In The Limelight
Billy Bob Grahn
Story and Interview by Teresa Nguyen
I have hope for our people. I have a lot more hope today than I did ten years ago. When I started the campaign for Indigenous Day, I was floored when the Janesville City Council voted on the change. Then Beloit followed, then city after city. ~ Billy Bob Grahn
Founder of the Red Road House in Janesville
Original Member of Fourth Ward Neighborhood Action Team
Vice-Chair of Janesville Mobilizing 4 Change
Board Member of Diversity Action Team
Member of Allies of Native Nations
Former Rock County Board Supervisor
Former Peace Park Development Committee Member
Native Cultures Advocate, Activist and Educator
For the past three and a half years, while seeking out inspiring community folks to interview, I've often been asked to interview Billy Bob Grahn. At the time, I didn’t know Billy Bob, though I had read about him in the paper and had heard of him through conversations with mutual friends.
Finally, this summer, I was hanging out with all the Janesville groupies of artist Jeff Henriquez at the newest downtown mural, when I spotted Billy Bob. He was in his folding chair, calmly seated with a front row view of this larger than life, emerging mural featuring a Black woman and an Indian woman, highlighting diversity and women's history. He was watching local history unfold before his very eyes.
Billy Bob was often seen at Jeff’s other mural, the Black Hawk Mural, witnessing the progress, chatting with Jeff and sometimes advising him on cultural aspects in the paintings. As a Wisconsin Ojibwe member, his heart must have filled with pride to see these works of public art develop, art that depicts his people, his culture, those who also endured so much of the same suffering as his own ancestors of northern Wisconsin.
After some small chit chat, I confessed to Billy Bob that I’d been trying to track him down for an interview. We laughed a bit and, in his kind and gentle way, said he was open to the idea. I seized the opportunity and did the interview right then and there. My chase had finally come to an end!
In the early 20th century, Indian advocates Dr. Arthur C. Parker, a Seneca Indian, and Red Fox James, a Blackfoot Indian, worked to get various governments to set aside a period of time to honor American Indians.
It wasn’t until 1990 that President George H. W. Bush approved a joint resolution designating November as “National American Indian Heritage Month.”
I asked Billy Bob about the various terms used to describe his people - from Indians to American Indians, Native Americans and Indigenous. As a writer who truly cares about the authenticity of my stories, I wanted to ask Billy Bob which term he preferred, rather than to assume I knew better. He identifies with being Indian, so that is the term I will use throughout this story. Political correctness can go too far if it begins to erase one’s identity and especially if it is not decided upon by the very people we are describing.
It seems appropriate to share Billy Bob’s story now, as we take some time to relax and reflect during this Thanksgiving break. Due to the pandemic, we may all be celebrating in a variety of new ways in 2020.
Nonetheless, we still honor this tradition, which dates all the way back to November of 1621, when the newly arrived, white settlers shared a feast with the Wampanoag Indians at Plymouth, Massachusetts. Interestingly, so much of that tradition is not appropriately reflective of the true history - from the meal to all that happened to the Indian tribes in that area. But more on that later.
Billy Bob is a member of the Bad River Chippewa band and was born on the Bad River Reservation. The following is a brief overview.
The Chippewa and Bad River Reservation
The Chippewa, or Ojibwe Nation, is one of the three largest Indian nations in North America. The Ojibwe were culturally known as semi-nomadic hunters, fishermen and gatherers.
The Bad River Reservation was established by the 1854 Treaty of Lapointe with the U.S. government. It is located along the beautiful shores of Lake Superior and Chequamegon bay.
At 124,459 Acres, Bad River is the largest Chippewa reservation in the state. Winters are long and cold, while summers are short and warm and precipitation is high throughout the year, as the climate is largely affected by Lake Superior and the surrounding forests.
The tribe has approximately 7,000 members, of whom about 1,800 live on the Bad River Reservation. (According to the 2000 census). The main religions are Catholicism, Methodism and Midewiwin.
The teachings of the ancestors follow the Seven Values of the Anishinaabe; wisdom, love, respect, bravery, honesty, humility and truth.
An Inspiring Interview with Billy Bob Grahn
The Early Years
I’m from the Bad River Reservation in northern Wisconsin. If you take one step out, you’d fall into Lake Superior, so it’s way up there. That’s where I was born and my given name is not Billy Bob. It is Minaadiz Waawaashkeshi, which means Proud Deer.
