Dr. Richard St. Germaine: “Our elders warned us”

by Chris Graef
News From Indian Country

Dr. Rick St. Germaine

(NFIC Historic Photo)

Rick St. Germaine grew up on the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation in a log cabin in the late 1940s. It wasn’t until 1960 that electricity and paved roads found their way into the Boulevarde/Barbertown community.

“Life was a lot better back then,” he said. “Culture and tradition are almost lost today.”

Back then, there were elders who said the prayers and spoke the language used in the Big Drum (Chideweigan) ceremony.

“They were warning us back in the 1960s, if the language disappears, we wouldn’t be Indians anymore,” he said.

The last speaker who grew up fluent with the language passed away several years ago.

“On his death bed, he called me over to his house,” said St. Germaine. “‘Nobody’s doing this,’” he said. “‘I’m going to leave this prayer for you to learn.’”

St. Germaine and at least two other Lac Courte Oreilles members are learning those Ojibwe words to carry those prayers to the next generation.

“We live in a WalMart/McDonald’s world today,” he said. “The notion of commercialism, consumerism, has overwhelmed us. Unfortunately, a lot of people have turned their backs on preserving the past.”

There was a time there in the 1950s and 1960s when few community members had jobs. Few employment opportunities existed in the area.

So growing up, there weren’t role models or job skills in that way,” he said. “Most families eeked out a living. There were fishermen or those making crafts to sell out in Hayward. Many moved to the cities, so when they came back, they brought that part of urban culture with them.”

Meeting AIM
The first time St. Germaine met Eddie Benton Banai (a co-founder of AIM) was in Hayward, Wisconsin.

“I was about 20 years old,” he said. “He was a young man with a lot of savvy. I met Eddie, Clyde Bellecourt, Dennis Banks in the summer of 1969 at Historyland in Hayward.


Historyland was created by an entrepreneur by the name of Tony Wise who built an Indian village and hired local Indians as tour guides. Today there is a motel complex on the site.

“That’s where the AIM guys came,” said St. Germaine. “I was impressed. These guys could really talk.” St. Germaine became a teacher that year.

“The summer of 1970, I journeyed to California and ended up on Alcatraz (the Indian takeover) in California,” he said. “It changed my life. Then I came back to the reservation and took a job in a tribal OEO poverty program. The first real employment opportunities the tribe had was in the ‘70s. We started a Head Start program and a newspaper.”

The new tribal chairman told Rick, “You’re a teacher. Start a school.”

“I can’t, I said, I’m only a teacher,” said St. Germaine. “He told me to go away for a couple years and get my Master’s degree.”

St. Germaine went to Arizona State University and earned his PhD in School Administration in 1975. When he returned home, he helped start the tribal school.

Elected to Tribal Council
In 1975 he was elected to the Tribal Council, and in 1977 St. Germaine became LCO’s tribal chairman, a seat he occupied several times between 1977 and 1987. He became involved in the Voigt decision that LCO litigated through the courts after the Tribble brothers of Lac Courte Oreilles were arrested in 1974 testing their treaty’s off-reservation fishing rights.

“Larry Leventhal, who defended AIM in a lot of cases, told us that ‘I think you guys have a case. But someone will have to test it,’” he said. “So the Tribble brothers (Mike and Fred) in 1974, got arrested and were convicted.”

The case was lost in the Madison Federal Court in 1978, so our Tribal Council appealed the decision to a higher court, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago. That court, in 1983 ruled in the Ojibwe’s favor.

“That began a backlash from the white community,” said St. Germaine. “Many people don’t know about the court hearings, the legal strategies, the meetings in this court process.”

There were very few people who were there, he said.

“AIM, I think, was way ahead of their time,” he said. “There weren’t tribal leaders with that kind of foresight. The founders were ex-cons, carousers, bar fighters. On a moment’s notice, some could drive in and get the media’s attention. They could think up ways to do that and inspire a lot of youth.”

But their personal lives were messed up, he said.

“Some of them were making conquests in bed and beating up Indian guys at parties,” he said. “Their personal lives put a damper on the Movement. They ran their lives on checkbooks that had a balance of zero. Bouncing checks all over the United States and burning other Indians.”

While St. Germaine was working in Arizona on his graduate degrees in 1974, many of the national AIM leaders came to the NIEA convention that he had organized, “partied, wrecked hotel rooms causing thousands of dollars in damage,” he said.

“They burned my organization, NIEA,” he said. “Bellecourt, Banks, Means. They left a trail of anger. Yet how could we be mad at them? They were doing courageous things.”

“They burned my organization, NIEA,” he said. “Bellecourt, Banks, Means. They left a trail of anger. Yet how could we be mad at them? They were doing courageous things.”

St. Germaine, an activist with an FBI file accumulated on his activities, was not a member of AIM.

“Vernon used to come to Phoenix and ask me to set up a Phoenix chapter,” he said. “He’d fly down from Denver. I don’t need to be a member of AIM, I told him.”

Because of the way they ran their lives, St. Germaine did not want to belong to the organization.

“So many indiscretions, shooting each other,” he said. “The larger world never saw that. It was kept in the Indian community.”

“There are a lot of things we have today that we wouldn’t have had without AIM,” said St. Germaine. “Yet they were guilty of doing to us what others did to Indians.”

But we weren’t afraid to take the good that they were doing, he said.

“We owe them a lot… much of what we have accomplished today is due to their early activism,” he said.

Much of St. Germaine’s time is involved in the Ojibwe Ceremonial Drum Society at Mille Lacs, Minnesota, where there are twelve active drums.

“It’s disappointing to see the high levels of crime on reservation communities,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking to see the drug and alcohol use. That, to me, is what culture is about. I worry about the future. I’m taking my family to Minnesota every weekend. To the drum ceremonies that were started there in 1870’s for all the Ojibwe tribes.”

“In order for me to find personal hope, I go there,” he said. “There’s still such a strong interest.”

He brings the two youngest of his four children, a high school sophomore and eighth grader, and his wife. The youth are also being raised in the ways of the Midewiwin Medicine Lodge Society.

“I think culture is about raising good kids who have strong values,” he said. “You hear about traditional Indians. I don’t think it’s about wearing buckskin. It’s amazing how, before television, families spent time together with their relatives, hunted together, riced together, lots of joy, joking, story telling, sharing resources.”

St. Germaine, a writer for several Native newspapers, came to Eau Claire to train teachers as well as parents in Mille Lacs Ojibwe communities, who participate in four local undergraduate courses he teaches through Bemidji State University, so that they can assume governance responsibility for new charter schools that he helped start.

He also trains Indian school principals with a school administration colleague on the Dine Reservation in Arizona.

“I have a real busy schedule, teaching at Eau Claire, traveling weekly to Mille Lacs where I’m helping start a tribal college, and continuing my school leadership training work with the Navajo,” he said.

Dr. Richard D. St. Germaine, Ojibwe, is a professor at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire where he teaches American History. He is a long term nationally known Native educator and is a former Chairman of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Ojibwe in Hayward, Wisconsin.