Laughing Whitefish

Laughing Whitefish


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Laughing Whitefish is an engrossing trail drama of ethnic hostility and the legal defense of Indian treaties. Young Lawyer William (Willy) Poe puts out a shingle in Marquette, Michigan, in 1873, hoping to meet a woman who will take him seriously. His first client, the alluring Charlotte Kawbawgam, known as Laughing Whitefish, offers an enticing challenge—a compelling case of injustice at the hands of powerful mining interests. Years earlier, Charlotte's father led the Jackson Mining Company to a lucrative iron ore strike, and he was then granted a small share in the mine, which the new owners refuse to honor. Willy is now Charlotte's sole recourse for justice. Laughing Whitefish is a gripping account of barriers between Indian people and their legal rights. These poignant conflicts are delicately wrought by the pre-eminent master of the trial thriller, the best-selling author of Anatomy of a Murder. This new edition includes a foreword by Matthew L.M. Fletcher, Director of the Indigenous Law and Policy Center at Michigan State University, that contextualizes the novel and actual decisions of the Michigan Supreme Court ruling in favor of Charlotte.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781611860146
Publisher: Michigan State University Press
Publication date: 06/01/2011
Edition description: 1
Pages: 246
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Matthew L.M. Fletcher is an Associate Professor in Michigan State University’s College of Law, Director of the Indigenous Law and Policy Center, and an appellate justice for several Michigan tribal courts. In 2010 Professor Fletcher was elected to the American Law Institute.

Read an Excerpt


By Robert Traver

Michigan State University Press

Copyright © 2011 Kitchie Hill, Inc.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61186-014-6

Chapter One

I tethered my horse and buggy in front of the Breitung House on the east end of Iron Street and started on my quest. Before I left Marquette I had been told that this was the shortest and busiest thoroughfare in the neighboring iron-mining town of Negaunee. I soon discovered it was also the booziest, certainly in the town if not in Michigan. I had already counted seventeen saloons and not yet come to the one I sought. Meanwhile I had encountered two dog fights and a street brawl and, while crossing an intersecting street, narrowly escaped getting run over by a team of runaway horses dragging a wildly careening dray. I paused on the other side to catch my breath. Doggedly pushing on I passed two more saloons, and was beginning to despair. The next one I came to was the one I sought. I sighed and stopped and mopped my brow.

"Long Jack's Saloon," read weathered twin signs painted on either window, executed with a fine if slightly faded Spencerian flourish. I pushed open the screen door—upon which hung long vertical strips of old newspaper, presumably to alert the waiting swarm of somnolent flies—and, entering the darkened boozy interior, walked up to the bar.

"'Owdy, partner," the tall silver-haired bartender greeted me pleasantly. "Lavly summer day we're after 'avin'. Wot can I do for you, young fella me lad?"

"I'm looking for the proprietor, Mr. John Tregembo," I said. "Might you be he?"

"Not only might I be 'e, but I blawdy well is 'e," he said. "Glad you didn't ast for no drink," he went on, "cos av the new law aour legislative giants 'as recent passed wot says us 'ardworking saloonkeepers can't serve young lads under twenty-one no more. Blawdy nurse maids an' bookkeepers they now makin' outn us.... Me, I figger if a lad's ol' enough to earn 'is livin' toilin' ten-'leven hours a day at 'ard labor 'e's blawdy well old enough to spend 'is money 'ow 'e likes...."

"I'm William Poe, the new lawyer over in Marquette," I said, both charmed and a little overcome by the colorful headlong rush of this man's extravagant vocabulary, which was rather less conversation than a kind of spilt exuberance. "I represent a young woman called Charlotte Kawbawgam," I explained, "and she said you might be able to help out with a legal case I'm handling for her. She said you once knew her father and had befriended him."

"Charlotte Kawbawgam?" Jack Tregembo echoed, pursing his lips and blinking thoughtfully, swiftly adopting the role of the thinker searching the shrouded mists of memory. "I'm afeared I don't knaow this 'ere young lydy," he said finally. "Ol' Jack's 'ad lots av parched customers these past thirty-odd years an' 'e can't 'spec' to 'member all av they. Was 'er ol' man an iron miner, might 'e been? Name daon't saound 'zactly Cornish to me. I wanst knew a Treboggin but 'e wos kilt up yonder mine by a chunk av falling ore." He swiftly hooked his thumb up towards the Jackson Mine, west of town, clasping his head and reeling drunkenly in pantomime of a man staggering from a mortal blow.