What many people don’t understand is that I lost my Indian name. Like so many others, I was not allowed to use my given name and was given an English name. I once saw a family tree with many elder relatives with Ojibwe names. About ten years later, they were all given names like Paul, George, John and other English names.
Bad River Reservation in northern Wisconsin
There’s a deep bitterness left over from this and from so many worse things that have happened to the Indian people.
In those first few years, around the age of 4 or 5, we all piled into one vehicle to drive into Ashland, the nearest town. As we pulled into town, there were chants coming from people on the streets and in the stores, “Here come the Timber N*****s again!” This would have been around 1959 or 1960.
To this day, I still don’t have words to describe the poverty. Real poverty! Once a month, a food commodity truck would come in and you’d get your rations of cans that were supposed to last until the next month, when the truck would come back.
We knew what it was like to feel hunger and to not sleep because of it. I remember at Thanksgiving; a lot of people would just turn their TV sets on and watch a football game. When I was a kid, it was my job to go haul firewood. On the reservation, the power and light poles didn’t even reach our community. They ended on the edge of the reservation. There was no running water and, of course, no lights. That was daily life on the reservation.
60% of the people usually end up leaving to find jobs. Many end up in Milwaukee. We left our home and came down to Madison, when I was a young child.
The children of the reservation attend school in nearby Ashland, with all white, American teachers.
Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Flag
After moving, it was my first day of school in Madison and my teacher said, “Boys and girls, this is our new student and his name is Billy. I would like you all to talk a little louder and slower, because he comes from an Indian Reservation, and you know how those kids are.”
I don’t know where it came from, but I felt instant hate. It only went downhill after that.
School never was a “promising career” for me. I attended high school in Madison, but that didn’t last long. I became so tired of the taunting, teasing and bullying, it was really too much. It was so bad that I finally quit school.
The Darkness of Addiction
You hear those stereotypical stories of the “drunken Indian”. Well, that was me. I became that person. It was much easier to be drunk and stupid than to try and fit into society.
I went in and out of outpatient treatment programs 41 times! And, for some reason, I didn’t even know I was an alcoholic. The last time I went through treatment, I was with 16 other guys. Two years later, I was the only one still alive!
Meanwhile, I was married and had 3 children. These are the people I loved the most, and yet, I took them into homelessness with me. The same type of life that I had growing - up, no food, no stable housiing - I was dragging my family through it.
The marriage didn’t last. But, after I sobered up, we never missed a PTA meeting or an after-school event. Now we share grandchildren and every week I spend time with them.
I ended up here in Janesville on a drunk morning downtown. When I woke up, I thought, “Oh my God, I can’t take another step! I’m an alcoholic.” But, sadly, it was still eight more years before I cleaned up.
One day, one of my elders pulled me aside and chewed me up one side and down the other! He told me that I have “a say” in my life, my own control. I had no idea!
He was one of those elders who, when he talked, only he talked. And I listened. I listened to these words for the first time. And because of this, I became active in my recovery. I went to a lot of meetings, a lot of counseling.
I was 35. This year I celebrated 30 years of sobriety!
Billy Bob and Miss Molly
The Eagle Feather
Growing up in an Indian community, there’s this hope that someday someone will gift you an eagle feather. Up until 35, I was a drunk and they didn’t even want me on the reservation! But, when I was 36, cleaning up and sober, an elder came and gifted me an eagle feather. This is how it is done. There are no instructions in a book and there’s no filling out a form. It has to be determined by an elder, as to when and where.
I thought, “Holy moly! I got an eagle feather!” I was so excited. But, do you know what my first job with it was? I was supposed to figure out who I would gift it to. I had to learn what to look for in a person.
For me, one of the main characteristics I look for is courage. For example, a person who is willing to work to make a difference for themselves and others is a sign of courage. One can be an addict, but if they’re working to change that, this is the courage I want to see. Or, it might be someone who is out trying to help others without hesitation, without expectations.
Now, I carry about 63 feathers and 98% were gifted to me. I’m an eagle staff carrier. It’s a high honor. It’s the first thing that comes into any pow wow, I dance into the pow wow with it. It is called upon a lot for Indian veterans events and such. When it comes out, it is very meaningful. Every time I pick it up to go somewhere with it, I have go through an ordeal.
Because of the religious and cultural significance of eagle feathers, the law allows members of federally recognized tribes to own eagle feathers. But first, eligible Indians must first get a permit to own and receive eagle feathers. If anyone is caught with an eagle feather, it’s a $10,000 per eagle feather! I have 22 eagle feathers on that staff. That would be $220,000 if I don’t have these permits!
