The Fighters

David Treuer

‘People treat you differently when you lose and when you win. Obviously they treat you better when you win.’ – Mark Coleman, former UFC Heavyweight Champion

I. What I saw on 17 March 2012 at the Northern Lights Casino on Leech Lake Reservation

I saw many things. I saw Josh Maudrie fight Josh Alder while his coach yelled ‘DO YOUR JOB DO YOUR JOB!’ and he did and afterwards he said, almost in tears, ‘I did it Coach. I did it. I did my job.’ I saw Tim Bebeau fight Keegan Osborn while his coach (same coach from Brainerd) yelled ‘DO YOUR JOB! DO YOUR JOB!’ and he didn’t. I saw Tori Nelson defeat my cousin Tony Tibbetts after throwing a dozen illegal elbows, enough so Tony couldn’t breathe after the second round. I saw a lot of Indian fighters – Tony Tibbetts and Nate Seelye and Tim Bebeau and Josh Thomson and Dave Smith. I saw some of them win and some of them lose. I saw, for the first time, Indians beating up white people in front of a sold-out crowd and I heard the crowd roar. I saw a 47-year-old fighter from the reservation town of Ball Club whose gym was called the Den of Raging Mayhem beat my unbeatable cousin Nate Seelye. (Another fighter was introduced as fighting for ‘Team Crazy’.) I was told to give a big round of applause to the King of the Cage Ring Girl and Maxim ‘Hometown Hottie’ Shannon Ihrke from Walker, Minnesota, and I did. I saw fighters with nicknames like ‘Timberwolf’ and ‘High Definition’. I saw a sold-out crowd in our reservation casino, and while my nephew Caleb tuned out the fights and tuned in Skrillex on his iPod while my mother checked her watch to see if she was missing Law & Order, I saw two, maybe three, ex-girlfriends, and my cousins Josh, Jason, Delbert, Tammie and Amber, and my uncles Jerry, Davey and Lanny. I saw a sea of baseball caps and braids and Indians and whites. I saw the good people of Leech Lake and Walker get up and cheer and I with them as we watched the fighters – many of them unprepared but willing, all of them brave – step into the cage and fight.

As I watched the fighters and watched the crowd it was clear we couldn’t be further from the Ultimate Fighting Championship – UFC – the premier mixed martial arts league. There were no big sponsors, no scouts, no pre-publicity. We were in the middle of a reservation in northern Minnesota and everyone had a day job, or needed one. Instead of the glamour of the UFC we had home-town boys (and girls) who brought out the pleasure of speculation as much as that of spectacle: How would I do in there? Could I do it? Could you? It was easy to feel that little if anything separated us from those in the cage except the willingness to be there. This was like the wrestling matches of old where the promoters mixed local talent with professionals and everyone had a role to play: the up-and-comer, the dandy, the rascal, the working man, the prodigy, the returning hero, the snake, the All-American. There were all the body types, too: the farm boy, the athlete, the wrestler, fat, thin, used up, tattooed with what can only be called bad penmanship. Roland Barthes might as well have been writing about mixed martial arts on the Leech Lake Reservation when he said that many might think wrestling ‘an ignoble sport. Wrestling is not a sport, it is a spectacle, and it is no more ignoble to attend a wrestled performance of Suffering than a performance of the sorrows of Arnolphe or Andromaque’. On the reservation there are plenty of reasons why a man might step into the cage, and plenty of reasons why the fights are so electrifying: those reasons derive from our history and from our suffering. Contrary to what Barthes suggests, motives and consequences are not abolished. They are the lifeblood of the fight. But something, surely, other than the chain link, must separate the spectators from the combatants. Something, too, must separate the reservation from everything around it, other than just our blood.

Oh, I saw a lot in Walker, Minnesota, at the Northern Lights Casino in March 2012. What I didn’t see was what I had come there to witness: the Main Event. My cousin Sam Cleveland was supposed to fight his last professional fight. But he didn’t.

II. What happened to Sam?

What didn’t? Sam was thirty-eight, on the far side of fighting age but not over it yet, not by a long shot. ‘I still got a lot of power, still got a six-pack – how many other 38-year-olds around here can you say that about?’ he said when I talked to him a month before the fight. He was scheduled to fight the Main Event in the King of the Cage ‘Winter Warriors Showdown’ and had gone from 175 pounds to 161 in three weeks of dieting and running. His body looked hard and lean. His face showed the strain – that and not a few scars from years of fighting. He might have had the body of a thirty-year-old, but he had the face of a fighter who has taken his share of abuse.

