Taking the Long Way Home

Poet, Vietnam Vet and global activist retraces his steps back to a turbulent and perplexing upbringing

Finding one’s identity and purpose can be mystifying, especially for the the poor and displaced. Tom LaBlanc, aka Strong Buffalo didn’t know he was Indigenous until he sneaked a peek at a document on his social worker’s desk when he was 15.

Until then, the only clue about his identity came from the grandmother of two brothers he’d met at a Catholic boys home in south Minneapolis. He remembers vividly sitting on her lap while “she patted my head like a dog” and listening to her Ojibwa words as her daughter translated them into English — “this little boy is Indian… look at his eyes… he looks like lost deer that come out of woods. You boys take care of him — he’s your brother — we take care of lost children. That’s his name — Little Lost Deer.”

Even though LaBlanc’s unmarried mother was a Dakota Sioux from the Lake Traverse Reservation in South Dakota, he knew nothing about Native Americans. All he knew, was that the wrinkled, white-haired woman wearing a beaded headband and a buckskin dress with a brain-tanned scent looked beautiful and made him feel like he was part of a family. And that to him, felt powerfully good.

His father was presumed to be Japanese-American and LaBlanc was taken from his mother who was sterilized without her knowledge four days after his birth in Minneapolis. After that he was handed off to the Catholic Welfare Association in Hennepin County where he bounced back and forth between foster care facilities throughout south and north Minneapolis for 13 years. His earliest memories are being tied to a chair when he was three and beaten and called derogatory names by a WWII Veteran who didn’t like the way he looked. He remembers his surrogate mother wearing a bra and panties and drinking beer in the living room. LaBlanc said the vet screamed “I fought your kind in the war” and “Why do I have to take care of you?” at him.

Offensive comments about his appearance continued to dog him, and he recalled a teenager repeatedly teasing him about being a “fish-head” or a “chink” until an Ojibwa foster brother told him those words were bad. Not understanding all the implications of ethnic slurs, the 10 year old LaBlanc sat in his chair seething until school was out and then chased down the teenager and fought him until he ran away. Not content to win the fight, he followed the kid home and ended up getting swatted in the backyard with a straw broom by the boy’s mother who told him he was a “damn savage.”

By redirecting this drive and determination he became a Minneapolis (North Side) City Champion in Junior Golden Gloves for two years. He said his boxing coach told him he had “the killer-instinct like Rocky Marciano”

There was little applause outside the ring. He got into trouble frequently, received poor grades and was already playing with cigarettes and alcohol. He also lost his part-time job climbing up drainpipes or trees to crawl through 2nd and 3rd story windows and open back doors for a North Side burglary ring. A visit from detectives who he said, “were looking for a little brown monkey” involved in area break-ins put the kibosh on a racket that paid about five-dollars a caper.

He’d had it with adoption interviews, too, after noticing white orphans were getting farmed-out to foster homes and he wasn’t. It got to the point where he became reluctant to show up for interviews because those who were looking to adopt were almost invariably white and wanted white kids. Sometimes he wouldn’t hold back his contempt for what he considered to be a charade and would snarl or growl at potential foster parents.

It wasn’t long before there was talk about sending LaBlanc, who had been through 105 social placements, to a state correctional facility in Minnesota until he was 21. Not wanting to spend the next 8 years in jail, he was given the option of going to a Catholic boarding school in Nebraska called Boys Town. About a week later he was put on a Greyhound bus to Omaha with a note pinned on him that said “To Whom it May Concern.”

The new school soon found a spot for him on their football team which gave him a chance to take buses and planes to cities around the country. During the summers he’d travel back to south Minneapolis to an ongoing seasonal romance with the widow of a friend who he thought of as a brother. Their relationship with plans to marry ended abruptly a few months before he was supposed to graduate prompting the bewildered and enraged star football player to run away from Boys Town, steal a car and break into a family’s house and eat some food.

He was caught later in suburban Minneapolis, but was able to escape extradition back to Nebraska when then Attorney General Walter Mondale intervened on his behalf. After that, he skipped town with a girlfriend and rented a dumpy apartment in Chicago where he fathered a child who died shortly after birth from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). This brought about an inquest and spurious accusations from policemen who thought the couple murdered their baby.

