Country Scribe : Eric Bergeson's Weblog

March 26, 2005

Ah, bliss!

I devoted the entire day to staining knotty pine boards in my house. Man, did I enjoy it. I brought out my Bose Wave Machine, and it filled the house. I listed to piano concertos by Tchiakovsky (sp?), Schumann and Mozart, some organ music, and then finally pop stuff--it all sounded great, and it made me work hard.

The only rough spot came when the hot water boiler pipes started dripping madly--so much that I had to empty the pail the plumber left to catch the drips once per hour. Dad came out and figured out a little system to catch the dripping so it wouldn't mush up the drywall. Just when I got the drip-catch system in place, the dripping, which had been at a rate of about three drips per second, quit almost entirely. C'est la vie.

I ate my first meal in my new house--a couple of quesidillas from Schwan, microwaved at the nursery, hauled out in my pickup, and finished off on the crow's nest, washed down with a Coke.

Tomorrow, an Easter gathering at Aunt Ede and Uncle Orville's. No need for Schwan's there, you can bet on that.

A morose week

If you read or watch the news, which I do more than I care to admit (almost all of it on the internet), it has basically been a week focused on death. Red Lake, Terri Schiavo, Pope John Paul II, Prince Rainier--the dead and the dying.

The Shiavo case is compelling. Nobody wants to live like that, but pulling the feeding tube and allowing a person to starve who still has a flicker of life in their eyes is pretty brutal. I am all for the right of terminally ill people in horrific pain to decide to end their own life. In this case, there isn't any evidence that this is Shiavo's decision, so the only right thing to do is to keep feeding her.

However, Congress and President Bush made a mistake by stepping in. The polls are showing it, too--the people want these end-of-life decisions left to the families and the doctors--it should be a private matter, not a matter of debate in Congress.

Republicans in Congress circulated a memo saying this was a "great political issue" before their vote; they were badly mistaken. President Bush, meanwhile, was, I believe, motivated by his honest evangelical beliefs and truly doesn't care about the polls.

People should remember that Bush's primary ideology is not political, it is evangelical. Oh, he considers politics, but I think after 9/11 he started listening to his evangelical side more fervently. He isn't concerned with constitutional subtleties. I suspect he was willing to do whatever it took to keep Shiavo's feeding tube in, constitution be damned.

A true conservative would value the process that has been set up--family, the doctors, the courts, and so on, and would be very wary of government intervention from the highest level. A true conservative wouldn't try to circumvent the legal system for a single case.

But I would argue that Bush is not much of a conservative. The federal government has exploded in size under his administration. The deficit is gargantuan. You'd think FDR was in charge. Even the Iraq war is motivated more by Wilsonian ideals (actively spreading democracy through military force) than by Reagan's methods (nudge democracy along through moral suasion and economic power).

No, George W. Bush is our first authentic "conservative" evangelical president, and most evangelicals go into a rage when procedure, courts, the constitution, established tradition, whatever, gets in the way of what they see as obviously right and good. They tend to believe in quick and complete solutions to difficult and thorny problems. Just as an evangelical conversion, in their belief system, is seen as a sudden and complete solution to personal problems such as drinking, drug use, promiscuity or general dissipation, so too their public policies tend to focus on the one big fix. In both cases, it sometimes works--at least enough to give them hope for the next big fix.

But in no case is the big fix a conservative solution. A big fix, by definition, is a radical move. Bush's Social Security plan is a radical big fix. Roosevelt, oddly, constructed Social Security as a conservative plan. It does not redistribute wealth. You get back what you put in. You don't gain a lot, you won't lose a lot. Social Security payments are about as low-return, but as safe (at least as Roosevelt constructed it) as T-bills.

Roosevelt said as much. His advisors wanted to make Social Security a method of redistributing the wealth, but he refused. They key to making Social Security last, he said, was to make it impossible for subsquent politicians to tamper with the system.

