt against the contended corruption? Why did the young warriors fade away? And why did the Anishinaabe not rise up in greater numbers to voice their grievances, battle alongside the nineteen, push for a decisive victory, and demand justice from a position of strength?

Strategically speaking, the young warriors, who pulled out after the successful skirmish against the troops only makes sense if it is a response for diffusing a civil disobedience situation that got out of hand. If we are now to believe they were willing to go to war over the maltreatment and corruption than the backing off of hostilities during the first encounter with a sworn enemy is the worst strategic move they could make. It shows the enemy a lack of conviction in their cause, and lessens their position at the bargaining table.

The fourth section, Bearwalkers: 5 October 1898, is a detailed accounting of the battle at Sugar Point. It is an interesting read, though the reader needs to remember that Native Americans attribute certain spiritual and animal traits to people. Vizenor shows this in certain passages regarding Chief Hole in the Day, who he seemingly has overseeing the initial search and then the battle, as follows:

by my heart

and hole in the day

alight as birds


the five soldiers

died in the garden

cold and hungry

outsmarted by birds

hole in the day

and by my heart

above the war

in the bright leaves


hole in the day

by my heart

trace native shamans

soared overhead

with the ravens

in the white pine

and mighty maples


And that’s where the section ends.

We learned earlier in the text that By My Heart was the lone survivor, long ago, in a battle with their sworn enemy the Dakotas. His name in the native tongue is similar to Hole in the Day, who they claim is only the third Indian to be given the name. And By My Heart became a shaman, as did Hole in the Day. And yet, Vizenor has them both soaring over the battle as ravens, in the common native belief; which further confirms that Hole in the Day was not physically present at the battle.

The last two sections of the book, Gatling Gun: 6 October 1898, and War Necklace: 9 October 1898, give accounts after the battle. But Vizenor foregoes his poetic attempt at turning a phrase (as seen in the earlier sections), except when utilized to verbally stab at the soldiers, Whites, and the system. And yet, a few more facts are contradictory. In the introduction Vizenore mentions eleven wounded, besides the dead. And we are now told two additional numbers. At one point he claims sixteen casualties, besides the dead, and at another point he claims a sergeant and nine others are wounded, besides the dead. Furthermore, in the beginning of the book we are given a lengthy build-up regarding the history of the Third Infantry, how it was one of the first main divisions, how it took part in the San Juan Hill battle, and various other facts in order to make it seem like the nineteen braves easily beat one of America’s best units of fighting men. Yet, now we are told the detachment at Sugar Point (excluding officers) only had one enlisted man with previous combat experience. In actuality, most of the men had only been in uniform six months or less: many of them raw recruits.

I like Vizenor but I am not overwhelmed by his writing or the apparent lack of consistency. Where I found passion and a search for truth with Native writers like Joy Harjo, I only see favoritism and an altering of facts to make the Anishinaabe spotless and the white eyes the spotted devil dogs in every aspect of the Bear Island situation. And, in my humble opinion, that is not what a writer is supposed to do. However, as a half-breed, perhaps it’s easier for me to see both sides.


[Parts 1&2 HERE]



6 thoughts on “Critique of Bear Island (Part 3)

  1. alphajt June 19, 2017 / 9:11 pm

    As I said before, a very honest and informative critique. Good post, JW.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. MC Clark June 20, 2017 / 9:42 am

    If one is going to write about a true event, one should present the facts, not a one sided narrative meant to glorify a particular group. Writers, reporters, all who seek to inform the public, should do so from an impartial stance…regretfully, that seems to be the case less and less in our polarized society. And few readers seek out facts, taking what is fed them at face value.
    Great critique, JW.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jwtatfbc June 20, 2017 / 12:53 pm

      I agree with you. Too many people base their beliefs on sound bytes instead of trying to dig for the truth.
      Thank you for the insightful and thought provoking response, Cathy.

      Liked by 1 person

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