In Firekeeper’s Daughter, Daunis, an 18-year-old Ojibwe teen, finds herself caught up in an undercover FBI investigation into a suspected meth cell whose product has been decimating her community for a year or more. The investigation is emotionally difficult for Daunis, as she realizes that she and FBI agents Ron and Jamie are working toward very different goals. Ron and Jamie want to root out the meth cell members and prosecute them in federal court, with no regard for how this might devastate the Sugar Island Ojibwe community. Daunis, on the other hand, wants to follow her tribe’s teachings, which consider the long-term consequences of one’s actions, focus on healing, and protect traditional medicinal knowledge that she fears the FBI would misuse or misunderstand. Despite their differing views, though, Ron, Jamie, and Daunis all ultimately agree that getting justice is in no way simple. How, and whether or not, a person receives justice is tied to a variety of identity markers such as their sex, legal affiliations, and status in the community.
It's devastating for Daunis to discover that one of the meth ring leaders is her beloved half-brother, Levi. Daunis gradually discovers that Levi, the captain of the Sault’s elite youth hockey team, has used his status as the town’s “golden boy” to avoid taking responsibility for various crimes—and has routinely allowed friends to take the fall for him. Levi’s involvement and that of his mom Dana, the first Native Tribal Judge in the area, show Daunis how easily power corrupts—and how the very people tasked with carrying out justice, whether they be Native like Dana or federal agents like Ron and Jamie, can easily fail. Still, Daunis also realizes it’s not right that Mike, the white hockey player at the top of the meth cell, escapes, suffering no consequences for drug crimes and potential murder—and leaving Levi and another Native player to potentially serve years of jail time. Finally, Daunis has to grapple with the painful fact that due to how tribal and federal laws interact, her status as an enrolled tribal member leaves her with no legal recourse when wealthy and white Grant Edwards rapes her on tribal land. This makes it painfully real for her how little justice Native women historically get for the crimes committed against them, particularly when white men are the aggressors. Justice, Daunis discovers, is in no way straightforward or guaranteed—and it’s seldom, if ever, actually fair.
Justice Quotes in Firekeeper’s Daughter
Maybe it isn’t about helping the FBI, but about protecting my community. Can I do one without the other? If I don’t sign on, they will find someone else to be their confidential informant.
Jamie is right—I know science and Ojibwe culture. I also know that I am strong enough to do this. There is one more thing I know…My definition of being a good Secret Squirrel is not the same as theirs.
Maybe there isn’t one investigation taking place, but two.
Theirs. And mine.
I sign the agreement.
“The FBI had been investigating meth activity. The incident in Minnesota was unusual enough for the FBI to look into the different substances being added during production.”
“Do you know how the kids are doing now?” I hope their community has good resources to help them.
When Jamie admits he doesn’t know, it reinforces how different we are. The FBI is interested in learning what caused the group hallucination. I want to know if the kids are okay.
“She used to be Heather Swanson,” I say. “Everyone knew her dad was Joey Nodin, but he denied it. Supposedly he threatened Heather’s mom when she asked for child support. But once the casino opened and the Tribe started paying per cap, Joey claimed paternity and enrolled Heather in the Tribe. People say Joey paid her mom’s shady boyfriend to set her up for a drug bust so she would lose custody. The custodial parent gets the kid’s minor money.”
Each tribe has the sovereign right to determine who is a member. My best friend couldn’t get enrolled because of the way the Sugar Island Ojibwe Tribe’s enrollment office calculated Indian blood quantum: fractions of Indian blood based on lineage. Granny June’s first husband was from a First Nations band in Canada, so Lily’s pedigree didn’t meet the standard. Too many ancestors from across the river, not the right kind of Indian blood. Granny filed an appeal with Tribal Council, telling them, No one told me I wasn’t supposed to snag on that side of the river. We were here before that border existed. Every one of yous got cousins over there. But Council rejected her appeal for Lily’s membership application.
“Hold on. When you say ‘we,’ you don’t mean you and me. You mean the FBI,” I say, mouthing the initials while pretending to rub my nose so no one can read my lips. “Jamie, don’t you remember what my aunt told us about making some workers stay late to fix the owl T-shirts? They learned about the problem and had ownership in the solution? We have to fix it. The community, not the”—my hand hides my mouth from the room again—“FBI.”
I am overcome with deep gratitude as I sit here next to Auntie before the fire. Auntie has shown me how to be a strong Nish kwe—full of love, anger, humor, sorrow, and joy. Not as something perfect: She is a woman who is complex and sometimes exhausted, but mostly brave. She loves imperfect people fiercely.
“I’m not just some emotional entanglement,” I say. “Jamie and I can handle being part of the investigation and having something that’s not so neatly defined.”
Ron shakes his head. He’s frustrated, I think, but what else can he say about it?
“Daunis, you do get that there is no actual Jamie Johnson, right? There is just a rookie officer who will do anything it takes to redeem himself after his first UC assignment went to hell. Including using you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Jamie was the one who proposed that he get close to you.”
My heart skips a beat.
I tip the basket upside down. Staring at the floor where Dad’s scarf lands.
Green, like my mother’s eyes.
Levi kept it from me. He had it all along.
Nibwaakaawin. Auntie told me the translation, breaking down each part of the word so it made perfect sense: To be wise is to live with an abundance of sight.
My whole life I’ve wanted to be like my aunt. The way a person dreams about being a ballerina, but not of broken toes and years of practice. I wanted to be a strong and wise Nish kwe, never considering how that abundance of sight would be earned.
I wanted to find out who was involved in the meth madness that took Lily and Uncle David. Robin and Heather, too. And the kids in Minnesota who got so sick from meth-X.
The person I was searching for this whole time was Levi.
Wisdom is not bestowed. In its raw state, it is the heartbreak of knowing things you wish you didn’t.
“Does your family know what you do? Going undercover in tribal communities?”
“They know I work for the FBI,” Ron tells her. “My sister thinks it’s dangerous. My cousins think I’m a sellout. I do this work because we need good people working at the agencies that help tribes.”
Auntie snorts. “Scariest words ever spoken: ‘I’m from the federal government and I’m here to help.’”
He cries. I don’t soothe him. He needs to feel this, and I need to hear it. Investigations involve real people. Informants face real risks. Developing real feelings for me doesn’t wash away that he was willing to use me, a girl he didn’t know, to pursue a case and get a career boost.
Powwows are not ceremonies, and yet there is something restorative about the gathering of our community. The collective spirit of our tribal nation coming together, sharing songs and fellowship with others. It’s our annual powwow, the third weekend in August, and my community needs healing now more than ever.
As my aunt tells the story, a large basket is passed around the inner circle. I take a yellow pansy and pass the basket to Auntie. I watch as women approach the fire, each one offering a pansy.
As I release the pansy, I think about what Grant Edwards did to me and say my silent prayer. There is comfort in watching the smoke rise to the full moon.
When I return to my seat, Granny June holds my hand.
“Liliban was thankful each year that you weren’t here,” she says.
“Wait. She was here?” My heart breaks.
“Yes, my girl. Ever since she came to live with me.”
I cry for my best friend and the secrets she wanted to protect me from.