In this case, at least, Roosevelt was more the conservative than George W. Bush.

March 25, 2005

Stone Fern

About four years ago, employee Dot had the idea of starting a gift shop at the nursery. I said fine, but that I wanted some control over what sort of things we sold. She agreed, and she and I met in Minneapolis at the wholesale gift mart to spend a day.

Well, I exercised some control, but mainly let Dot get what she thought would sell. However, I couldn't resist picking up some items that I just thought were the cat's meow.

One of those items was a stone box with a fern imprinted like a fossil on the side. The box is a little smaller than a shoe box and very heavy. If you weren't being nice you might think it was a burial vault for a rat.

However, I thought it was tasteful and irresistible and assumed it would sell right away.

Well, four years later it is still on the shelf, as are most of the other items I picked out that day.

I did enjoy seeing the sunshine hit the nicely colored if completely artificial stone this morning. But now Dot has complete and total control over what she stocks in the gift shop.


Here are some baby coleus snuggling like kittens in the seed tray. They are being incubated under 24-hour high pressure sodium lights.

The death penalty

One commentator has used the Red Lake tragedy to lament that had the killer lived, he would not have been eligible for the death penalty because of a recent Supreme Court ruling preventing the application of the death penalty to minors.

Let's say Jeff Weise had survived his own rampage. It is already coming out that he was abused and neglected by his mother, who was later made a vegetable by an alcohol fueled car wreck; lost his father to suicide at age 8, lost many other relatives to death over the next few years, was often depressed and suicidal, gave dozens of signals that he might do something violent and crazy--and people think something would be gained by killing him off?

I may be an inveterate optimist, but I think a minor who commits a hideous crime might still be redeemed--and still, in some form or another, might be given a chance to turn his remaining years into something positive. Weise might have spent the rest of his life behind bars--but he wouldn't have to be set free to do some good. He was an eloquent writer. Could he have helped us understand his past by writing from behind bars?

Whether or not Weise could ever be a force for good, the act of the state killing a kid like this--no matter how henious his crime--strikes me as piling one barbarism on top of another.

In our religion-soaked public debate, it seems that the Old Testament is struggling against the New. Retribution is the language of the Old Testament. Radical redemption is the gospel of the New. There's a lot of people in this country claiming the exclusive right to be called New Testament Christians whose attitude and behavior is Old Testament through and through.

March 24, 2005

Red Lake shooting, cont.

The Washington Post has an excellent article about the Red Lake shooter. Wow. Talk about a tragedy waiting to happen.

Some are saying that the Red Lake shooting is getting less attention than other shootings, namely Columbine, and they are attributing this to 1) the race of the victims and the shooter 2) the isolation of Red Lake and 3) the lack of pictures, video, etc. All are possible. I would say, however, that the lack of hype, as long as it is accompanied by good reporting by prominent papers like the Washington Post might not be such a bad thing.

Some contradictions and interesting facts are coming out. One article I have found states that the shooter, Jeffry Weise, had a good relationship with the grandfather he shot. Another says they didn't get along.

Today, it came out that he was on 60 milligrams of Prozac per day. That is a lot of Prozac. Standard dose is 20 milligrams. Some people are on 10 milligrams. I know this is going to bring out a lot of anti-anti-depressant talk. It is possible that it should, for Prozac has shown to make teens more volatile before.

Some of Weise's treatment was undertaken in Thief River Falls. It is possible that some scrutiny is going to be aimed at the mental health professionals there. After all, you have the most persistent and talented reporters in the country up here digging, and they'll grab onto any way of making this a national controversy--I think the Prozac angle might be a big one in the next few days.

Also in the news, Indian leaders are critical of Bush's silence on the shooting, especially since he flew home to Washington to sign some sort of legislation to get a feeding tube put back into that poor woman from Florida. You'd think he could have issued a statement in the past three days of some sort.

