Poem by Ethel Mortenson Davis, essay by Tom Davis
the cedar grove
near the edge
of the lake.
It looks like
a bed between
Soon I must
take my rest
on the soft coverlet
of leaf litter,
a place reserved
in my name.
I woke up this morning, after a somewhat restless night, realizing what a blessed life I have been privileged to live. Richard, Snuffy, Dodge, a Menominee code talker who helped Navajo code talkers get from place to place in China and Southeast Asia during World War II as they found Japanese forces, traveled behind the blanket earlier this week, and his passing at the age of 94 has caused me to think about how many truly extraordinary people I have known.
I met Snuffy in 1973 when I was working as an English and History teacher at the Menominee County Community School on the Menominee Reservation in Wisconsin. One of the first of the Indian controlled schools that later morphed into the Bureau of Indian Education’s contract school system that funded tribes to operate their own school systems, the Community School was a seat-of-the-pants effort that I suspect both Snuffy and his highly intelligent wife Paula did not fully see as the history of Menominee education.
When the Menominee County Education Committee, however, led the effort to create the Indian controlled school district that came to be known as the Menominee Indian School District, Snuffy got elected to the first school board. Although I wanted to work at the new high school, the Superintendent, whom I had helped get the job, did not hire me. Ironically, that led to me getting to know Snuffy better than would have happened otherwise and helped enrich my life.
The job I got after failing to get a teaching job at the school district was as the first Director of Planning for the Menominee Restoration Committee that was restoring the Menominee Nation after the disastrous termination policy that had decimated the tribe’s fortunes during the Dwight Eisenhower presidency. In that job I started working extensively with Gordon Burr, a Stockbridge tribal member, who was also working closely on Comprehensive Education and Training Act (CETA) efforts with all of Wisconsin’s thirteen tribes. Snuffy was also working closely with Gordon, and the three of us started an effort to help first Menominee, then all of Wisconsin’s tribes, for the next several years.
After a year working for Menominee, I joined Gordon to work at the Great Lakes Indian Tribal Consortium, and Snuffy, I, and Gordon raised millions of dollars in CETA, Economic Development Administration (EDA), State of Wisconsin, and Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds for tribal projects. We traveled together a lot, working at the state legislature in Madison, developing projects on various Reservations, and writing what seemed to be an endless stream of proposals. The truth is that Snuffy and Gordon were both gifts to Wisconsin Indian tribes during those years, and the three of us, and our families, developed close bonds.
The stories I can tell about Snuffy are pretty close to endless. One of my favorites was when he was in Chicago working with the Regional EDA Administrator who was also named Dick Dodge. He was in EDA Dick Dodge’s office talking to him about a project he and I were working on when the administrator got an “urgent phone call.” With Snuffy sitting in his office, the EDA Dick Dodge’s eyes got really big, and he bellowed out, “They did what?” It turned out that a Michigan tribe had developed a hog operation as an economic development project, and one of the project’s administrators had got the idea to fund a tribal feast, and he’d managed to provide the breeding hogs for the feast, destroying the project.
If that wasn’t an unfortunate time for a representative trying to get funding for an economic development project for a Wisconsin tribe to be in that office, I don’t know what unfortunate means, but Snuffy always knew how to smile and laugh and get people off their high horse into a serious negotiation, and the upshot of the story is that we got that grant funded. EDA Dick Dodge was not pleased, but he was working with Snuffy Dick Dodge, and surely that meant that things would work out okay.
The most important project Snuffy and I tackled together was when the Ho Chunk in Lake Delton wanted to take control over the Stand Rock Indian Ceremonial where they had performed for decades so that they could get the economic benefit for what they had made possible. We worked with Dells Boat Company and other business leaders in the Dells, as well as the American Legion that had originally started up the Ceremonial, and helped to make that happen. The Neesh-La Indian Development Corporation that we worked with Alberta Day, the President of the Corporation, and other Ho Chunk people from the area to create, is still operating successfully today.
There are simply so many stories. During our travels Snuffy would always want to eat out at higher class restaurants where he could have a glass of Chablis, and Gordon preferred down-home cooking at what were in essence greasy spoons. The battles always put me in the middle, although neither one of them ever got angry at the other one or me when they didn’t get their way that day. Snuffy always read the Wall Street Journal every day, stopping at a news stand when we were on the road so that he could check on the stock he was invested in and check up on the news of the day. These are the small things that loom big when you look back and contemplate what has long passed by.
One of the most memorable times of my life was when Ethel, Paula, Snuffy, and I took a trip to Atlanta, GA one year over the Smoky Mountains, enjoying each other’s company. We were doing the Neesh-La project at that point and trying to learn more about the tourist industry and how it worked. We learned a lot at the convention we attended, but we enriched all our lives by making a magical trip together.
No short essay is going to illuminate any extraordinary individual’s life, of course. Richard Snuffy Dodge was a delightful human being who was complex and intelligent and forward-thinking all at the same time. When Ethel and I visited him and Paula for the last time, we talked about the past, and he gave me a long hug, even though he was already having trouble eating at that point, as we left their house in Keshena for our home in Sturgeon Bay.
As I said, this morning I woke up after a troubled night and realized just how blessed a life I have lived with Ethel, my children, and all the extraordinary people I have been privileged to have known.