"No, the name's not exactly Cornish," I agreed, trying not to smile at his wild gesticulations and asides. "Perhaps I should explain," I went on. "Charlotte Kawbawgam is a young Chippewa Indian woman. Her given name in Indian means Laughing Whitefish, after the river by that name. Her dead father's name was Marji Kawbawgam and I thought maybe you—"

"Marji Kawbawgam!" Jack broke in, slapping the bar top with the palm of his hand. "Did I know ol' Marji Kawbawgam! Put 'er there, young fella," he went on, extending his big hand and burying mine in his grip. "W'y di'n't thee say so right off ? Of course I knew ol' Marji. 'Chief' I used to call 'im. Guess maybe p'r'aps I was 'is bes' frien'—certainly amongst the w'ite folks I wos. A close-mouthed one 'e wos but 'e off en tole me sad an' confidential 'baout 'is little Laughing Whitefish. Closest ever I come to seein' an Hindian cry. Apple av 'is eye, she wos. An' naow she's a growed up young lydy—'ow time do fly."

"She's a fine handsome young woman," I said, recalling her grace and beauty. "She's just turned twenty-one."

"Muss be all of eight-ten years since poor ol' Marji got 'is. Le's see, naow—" he released my hand to do his sums as I gratefully flexed my aching fingers—"hit's 1873 naow an' take 1859—w'en poor Marji passed—from 'e, leaves—w'y it's fourteen years! 'Ow the time do fly!"

"That's correct, Mr. Tregembo," I put in. "Marji Kawbawgam was killed just over fourteen years ago, early in July, 1859. His daughter is a fine young woman, you'll be glad to learn, and I'm trying to help her collect her just due. That's why I'm here, Mr. Tregembo."

"Don't keep Mister Tregembo-ing me," he ordered, deftly drawing a small beer for himself. "Everybody calls me Jack—that is, all but me ol' lydy, an' wot she 'urls at me ain't fit fer 'uman ears, hespecially for hinnocent young fellas like thee."

"All right, Jack," I said, eager to get on with my mission. "I do hope you can help her out."

Jack downed his beer in one neat gulp, wiping the ends of his flowing mustaches in a swift two-way movement, and confidentially lowered his voice.

"'Ow kin I 'elp aout, young fella? Any frien' av Marji's is a frien' av ol' Jack—even iff en 'e's a blawdy lawyer feller to boot, no off ense meant, partner. Wott'll you 'ave to drink on old Jack? Compliments av the 'aouse."

"Do you have cherry soda?" I ventured, longing instead to order whiskey to show my vast maturity, but fearful of the consequences—after all, there was work to be done.

"Cherry soda?" he repeated, staring and blinking for a moment but rallying swiftly. "Ah, yes, I do. Keep some for the Mining Journal boy. 'Ere you are, young fella. 'Ere's mud in your eye."

"I'm really twenty-six," I explained hastily, sipping my soda, not going into the dreary fact that my extremely youthful appearance had long been my secret cross. "I never drink spirits—never, that is, when I'm working on a case."

"Every man to 'is taste," Jack said, "as the Dutchman said w'en 'e put salt in 'is tay." He motioned to a round-topped wooden card table standing in the far corner, with little shelved cubicles underneath to hold the players' drinks. "Le's set daown over yonder an' 'ave our talk, young fella—ol' Jack's legs ain't wot they used to be. This 'ere wos ol' Marji's favorite table," he said, rubbing his hand over the worn top. "Ah, yes," he sighed, looking at me closely. "Naow I hexpect your case 'as somethin' to do with Marji's ol' claim against the Jackson Hore Company, somethin' 'bout that ol' paper them first Jackson fellas guv Marji years ago."

"Yes, Mister—" I began. "Yes, Jack," I went on, "it certainly does. And it's going to be a tough case, that I see already, but I'm going to give it a good try."

"Good boy," Jack said. "Give 'em blawdy blue 'ell, lad. Rollin' in money, they is, but nary a tuppence dud they 'ave for poor Marji wot shawed it all to um."

