Roger Jourdain, a longtime tribal chairman of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa who was alternately praised as a master politician and champion of his people or denounced as a tyrant, died Thursday night at a Bemidji hospital. He was 89.
At Red Lake, Tribal Chairman Bobby Whitefeather declared "a national day of mourning" for the man who urged people on the impoverished reservation to remember that they are a sovereign nation.
News of Jourdain's passing quickly spread far beyond the boundaries of the northern Minnesota reservation. At the state House of Representatives Friday, members honored Jourdain with a moment of silence.
"If anyone lived a full life, it was Roger Jourdain," Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe said. "He was a strong leader for the Red Lake nation."
Jourdain's 31-year hold on tribal government was marked by controversy within and outside the reservation boundaries, including a two-day riot and takeover of the reservation in 1979 that led to an FBI investigation, the burning of his house and car and threats against his life. He moved to Bemidji but continued as Red Lake chairman.
Complaints about dictatorial behavior, secrecy and abuse of power continued, and his reign ended in May 1990 when he was defeated by 136 votes out of more than 2,200 cast.
Hubert Humphrey said that anyone with business in Indian Country had to consult with Jourdain when he ran the show at Red Lake. Walter Mondale called him an elder statesman and a man of the people.
And Indian author Vine Deloria once said that 50 clones of Roger Jourdain needed to be turned loose in Indian country.
In 1986, Jourdain was named Indian Man of the Year by the American Indian Heritage Foundation.
Whitefeather said that Jourdain "taught me a lot about how to deal with the United States government, how to interact with the White House and Congress, how to interact with the Legislature and the Minnesota governor's office, and how to conduct yourself as a tribal leader -- strong and determined.
"The one thing I will always remember he told me is, 'Nobody is ever better than you.' His legacy is one of vision, strength and courage, not only for Red Lake people but for native people all across this country."
Jody Beaulieu, Jourdain's niece and director of the tribal library and archives, said she also will remember him for his determination.
"He taught us to know our rights, first of all," she said. "That's why he created the archives in the first place."
He didn't shy away from controversy, she said, especially when he believed that he was working on behalf of "the people who are going without, the less fortunate." He had opponents "because he was a man with a vision, and sometimes people can't see beyond what's going on now."
In 1990, Jourdain lost the chairmanship to Gerald (Butch) Brun, a council member who had supported him in previous elections. "Several people said, 'It's time. The old man is not responding to us. We've got to take control of our own destiny,' " Brun said then, explaining why he had challenged the longtime leader.
Bill Lawrence, a Red Lake tribal member and owner-editor of the Native American Press/Ojibwe News, battled frequently with Jourdain -- his godfather -- over such issues as defendants' rights in tribal courts.
"I had my differences with him over the years," Lawrence said. "He had complete control of that council -- you didn't get anything done unless you agreed with Roger.
"But as things evolved, when he was finally defeated in 1990, we had a burying of the hatchet, so to speak, and I had a chance to sit down and talk with him and look at what had happened to the reservation.
"I realized that he was a consummate politician. He brought home a lot of programs. He also established a strong tribal government and worked tirelessly toward self-determination."
Jourdain had led a group of younger tribal leaders who in the 1950s worked to change Red Lake's system of governance by hereditary chiefs and adopt a new democratic constitution.
"Roger dominated politics in Red Lake for 30-40 years," Lawrence said. "From a limited educational background, he rose to be able to work with the political giants of the time" on the state and federal levels.
Jourdain had been hospitalized for about a month at North Regional Hospital in Bemidji, where he died Thursday night, his niece said. She did not disclose the cause of death.
"He was my mentor," she said. "I have a degree from a university, and I never met anyone more intuitive on a natural level, with more common sense, than Roger Jourdain. He had just an eighth-grade education, but I learned more from him than I learned from all my professors together."
He had a remarkable memory, she and others said, and he enjoyed showing it off. But he also was deeply troubled by memories of hunger, poverty and exposure on the reservation, which he blamed on promises not kept by the U.S. government.
"He was very proud of the fact that when he first got into office, his first act was to reopen the Indian Health [Service] hospital in Red Lake, which had been closed," she said. "He brought running water, houses and good roads to the reservation.
"The people of the reservation will most remember him for maintaining our borders -- and the houses. The elders say, 'If it wasn't for Roger, we wouldn't have homes.' "
Jourdain helped establish a national association of tribal chairmen, He demurred when other tribes negotiated gaming compacts with states for casino gambling.
"He never wanted to compact with the state for gaming," his niece said. "That wasn't in line with our sovereignty."
Beaulieu said Jourdain talked with her at the hospital earlier this week about wanting to file an injunction against the United States over proposed payments to the tribe based on early land settlements.
"He felt we weren't getting what we had coming," she said. "He fought that all his life."
Jourdain's work as a heavy-equipment operator on projects including Alaskan highways provided early lessons in union politics as well as the importance of public infrastructure.
He was married for 60 years to Margaret Jourdain. She died in 1992.
He is survived by a son, Roddy of Red Lake; a sister, Ruth Fevig of Redby; eight grandchildren; 13 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren.
Services will be held at 1 p.m. Wednesday at the Little Rock Center, in the Little Rock district of the reservation where Jourdain was born. Until then, Whitefeather said, reservation flags will be flown at half-staff.
-- Chuck Haga is at email@example.com .