book review - Laughing WhitefishA timely reprinting of the 1965 novel by Robert Traver, which was the nom-de-plume for Justice John D. Voelker.  Laughing Whitefish is a fictionalization of a late nineteenth-century series of Michigan court cases that helped solidify the American legal principle that State laws and courts did not have jurisdiction over tribal law. The story focusses on William (Willy) Poe’s efforts to sue the Jackson Mining Company for its failure to compensate Charlotte (Lotti) Kawbawgam/ Laughing Whitefish after she inherited a document outlining shares her father, Marj, earned for guiding prospectors to an iron-ore deposit. Traver draws on actual testimony, court records, and other documents relating from the original cases for his novel. The novel deftly illustrates how ore deposits were “discovered” – with the help of a knowledgeable Indian guide; how white labourers treated Indians – badly; how judges viewed tribal law – inferior; and, how lawyers, often unschooled in Indian law, stumble into important cases.  At the very least Laughing Whitefish is a good read as well as an excellent reminder about how, more than a century ago, mining interests managed to push Indians aside to gain lucrative sites and how occasionally our people can prevail in foreign courts.

Robert Traver, Laughing Whitefish: A Tale of Justice and Anishinaabe Custom. With a forward by Matthew L. M. Fletcher.  East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2011.

— By Karl Hele