Sammy is my first cousin. Like me he grew up at Leech Lake, but, as he put it, much more ‘in the mix’. Like me, he had suffered a particular kind of racism as a red-haired, fair-skinned Indian on the rez. Which is to say no one ever let him forget what he was or what he wasn’t. But he weathered it well and was a favourite fighter around the reservation, and had been a star wrestler in school. After graduating from Cass Lake High in 1992 he joined the army and became part of the elite Army Scouts, 25th Infantry Division, Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. He loved it. But home was the Leech Lake Reservation and the network of family and friends and the land and landscape of northern Minnesota, where the boreal forest meets the oak savannah and where whites and Indians have been meeting and mixing since the early seventeenth century to fight, to trade, to bargain, to fuck and to marry.

Sam was, by any standard, a success. In 2002, Indians made up 1 per cent of Minnesota’s population, and 7 per cent of the prison population. Indian men were 30 per cent more likely to go to jail than whites. The unemployment rate at Leech Lake Reservation was 46 per cent. Since 2008 it has risen to 60 per cent. The median household income is now less than 410,000 a year. Sam had avoided becoming one of those sour statistics that are rolled out to account for the perceived misery of reservation life. He had graduated. He had avoided jail. He had succeeded in getting a good, rewarding job. But he was homesick.

Then his sister Nessa died. Her death – she was hit by an RV after she drove across two yards and onto the highway – was the first death of our generation among our sprawling clan of siblings and cousins. ‘Me and Nessa weren’t on the best of terms,’ Sam says. ‘The weird point is that she’d stole my girlfriend from me, that’s why I was so mad. I mean, who does that?’ Vanessa did. She always had: she was one of just three female cousins in a group of about twenty or thirty males, and grew up scrappy and lippy. She was thin and pretty, and when she laughed she threw her chin up really high, almost like she was barking. She learned early on to tear up the scenery. She’d lived wild, like she was indestructible. But she wasn’t.

When she died the family, almost visibly, deflated. Suddenly all that separated Sam from everyone else (graduation, a job, a life) disappeared. Like many Indians, he had no college safety net, or working parents, or a scrim of wealth or entitlement, or even the illusion that what he did, his work, or effort, counted for something, mattered in some way. He felt, as more and more Americans do, totally powerless. He didn’t re-enlist and, instead, came back to Leech Lake Reservation. He was angry; he drank and he fought. I remember seeing Sam around town those years. It seemed like every time I ran into him he had one less tooth, a new cast on his hand, a new scar. Back when we were kids he had a round, open, cheerful face, always laughing. He was the youngest of our set. Once in a while I’d pull him around by his hair. My brother and I saved him from drowning once, when he rode his Big Wheel into a pit filled with water from a broken water main. He was good-natured about the teasing, and good-natured about being saved. He was a brave kid – willing to do whatever we asked because we asked. When I close my eyes and hold him in my mind it is his boy’s face that comes to me: smiling, dirt-smudged, eager.

But shortly after his return to the rez that boy’s face, the face I’d known as well as my own growing up, disappeared and in its place appeared the hard face of a man who liked to fight, who liked hurting people. And he was a good street fighter. ‘There were a few guys who’d work me over when I tangled with them, but not many. I won most of those fights. I don’t know if that got me into the cage or not. But I got a taste for fighting.’

III. A taste for blood

Our tribe, the Ojibwe, are not known for being warlike. This is due to time and the nature of our victims: mostly we killed other Indians – Dakota, Sac and Fox, Cree. And our battles took place before the Plains Wars between the United States and tribes like the Cheyenne, Dakota, Lakota and Blackfeet. Everyone imagines that frontier violence was defined by Cowboys vs Indians. In reality, there were a lot of Indians vs Indians battles, long before the Plains Wars. The Ojibwe were fierce warriors, most unkind to our enemies. Until the late seventeenth century we didn’t engage in much warfare beyond small skirmishes. Loose bands, based on marriage and clan, moved seasonally between beds of wild rice, fishing grounds and sugar bush. Hunger was the main enemy. As the demand for furs increased in the east and overseas, however, the Ojibwe around the Great Lakes acted as middlemen, securing furs from the west and selling them to the east in exchange for guns and ammunition and cloth. Our land base grew by a factor of twenty, infant mortality went down, standards of living went up and the small Ojibwe bands joined together into a vast, complicated, calculating tribe that controlled a major part of the fur trade.