The sorrow of living in a place where the baby died became too much. He began drinking heavily, wandered off and took a job on a Kansas ranch for a year or so where he learned how to ride horses. His Boss, who LaBlanc said liked him, fired him though after he got into a mean fight with another Indigenous person from an Oklahoma prison.

If you don’t remember your heritage, you don’t know where you came from — consequently, you don’t know where you’re going.”
— Jim Northrup, Anisihinaabe poet, author, and story teller


Back in Minneapolis and not believing there was much to live for, he joined the Marines. He had hoped to be an infantryman, but the Marines had other ideas when he scored high on a technical ability test. Making matters worse, was his new girlfriend’s naval captain father who hated his guts. “Her dad made me stand at attention for maybe 45 minutes while he yelled racist things in my ears,” said LaBlanc

Thinking the captain would find more ways to punish him, he went AWOL and walked or hitchhiked through Tennessee, Arkansas, and Texas until he was picked up by the highway patrol and sent to the brig in San Diego. He said he was released a few days later by a lieutenant who remembered his athletic abilities from Boys Town on the condition that he play football for the Marines. He started boxing again too.

Leadership skills emerged after he joined a tough, advanced-infantry outfit. At the request of his superior and after winning the the respect of troops for his fighting skills, he helped train them. He was “Marine of the Month” before going to Vietnam.

The first of his 7 military operations was in the Vietnam Central Highlands in 1968 where he first saw fellow Marines ripped apart by bullets. That scenario along with adrenaline rushes and feeling his leg shake uncontrollably during a firefight changed his mind about not caring if he lived or died.

Excellent eyesight along with his ability to analyze predicaments didn’t go unnoticed by higher-ups who started including him in briefings and he was put on point by the battalion commander. He saw a lot of action and used crumpled napkins and pastry plates at our coffee shop table as visual aids to show me combat strategies he’d devised. He also wrote about 250 poems when he was in the service that he left on a bus.

His views on the war’s legitimacy started to change after he caught a glimpse of an enemy who looked remarkably like him plus, he was beginning to feel sorry for unarmed and starving Vietnamese he saw creep out of the jungle at night to get food. He began to talk out loud against the war and became more disgusted with his deployment after he was assigned to guard a Coca-Cola plant and a Mobile Oil refinery near the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Plans for his promotion and awards including medals were canceled he said after word of his open dissent got back to headquarters. He left Vietnam disillusioned along with thousands of dollars that he’d saved from monthly checks and some clandestine side-deals.

Agent Orange, White and Blue

While the enemy was digging caves
to hide underground from the chemical war
to force out the guerrilla
the smart men of war
forgot or intentionally allowed
their own sons to stand naked above
breathing the agent Bother’s stench,
I am, now, the son of Dioxin
and you shall see me groping out
of hidden underground caves
looking for you!

— Tom LaBlanc

Activism and Artistic Pursuits

When he got off the bus in Minneapolis it was 1970 and he was still in uniform when an Indigenous woman near the Leamington Hotel downtown said, “Hey Jarhead, are you an Indian? — you should be in here.” A few minutes later he was inside a bar listening to the principle founders of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and others making plans to interrupt a huge meeting organized by the National Indian Education Association (NIEA) at the hotel.

Which they did by walking on stage en masse and taking away microphones from other speakers to tell the audience things they felt they should know There was some applause at the end of their talk with the NIEA finally agreeing to give AIM speakers a platform at the conference. LaBlanc would later become the Minneapolis, AIM Executive Director for two years.

Meanwhile, he was getting to know his relatives after meeting some of them for the first time in a notorious dive-bar that used to be called Mousey’s. Soon he was playing basketball with his many relations and started feeling proud to be an Indian. He was also partying hard between advocating for Indian rights, Sun Dancing and visits to his mother’s reservation to learn about tribal traditions. In south Minneapolis he’d become an outspoken luminary to Native Americans and a perceived trouble-maker to local law enforcement. The Dick Bancroft photograph in this article became a familiar poster in south Minneapolis and other parts of the world.