I have to make sure I have my federal tribal ID and that U.S. federal permit to carry the staff. It frustrates me, because this is OUR way of living and OUR culture, but yet these permits and requirements are coming down from the U.S. government. If I want to go to my church, I have to have these permits with me!
Photo by Kim Hoholek
Red Road House, Helping Others
Because of my own recovery, I founded the Red Road House here in Janesville. The tribe gave me the okay to use the term Red Road House. It’s a very spiritual term in the Indian nation. They said to me, “You may use the name, but there’s one condition. You have to leave your doors open for ANY race.”
When I was growing up, I was taught to hate. It was ingrained in our minds. And NOW they were telling me, "You can’t hate these people, you have to welcome them into your house." It created a huge change in me and my outlook.
From the website: The "Red Road" is a spiritual path, one where a person strengthens the physical, mental, and spiritual aspects of life in order to achieve harmony. Anyone, of any race or religion, rich or poor, can walk the "Red Road." Achieving the Red Road's significance, or progress, will show itself almost at once in the way one acts, in the methods one uses to live life daily, and in the spiritual relationship one has with their creator. The Red Road is more than spoken words or written words. It is a behavior, an attitude, a way of living, and the expression of faith. It means walking strong, yet softly, so as not to harm or disturb other life.
Just as the "Red Road" offers so many different healing and harmonizing aspects to those who travel it, the Red Road House Transitional Housing Program provides the time and safe environment in which all residents can realize that they can change their lives and develop a relationship with their creator.
The Red Road House is a program which I founded 28 years ago. I realized that the services for recovery were truly lacking.
A sketch of the Red Road House
The Red Road House is a beacon of hope for those that don’t have access to, or can’t afford, traditional treatment programs. It is a housing program for addicts who need long term care. I put it together basically with bubble gum - with no money.
The house is up by the Five Points on Locust Street. It’s open to anyone, male or female. We welcome all nationalities and races. The only disqualifications are if one has sexual charges or arson charges.
I created a mission for the residents - If you claim to be alcoholic and an addict, then you better do something about it. Period. At the Red Road House, there are a lot of house rules, curfews, recovery rules and such. They have to attend so many meetings a week, as well.
The most difficult part of the whole thing is to get funding. Literally, there is no funding for these guys. It’s a source of frustration.
To donate to the nonprofit Red Road House, click on this PayPal link or one can write a check to the Red Road House and mail to 152 S Locust St, Janesville, WI 53548
Billy Bob, founder of the Red Road House
I do sing with two Indian drums (a drumming/singing group). One group is called Seven Springs and the other is called All Nation Drum. We are from all sorts of tribes, you name it. For some reason, I am able to really feel things when I’m singing. I realized that you need to be clean and sober to sing and play in a drum ceremony. You can’t dishonor the drum or the songs. Many of the songs are over 300 years old!
There’s a favorite song called The Summer Song. As you’re singing it, the lyrics describe a meadow and kids playing and, as you go through the song, the children come closer and you’re sharing with them and they’re sharing with you. It’s a really special piece.
We performed a drum when the Black Hawk Mural was finished back in 2019 and we performed again when Jeff's newest, Diversity and Women’s History Mural, was completed in the summer of 2020. To get everyone together for these ceremonies can often be a challenge.
Up until the pandemic, we were performing and singing at an event almost every weekend. Our gigs take us all over Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan.
Our drum has taken us to the United Nations in New York a few times. In 2018, I had the opportunity to sing an opening song for the Chicagoland Speedway’s NASCAR race in Joliet, Illinois!
It all came about when I was with about 20 elders when the question was asked, “Who’s going to sing our anthem?” They all took one step backward and I was standing there by myself. They said, “You’re it!” So, I ended up singing that at the Chicagoland Nascar Race.
It was the first time Indians had been invited to participate at the opening ceremonies of a NASCAR race. I sang a song called “The Flag Song” in Ojibwe. It’s like our national anthem and is about welcoming all peoples.
Billy Bob in the drum ceremony at the Black Hawk Mural in Janesville. Photo by Kim Hoholek
It was for a ceremony honoring our veterans, they are our “ogidjidas” (warriors). My dad served in WWII, was wounded twice. He was also a prisoner of war.
When I sing, you could light off a bomb and I wouldn’t know it. I go out in left field when I’m singing. It is my sanctuary. But, with the pandemic, I really haven’t sung much since March.
