To Walk the Red Road: A note from a friend.

This is not something I do frequently, but I want to bring a note to your attention that you’d probably not notice otherwise, because it’s buried in the “comments” section. It’s from one of my favorite students back when we were putting together the “Red Road” books on the Red Lake reservation. Her name is Karen, and here’s her note:

Hi There Nerb…
I still remember when we were working on putting these books together. We all had no clue as to what we were doing but it sure came off alright! It was fun to be able to dig through all those archives and read all the stories, trying to figure out where to put it in the book… I am so glad that it is now able to be reprinted so everyone can can get a real taste of “the rez life”. All too often the only things people hear from Red Lake are negative, media ‘enriched’ stories of tragedy and hardship – releasing this book to those who have only seen that side of Red Lake will be such a refreshing change. We here have a wonderful sense of humor and a strong sense of perseverance in the face of adversity – this book shows that side of Red Lake wonderfully.

I found an old newspaper article from 4/90 with our pictures and the headline “Red Lake High School Students Write Second Book” and it brought back a lot of memories… I am so glad that the first book is being released so it can be shared with those who missed it the first time – I still have my copies and read through them quite often.


In this note is everything good that needs to be said about that experience. Karen was a hell raiser in her day, but is now a responsible parent struggling like the rest of us with the difficult and amazing task of raising children. Like any parent with any sort of awareness, she now asks, “How could you put up with me back then?” Well, the answer is simple. She was wonderfully intelligent and a perfect embodiment of that great bumpersticker, “Well behaved women seldom make history.” Karen would push, yap, mouth off, and challenge. But she was funny and caring with a heart as big as the world. To a teacher whose primary goal was to run an orderly classroom, she was anathema. To a teacher who loved to see young people claim themselves and their identity, she was a gift and a joy.

She was a dream student for me. We did not run an orderly classroom. In one of our rooms we had yellow “crime scene” tape over the door. Some days we sat on the floor; some days, in desks. Students came and went as they wished. Another of my favorite students just went home one day and stayed in his basement room drawing for the next three months. I finally went over to his house and asked why he wasn’t in school. His answer was simple: “Didn’t feel like it.” Then one day he was back, as quiet and as watchful as ever, but present in the fullness of his being.

To anyone with half a head for educational priorities, this would seem to be absolute dereliction of duty on the part of a teacher. But this was “the Rez”, those were the days, and I had made a fundamental choice to use the teaching model of the traditional elders: let the students come to you and give them what they need when they need it. I did not want a classroom, I wanted a “learning family.” In addition, I had a visionary administration that knew I was running an experimental program, so they stood behind me, even though they sometimes questioned my methods and my motives.

In retrospect, I would have done things differently. But I’m not sure I could have done them better. We cared about each other; we did good work as a group; we allowed each to use his or her talents for the good of all; we honored the elders, and we gave something to the reservation — the “Red Road” books — that remain a treasure to this day.

Like Karen says, “All too often the only things people hear from Red Lake are negative, media ‘enriched’ stories of tragedy and hardship – releasing this book to those who have only seen that side of Red Lake will be such a refreshing change.”

That’s something no one can ever take away from us. We did something good for the reservation. The elders were able to see photos of the way they remembered things from their childhood. They were able to laugh and share stories with each other and use the photographs to tell stories to the children. People were given voice who had too long been silent. And folks from the outside were able to get a glimpse of the inside. No “fly over” journalism here, with the media looking for the latest explosion — just ordinary folks sharing their stories

I will always cherish those days, just as I cherish my continued friendship with Karen and the others. There have been some deaths; some have simply fallen off the face of the earth. Life on the Rez is not easy, and things happen. But there are success stories as well, and none greater than the sense of love that we share for each other even at this distance in time.

Karen still lives and works on the Rez. She is as fun and feisty as ever, but is now a mom well over 30. Like she says, the “Red Road” books give the lie to the myths and stereotypes of reservation life, especially on Red Lake where the horrors of the school shooting still color people’s perceptions. But what she didn’t say is that she, herself, gives the lie to those myths and stereotypes.

Let me make it simple. Take another look at Karen’s note. I didn’t edit that one whit. So reservation kids can’t read and write, right? Think again.

And think again about your preconceptions and stereotypes. If you want to see how life on the Rez really is, you can get a glimpse by ordering To Walk the Red Road. While you’re reading it, think about people like Karen who defy those preconceptions and stereotypes and keep the Native heartbeat strong, despite the difficulties, hardships, and 500 years of government policies aimed at doing the contrary.

Indian Country is alive and well, and people like Karen are helping to make sure it stays that way.

8 thoughts on “To Walk the Red Road: A note from a friend.”

  1. I’ve already received my copy of “To Walk The Red Road,” autographed no less! It is a wonderful, wonderful book. I know I will read it many times.

    I mentioned in my class last week that “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” is my favorite book, and one of my students said he went to high school with your son, Nik. I’m always amazed at what a small world we really live in.

    Isn’t teaching the best? I love it today as much as I did the first time I stood in front of my first class, almost 20 (YIKES!) years ago.


  2. Please send me info. on how to purchase To Walk the Red Road & We Choose To Remember. We already have Neither Wolf Nor Dog and Wolf At Twilight. Both are outstanding books!!!!! Thank you and many blessings to you….T. Holland

    Mitakuye Oyasin!

  3. I never forgot Kent Nerburn, for some reason or another I often think about him. I was part of “Project Preserve” back in 1988/89. Today I am 46yrs old and still reside on the Rez. Thanks for the memories Kent!

  4. Those were good times. Thanks for reminding me and for saying hello. I miss the rez and hope to be back for a visit when I get in the area.

  5. Theresa Delahanty

    Good afternoon,

    I’m wondering where I can get a copy of To Walk the Red Road. I work in 5 prisons in Connecticut. I service the only the Native American inmate population and would love to present this book to them.

    Thank you for your time,

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