Apr 5, 2014 - Holding on to Hope: Van Wert Family Reunification by Colin Neary


Gordon and Mary Van Wert may be losing Bezhiigwan Ojibwe Art Gallery along with the land and house they care for. However, the Van Werts are moving forward with a business plan to sell sculptures and develop a family reunification program. Instead of moving out on the foreclosure date for his house, Gordon Van Wert spent April 2nd in the Motherland – Red Lake Ojibwe Nation. Outside of the Great Lakes, Red Lake is the largest fresh-water lake in the United States and home of Anishinaabeg, the People.

Red Lake Nation has never surrendered to the United States and is the only closed reservation in Minnesota. In 1863 Anishinaabe leaders from Red Lake signed a treaty with the United States for more than 1,250 square miles of tribal homelands. All land on Red Lake Indian Reservation belongs to the tribe, and the Red Lake tribal government has fought off treaty-violating laws such as the Dawes Act, Snyder Act, and Minnesota Public Law 280.

Needless to say but worth mentioning anyway, action is being taken now that Red Lakers have been able to wade through the shitty details of the foreclosure of Bezhiigwan Ojibwe Art Gallery. Due to recent developments in Red Lake, State Bank of Park Rapids has given the Van Werts until next Wednesday April 9th to make a payment on their mortgage. The Van Werts have proposed to sell sculptures to the Red Lake Tribal Council, and Gordon Van Wert has prepared a plan for a family reunification program.

“We want to teach children responsibility through art and culture,” said Gordon Van Wert. “We will have classes on drum-making, regalia-making, harvesting wild rice, and tapping maple syrup. We’ve had success with reuniting families before, and we want to help the parents make little homes on the land. They can even take the homes with, when they move back to the rez.”

Gordon Van Wert has asked the Red Lake Tribal Council to add him on the agenda Tuesday April 8th, and he has approached White Earth Tribal Council about the plan as well. In addition to making payments on their house, the Van Werts need to commission an art expert to assess the damage done to Bezhiigwan Gallery. The Van Werts also hope to hire an accountant to determine their lost wages for the settlement, which is still in dispute with the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Company.

The insurance company serving municipalities in Minnesota, League of Minnesota Cities inflicted more damage during the clean-up of Bezhiigwan Gallery than was actually caused by the sewer rupture. The building still reeks of black mold and broken dreams. Whether or not the destruction of art in Bezhiigwan Gallery was intentional or simply negligent, League of Minnesota Cities insurance agent Mark Nygaard is liable for all damages that occurred during the settlement, yet the Van Werts have been the ones to mitigate losses. “You have to mitigate,” Mark Nygaard once said to Gordon Van Wert very slowly over the phone. “Do you know what mitigate means Gordon?”

From zero liability to zero assets, Gordon Van Wert learned what mitigation without representation looks like. The Van Werts haven’t even been able to recruit the ACLU for their insurance settlement, since their fiasco of getting banned from downtown Park Rapids a few years ago. That story involves a gravel pit owned by the Van Werts, a greedy undertaker with a truck that broke down from hauling too much gravel, a drunk driver, a busted fence, half a dozen bales of hay to compensate $20,000 worth of gravel, eight cattle that never got delivered, and the same judge whose name signed the restraining order dismissing the order because he never actually signed it.

If that sounds absurd, consider the Van Werts were removed from downtown Park Rapids for picketing outside the funeral home of the undertaker that ripped them off. In 1907 the Minneapolis Tribune reported that “fleecing the Indian” was a common practice in nearby Detroit Lakes, and one passerby claimed the undertaker even stole his grandfather’s gold teeth. While the undertaker never paid the Van Werts what he owed for the gravel, at least the judge dismissed the restraining order, and the Van Werts were legally able to go downtown and see their doctor.

Mary Van Wert is a cancer survivor who has been hospitalized 3 times since the spill at Bezhiigwan Gallery. A disabled veteran of Wounded Knee ’73, Gordon Van Wert has felt a strain on his mental health from the losses and uncertainty of the settlement, but his condition is improving. “I’m actually feeling strengthened,” said Gordon Van Wert after the house foreclosure. “Whatever was on me yesterday is gone now. I’m still scared of what might happen, but we’re moving forward.”

Until now the Van Werts have been mostly ignored and intimidated. The problem is ultimately with recognition. The settlement of Bezhiigwan Gallery has not been recognized as a racial issue, when there is a proven history of white supremacy in Northern Minnesota. League of Minnesota Cities does not recognize the negligence of ServePro destroying the art in Bezhiigwan Gallery as their responsibility. This culture of ignorance, irresponsibility, and de facto racism is ultimately justified by the State of Minnesota not recognizing Indian treaties, including the 1863 Treaty that recognizes Red Lake as a sovereign nation.

In fact, the treaty rights of Red Lake Anishinaabeg have recently been violated by both state and federal governments in an investigation known as Operation Squarehook. One Red Lake tribal member has had charges dismissed, but two Red Lakers still stand trial on felony charges for exercising treaty rights. “This situation cannot help but discredit the court in the eyes of the public,” said one attorney. International treaties are the supreme law of the land, according to Article VI of the U.S. Constitution. The treaties between the Anishinaabeg and U.S. Government must be used to defend Anishinaabe people in Minnesota against discrimination, such as Operation Squarehook, the League of Minneosta Cities’ insurance settlement for Bezhiigwan Art Gallery, and the three new Enbridge pipeline proposals through Indian reservations.

Northern Minnesota has been infiltrated by corporate America for a long time, whether it be the logging companies, agribusinesses, or pipelines. For instance, pipeline companies have already managed to build seven pipelines pumping more than 2 million barrels of oil per day through Northern Minnesota. Look at the damage a sewer rupture in Bezhiigwan Gallery has caused for Park Rapids and imagine what a rupture of the proposed Enbridge Sandpiper pipeline will destroy. Truth be told, the Sandpiper pipeline is planned to run just a couple miles from where the Van Werts currently live. Now imagine the young ServePro employees who came to decontaminate Bezhiigwan Gallery in t-shirts and shorts, cleaning up an oil spill with their wet vac.

Despite the odds being stacked against them, the Van Werts pray that the Red Lake and White Earth Tribal Councils will honor them by accepting the offer to sell Gordon’s sculptures. Gordon Van Wert has even humbly offered to buy back the sculptures once he is flush again, and the family reunification program he proposes will help tribal members living in Park Rapids to find stability. “Rider of the Four Directions” is one of the sculptures Gordon has for sale. “The rider is carrying inner strength and hope to the four directions, signified by the orange inlay,” said Gordon Van Wert. “The reverse side is a medicine wheel, promoting physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual balance.”

Even writing this story in uptown Minneapolis, I see “The Fourth Sister” sculpture by Gordon Van Wert on display outside All My Relations Gallery. The sculpture of Manoomin, the wild rice, or the Fourth Sister, the birthright of all Anishinaabeg, stands at the corner of Franklin and 15th Avenues near the banks of the Mississippi River. Gordon Van Wert designed “The Fourth Sister” to remind all those who cross the street, living in Little Earth housing project and working at the American Indian Center, that Anishinaabeg are the true landlords and stewards of Minnesota.

Unfortunately, the Van Werts have become a target for practice of “fleecing the Indian” in Northern Minnesota, but at least they are not suffering in silence any more. Having come a long way since his early days working out of a plastic bag studio in Santa Fe, Gordon Van Wert is not about to stop living his dream of art for anything. Right now the Van Werts are working on taking care of themselves, while they hold on to hope for positive reunification through art, culture, and community.


Last Real Indians