Well, this is true. However, I am not a big fan of presidents jumping into every national news item. It isn't their job. It isn't Bush's job to fly home to sign legislation on the Shiavo issue, and it isn't his job to comfort everybody who suffers loss from tragedy.


The past couple of days presented a typical dilemma: The carpenters needed some boards stained out at the house. Everybody up at the nursery is too busy right now to be staining boards, so I was the logical one to do it.

On the face of it, I looked forward to staining the boards--to focusing on one thing for an entire day and being away from the rest of the bustle. As I thought about it, I knew what would happen. The phone would ring up at the nursery. It would be for me, or it would be somebody with questions galore. The call would distract the others from their jobs.

Then a salesman would arrive who would want to talk to me and nobody else. They would have to call me out at the house. I would have to put away the brushes, shut the can of stain, drive up to the nursery, deal with the person, a probably be derailed for well over an hour before going back out to the house, opening up the cans, getting started on staining again. There was just no way it was going to work.

So, I informed the carpenters that the boards would have to wait until the high school boys could come do them--which they did today. They got the first coat on in a hurry. During the time they were working, I was up at the nursery. I wasn't that busy--but I had one visitor, one salesman, and a few phone calls.

One of the toughest parts of being a manager is realizing that I simply cannot become immersed in pleasurable, quiet tasks during the work day. It is more efficient for me to sit at my desk and putz around waiting for the next phone call and solving the problem that phone call presents on the spot than it is for me to go out back and work and have somebody run out to find me and lose 15 minutes of work in the process.

Funny. When I used to work by the hour, I used to think that the ultimate life would be to sit at a desk and wait for the phone to ring. I didn't realize how good I had it out on the back 40 cultivating, daydreaming, singing, giving speeches. For hours on end without interruption.

I didn't just wait for the phone to ring today; I cleaned out my correspondence drawer--where I store letters and clippings and things I can't really throw but don't know where to file. Two years worth of Christmas cards in their tell me that it has been a couple of years since the drawer was emptied. In the mess were about 20 bank statements, so I guess that says something about how long it has been since I had cleaned.


Kathy Stinar, who along with her husband Leonard ran Stinar's Nursery in Bagley for many years, called tonight to tell some stories about Alf Benson, the topic of this week's column.

It turns out that although Alf did his business in Valley City, he grew up in Grygla, MN. His youth was quite impoverished. Kathy said he would tell her kids about how his lunch at school consisted of boiled potatoes and buttermilk. His father bought Army pants for his children. If they were too large, they folded them over with safety pins.

Kathy remembered his huge hands--she described him as a gentle giant of a man--which made me feel good because those were the words I had used in the column.

I wrote the column using the tiniest threads of memory. The impressions I had of Alf were those of a child, and they could have been wrong. I called my Uncle Orv, who knew Alf, to check out some of my thoughts to make sure I didn't get it all wrong, and I got the impression from him that my childhood notions were similar to how Orv remembered Alf.

I went ahead with the article, but really--some of it was based upon firsthand evidence that was pretty slim. Yet, it seemed to have clicked with people. Which points out a truth about writing: Sometimes the less you know about your topic, the better.

If you know too much about your topic, you get confused. You start getting lost in the person's subtleties. You lose the big outline. The less you know about a person before you describe that person, the more likely people are going to say after reading your description, "That's just how he was!"

To a point, of course. You have to at least have an impression. But usually, an impression is about all you should have.

I think that is why it is so impossible for me to write about my Grandpa. I knew him as well as anybody, but that doesn't mean I understood him--at all. Every time I sit down to write about him, I am overwhelmed by the contradictions and complexities. It is an easy project to put off.

March 23, 2005

New telescope makes big discovery

The amazing thing about the new scientific discoveries which are reported in the news is not what they reveal about what we know, but what they reveal about what we don't know. For instance, the relatively new Spitzer telescope recently recorded the first images of planets from outside our solar system.

