The Obit For Bill Lawrence

Minnesota journalist who was tribal watchdog dies after cancer fight

Park Rapids Enterprise
Published March 05 2010


Bill Lawrence, a journalist who was a watchdog of Minnesota's tribal governments for more than two decades, has died after a fight with prostate cancer. He was 70.
By: Chuck Haga, Grand Forks Herald

Bill Lawrence, a Red Lake Ojibwe and crusading journalist who hounded tribal officials in northern Minnesota for more than 20 years — and helped send some to prison — died Tuesday in Idaho, where he was being treated for prostate cancer at a Veterans Affairs medical center.

Lawrence, 70, was founder and editor of the Native American Press/Ojibwe News, which he started in 1988 and published in Bemidji. Because of his declining health, his last edition was published last fall.

“I am no longer physically able to do the tasks — computer searches, investigating, seeking ads — that are necessary to put out an edition,” he wrote in a final editorial.

Apparently borrowing a line from Chief Dan George in the 1970 film “Little Big Man,” he titled the editorial “A good day to die.”

In addition to his campaigns against corruption, Lawrence fought for requirements that audits of Indian casinos be made public — he received an award for that in 2003 from the Society of Professional Journalists — and published a series detailing the causes and consequences of fetal alcohol syndrome among Minnesota’s Indians.

He was an enrolled member of the Red Lake Band of Ojibwe but grew up in nearby Bemidji, where he was a star high school and college athlete, earning all-state honors in three sports at Bemidji High School. He had a tryout with the Detroit Tigers baseball team and pitched in the Tiger farm system, served with the Marines in Vietnam and worked in tribal government in California and Arizona.

He attended law school at UND but left to work as a miner in northern Minnesota and later a development officer at Red Lake.

‘Digging up dirt’

In a March 2005 story on Salon.com, shortly after the shootings at Red Lake High School, Lawrence said tribal press constraints on the closed reservation made it difficult to sort out what happened at the school and hid “systemic problems” on the reservation.

Lawrence had “devoted most of his adult life to digging up dirt on corrupt tribal politicians and shedding light on news neglected by both the tribal and the mainstream press,” Salon.com reported.

Lawrence made liberal use of anonymous sources and had what Salon called a “laissez-faire attitude toward journalistic decorum,” which drew criticism from some other Native American journalists.

His severest critics, though, were tribal leaders who resented and resisted his calls for more transparency in tribal government, including the legendary Red Lake Tribal Chairman Roger Jourdain — who was Lawrence’s godfather.

“I should have dropped him in that baptismal font,” an unsmiling Jourdain told another reporter in 1990.

When Jourdain died in 2002, Lawrence tempered his assessment of the man. “We had our differences,” he said. “But 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.”

He kept railing

Despite Lawrence’s efforts to shine light on what he considered systemic problems in the tribal system of self-government, “the reservations of north-central Minnesota remain isolated places, unfamiliar to the society around them,” Salon.com noted in the 2005 article.

Months later, in a Star Tribune interview, Lawrence continued to rail against the tribal government’s reliance on sovereignty, “which maintains a status quo of unemployment, poverty, civil rights abuses and social dysfunction,” he said. “The tribal government is inept. They … hide behind sovereignty. The social problems — drugs, alcohol, fetal alcohol syndrome, shootings, the kids not going to school — people don’t know what to do about them.”

David Lillehaug, a former U.S. attorney for Minnesota, oversaw prosecutions which led to prison sentences for former tribal leaders at the White Earth and Leech Lake reservations and a state senator from Leech Lake, all of whom had been targets of Lawrence’s reporting.

“Bill Lawrence and the Native American press performed a valuable service in identifying corruption in tribal government,” Lillehaug told the Star Tribune at the time of the editor’s retirement. “Some of his stories provided leads for federal law enforcement, others were dry holes. But when he was right, he was really right.”

Lawrence ran for tribal office in 1970 and 1978, losing what he insisted were rigged elections.

A memorial service is scheduled for 2 p.m. March 13 at Bemidji State University’s Memorial Hall.