Somehow I trusted this man and spoke to him freely about the case, about my doubts as well as my hopes. I explained to him some of the handicaps I had to overcome: that my own client, Marji's daughter, knew very little about her dead father's past or his connection with the Jackson Mine or about the people who might be her witnesses. I told him I had already visited Philo P. Everett in Marquette—one of the original founders of the Jackson Mining Company and the man who had written and given the original paper to Marji—and that I had found a frail old man of failing memory and hearing.

I told him that while Mr. Everett seemed kindly disposed towards my client and the justice of her cause, I was fearful about his failing health and memory and concerned, most of all, whether he would survive until the trial, and be able to testify. I told him about my fears over the possible legal effects of Marji's various marriages, about which I still knew very little, of my apprehensions over the long lapse of time since the paper had first been given him—1845—before any action was being taken on it nearly thirty years later.

"But 'ow cud ol' Marji ever 'ave sued anybody?" Jack indignantly broke in. "'E wos too much av a man to get after the ol' Jackson crowd w'en they wos daown on their luck, an' w'en finely they lost aout, 'e was far too broke an' unheducated to sue the new outfit w'en they tuck over. Moreover the only lawyer fella in the hull caounty not tied up wan way or tother with these 'ere minin' folks wos an ol' whiskey-drinkin' peg-leg lawyer daown at Marquette—I forget 'is name—an' 'e didn't come to these parts 'till long after poor Marji wos gone. So 'ow in 'ell cud Marji av sued? Wot wud 'e av sued with?"

"That's precisely what I propose to argue, Jack," I said, somehow greatly buoyed that this uneducated but shrewd Cornish saloonkeeper should penetrate so swiftly to the heart of my case.

We talked along and he gave me the names of a number of potential witnesses I might see: among them McVannel, the livery-stable man, for whom Marji had occasionally worked; Benny Youren, the drayman; and especially old Captain Merry, now retired and a very old man but still "chipper as a chipmunk chasin' hacorns after an 'ail storm." He told me many other things and gave me other possible leads, all of which I gratefully wrote down in my notebook.

Just then I felt and heard a slow series of subterranean tremors, a sullen chain of booming earth thuds. The floor shook and the decanters on the back bar clinked merrily.

"What's that?" I asked in alarm, fearful that an earthquake had hit us.

"Oh that," Jack said airily, "that's only the day shift blastin' daown ore for the night shift up at Jackson Mine—'Old Rumbly' us locals calls it. Do it every evenin' 'baout quittin' time." He grinned at me. "First time's always a bit unnervin', Willy."

"Did Marji ever show you this old paper of his that Philo Everett gave him?" I asked when I was able to speak.

"Only wanst, Willy, a long time ago. Let me see naow, it wos right after 'e wos let go by they there new mine folks."

"Did he tell you what it was about?"

"That 'e did," Jack said with conviction. "An' 'ow 'e wos fired an' thrun aout of 'is cabin on yonder mountain an' I tole Marji, I did, I tole 'im 'e ought to go 'ire hisself a lawyer an' sue the bla'guards from 'ere to Ludgate 'Ill."

I put away my notes, thanked Jack, and prepared to leave. Suddenly the front screen door burst open and in piled all the waiting flies accompanied by a throng of freshly scrubbed iron miners just coming off the day shift at the Jackson Mine.

In they stampeded with their shining faces, alone and in twos and threes, shouting, swearing, jostling each other, clomping about in their mine-stained half-tied boots, hastily depositing their gleaming metal dinner buckets under the billiard table, on the weight-lifting machine, the penny scales, on the tall glass-covered music box, alongside the potted ferns in the half-curtained front windows, then shouldering up to the bar, ordering drinks, shouting insults, still mining ore....

While busily fixing drinks Jack still managed to call out their names to me, in a kind of confused mass introduction, and when he paused for breath I had the vague impression that at least half of them began with the common Cornish place-name prefix of tre. There were representatives, I recalled, of the Tregembos, the Tregonnings and the Trebilcocks; the Trembaths, Trevarrows and Trelawneys; the Treloars, Tresedders and Trewhellas; the Tregears, Tremethicks and Trewarthas; the Tremberths, Trevellyans and the Trenarys—

"Get a move on thee, Jack, an' stow the hintroductions," someone shouted. "You saound like a train conductor back in ol' country, and you're makin' me bad 'omesick bawlin' all them bloomin' nymes."