Eventually he would be worked-over by the police during encounters and mentioned that a policeman in south Minneapolis once told him: “You’re not going to look so pretty when we get done with you” and was beaten unconscious by 3 or 4 cops. He spent some nights in jail too and served 18 months in a South Dakota prison in Sioux Falls after he was implicated in a huge fight outside a bar. The prosecution had asked for 325 years contending that LaBlanc and others were guilty of a long list of crimes including attempted murder. Indigenous peoples who were incarcerated with him appreciated reading the stories he was writing that portrayed Indigenous peoples as comic book super-heroes (which guards failed to censor) and his dedication to Indian solidarity. He said he was given a rabbit skin hat with eagle feathers when he was released in 1976.

”The Warriors” — photo by Dick Bancroft in July 1978 at the Longest Walk in DC. Standing in front of the FBI building, left to right: Stacy LaBlanc, John Blue Bird, Tom LaBlanc

Two years later he joined several hundred other Indigenous people in a five month march from San Francisco to Washington DC called the Longest Walk to draw attention to the mistreatment of Indigenous peoples. Members of the group eventually occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs building and raised enough awareness to put a stop to proposed legislation that would have further violated Indian treaty rights.

After giving up bourbon he started writing more and involved himself further with First Nation and environmental causes that put him on a path that zig-zagged around the world.

In 1983 we organized the first U.S. veteran’s delegation to revolutionary Nicaragua which was besieged by the CIA’s Contra terrorists. The CIA was also pushing Indigenous groups on Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast to fight against the Sandinista government, and there had already been several deadly clashes. Tony Gonzales and Tom LaBlanc both associated with AIM, were invited to join peacemaking talks between Miskito Indians and the Sandinistas. Their participation was reported to be very helpful. I remember Tom being strong, centered, peaceful and friendly.
— Gerry Condon, activist and former national president of Veterans For Peace

His book Dakota which was published in Norwegian provided an additional incentive for him to revisit Norway over a dozen times for peace conferences, poetry readings and to establish the One People Trust Foundation. He also flew to Japan numerous times to participate in spoken word events and raise awareness about the dangers of nuclear power by running marathons between nuclear reactor sites where he stopped to pray with Buddhist monks. And he has a hilarious story about riding side-saddle on a horse when he went to Libya with Black Panthers and Brown Berets to meet with Muammar Gaddafi after Gaddafi’s daughter was killed during a U.S airstrike.

Interrelated interests with art and social justice led him to accept humanitarian invitations and participate in poetry readings across the U.S. as well. He chuckled about crossing paths unexpectedly with AIM friend Russell Means, at a poetry recital in Davis, California, who he said yelled from the other side of the room, “Hey Tom, I didn’t know you could write.” He retorted, “Hey Russ, I didn’t know you could read.”

And he could be hard to track sometimes. One never knew if his stint with a San Francisco social service outfit would last five years, how long he’d work with the International Indian Treaty Council, remain Executive Director of the Indigenous Uranium Forum or if he’d impulsively leave Minneapolis for two years to work with a band in New Orleans. Among other notable missions, he went to Los Angeles in the early 80’s to help stop the production of the adult video game “Custer’s Revenge” that used an image of an Indigenous woman as a rape target.

In the Twin Cities, he remains involved with AIM and a number of other organizations that focus on Indigenous issues and art projects including Oyate Hotanin which are Dakota words for the Voice of the People. He was part of a committee that persuaded the city of St. Paul last Summer to recognize Indian Mounds Park as a burial ground and is a regular emcee/promoter for the monthly Buffalo Show at Bryant Lake Bowl in south Minneapolis.

Singer-songwriter and community organizer Larry Long remembered writing a song with LaBlanc and letting him stay at his house in south Minneapolis before ever meeting him. He believes LaBlanc “is hitting his stride.”

Now 75, LaBlanc continues writing, performing and occasionally releases a CD or chapbook while remaining seriously committed to Indian traditional ways and his children and wife Laura.

As long as I have known Tom, I have known his first love is for his children. He prays for each of them and their children every day, he prays for their health and happiness. He prays for all of us.
— Laura LaBlanc

At the end of the interview, this father of 10 and grandfather and great grandfather of over 60, recollected watching his two-year old grandson Warrior Tommy LaBlanc dance at a pow wow last August. Judging from the beatific expression on his face — this too, must have felt powerfully good.

Craig Wood is a Minneapolis writer and member of Veterans For Peace. He can be reached at craig2mpls@yahoo.com. Read other articles by Craig.