The tribe was born of trade and came of age in blood, not on horseback on the plains, but on foot and by canoe in the deep woods and scattered watersheds of present-day Wisconsin and Minnesota. In an effort to expand our territory the Ojibwe began battling the Dakota. Life was war, and anyone who belonged to an enemy band was a legitimate target: men, women and children were killed, and scalped. Once, in order to show their disdain for Ojibwe warriors, a victorious party of Dakota refused to scalp the Ojibwe corpses. The Ojibwe, upon finding their dead untouched, flew into a rage. During one attack at Lake Mille Lacs in the seventeenth century the Ojibwe descended on a Dakota village and threw bags of gunpowder down the smoke holes of the enemy’s lodges. The Dakota, burned and still burning, fled, only to be shot down. Hundreds died. As late as 2 April 1850, a party of Dakota from Red Wing, belonging to Little Crow’s camp, attacked and killed some Ojibwe at a sugar camp near the St Croix River north-east of Stillwater, Minnesota. They killed and scalped fourteen Ojibwe and took a nine-year-old boy prisoner. The next day they paraded the bloody scalps and their young captive through the village of Stillwater to the horror of the white inhabitants. The Ojibwe chief, Bagonegiizhig (Hole-in-the-Day), was so incensed that in May 1850 he killed and scalped a Dakota man in front of his entire family in broad daylight on a Saint Paul street, and escaped with his entourage by canoe.

Bagonegiizhig was not the only Ojibwe war chief famous for his daring. Curly Head, Loon’s Foot, Bad Boy, Flat Mouth, White Cloud – they were all fighters. But perhaps the most impressive Ojibwe warrior was Waabojiig, the White Fisher. As near as anyone can figure he was born in 1747, and showed courage and a warrior’s sensibilities at a young age. During a battle with the Dakota, his father, Mangizid, made peace when he saw that among his enemies was his half-brother, the Dakota chief Wabasha. They ceased firing, and Mangizid invited his brother into his lodge. Waabojiig, who had been taught that the Dakota were the enemy, hid behind the door flap and when Wabasha stooped to enter, he hit him with all his might over the head with a war club. Wabasha rubbed his head and looked down at Waabojiig. ‘My nephew!’ he said. ‘You’re a brave one and I’m sure you’ll go on to kill many of the enemy some day.’ Waabojiig was eight years old at the time.

His uncle was right. By the time Waabojiig was in his early twenties he was already a war chief. ‘In person,’ wrote Ojibwe historian William Warren, ‘Waabojiig was tall, being six feet six inches, erect in carriage and of slender make. He possessed a commanding countenance, united in ease and dignity of manners. He was a ready and fluent speaker . . .’ One summer’s campaign down the St Croix Valley against the Dakota he killed seventy-three of the enemy, most of them with his war club. The White Fisher is Sam’s great-great-great-grand-uncle. Fighting, clearly, is in his blood.

But what to do when the fighting is over? What to do after open hostilities between the US government and tribes ended? What to do after the reservation period began and the martial spirit that had ensured our survival became an accessory to everyday life rather than its guarantor? Many twentieth-century Indians joined the US military. Indians had already served (sometimes with and sometimes against the US) in every major conflict since the Revolutionary War. In the twentieth century Indians signed up for and fought in every major overseas conflict, and served with distinction. Many Ojibwe, raised on the stories of their fathers and grandfathers, walked across the border to Canada and enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in order to see combat in World War I. They enlisted enthusiastically in the lead-up to World War II. To this day, a greater percentage of Indians have served in the military than any other group in America. There are certainly socio-economic reasons for this: Indians are largely frozen out of the workforce. For as much as America might believe in assimilation (and that was certainly federal Indian policy for quite some time), assimilation begins from the bottom: you never really ‘belong’ to the country except as a labourer. The military was one of very few careers open to Indians in the first half of the twentieth century. There are also tribal, social and spiritual values that lead men (and women) into the military – certain ceremonial positions can only be held by veterans who have ‘touched blood’, which is a way to say that they have killed an enemy with their hands. Other cultural or social values – such as beauty, or tranquillity – are different on the rez. To be handsome, in the conventional sense, is not nearly as compelling as being tough. Having a tolerance for a particular kind of chaos is also a virtue. The Ojibwe motto might be: ‘You can’t win if you don’t fight.’

