Paul DeMain had been a journalist for about a year when the FBI came to serve search warrants near Hayward on the chairman of the Lac Courte Oreilles tribe.
It was 1977. DeMain was in his early 20s and still new to the reservation. He’d been brought there by the tribal chairman to work as the communications director for the tribe and the editor of a new tribal newspaper, the Lac Courte Oreilles Journal American.
DeMain watched the FBI agents send those working in the office home for the day while they seized boxes of documents. He took a call from the chairman, his boss, who said he wanted to clear up “rumors” that there had been a raid. He told DeMain what to write in the news release for the Sawyer County Record.
“Blah blah blah blah blah,” DeMain summarized. “There are no FBI agents here. They are not confiscating documents. They are not serving search warrants.”
DeMain dutifully wrote and sent the news release.
“An hour later,” he said, “I sent a second news story out, describing how the police had arrived at 11:25 a.m. and served a search warrant on the tribal government, and (FBI agents) were taking documents and records” from the chairman’s office.”
The moral of the story, as DeMain tells it now: “That’s the difference between a public relations employee and a newspaper editor.”
DeMain made for a lousy public relations employee, but he became a great newspaper editor.
He would spend decades as one of the most prolific and important Native American journalists in the country. He would cover tribal news across the country and break a series of stories relating to 1970s radical Leonard Peltier that challenged some deeply held loyalties. Now DeMain is at the end of his career as a newspaper publisher, and a crossroads in his life.
The 1977 FBI raid would lead to tribal Chairman Odric Baker’s forced resignation the next year. DeMain would stay on with the tribal newspaper until 1983, when he’d go to Madison to serve as tribal liaison in the administration of Gov. Tony Earl.
Returning to Sawyer County in 1986, he would launch News from Indian Country, an independent Native American newspaper that would grow to become one of a small handful of Native outlets with national and international reach.
For a time his company Indian Country Communications — which published the newspaper as well as special publications, a website and an internet news broadcast — would be one of the largest employers on the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation.
In August, DeMain published the newspaper’s last issue. The publication saw the same declines in revenue as the mainstream newspaper industry. It would have been possible to continue publishing for a few more years, DeMain said, but the trajectory was unmistakable.
But at 64, DeMain is ready for his own next chapter.
News from Indian Country provided a digest of stories about Native American communities from coast to coast and beyond, including stories from indigenous communities across Canada, in New Zealand and elsewhere.
Patty Loew, a longtime broadcast journalist in Wisconsin who now heads the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research at Northwestern University, said its work helped to show common threads and common challenges among these disparate indigenous communities.
“I would have to read a thousand copies of the New York Times or the Washington Post in order to get the concentrated number of indigenous-related stories” that came in an issue of News from Indian Country, Loew said.
Anna Mae Pictou Aquash was 30 years old in 1976 when she was shot and killed on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. She’d been active with the American Indian Movement and was having an affair with one of AIM’s leaders, Dennis Banks. Another AIM leader, Leonard Peltier, had been arrested in Canada just weeks before on charges that he killed two FBI agents during a 1975 shootout at Pine Ridge.
Peltier would be convicted, though questions around his trial persist.
No one would be charged in Aquash’s death for decades.
For decades, Peltier was a cause célèbre throughout the Native community and across like-minded groups. News from Indian Country published stories about the case, about fundraisers for Peltier’s legal defense, about celebrities who lent their support.
“The idea that Peltier was an innocent man was almost a universal feeling at some point,” DeMain said.
By contrast, not many people outside of a few circles in the Native community people spared a thought for Aquash. To the extent anyone did think of her, many of them blamed her death, like Peltier’s conviction, on the FBI.
In early 2001, Banks’ ex-wife, Ka-Mook Nichols, visited DeMain on the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation. She had moved multiple times, in part out of fear of AIM members. She would meet him in Denver six months later for a lengthy interview. Nichols knew DeMain’s reputation as a journalist. And she knew things about both Peltier and Aquash.
DeMain worked with fellow Native American journalists Richard LaCourse and Minnie Two Shoes to track down multiple sources who had heard Peltier brag about killing the two FBI agents.
Together, the three journalists spoke to countless sources, reviewed documents compiled by the U.S. Department of Justice. In January 2002, they published evidence that not only had Peltier bragged to Aquash about shooting the two agents, but also that it was that conversation that led others within AIM to kill her in order to protect Peltier.
DeMain’s reporting would spur new investigations into Aquash’s death, including the convictions of two AIM members found to have been tangentially involved. It would also change the way many saw Peltier.
DeMain’s Ojibwe name is Skabewis, which means “The Messenger.” He got it from a mentor, the Lac Courte Oreilles elder James “Pipe” Mustache, for whom DeMain served as a driver for years after he came to the reservation, chauffeuring him to ceremonial functions and meeting many tribal leaders and elders in the process. It was an experience that helped define DeMain, and he still thinks often about how he can serve as a messenger to his community.
When it came to Peltier, DeMain said, “I brought a message that nobody wanted to hear.”
But maybe, he adds, no one would have listened if it had come from someone else.
Now DeMain is adjusting to life without newspaper deadlines. He’s able to pick up his grandkids from school and to spend time on his land. His life has a different rhythm.
“I was anxious about money, anxious about shutting the business down, anxious about a lot of things,” DeMain said. “The answer is to really try to live each day as it comes. I’ve got food, shelter, people who love me. I’m OK. Let’s get through today, and live it to the best.”