To put this discovery into perspective: There are about a quarter-billion stars in our galaxy alone. Most of them could, for all we know, be orbited by planets. However, since planets give off no light of their own, even planets around the stars nearest us have been nearly impossible to detect. At present, only 130 planets have been proven to exist, and up until the past few days, not a one of them was observed directly.

There could well be--in fact, there probably are--hundreds of millions of planets in our galaxy alone. And there are hundreds of millions of galaxies. Of those billions and billions of planets, our telescopes have directly observed two, which is two more than we had observed a couple of weeks ago.

We have a long ways to go, and it will be a fascinating trip. Any one of those planets could contain the conditions necessary for life. And if we see life on another planet, far, far away--it will be impossible to communicate because we will be watching what happened hundreds, probably thousands of years ago. At least that is the assumption we are operating under at present.

March 22, 2005

At the Seven Clans Casino

I had a meeting scheduled at the Seven Clans Casino this morning. It was, in part, a training session for a history seminar I will be moderating this August. I came for the entire day, which amounted to a series of professional development classes for high school social studies and literature teachers.

The Seven Clans Casino is south of Thief River Falls. It is run by the Red Lake Band of Chippewa. Thus, there were many people on the staff who lost members of their family in the shootings yesterday.

The head of the seminar announced that a man was going to perform an Ojibway ceremony in memory of the victims, and that he had agreed to perform it in front of our group of teachers.

A man with dark braids came in with a duffel bag. While we were having a snack break, he lit something in the duffel. It soon puffed with smoke. He bathed himself in the smoke, and soon everybody in the room calmed down enough for him to speak.

He asked us to stand. Staff members of the casino filed into the room. The smoke puffed out of the man's duffel. The man, who was introduced as Larry, pulled the smoldering weed out of his duffel and circled the room slowly.

He then spoke of the shootings, concluding at one point that "We lost some of our future leaders yesterday."

He then prayed in several directions and performed a long prayer-song while beating a hand-held drum. It was mournful. Each phrase started high and slowly worked its way down to the depths of his register over the course of about a minute, at which time he started over.

At the close of this somber ceremony, the leader asked Larry innocently if we should clap, and he said no, please do not. He then asked if there were any questions.

One of the first was, "what is that you're burning?"

"Smells like weed, eh?" was his response, and it brought a big laugh which broke the tension. It was sage. It was very aromatic, although I wonder if Larry was allergic to it because he coughed frequently throughout the ceremony.

He then told a couple of lighthearted stories before saying, "Now I have to go burn your food." At that time, I realized he was a cook at the casino and still had his cook's smock on.

I HAVE A DIM VIEW of teacher education programs, if only because so many of the ones I have been through have been so thoroughly asnine. This day had its moments of breaking down into groups and doing stupid things and then reporting to the entire group what you had learned in your group about something about which none of you had known anything about ten minutes before--the prototypical social studies stuff--but moments like Larry's ceremonial song made the day well worthwhile.

The mood at the casino was subdued. The three giant flags, one Canadian, one American, one tribal, flew at half staff. A couple of dozen people sat frozen in front of the giant TV overlooking the water park watching the news conferences in Red Lake.

At one point, as we sat inside our conference room reading an account from the 1830s justifying the forcible removal of Indians from east to west, we could hear an official on the big screen TV in the lobby outside dutifully pronouncing and spelling the names of the Red Lake dead for the press.

THE HIGHLIGHT OF THE DAY came at the end of the morning when we were to hear a lecture on Ojibway culture by Dr. Anton Treuer of Bemidji State University. I was assuming the lecture would be of academic interest, but anticipated having to listen hard to get anything out of it.

Well, Dr. Treuer was anything but dull. Half Ojibway himself, looking all of twenty-five years of age, Treuer gave a high-energy talk on Ojibway history. He never really got to his stated topic, which was fine. He spoke instead of how three or four generations of Indian children were forcibly taken from their homes and put in residential boarding schools, four of which still exist today. They were military in organization, and designed to show the Indians the virtues of hard work from an early age. Needless to say, they were brutal places, each with their own well-populated cemetery.

