Scenes from a life:
The 7-year-old had just moved to Madison with his family.
His teacher introduced him to his class. It was the 1960s.
“This is Billy. He’s from an Indian reservation. So I’d like you all to talk a little slower.”
His reaction was instant hate, and when kids teased him for his mohawk-style haircut, he lashed out violently. He spent a lot of time in the principal’s office.
Some years later, a group of young men from the Bad River Reservation in northern Wisconsin crammed themselves into a Volkswagen to visit nearby Ashland.
People stared, and more than once, they called out an ugly, oft-repeated slur: “timber n------s.”
Experiences such as this reinforced what Billy Bob Grahn was taught growing up on the reservation: Don’t show who you are when you’re out in white society.
Flash forward several decades and many stories later.
Grahn is sitting in a parking lot in downtown Janesville, wondering if he should join a group that was meeting across the street. They were planning Peace Park as a monument for peace and unity of nations and against hate.
He sat in his car, not daring to go in, week after week, as the Diversity Action Team of Rock County met.
They finally noticed him and invited him in.
“My life hasn’t been the same since,” he said of the journey that started that day.
It’s a journey that involves leaving hate behind and reaching out to people he once feared.
His latest step was to sing during opening ceremonies of the Chicagoland Speedway’s NASCAR race in Joliet, Illinois, on June 30.
He sang a song that opens every gathering of his people. One if its names is “The Flag Song.”
“It’s kind of like our national anthem,” he said.
Grahn sang in his native Ojibwe. The words speak of welcoming all peoples, something he wasn’t comfortable with earlier in life.
The song was part of a ceremony honoring veterans. Sailors in their dress whites stood at attention beside him as he sang.
“I was petrified,” Grahn recalled, because he still feels his early lessons: “You don’t stick your toe out in public.”
The ceremony included The Star-Spangled Banner and the U.S. flag alongside Native American eagle staffs, representing different tribes.
It was a milestone of sorts—the first time Native Americans had been invited to participate at the opening ceremonies of a NASCAR race, said Michael Pamonicutt of Burlington.
Pamonicutt is Grahn’s elder, or spiritual guide.
The event came as Americans are still struggling to reconcile the fact that professional sports teams display logos and names that most Native Americans find offensive.
Pamonicutt has worked with the Chicago Blackhawks pro hockey team, which has reached out in recent years to Native Americans to address the mascot issue.
Native Americans generally are opposed to the Washington Redskins’ name, which they see as disrespectful. And most abhor Chief Wahoo, the Cleveland Indians’ mascot, who is scheduled to be retired next year.
The Blackhawks, obviously sensing a problem, have reached out.
“They were willing to learn, and they wanted to do everything right,” Pamonicutt said.
One of the things they learned was that people dancing around in feathered headdresses is disrespectful. Those feathers are sacred.
A few fans still wear headdresses, but it’s nothing like years ago, Pamonicutt said.
The Blackhawks welcome information tables at games, and the team has included historical information about Chief Black Hawk on its website.
It also supports activities at Chicago’s American Indian Center.
Pamonicutt has been invited to Blackhawks events. He’s even become friends with hockey great Bobby Hull.
Not every Native American is satisfied with the Blackhawks, their logo or a mascot named Tommy Hawk, said Pamonicutt’s wife, Theresa Seidl.
“It’s probably 50-50,” she said.
But the Blackhawks invite Native American veterans when they honor those who have served, something that is of prime importance in native culture—the first thing done at any powwow, Grahn said.
The Blackhawks once invited Grahn to sing at a game. He was not able to go because of previous commitment.
Pamonicutt pushes Grahn to expand his outreach activities, which have included a plea to the Janesville School Board to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day.
He especially loves to teach children about his people.
He has joined his people’s protests of oil pipelines across reservation lands and the now-abandoned iron mine once planned in northern Wisconsin.
Grahn was thrilled to see people from all walks of life and nationalities joining in the protests to protect land and water—something that affects all of them, he said.
“People have started realizing it’s not just the ‘crazy Indians.’ The ‘crazy Indians’ were hootin’ and hollerin’ for all of us,” he said.
Grahn is also a member of a drum—a group that performs the sacred songs heard at powwows and other ceremonies.
He carries a staff covered with eagle feathers, each one representing a member of his people who served in the military. One feather has a notch cut in it, showing the man died in battle.
Another feather, which he removed from the staff because it was deteriorating, represents his father.
The three red stripes painted on the feather symbolize the two times his father was wounded in World War II and the time he was a prisoner of war.
His father has died, but when eagle staffs enter a powwow, the belief is, those warriors are there with their people.
Grahn’s journey has taken him far and his hate has waned, but his early teachings are still with him.
“I really only feel comfortable when I’m on the reservation,” he said. “But it’s getting easier.”