In Remembrance of Mark Anthony Rolo

The late, great Native American writer from Wisconsin always found a reason to give thanks.

Mark Anthony Rolo (photo courtesy of The Progressive magazine)
Mark Anthony Rolo (photo courtesy of The Progressive magazine)

I wish Mark Anthony Rolo were here this Thanksgiving, to tell us what he thought. I wonder what words of wisdom he might offer about this moment, when a raging health crisis that has killed more than a quarter-million Americans and the clear result of a presidential election are both being met, insanely, with official denial. 

But sadly, we can only imagine what Mark would have said. He died on May 30, at age fifty-seven, after a prolonged illness. 

A member of the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Wisconsin, Mark was a regular contributor to The Progressive for more than two decades. His greatest volume of offerings came in recent years, including while he was in and out of hospitals, in a column for our website titled “Going Native.”

Many years in November, Mark would write a Thanksgiving offering giving a Native perspective on the holiday, usually a mixture of despair and hope.

“Every year at this time I wonder why we, as American Indians, bother to celebrate Thanksgiving,” he wrote in November 2018. “Despite all our social ills and battles with state and the federal government, we always manage to find reasons for gratitude.”

Mark in this column recalled his own fond memories of family Thanksgivings, when, atypically, “peace reigned in the household. My father was sober. We all helped out with cleaning and doing mounds of dishes—without complaint. We watched football, and the older brothers trudged through the snow to cut down a Christmas tree. Being Indian had nothing to do with giving thanks.”

“But the innocence of youth is lost too quickly in this world,” he continued. “The reality of racism is so demoralizing. Being called a no-good Indian. Growing up with no connection to your Indian values and language, while not living among your own people. It brings you face-to-face with the brutal reality of looking like an Indian but being expected to live white.”

He ended up concluding that American Indians should be heartened by their growing resolve to bring about meaningful change in spite of pushback at the local and national level.

Mark’s heartbreaking yet somehow transcendent childhood is recounted in his award-winning memoir, My Mother is Now Earth, published in 2012 by Borealis Books, an imprint of the Minnesota Historical Society Press. It is, as I have written, one of the best books that I have ever read, and I read a lot. I told Mark so again in our last conversation, via telephone from his bed at the Saint Clare Hospice House in Baraboo, Wisconsin, shortly before he died.

“Thanks,” he replied.

Staring through America’s dining room window

In his 2017 Thanksgiving column, Mark wrote about inviting Donald Trump to his family’s holiday table. He said he’d like to ask the president about his support for “an oil pipeline that threatens the water and ceremonial grounds of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation”; his apparent lack of understanding of tribal sovereignty; his call to slash funding for the Indian Health Service “at a time when suicide, diabetes, alcohol and drug addiction continue to plague tribal communities”; and his habitual use of “derogatory name-calling,” as in his moniker of “Pocahontas” for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)

Mark concluded this column by saying that, no matter what else Trump might do, he can “never sign an executive order calling for the deportation of American Indians.”

You’ve got to take cheer where you can find it.

In November 2008, Mark wrote what is perhaps his most trenchant Thanksgiving column, calling it a holiday on which “history ought to be left off the menu.”

“As an American Indian,” he mused, “I can’t think of anything more depressing than sitting around the dinner table tracing the legacy of a holiday that began with a questionable decision to save a band of starving pilgrims at Plymouth Rock. Almost immediately after the Indians’ rescue feast, the pilgrims and their European successors began a ceaseless campaign of colonization—raiding Indian villages, murdering inhabitants, stealing land, and spreading infectious diseases that nearly wiped out whole tribal populations on the entire East Coast. Excuse me, but I thought Indians were supposed to be the savages.”

Mark went on to list other atrocities committed against American Indians, including the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the long chain of broken treaties, “the slaughter of women and children at places like Sand Creek and Wounded Knee,” President Abraham Lincoln’s mass execution of thirty-eight “Indians and half-breeds” on the day after Christmas in 1862, and so on.

“Not a Thanksgiving has passed,” Mark wrote, “without Indians staring through America’s dining room window.”

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Here’s how this column concluded: “Every year since 1947, the National Turkey Federation brings a live turkey to the White House. Tradition calls for the President to pardon the bird by allowing it to live out its days in quiet solitude on some obscure farm. It’s quite the irony. Imagine how different the history of Thanksgiving would be if the Pilgrims had done the same to the Indians.”

Last words

The last piece that Mark wrote for The Progressive appeared in the magazine’s December 2019/January 2020 issue. It was called “Reflections of an Urban Indian.” It contains this reflection on alcoholism, an affliction from which Mark suffered (yes, that’s the right word) himself: 

“I think the reason we have so many Indian alcoholics in our communities is that the drink is a way to fight off assimilation. It seems Indians are affected by spirits more than other groups. Spirits connect many Indians to a lost past, to the death of a way of life.”

But even from this dark pit, Mark found a way to the light, with this conclusion:

“I know from my time spent working for my tribe that there are those who are beginning to recognize the need for family. Family is the cornerstone of community. I hope my urban Indian brothers and sisters are rediscovering that as well.”

This Thanksgiving, when families are hopefully avoiding communal dinners due to the pandemic, among the things we ought to be thankful for is the life and words of Mark Anthony Rolo.