‘A Funny, Brilliant Writer’: The Life of Mark Anthony Rolo

The top of the Facebook page of author, journalist, and playwright Mark Anthony Rolo features a colorful photograph of two smiling, elderly Native American World War II vets. One is wearing a cap reading “Iwo Jima Survivor,” the other a turquoise necklace. Standing next to the elder with the necklace, with an arm around his shoulder, is Donald J. Trump, who sports a toothy grin. Stamped on the upper left of the photo is the infamous “Redskins” football team logo. 

The juxtapositions in the image, of honor and fakery, righteous social justice statement and grey area squeamishness (is that a smile or a grimace?), make it a classic Rolo commentary.

Rolo, who authored the column “Going Native” for The Progressive, died on May 30 at Saint Clare Hospice House in Baraboo, Wisconsin, after a long illness. He was fifty-seven. 

His contributions for the website and the magazine spanned over nearly two decades, providing The Progressive with a distinctive and regular commentary on current affairs from a Native American point of view.

A member of the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Wisconsin, Rolo’s journalism career began with writing for The Circle newspaper at the Minneapolis American Indian Center in Minnesota and included being Washington bureau chief for Indian Country Today. He won several awards from the Native American Journalists Association for his writing, publishing articles in the Denver Post, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Philadelphia Inquirer, as well as The Progressive

Rolo worked for the Native American Journalists Association from 1997 to 2003. He produced numerous educational films and documentaries, and taught classes at several Midwestern universities and tribal community colleges.  

Along with being a journalist and an educator, Rolo was also a creative writer, with a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing from Chatham University. He authored several books and plays including, “Mother Earth Loves Lace,” which premiered in Minneapolis. His memoir, My Mother is Now Earth, published in 2012 by the Minnesota Historical Society’s Borealis Press, won a 2013 Northeastern Minnesota Book award. 

In this book, which made a deep impression on me, Rolo shared his memories of a poverty-stricken and insecure boyhood in Milwaukee as well as northern Wisconsin, the pages illuminated by both an adult’s curiosity about the unknown life of a parent and a boy’s deep and beautiful love for his mother.


I worked with Mark Rolo for several years when I was website editor for The Progressive, and always looked forward to his submissions. He was a feet-on-the ground social justice warrior plus razor-edged jokester who kept an editor on her toes. He fought against racism in a hand-to-hand sort of way—every situation was contextual. There was a lot of eye-rolling and also a lot of forgiveness, and he never went for the easy “holier-than-thou.” 

His contributions for the website and the magazine spanned over nearly two decades, providing The Progressive with a distinctive and regular commentary on current affairs from a Native American point of view.

But maybe all that forgiveness took something out of him. He died too soon. It’s tough not to feel his death really hard. The last years have been so marred by news of the continued war on Native American sovereignty and rights—on display at Standing Rock—of the severely high rates of abuse and disappearance of Native American women, of the continuous rain of derogation—on display in “Pocahontas” comments—and of course, most recently, by the inequity-exacerbated devastation of COVID-19 on tribal lands.

But even as I write this, I can feel Mark Rolo’s response, an eyebrow raised and a half-grin: Are you done with your list yet? Need help down off that soapbox?   

Patricia Loew, professor at the Medill School of Journalism and co-director of the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research at Northwestern University, worked with Rolo as a colleague and a student. 

“We laughed that loud ragged, old-style Indian laugh that scours out the soul, stopping only when we grew breathless. Damn, I’ll miss him.” 

“Mark was a fellow Bad River niijii, I knew in many contexts,” she relates, using the Ojibwe word for “friend.” “He was first and foremost a journalist with a strong sense of social justice and a pen that could be withering at times. He was fiercely loyal, as he was in sheltering and playing dad to his teenage nephew. I advised him as a graduate student, an experience that was both exhilarating and exasperating. He could be acerbic and suffered no fools, as his cohorts sometimes complained, and as his own students learned when he became a UW-Madison lecturer.”

But what Loew says she’ll remember most is Rolo’s humor. “Oh, he could be funny! As executive director of the Native American Journalists Association, he scheduled joke nights and irreverent poetry slams. I once had the misfortune of being his partner at a NAJA golf tournament in Fort Lauderdale. Our opponents—two giant Seminole Indians—hit big drives but somehow Mark’s drive went backwards. To me, he said, ‘I bet I could do that again!’ And to our opponents he said, ‘Hey, no laughing! You guys wound up with a swamp. We wound up with a Great Lake. Who’s playing the long game?’ ” 

Ruth Conniff, former editor-in-chief of The Progressive and current editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner, remembers Rolo as “a funny, brilliant writer who maintained a tremendous sense of humor and warmth in the face of injustice. He could have been forgiven for taking a much darker view. His annual op-eds on the real meaning of Thanksgiving and his many articles and columns for The Progressive, as well as his beautiful, heart-breaking book, are must-reads for anyone who wants to understand American history.”

Matt Rothschild, former editor and publisher of The Progressive, calls Rolo “a sweet man and a swift writer. He brought to The Progressive and the Progressive Media Project a powerful voice and perspective, particularly on Native American issues. He never tired of explaining how hurtful are the names of some sports teams or how hypocritical our celebrations of Thanksgiving. He was a joy to work with, and I’m very sad to hear the news of his passing.”

And Amitabh Pal, former managing editor at The Progressive and longtime head of its Progressive Media Project, remembers that Rolo “had his unique touch and sense of humor that often leavened the serious issues he focused on. In doing so, he provided a perspective that is most often sadly lacking in our media landscape.”

Mary Pember, a member of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe and national correspondent for Indian Country Today, met Mark in the mid 1990s working with the Native American Journalists Association, and they remained close friends and colleagues afterward. 

“Mark was the consummate journalist who reported from the trenches about real Native people and issues in a way that humanized and elevated their stories far beyond the stereotypes,” she says. “He could be a take no prisoners writer with a fierce sense of social justice but was also gentle as hell especially towards other Native people struggling to survive and create in an often indifferent world.”

Pember recalls that Rolo “possessed that uniquely Native style of dark humor and acerbic wit that has likely helped our people outlast generations of colonial oppression.” She tells of one conversation in which she “described an especially painful family memory. After a long pause, he exclaimed, ‘Ah, good times!’ ”

“We laughed that loud ragged, old-style Indian laugh that scours out the soul, stopping only when we grew breathless. Damn, I’ll miss him.” 

So will we all.

Because of restrictions on gatherings due to COVID-19, Rolo’s family is postponing memorial services; they will share information later via My Keeper, where friends and colleagues are encouraged to post memories and photos. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be sent to the Native American Journalists Association scholarship fund (choose “NAJA Scholarships” from the dropdown menu). 

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