I wonder, too: maybe we have lived lives of struggle and so have become good at violence. Violence is often thought of as the absence of culture, or its opposite: something that happens when societies fall apart. But perhaps violence is like everything else – something we learn, something we practise and something we can become good at. It is, for some of my tribe, their only marketable skill. But wars end. Other social values inflect reservation life now – the need for a steady income, and the incompatibility of constant aggression and chaos with wage labour. So what’s an Indian man to do? What was Sam to do after his sister’s death and the end of his four years in the army?

IV. Sam Cleveland’s dark days

What Sam did was, by his own admission, two things – fight for no purpose, and commit crime. He was living in our ancestral village of Bena at the time. Leech Lake Reservation is a big reservation, about forty by forty miles. Within the reservation boundaries there are towns and villages tucked here and there among the swamps, rivers, lakes and pine trees. Some of the communities are almost exclusively Indian, like Inger and Ball Club, and some are almost all white. And some, like Bena, are decidedly mixed. Bena used to be a going concern – it was the end of the line during logging days so all sorts of timber outfits would get the train as far as Bena and then head north to their logging camps. After most of the virgin-white pine and pulp was cut down in northern Minnesota the town managed to stay alive through the growing tourist trade. As roads got better, boats sturdier and Americans wealthier, people travelled farther and farther north in search of good fishing. Situated on the southern shore of Lake Winnibigoshish, Bena became a fishing destination, sometimes swelling to a population in the high hundreds during the summer. But the lake got overfished, and Bena got smaller and smaller. Today it has one gas station, a bar and a post office. The hotels, hardware stores, restaurants, the school – all of it is gone. What has remained are a few big families descended from the mix of Ojibwe Indians and the Scots, English and Irish who came to cut trees and later to take people fishing on the beautiful waters of Lake Winnie. The Seelyes and Matthewses and Lyonses and Tibbettses and Dunhams and Michauds and Dormans and Drews. The population of Bena is around 140.

As much as Sam was drawn back to the reservation and to Bena out of loneliness and affection and despite the seemingly unbreakable bonds the village exerts on those of us whose families are from there, it can be a place that encourages destruction and dysfunction. Sam fought at bars. He fought at house parties. He fought in parking lots. He fought up and down the streets of Bena until he was too hurt and exhausted to continue.

He also drank a lot. His mother, my aunt Barb, who – like Sam – had done well (stable marriage, fairly good employment, comfortable homes), began to slide after Vanessa’s death. Sober for years, she started drinking and using again. A host of health problems ensued. You can’t use heroin, crack, scrips, pot, booze and cigarettes alternately and all together for very long before your body (and then your mind) quits on you. When I was a kid Barb was one of those aunties who always had a hug for you, who always laughed, who was always good for a piece of frybread at the powwow. She was one of the few who could make my mother laugh hard. But now the drugs used her. They ate away at her body. They ate away at her mind. Shortly before her death I walked past her at the Cass Lake powwow and didn’t recognize her until she called my name and stood in front of me. There was nothing Sam could do about his sister or his mother except fight and that’s what he did. Fighting and partying led to drugs and crime and a combination of the two. This life went on for years. It was a wonder he didn’t die. But Sam had always had stamina. From 1996 till 2002 his life was a downward spiral, and it kept going down and down until he was sent to prison.

There was a rival group, one can’t really call them a gang, who were dealing drugs around Bemidji. Skinheads. ‘We were involved in a little drug ring, I guess you could say. These skinheads ripped off the guys I was with. And we went over there to that trailer park across from the mall in Bemidji, Pine Ridge trailer park, and I kicked down the door.’ The subsequent violence led to eight months in prison. I wasn’t sure what would happen to him after that. I didn’t imagine it would be good.

But he did have people rooting for him. They began pulling him out of the rut he’d fallen into. ‘Keevin Losh used to come visit me when I was in prison at Lino Lakes. He was a buddy of mine from high school. A fellow wrestler. He said to me, “Hey, I got you a job when you get out. I got you into the ironworkers’ union.” I didn’t go back to Bena.’ He was working hard, living away from the reservation and around that time, in 2002, he heard about MMA, mixed martial arts, on the radio.