"Pour the blawdy drinks an' cut aout the palaver," another shouted, eyes staring, clutching wildly at his throat. "I've jest 'ad ten hours av savage hamusement muckin' dirt up at they there Jackson Recreation Pavilion an' I'd dearly love to supprise me arid gullet with a drink. Do you think the lad 'ere needs to be tole we're a bunch av parched Cousin Jacks?"

"'Old your 'orses, me 'earties!" Jack shouted back. "This 'ere's William Poe, the new lawyer—William, this is the thirstiest bunch av Cornishmen in Hamerican captivity—halso, I do believe, the world's best miners."

"'Ear, 'ear—lissen to ol' Jack spreadin' the salve, will you? 'E's 'appy as an 'ore lydy on payday—ever'thin' comin' in an' damn little guven aout! ... Ah, 'ere comes me lavly boilermaker—daown the 'atch, Jack.... Naow 'ow 'baout fixin' 'nother for your ol' mate, 'Arry Penhale?"

I stood watching these men, fascinated by their swift pulsing talk and animal vitality. Cornishmen might also be Englishmen, I reflected, but there was a distinctly diff erent quality in their lack of restraint, in the way they seemed compelled to act everything out. Hadn't I read somewhere that the Romans and Spaniards had long ago invaded Cornwall during their forays into Britain? Had not ancient Phoenician sailors once come in quest of tin from its mines? Had not the land once abounded with mystic Druid priests and still exposed their age-blunted burial stones? Might not all this account for the distinctly un-English dash and flavor of their talk and deportment? Even the act of drinking became a little solo drama: the anticipatory wetting and smacking of lips, the glass lifted reverently as a chalice, the long slow blissful tug—as at some vast celestial teat—the rumblings and gulpings and swallowings that accompanied it, the soulful "ah" which sprang unbidden from the inner man, followed by a calm beatific expression, with lidded half-closed eyes.

Even the idlest bit of conversation was apt to bring on a full-dress drama: eager noddings of the head, shruggings of the shoulders, Gallic wavings of the arms and thrustings of the hands, thumbs suddenly hooked this way or that to indicate someone or something an inch or a thousand miles away; assorted whinnies, leers, grins of triumph and delight, grimaces of sympathy and sudden pain, wistful pauses; tugs at the neck, sudden digs in the listener's ribs.... I felt not unlike an uneasy Frédéric Chopin who, once finding himself marooned among the Scottish gentry, later told of "watching them talk and listening to them drink."

In a curiously inoffensive way these men plainly assumed they were squarely at the center of their universe; everything flowed and revolved around and about this pulsing central core. Their frequent detached references to themselves in the third person was all part of it. I found myself envying them their sturdy truce with their world, their fatalistic optimism—or was it optimistic fatalism? I also longed to feel just a fraction as sure of my own world.

And endlessly, obsessively they talked about their work: mining ore, burrowing drifts, erecting log cribbing, pushing heavy trams—which they called buggies, or rather "boogies"—crimping dynamite caps, 'ammering drills, setting off massive earth-shaking blasts—all this accompanied by vehement arm-wavings and strident neck-corded shouts. The din was incredible. Through it all a toiling Jack Tregembo beamed benignly as the little bell rang merrily on the wooden cash drawer.

The man they called Matt Eddy suddenly emitted a profound belch, and when the reverberations had died away all of them were eagerly off and away....

"Thar she blaws, mates! Steady the boat, lads, an' man the 'arpoon!"

"Jack must av pumped 'ot air 'stead av beer in me glass," Matt proudly declaimed, elaborately puffing out his cheeks. "Oney blawdy thing besides hinsults an' gab a body ever gets araoun' 'ere fer free."

"Saounds like the afternoon blast at ol' Number Two 'ole," another judiciously commented. "All kinds of ruction but damn little pay dirt."

"Mates," Jack cried out during a lull, "like I wos s'yin', this 'ere's young William Poe, the new lawyer fella daown at Marquette—where all the mining swells lives—a young gent who's fixin' to 'elp Marji Kawbawgam's daughter collect Marji's ol' claim against they there Jackson Company."


Excerpted from LAUGHING WHITEFISH by Robert Traver Copyright © 2011 by Kitchie Hill, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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