In 1986, Nick Boswell walked into a used-book store and picked up an old copy of the Koran. He thought, “Oh, here’s something to give my brother to reform him.” Once he started reading, though, he knew the message was for him. It astounded him, hit the nail on the head, made perfect sense to him. He couldn’t stop reading. A new world opened to him and he started doing research on Islam, which convinced him further that he was on the right path.
Then he looked around for a mosque and discovered there was one in Columbia Heights. On July 4 of the same year, he walked up there from South Minneapolis. He thought he’d just sit in the back and watch, but he wasn’t allowed to do that. He had to participate in the prayers. “I went every day for a year,” he said, “and then they invited me to be on the Board of Directors.”
Boswell’s Islamic faith is now central to his identity.
Boswell is, as he calls himself, an “Ojibwa warrior from the sovereign state of the White Earth Indian Reservation located within the confines of northern Minnesota.” He was taken away from his family when he was small and placed in a boarding school for three and a half years. He said it was “harsh but fair,” like the 21 years he spent in the military, first in Korea and much later in Vietnam, where he was disabled.
Upon his return to the United States, he got involved in the Franklin Avenue Social Service Committee as well as with the Native American community. He formed a group called St.Paul/Minneapolis Coalition of Chippewa Heirs. During that time he had two children and earned degrees in sociology and chemical dependency counseling.
Boswell was easy to spot when he arrived at Maria’s Restaurant a few weeks ago. He’s a big man in good shape, whose signature black beret, displaying a Combat Infantry Badge, covers his long, gray ponytail and frames his broad, affable face. His right hand and leg are noticeably crippled from his war injury. He said he barely hears out of his right ear. He ordered eggs and potatoes, no meat, because Maria’s doesn’t serve halal meat. At home, he said, he eats meat because he can buy halal—or kosher.
There are many qualities in Islam that appeal to Boswell. Two stand out.
As a “spiritually disillusioned warrior” he was glad to become part of a religion that champions oppressed people and has a true sense of justice. He saw the way the U.S. military treated the Korean people, “like animals,” and then the Vietnamese people the same way, and realized it was exactly the way Native Americans were treated in this country.
In the 1980s he joined with other Native Americans to fight to save land on the White Earth Reservation. “Vernon Bellecourt [of the American Indian Movement] told me, ‘Senator Boschwitz is taking our land,’ ” Boswell said.
Boschwitz introduced a bill in the senate that “legalized all past illegal land transaction on White Earth Reservation,” Boswell wrote in the Islamic Center of Minnesota’s newsletter. He continued, “The Ojibwa Indians have been historically treated as foreigners on our own soil, we have yet to be shown the respect of human rights and self-determination.”
Boswell compares the Native American fight for Indian land to the fight of the Palestinians who continue to lose their land and their dignity. “With Allah’s guidance, we will prevail, as our Palestinian Brothers and Sisters across the ocean will,” he also wrote in the Islamic Center newsletter.
“What about the suicide bombers?” was the question that couldn’t be avoided. The suicide bombers, he said, are willing to give their lives. They choose to give their lives. In Palestine they have to because they can’t compete with jet bombers and tanks. “All they have left is their bodies.”
The other quality of Islam that speaks to Boswell is the strictness, the discipline. He said following the rules makes it possible to have happiness. When people don’t steal from each other (personally or institutionally), when people focus on God and the well-being of the community rather than on their own selfish spheres, when there is no chemical abuse (chemical abuse is impossible where tobacco, alcohol and other drugs are strictly prohibited), people can live together in happiness.
The prohibition against alcohol is very important to Boswell. He quit drinking in 1975 and since then one of his goals in life is to find out what causes alcoholism. It was a scourge upon his own life and is a scourge upon the Native American community. He would like to find a solution.
His dream is to create an Islamic school for Native children where they can live and be surrounded by adults who are not using drugs or alcohol. To prepare for his school, Boswell pursued Islamic studies in Egypt, from 1991 to 1994, and would like to do further Islamic studies.
In the late ’90s he was invited to study again in the Middle East but couldn’t leave his high school-age children. He would still like to consider it if he could get through all the red tape and get around the present political state of affairs.
After his children graduated from high school, he went to Springfield, Ill., where he earned a master’s degrees in human service counseling: alcohol and substance, gerontology, children and family, social service administration. In 2005, he studied at the Adler Graduate School in Hopkins. Why Adler? “I found the answer to my concern about alcohol in Adlerian psychology. The first five years are formative years. If parents are drinking in front of their children … In the Islamic lifestyle there is no drinking in front of the children.”
Boswell is a person of vast experience with all kinds of human beings. He has touched down in many cultures. He is curious about people, likes meeting people and has a broad range of friends and acquaintances, whom he clearly enjoys. When he was a social worker, he was involved above and beyond the call of duty; people would call him in the middle of the night with their problems. He’s entrenched in people.
Our conversation took many turns. He offered many personal, and sometimes incongruent, takes on things. His sensitivity to the miniscule and odd forms of prejudice that erupt among people is finely honed.
Boswell sees no conflict between Native spirituality and Islam. He is proud to call himself Ojibwa, Chippewa, or Anishinabe, whichever name you want to use, and his origins are deeply respected by his Muslim brothers and sisters.
The Ojibwa believe in the spirits in mountains, streams, rocks and air. “We have ceremonies that call on the spirits. Islam says that God made spirits and mankind to worship him,” he explained. “It’s different in Christianity and Buddhism.”
Almsgiving, one of the five pillars of Islam (profession of faith, prayer, almsgiving, the fast and the pilgrimage to Mecca) came up. Almsgiving is the fountain of hospitality, which Boswell says Islam and Native American spirituality also have in common. “Muslims practice hospitality, like Natives do on the reservation. If someone’s hungry you have an obligation. And then people show their gratefulness by chopping wood, for example.” However, he said, almsgiving and hospitality of necessity have to be curtailed when there are drugs and alcohol involved. “Drug use affects the ability to be hospitable.”
What about hospitality between Sunni and Shia Muslims? Everyone wants to know about the conflict between them. Are they like the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland? Boswell clarified that there are many pacifist Muslims and, obviously, among the Muslim pacifists there is no violence. (Boswell himself is not a pacifist. “I admire them,” he said, “but I’m an infantry man. I couldn’t do that.”) Also there are many Sunni/ Shia marriages unaffected by the flames of prejudice encouraged by outside forces.
He didn’t explain the violence but he did explain the difference between Sunni and Shia. Shias believe the Koran says the caliphs should be descendants of Muhammad and Sunnis believe the caliphs don’t have to be descendants of Muhammad. In its practical application, the difference is a class difference, each group with its own practices and traditions. In the U.S., as in the rest of the world, the majority of the globe’s approximately 1.3 billion Muslims are Sunni, but violence between the two groups doesn’t happen here in the U.S. as it does elsewhere, he said. My impression was that he sees violence and warfare across the planet as inexplicable, but inevitable.
Boswell says what he sees, and he sees a lot, which makes him hard to describe. You start to call him an idealist, but then you have to call him a realist. He is knowledgeable and grounded in his unique faith journey. He seems happy.