The New Murals
When Jeff was working on the Black Hawk Mural, I talked to my elder about it and talked to other Indian friends. I was prepared for backlash from the community. A lot of times, this community is not noted for embracing diversity and culture. But, every day, more and more people came to downtown Janesville, down to the mural to visit.
Janesville's Black Hawk Mural by Jeff Henriquez
Photo by Kim Hoholek
In the end, I was hesitant, but we did our drum event there, the smudging and all. We have to protect our instruments and our songs and ourselves and I wasn’t sure what would happen with a crowd around us. But, no one complained or hooted & hollered at us. No one called us names.
I thought it was a huge breakthrough for Janesville, for this to be so prominent, this large face of an Indian on the wall, and no one complained about it! It gave me new faith in my community.
Once I was sober, I began to get involved in the community. One of my first roles was serving as a Rock County Board Supervisor. The first few times there was incredibly painful. I thought, “If these people only knew who I really was.” One day I was the drunk in the street, and the next day I’m in this position! But I decided to run anyway and was elected. I was a new man, which was really hard to accept.
One of the things you have to do on the board is to take a turn starting the meeting with a prayer. It finally got to be my turn and I had the biggest fight with myself, “Should I, or shouldn’t I?” So, I stood up and did the prayer and the song in Ojibwe. When I sat down, the lady next to me elbowed me with a grin and whispered, “What the hell was that?” It was a friendly tease, and I felt welcomed. Just that gesture.
I explained to the group what it meant, a translation. And the next few times, when it was my turn, I did it again. I stayed true to myself.
I’m also Vice Chair for the Janesville Mobilizing for Change, and I’m part of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee (CJCC). What’s interesting about that committee is that the people on it are the judges, the sheriffs and the detectives and people from the probation department. I sometimes feel like I’m out in left field!
A cool thing happened in the early to mid-90s, when a group of people started meeting at the charter school with a plan to build a “Peace Park”. They wanted to combat the message of hate that gained national attention when a KKK rally was held in the Rockport Park area. Celebrity Geraldo Rivera came to Janesville and got caught up in a fight and was assaulted by one of the people at the rally.
The Peace Park Development Committee was looking for volunteers. I debated the idea and finally jumped in my car and drove down to the parking lot of the building where the committee was meeting. But I just sat in my car and did that for nine weeks in a row! I thought, “What do I have to offer?” That’s how I felt, I had so much self-doubt all my life growing up.
Peace Park in Janesville, WI
On the tenth week, a whole group of people from the committee walked across the parking lot toward me. They asked, “Are you going to come in or what?”
That opened up my world. I became involved with the project. They kept using this very “foreign language” with me. They’d say things like, “Hi, how ya’ doin’?” or “Hope to see you next week!” I really wasn’t used to that, such kindness. They asked me questions about how the park could properly represent the nations.
Because I have the power to give eagle feathers, there’s an eagle feather up there, on the top of that peace pole.
Another passion of mine was fulfilled when I became one of the founding members of the Fourth Ward Neighborhood Action Team. We recently put up a 300 lb. sterling butterfly behind Wilson Elementary School.
Billy Bob teaching students in the Beloit Fresh Start program.
Photo from Community Action, Inc.
I’ve been on the Diversity Action Team for about 15 years now. Sometimes I drive to Madison just to find more diversity, and I spend some time going up and down the State Street area.
Indigenous Day Activism
I’ve made a lot of effort in the past ten years to try and get cities to eliminate the celebration of “Columbus Day” and to adopt “Indigenous Day”. So far, I’ve helped to get 20 Wisconsin cities to sign a resolution to do so.
Last year, in 2019, Governor Evers signed the executive order declaring the second Monday in October Indigenous Peoples Day. In reading the order, I noticed that some of the wording he used was mine. I couldn’t believe it! That’s pretty cool.
To read our story on Indigenous Peoples Day, click the icon:
I’d like the story of Columbus Day removed from the school books, too. This guy, Columbus, never set foot in this country. Yet the lie is continually perpetuated.
The first time I brought it up to the school board, you would think I’d kicked the Pope! It has to be done and I believe the children can handle the truth.
That Iconic GM Photo
That photo went around the world! Because of what I do at Red Road House, GM would donate things to me like office supplies or business cards. That day, when the last of them rolled out, I was there waving a flag just to say thanks to all the workers for the difference they had made for us. Then this guy from the New York Times started talking to me. The photo ended up on the front page of the NY Times and I started getting calls from people overseas, friends in Japan and all over! And it made the cover of Amy Goldstein's book, Janesville - An American Story.