V. Entering the cage

‘I was sitting around one night listening to the radio,’ says Sam, ‘and this advertisement came on for “First Blood Ultimate Wrestling at the Lion’s Den in Fridley”. The ad said “local fighters wanted” and there was a number to call. This was in the beginning of the week. I went down there to talk to the guy – Brad Kohler, he became my promoter – on Thursday and I fought my first fight on Saturday. I didn’t know anything. I just showed up with a nut cup and a mouth guard. I was about 165 pounds and my opponent was 195. I was scared. I didn’t know what to expect. They walk you down this long hallway. You don’t know what’s at the other end of it. I didn’t know what to expect at all. The Lion’s Den was just this little underground place and they threw a cage up in the middle of it and packed a few hundred people in there and then put two guys in the cage and let ’em go. Didn’t even matter if they were matched up good or even the same size or anything. A lot of mismatches that day. It was pretty wild. This was February 2002.’

From the start, MMA was about two things: spectacle and money. It began as a promotional stunt to advertise Brazilian ju-jitsu. Advertainment more than true athleticism. Although these tough-man challenges had been staged all over the world, MMA came to the US in 1993 as the Ultimate Fighting Championship held in Denver, Colorado, at the McNichols Sports Arena. There was one round with no time limits, arranged tournament style – single elimination rounds, leading up to a final. The logic of the spectacle was in part that of mismatching: could a boxer beat a wrestler, a wrestler a kickboxer? What about kung fu and tae kwon do? What is ju-jitsu and what is Brazilian ju-jitsu? How would a 170-pound street fighter fare against a 400-pound sumo wrestler? It advertised itself as having one rule: There are no rules! This was almost true. Bare-fisted, the fighters were allowed to punch, kick, elbow, knee, pull hair, fishhook (put a finger in the corner of your opponent’s mouth and pull), groin strike, headbutt and kick a guy on the ground. It was bloody and it was destructive and it was riveting.

Senator John McCain didn’t think so, and after UFC 1 he lobbied lawmakers to ban it. Thirty-six states did. A lot of the fighters went overseas and the UFC almost folded. But it came back when it was purchased by a pair of casino owners and an MMA manager named Dana White for the sum of 42 million. Really the only thing they were buying was the name – it had no assets and no contracts, nothing at all except for those three letters and a large underground following. They instituted a few rules – no groin hits, headbutting, biting, hair pulling and no knees or kicks to the head when your opponent is on the ground. They instituted rounds, usually five-minute rounds, and all matches were ‘singles matches’. Fighters would only fight once a day and they’d know months in advance who the other guy was and could train specifically for a fight against a person who had known strengths and weaknesses. No longer would fighters show up in plain shorts or in a gi without even so much as a mouth guard. No longer would teeth fly out of people’s mouths to land under the announcers’ table. No longer would people’s shorts and T-shirts be the kind you could buy at Shopko or Play It Again Sports.

The fighters (and the fights) began to look more professional. Sponsors got into the game. By early 2002 the UFC was on its way to becoming the dominant circuit in the fastest-growing sport in the world. Other leagues weren’t so legit. Pride, K-1, Strikeforce, International Fight League, EliteXC, Bellator Fighting Championships, and smaller leagues such as World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC), Art of ?War, Adrenaline MMA, Ohio Xtreme Fighting, Fight, EFC, Combate Extremo, King of the Cage, Icon, Cyper, US-MMA and Gladiator Challenge. These smaller outfits were as keen to bring in spectators, to sell tickets, and for the promoters and arrangers to develop talent, as the UFC had been – even to the detriment of the fighters themselves.

One way promoters and agents have of developing talent is to sacrifice new blood to the old, giving their established guy a better record and more experience with little risk. The new fighters sometimes don’t fall under the bus as much as they are placed there. This, at first, is what happened to Sam. He lost the first fight that Saturday in February 2002. He lost his second fight, too. But he won the third, against an experienced opponent. He knew then that he could be an MMA fighter.

Sam quit his job and moved down to Moline, Illinois, where his father Jerry was living. Pat Miletech, a former UFC champion, had opened an MMA gym close by in Bettendorf, on the Iowa side of the Mississippi. Sam trained there for two months and learned the basics alongside fighters such as Matt Hughes, Jens Pulver and Tim Sylvia. He didn’t feel like an outsider. He knew he could hang with the other guys, not a few of whom were or would be world champions. Everything was looking up until Sam’s mother, Barb, died after a suicide attempt in the summer of 2005.

