EAST LAKE, MINN. -- The body of Egiwaateshkang, also known as George Aubid Jr., 65, lay under white mosquito netting in an open, unvarnished plank coffin. His ceremonial tobacco pouch, made of hand-tanned deerskin and beaded in the floral design of the Chippewas, lay near his moccasined feet. A colorful quilt covered his torso.
The simple arrangements reflected the values of this modest man, whose quiet but eloquent oratory on Indian history and tribal sovereignty had attracted a wide Chippewa following and whose determined activism against pollution had endeared him to many non-Indian environmentalists.
Aubid was a hereditary war chief whose modern-day battles to reclaim Indian land had taken him to the Minnesota Supreme Court and to Libya. He was sent on his spirit journey here recently as Chippewa Indians from seven reservations gathered for a traditional Chippewa funeral.
About 250 people crowded into the small community center in this impoverished village, deep in the watery heart of Minnesota's wild-rice country.
Aubid was one of few high-ranking priests in the Midewin or Grand Medicine Society, traditional religion of the Chippewas. His family was among those that kept the religion alive during the century that began in the 1870s when disapproving Christians forced it underground. Aubid, who spoke fluent English with a Chippewa accent, became a teacher for those seeking a return to their ancestral faith.
He was born a few miles west of here and was 10 years old when he and others of the Rice Lake Band were ejected from their land to make way for a national wildlife refuge. Ever since, Aubid and other band members have battled to reclaim the land.
He earned his place in case law, however, by battling for land on the White Earth Reservation of western Minnesota. A county had foreclosed on land allotted there to his father, Zay-zah. Aubid filed suit, claiming that Indian land could not be taxed by state or county.
His unexpected victory in the Minnesota Supreme Court publicized what Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.) called "one of the darkest moments between Indians and whites in America" -- the turn-of-the-century theft of reservation land through illegal tax foreclosure, bribery and swindle.
The Zay-zah case clouded titles of hundreds of thousands of acres of former Indian land at White Earth, with implications at other reservations where similar land transfers had occurred.
Federal legislation in 1985 purported to untangle the snarl and claim a measure of justice for the White Earth heirs. Its effect, however, has been to clear the titles for non-Indians, pay Indian heirs a few dollars apiece and prohibit the heirs from ever going to court about it again.
Aubid's reaction to the legislation that nullified his court victory was sorrowful but characteristically without bitterness.
"When we have congressmen and top state politicians all working together with powerful interests, what have we got to fight against them?" he asked. "Not much, except to ask for justice. They shouldn't do that to us here. They're creating acts of genocide. We are being destroyed."
In early 1988, Aubid and his wife, Dorothy, were part of a delegation of Native Americans who spent a month in Libya as guests of the government. He said the visit strengthened his belief that tribes must throw off the yoke of colonialism kept in place by the tribal governments established in 1934 by the federal government.
During the last decade, the slightly built Aubid often physically blocked what he considered acts of aggression against tribes and nature. He helped to lead sit-ins protesting policies of tribal leaders whom he called "quislings, guilty of high treason" for cooperating with state officials in compromising treaty rights and relinquishing Indian land.
He staged camp-ins against nuclear and hazardous waste, hurled a spear at a U.S. Marine tank during a mock landing on a Lake Superior beach and joined sit-ins protesting tribal government.
So it was not without precedent that his body was used to test the principle that Indians should not allow state law to supersede tribal law and custom.
His family was loath to leave Aubid's body in the hands of strangers, under a sterile sheet in the emergency room at Riverwood Health Care Center in nearby Aitkin. So Aubid's son, Mushkooub, having prepared his station wagon by burning sacramental sage and sweetgrass and fanning the smoke with an eagle feather, carried his father's body to car.
Aitken County Deputy Coroner Chuck Brenny protested that state law forbade the removal. Mushkooub drove away, and Brenny called the sheriff.
"They just can't go to a hospital and take a body from the ER and put it back into the station wagon and drive away," Brenny said later. "Pretty soon, everybody will be doing it."
Sheriff Bill Sobey called out his deputies, and Minnesota state troopers joined in. Mushkooub eluded them by switching cars and driving on a back road. Once home, the family and friends decided to make a stand, but Brenny and Sobey said they elected to drop the matter.
The family washed the body and wrapped it entirely in birchbark, according to custom. Friends, relatives and medicine men gathered to keep vigil.
The morning of the funeral, which no one was permitted to photograph, was bright and warm. Dust rose in the sunshine as cars motored the winding gravel road to the dead end between Aubid's small home and the community center.
Midewin Medicine Man Nee-Ba-Geshig, also known as Archie Mosay, 85, of the St. Croix Chippewa Band of Wisconsin, sat quietly at the front of the room alongside Midewin leaders from three other bands. Reflecting the Midewin emphasis on humility, the priests looked like any rural Chippewas, wearing blue jeans, work shirts, beaded visored caps and a dignified, retiring demeanor.
The mourners sat and talked softly, rising every so often to pass by Aubid's casket or get coffee. Platters of wild rice, venison, ham, chicken and fruit were loaded onto long tables. Samples from each platter were dropped into a bag, which was placed in the casket.
A medicine man passed around a birchbark basket filled with loose cigarettes. When each mourner had taken one, he prayed in Chippewa, and the cigarettes were lit. Tobacco is sacred to most traditional Native Americans because the smoke is believed to carry prayers to the Creator.
The medicine man directed the group to stay indoors with Aubid during the meal. Later, more cigarettes were passed and lit, and several of Aubid's close friends and students spoke in English of their regard for him. Mushkooub thanked the group for coming to "share this final meal" with his father.
Suddenly, like a grave summons, a single drum beat tolled, and silence fell. Mosay was beginning the ceremony that would send Egiwaateshkang on his journey and break the hold of the dead on the living.
Mosay struck the drum again and began a prayer in Chippewa. He drummed faster, still praying, and Midewin members rose to their feet and solemnly danced in place to the beat.
The ceremony's powerful, formal intensity stood in contrast to the relaxed informality of the preceding hours. Like the definitive stroke of a sharp knife, the service that sent Aubid away was finished in minutes.
Aubid was buried on a grassy hill at Rice Lake, a few rods from where he was born. Fifty-five years earlier, when his band was being ejected from the area, his father Zay-zah -- also known as Charlie Aubid -- had elicited a promise from the federal government that his people could always be buried there.