Indian children were deliberately sent to schools farthest from home. Mail from home was intercepted and destroyed. Disease was rampant. And by the time the children were sent back home, ten years later, they often didn't know their parents and were so out of touch that they weren't particularly welcome or comfortable with the tribe.

Out of this, Treuer argued, how were these children to learn how to be parents? Needless to say, they lost their culture. They were beaten for speaking anything but English at the schools. Their dress was changed, their hair was cut.

In the end, Treuer said it is a miracle that the Ojibway language is still alive and that so many of the oral traditions and ceremonial dances survive. One dance in particular, he said, is six hours long, very intricate, and is only known by six people on earth. Only a couple of those people have understudies.

But there was no air of self-pity or even injured indignation about Treuer. He was all facts. He stated the facts passionately, with a dazzlingly nimble vocabulary, but he had no obvious ideological drum to beat.

I was intrigued, and at lunch grabbed an open chair next to Treuer. He graduated from Bemidji High, went to Princeton, and has a Phd from the University of Minnesota in history. He has published two books, which, he commented, means he has published fewer books than either his father, his mother, or two of his siblings. His father long ago published a book entitled "Tree Farmer."

We got on the topic of casinos, and I asked what exactly happened to cause the explosion of Indian gaming in the late 1980s. Treuer took me back to the 1830s and the Marshall Supreme Court and gave me a synopsis of the relations between the federal government and the Indian tribes.

Treuer's most intriguing point concerned John Marshall's opinions handed down over the removal of the Cherokee from Georgia. In many history books, Marshall is treated as a bit of a hero for upholding the Cherokee's right to sue the state of Georgia, and their right to be treated as an independent nation. Meanwhile, Andrew Jackson is the villian for saying, "Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it."

What most history books don't note is that deep in one of the three crucial opinions Marshall issued on the Cherokee issue, he classified the Indian tribes not as nations equal in stature with France and England, as they actually had been legally considered up to that time, but as inferior "dependent nations."

Marshall's decision laid the groundwork for the federal government's policy of Indian Removal, the most famous component of which was the Trail of Tears, the forced march of Cherokee from Georgia to Oklahoma during which thousands died.

Anyway, it was, over all, a fascinating day. I came away with a book on Ojibway history which, since I didn't pay for the seminar and was just there to get a feel for the whole thing, I probably shouldn't have taken. Oh well. The buzzer didn't go off when I left. I'll give it back when I go back. After I've read it.

I turned on AM radio on the way home to get news of the shooting and the talk shows were abuzz. One woman called in from Detroit Lakes and had the following to say, for whatever reason: "These Indians keep talking about how they're so into the land and so spiritual, but you go to White Earth and its the ugliest place on earth. And they're all like that! I mean, c'mon, God takes care of those who take care of themselves!"

I shut the radio off.

Red Lake, cont.

Here is an article in the Star Tribune which gives some of the recent history of the Red Lake reservation. It sure wouldn't be the version you'd hear if you went to the reservation, I know that.

Roger Jourdain, the tribal leader who was violently ousted in 1979, came to a government class I was teaching with Sen. LeRoy Stumpf at UMC about 12 years ago. (LeRoy brought in all kinds of fascinating people, including, via phone hookup, legendary former Federal Judge Miles Lord.) Jourdain told his side of the story. I wish I would have had that on tape.

Jourdain was an autocrat. He tended to give his family the good jobs. So, there were legitimate grievances against him. However, when the shooting started, he alleged that the FBI took him to a hotel up on the Iron Range and held him their in "protective custody" for weeks. Of course, Jourdain wanted to get back to the reservation and take over again.

As a national Indian leader, Jourdain met with several presidents. I am sure he wasn't intimidated by one of them.