VI. Sammy’s fight

On a summer night in 2005 Barb locked herself in her house, called her brothers and said she was going to kill herself. The police arrived and together with Barb’s brothers, my uncles, they broke down the door when they heard a shot fired. Barb had grazed her ribs with a single shot from a .30-.30 deer rifle. The wound wasn’t life-threatening. Nor, unbelievably, did she have drugs in her system. It looked as though she would survive but the ambulance took her to the Indian Health Service clinic as per policy – all ambulance calls on the reservation, no matter how dire, are sent to the clinic first, whether a doctor is there or not, rather than to the large regional hospital fourteen miles down the road in Bemidji. This is policy only because it saves the government money. When Barb was admitted to the clinic the physician’s assistant (there was no MD present) misread her vitals and the charts and intubated her. This would have been fine, except he accidentally shoved the breathing tube into her stomach, which compressed her lungs, and when her lungs began to collapse he pumped more air into her stomach. She died on the table while my mother and brother waited for news in the waiting room.

We all wondered what would happen to Sam. But he stayed in control and kept his job, and didn’t drift back into the violence that had marked his life for most of his twenties. ‘I had a life and a family and I was fighting. I left all my anger in the cage.’ Maybe he does leave it all there. But if he does, he brings something to the cage as well. ‘It feels good to win,’ he says. ‘It feels good to win at something you’ve worked hard at, to win at something you want real bad.’ More than anything, that’s what Sam and a lot of the other Indian fighters bring to fighting in the cage: the desire to be good at something, and to have a chance to win on the basis of talent and hard work. It may sound like a small thing. To me it sounds like the very idea – meritocracy – that America is built on. But it is a huge thing for an Indian man to want, a huge and noble thing to dare to hope that hard work and talent will actually win the day.

In the end, Sam didn’t get to fight on 17 March 2012. His opponent failed to make weight at 160 and wanted to enter the ring at 175 pounds. Sam said no. He’d been mismatched early in his career when he didn’t know better. He wasn’t going to sacrifice himself now – not even for us, his family, his friends, his reservation. Not in that way at least. He had too much respect for himself to put himself at risk. And I was proud of him. I was proud of the man he’d become; the one who had thought hard enough and worked hard enough and cared about himself enough to make a tough decision. I had wanted to see him fight. But I was proud of him.

Earlier, in December, I had gotten to see him fight – a fight organized by the King of the Cage and held at Northern Lights Casino. I had the same dizzy feeling at that fight as I did later in March – the same mix of fighters, some of whom were amazing, and some you couldn’t help worry about as you would worry about a younger brother or defenceless child. The Cage Girls were there. The coaches and corner men. Some were professional, others looked like they were doing deals when they were talking to their fighters. Sam had won against a much larger opponent in the first two minutes of the first round in his trademark style – he took him down, mounted him and punched his opponent in the face until he gave up. He had seemed unstoppable. God how he could hit. How could a man like him lose? How could he ever lose?

Watching him then I simply couldn’t imagine him doing anything other than winning. I didn’t have the words for it: what it felt like to watch my cousin, whom I love and whose worries are our worries and whose pain is our pain, manage to be so good at something, to triumph so completely. More than a painful life, more than a member of a culture that has perfected living through violence, making it a virtue because it is a necessity, more than a meanness or a willingness to sacrifice oneself, what I felt, what I saw,were Indian men and boys doing precisely what we’ve always been taught not to do. I was seeing them plainly, desperately, expertly, want to be applauded for their subversive talents and hard work. This was as true for those who lost as much as for those who won. And – beaming, cheering, clapping, wholly caught up in the victory of desire itself – I have never been more proud. That old feeling familiar to so many Indians – that we can’t change anything, can’t change Columbus or Custer, smallpox or massacres, the Gatling gun or the legislative act, the loss of our loved ones or the birth of new troubles, the feeling that we can’t change a thing about the shape and texture of our lives fell away completely. Watching the fighters it occurred to me: we might actually win.

I think the same could be said for Sam: he might not have been able to change his sister’s fate or his mother’s or even, for a while, his own. But when he stepped into the cage he was doing battle with a disease. The disease was the feeling of powerlessness that takes hold of even the most powerful Indian men. For three rounds of five minutes you get to prove that you can determine the outcome of a finite struggle. Win or lose. Hit or be hit. He could control that. Sam dominated his opponent under the bright, artificial lights of the Northern Lights Casino as Waabojiig and all the other chiefs and warriors dominated their enemies before him.


Photograph © Shannon Northbird, Tim Bebeau (top) fights Keegan Osborn (bottom), Northern Lights Casino, Walker, Minnesota, March 2012

River So Close
A Confession