Republished 1965 novel still has much to say about Indian law
By any measure the career of John D. Voelker was a
phenomenal success. He was a successful author, having written the
bestseller “Anatomy of a Murder” (later made into a movie directed by
Otto Preminger and starring James Stewart, Lee Remick and George C.
Scott) and he was a member of the Michigan Supreme Court. But something
was gnawing at him.
As a younger man, he had heard a story about an Indian
woman who had, against all odds, taken on the white power structure of
the Upper Peninsula’s mining industry while seeking what she thought
was compensation owed to her family.
Voelker had always wanted to do a fictional treatment of
this real-life case, but the success of “Anatomy” and his job as a
justice had kept him too busy.
In an address to the Michigan Historical Society in 1970
he said his “neglected Indian story receded even further into the
In a brash move, Voelker decided he was fed up and had enough of the “baying dogs of success” — he quit his job.
In his letter of resignation to Gov. G. Mennen Williams
he wrote, “While other men can write my legal opinions (although I
would debate that) they can scarcely write my books. I am sorry.”
Voelker, who wrote under the pen name Robert Traver,
retreated to the Upper Peninsula, where he would spend two winters
writing his Indian story. “Laughing Whitefish” was published in 1965,
but soon went out of print.
Now, Michigan State University, working with the Voelker
family, has reprinted the book with an introduction written by MSU
College of Law Professor Matthew Fletcher, who heads the Indigenous Law
and Policy Center.
In describing his book, Voelker always said it was “a
basic story … rather simple” and “it was about iron ore, Indians and
the infidelity to one’s own promises.”
The book tells the story of a young Indian woman,
Charlotte Kawbawgam (her real name was Kobogum), who seeks compensation
for her father. He had been promised a “wee fractional interest” after
leading a group of mining executives to the world’s largest deposit of
iron ore. Kawbawgam hires lawyer Willy Post, a newcomer to Marquette.
Although the real-life case was extremely complicated,
Voelker simplified it for the book; in essence, it shows how tribal law
has supremacy over state law in domestic disputes.
Fletcher said the book, which provides great context for
state/tribal relations, still can be used as a textbook in Indian law.
In his introduction, he puts the book into the context of little-known
aspects of Indian law. “Whitefish” also explores little-known tribal
customs and laws, including the practice of polygamy.
Voelker, who spent most of his life in the Upper
Peninsula, also creates a window into the customs and language of the
Cornish mining community around Ishpeming, where he lived. He often
said he used the keen ear he developed sitting in his father’s bar
listening to miners in order to recreate a lifestyle that has all but
disappeared in the western Upper Peninsula.
Although Voelker stayed as true to the facts as he could
in writing the book he did change one important item — otherwise, the
book might’ve been named “Carp.” He said he chose not to name the
Indian girl after the river she was born next to (Carp) but opted for
the “more romantically named river (Laughing Whitefish).”
In 1989, two Michigan lawyers who had developed a
friendship with Voelker approached him about establishing a foundation
to raise money to make a film based on the book.
Voelker had another idea. Voelker, who was very close
with the Indians who lived nearby him and aware of the many injustices
played out against them, decided he wanted to raise money to send
Indians to law school.
Since 1989, the Voelker Foundation (which has more than
400 members) has provided scholarships to 16 law students: 15 have
graduated and one is still in school. The foundation also recognizes
another of Voelker’s passions by awarding a writing prize of $2,500
each year for the best short story on fly fishing.
The myth of Voelker continues to loom large in the
western Upper Peninsula, perhaps rivaled only by the sinking of the
Edmund Fitzgerald. Tourists still seek out the haunts and sites where
“Anatomy of a Murder” was filmed, and make pilgrimages to the grave of
Because of “Anatomy,” which was on The New York Times
best seller list for 65 weeks, Voelker is often credited with creating
the modern legal thriller. But he openly admitted “Laughing Whitefish”
was the hardest book he ever wrote.
Fletcher said that since “Laughing Whitefish” has been
republished many readers have told him that it would “make a good
movie.” Fletcher said he could see the plot set in the modern era,
keeping all the facts, but treating it as if there had never been a
Supreme Court decision.
“All the underlying concepts are the same,” he said.