He was 84 years old when LeRoy asked him to come to our class. He hadn't driven for years, so he was going to get a ride from his daughter to come to Crookston to speak to our class. Well, he showed up alone. His daughter had some other things she had to do, he said, so he drove the 85 miles himself. LeRoy made sure he got back to Red Lake without driving.

Jourdain was quite a character. I tried to impress upon our class that they were seeing somebody who had taken part in quite a bit of history. However, the kids were really way too young (post-secondary high school students) to get much out of it. The one complaint they had was that Jourdain swore a lot.

Back to the present sad situation: I am glad that at least the Star Tribune has done some looking into the past. However, their somewhat cursory overview probably leaves a lot to be desired. I have heard so many conflicting views of recent Red Lake tribal history that I really don't know what is up.

March 21, 2005

Shootings in Red Lake

By now, most of you have probably heard that there was a shooting at the Red Lake High School this afternoon. As many as eight are dead, including the shooter and his grandparents.

The news first appeared on the Star Tribune website a little before four o'clock. I think they picked it up from the associated press.

I turned on the television. There was little news about it until six. I think they were waiting for pictures. Well, Red Lake is so remote that it is going to take a while for the infernal camera crews to get up there.

When they do get there, I hope they look into the history of the place and the fact that the entire existence of the Red Lake reservation has been tragic. Eight people may have died today, but so many more die each year of alcoholism and other problems.

I went up to the Red Lake school with members of the Minnesota Legislature when I worked for the House of Representatives in 1995. We were given a wonderful meal and were entertained well. It struck me at the time how uncomfortable many of the legislators were. A few took part in the traditional dance, but many took off back to the hotel bar in Bemidji.

Earlier that day, I was to drive two legislators up to the school where they were to talk to classes. The legislators backed out and I ended up speaking to three classes that day.

What I remember was the eerie quiet in the halls between classes. The students walked without talking. Many went outside for smoke breaks between classes, came back in, went to their next class almost without saying a word. It was a very calm atmosphere, something I had never seen in a high school before.

There was an armed uprising in Red Lake early in the 1980s. Afterwards, the FBI ruled the place using martial law. For ten years, the right to assemble was banned. You could not gather on the street in groups of three or more. Phones were tapped. The place was an armed camp.

Yet nothing about this was reported in the national, or even the local media.

The Red Lake Band is proud of their heritage. The Red Lake reservation is unique in that its lands were never ceded to the United States government. They have always been in the hands of the Chippewa. The tribe is fighting hard to keep alive their language and their traditions.

I hope that this tragedy can bring to light the more lasting tragedy of poverty, chemical dependence and unemployement on the Red Lake Reservation. I am not optimistic, however, that the national media will tell the entire story or even get part of it right.

Grand Forks Home Show

Spent much of the weekend manning a booth at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks. That means talking all weekend. I am a little tired! Politicking is hard work.

Saturday afternoon, brother Joe took over the booth while I went down to Moorhead to speak to a community education group at the Hjemkomst Center. There were about 125 people there, which was a good turnout. Included in the crowd was the woman who inspired this week's column.

On the weekend I read through the obituaries in the Grand Forks Herald and was somewhat surprised to find that at least one, possibly two of the people who were in the audience when I sang at the Halstad Nursing Home last Thursday died later that evening.

The one man was pictured, so I am sure I met him. He had a breathing tube, so was unable to talk when I went around to say hi to everybody. He was only 69 years old.

In his obituary, I found out that I know his relatives. I talked to my uncle Orville last night, and he said the man was a very hard worker, a brick layer with a good reputation.

I called Orville to find out about Alf Benson, the nurseryman I discuss in this week's column. Orville had good stories which I had no room to include. I guess Alf would appear at Orville's nursery with trees and machinery that he thought Orv could benefit from buying and Orville really didn't know how to turn him down. Usually it was something which it turned out Orville really did need. Sounds just like Grandpa.