Reviewed by Ron Malzer
“I was born in 1956 on a kitchen table in Chicago.”
This is how Ben Blue (1) began his life, and it is how he begins his book “My Name is Not Chief: The Life of an American Indian.” Ben is Ho-Chunk. He is also a university faculty member teaching in an education department. In his book he presents his life, with its many challenges and some clear triumphs, as a lesson for us. To summarize that lesson: Stereotypes have enormous power; native people have enormous obstacles to overcome as long as the dominant culture and the media perpetuate the stereotypes about them.
Ben grew up the biological son of two members of the Nebraska Winnebago tribe (2). His father left the family shortly after Ben’s birth. Ben was raised by his mother, with considerable help from a sister of Ben’s grandmother. A stepfather—a batterer– was also a part of Ben’s upbringing.
Readers quickly learn, and it’s a key reason for Ben’s writing the book, that his childhood and adulthood were not spent on rural reservations, sleeping in teepees, as the all-too-prevalent stereotypes would have it. Chicago, Los Angeles, and Wisconsin Dells are the communities in which Ben’s family lived; his childhood and adolescent years were lived in urban areas, surrounded predominantly by white people.
“There were many Trails of Tears”, Ben has said to me, when we talked over coffee. Winnebago people were “removed” many times from Wisconsin, with some continuing to live here by hiding out, and others returning after being removed. That native people and their identity have survived is a testament to the power of a culture to overcome attempts to extinguish it.
Chapters 1 through 8 of “My Name is Not Chief” provide a narrative of Ben’s life, and they are accompanied by commentary from Kent Koppelman, a retired UW-L faculty member. The disclosures about Ben’s life are a clear window more generally into the lives of native people in America, and they contain detailed descriptions of the many challenges for Ben, and as well as of some clear triumphs for him.
Significant challenges in Ben’s life include having grown up in poverty; the absence in his childhood of a biological father; a “random assault” in California that broke his jaw; two marriages that ended badly; and periods of very self-harming alcohol and drug use that are all-too-often part of the story of native lives in present-day America.
Triumphs in his life include professional ones: he worked for a brief period of time as an extra in Hollywood; he attained employment as an AODA counselor; and, most proudly, he found a pathway into academia that gave him a platform to teach the lesson that is now his life’s work: debunking the stereotypes that need to be discarded, by telling the truths that need to be told about the actual history of native people in America.
Chapter 9 has a wealth of background information and observations that help put Ben’s story into the context of the history of the Ho-Chunk Nation, and in turn, help identify some of the ways in which the Ho-Chunk experiences in the Upper Midwest were consistent with those of many tribal peoples across North America.
There is much in Chapter 9 that I find both powerful and important to reflect upon. Here are three examples:
1. “Like many other American Indians, the Ho-Chunk removal represented their version of the ‘trail of tears’ as they were forcibly moved with much loss of life from violence and disease and malnutrition.”
2. “While [Ben] was in college he had read about the Jesuits’ use of shaming in their boarding schools.” Ben then writes: “[C]hildren internalize the shame and engage in self-shaming; they do it to themselves, similar to what sociologists call internalized oppression.”
3. “Many American Indians regard the 19th century as an American holocaust, leaving far more than six million dead when it was over, and reducing the land controlled by Indians to a few reservations.”
There are two reasons you may want to read “My Name Is Not Chief”. The first is to dive deeply into the life of one native person, whose story will help push out of mind any stereotype you may have that was implanted by legends we have all heard, or media portrayals. Second, Ben’s Chapter 9 historical overview goes a long way to telling us what is almost never in the history books, but what is crucial for us as white allies to know in order to do racial justice work as respectful partners to indigenous people.
“My Name is Not Chief: The Life of an American Indian”, Ben Blue & Kent Koppelman, 2015, AuthorHouse, Bloomington (IN) can be purchased at http://www.authorhouse.com, or at amazon.com.
1 “Ben Blue” is the pseudonym used by the author of this book. At the advice of his publisher, he refrained from using his real name.
2 “Winnebago” was formerly the tribal name used both in Wisconsin and Nebraska. Because the original name was being employed by white people in a disparaging way, the Wisconsin Winnebago General Council voted in 1994 to make “Ho-Chunk Nation” the tribe’s official name in this state; the Nebraska tribe name remains unchanged.