Reflecting on History
The Bureau of Indian Affairs was developed against the wishes of all Indian tribes. It came about because they started finding oil and minerals on our lands. It is the only agency in the federal government that has zero oversite on it. It’s just a big slush fund!
The reservations have a strong movement to get out the vote this year. They weren’t even given the right to vote until the passage of the Snyder Act in 1924, the citizenship bill.
Even then, it still took over forty years for all fifty states to allow Indians to vote! After the Voting Rights Act of 1965, many voting protections were reaffirmed and strengthened.
With this pandemic of 2020, there have been about a half dozen tribes out west who put up road blocks to keep people from coming into their reservations. The federal government tried to crack down on them, but they were not going to let this virus come into their community any more than it already had. The Indian tribes have been hit hard with the coronavirus.
Many of our people still walk around with a grudge. It happens after years, decades, centuries of aggression, abuses and wrongdoing - when your own language isn’t accepted anymore, when your own religion isn’t allowed and when the government, made of descendants of those who took this land from the Indians, tells you what you can and can’t do in your own land.
A lot of white people sometimes feel a kind of personal guilt about the tragedy of the Indian people.
But I tell people that what happened back then to the Indians by the white people, should have nothing to do with how you feel and how you act and how you carry yourself today.
Thoughts on Thanksgiving
As far as Thanksgiving goes, I had a hard time in school. I’d hear the stories of the elders and in school, I'd hear stories from my American teachers. They were two very different views. It still bothers me to this day that, when I was younger, some of the teachers thought it would be cute if some of the Indian students would dress as the pilgrims and the little white kids wore paper “Indian headbands” with feathers. Though it was many years ago, it still feels like it was ten minutes ago.
There was no Butterball turkey at the first feast. Anyone can look that up these days. Eel was a part of the feast, as well as venison. Now, we have our traditional foods, but it’s not entirely reflective of the first feast. We don’t talk about the history. It’s also painful to think about how most of those Indians at that first feast were murdered by the white settlers in the years following.
We were taught by the elders that one of the great gifts is to eat together, to come together and hopefully invite someone new to your table.
For me, every Thanksgiving I’m part of a group that performs a full ceremony. For the rest of the calendar days, just about every event in an Indian’s world involves a feast. There’s a lot of eating! You name the ceremony, there’s food involved. Even when we have a drum practice, we do a pot luck of food every time.
I do gather with my family and see my grandchildren. But at each Thanksgiving gathering, I take the time to say a few words about the real Thanksgiving.
Positive Changes for the People
I’ve seen some tribes working more and more with local towns and governments to improve relations. There have been a lot of positive changes just in the last couple of years.
The teachings of my people, those which I have learned, are from hundreds of years ago. I was gifted these teachings from the elders. All the stories I know came from the elders, sitting around the fires. There’s a movement to start to teach the Indian languages in the reservations’ schools again. I have hope in the younger generation.
Billy Bob performs an Indian ritual at a drum ceremony
Photo by Kim Hoholek
When I learn a song, it’s my duty to teach it to someone else, just like it was taught to me. I was told by the elders that if the time comes and we run out of singers, then that’s what the creator wanted…silence. I’m not fluent in my language, but I can make small conversations and I can sing and tell stories in Ojibwe. I am always learning the language. But I have to find other Indians to learn more and practice.
Back in the 80’s, there was like an 80% college failure rate for young people coming off the reservation. Now, more and more are graduating and coming back home as doctors and lawyers, helping the reservations - people who are making a difference.
I have hope for our people. I have a lot more hope today than I did ten years ago. When I started the campaign for Indigenous Day, I was floored when the Janesville City Council voted on the change. Then Beloit followed, then city after city.
I’m getting my seven grandchildren more involved. They range in age from 14 to 5. They are all aware of their heritage. I’ve taught them and shown them our culture, like it was given to me when I grew up. And I tell them there are always more stories, all they have to do is ask.
The Janesville Community
For me, becoming a member of the Peace Park Development Committee really turned my world upside down. I was taught to never stick your toe out. But it was a powerful thing. A simple “hi” changed my outlook and I found out how easy it is to just say “hi” and have positive interactions with those around me.
I learned that in Janesville, how such a small act of kindness can impact another person so profoundly. Because of my participation in that group, I started to stick my toe out more and more and became more involved. Next thing you know, I was sitting on the Rock County Board! It was an honor to be elected and to serve this community.