Part Two: Early Childhood Years
Carol A. Hand
Part One Excerpt: My mother, Norma Angeline Ackley, was born on the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe reservation at the beginning of the 1920s. Born at home on the reservation to a 17-year-old mother, she was not issued an official birth certificate until many years later. At that point, she was assigned a birthday, March 1, 1921. It left her wondering when she was really born, a question that remained important to her. It added to her feelings of being inferior and unwanted, a feeling accentuated by many experiences throughout her life…
When my mother was only two-weeks old, she was given to her mother’s older sister, Anna. Even though Anna agreed to raise my mother as one of her own, Anna never let my mother forget that she had been abandoned by her own mother–she really was not the same as the much older cousins who were Anna’s birth children. Although my mother’s father, Raymond, wanted to raise her on his own, Anna prevented him from visiting or contacting her, depriving my mother of the opportunity to get to know her father and creating a distance that would prevent the development of connections for future generations. Relatives from the Mole Lake Ojibwe community where Raymond spent his life told me many years later that this broke his heart. His way of coping with this sadness was to play a fatherly role for other children in the Mole Lake community, particularly for one of his nieces who was my mother’s age, and named “Norma” like my mother.
Photo Credits: Lac du Flambeau – http://www.distancebetweencities.net
The Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe reservation where my mother lived with Anna’s family was a small Ojibwe reservation in north-central Wisconsin, a land of lakes and forests. While other parts of the country prospered during the affluent years of 1920s, Lac du Flambeau was besieged by a new invasion of outsiders. In older times, it was the timber industry. In the 1920s, lumberjacks and sawmills were replaced by wealthy families looking for a quiet place to spend their summers, by entrepreneurs in the tourism industry, by tourists, and by “whiskey-runners.” Many of the wealthy new arrivals eagerly bought the most desirable lake-front and forested properties, land that had been stolen from the tribe though decades of federal, state, and county legislation deliberately designed with that goal in mind. The wealthy elite built mansions as summer homes and resorts to attract yet more of the urban wealthy. The 1920s was also a booming time for those entrepreneurs who supplied alcohol during the years of prohibition (1920-1933). Smuggling whiskey from Canada was a lucrative business. Community members tell stories about the Chicago mobsters who would often hide from federal agents in the forests or the “sugar bush” of Lac du Flambeau during their journeys between Chicago and Canada.
These influences had profound consequences for my mother. Anna would often take my mother with her to her seasonal job for one of the resorts that catered to wealthy guests. The owner’s wife wanted to adopt my mother, but as the hand-written note on the back of one of my mother’s photographs states, Agnes, still my mother’s legal guardian, would not consent. As my mother told this story, I swear I heard a tone of regret in her voice, perhaps as she wondered how her life would have been different if she had grown up in affluent surroundings.
In the early 1920s, it was common practice for local tourist resorts to promote the novelty of Indians as a marketing strategy. My mother saved two of the postcards from this era that show her as a little girl, exploited by the local tourism industry to attract the urban elite.
The caption reads: Scene at Rim Rock Lodge
Lac du Flambeau, Wis.
The caption: Our little squaw at
Rim Rock Lodge
Lac du Flambeau, Wis.
There are a few pictures of my mother as a little girl with friends and family.
Written on the back of the picture:
“Taken at our Summer Home”
There are two stories my mother shared about her early years that require knowing something about the history of relationships between the U.S. federal government and Indigenous nations.
After the United States was founded, increasing waves of immigrants from Europe put pressure on the nation to open up new lands for settlement. Education became an indispensable tool for the federal government to use to abolish tribal cultures, particularly communal land ownership. In 1809, the U.S. Congress authorized $10,000 annually to support religious groups and individuals who wished to establish mission schools in tribal communities. “Stressing white values, the schools taught boys farming and blacksmithing and girls domestic skills. For the next several decades, Indian education remained the responsibility of the churches, with federal monetary support” (O’Brien, 1989, p. 239). This beginning eventually spawned serious conflict between Catholics and Protestants who were competing for Indigenous souls to save and assimilate.
In 1835, the first to claim the western Great Lakes regions as Catholic domain was Rev. Frederic Baraga. He built a church and school on Madeline Island, once the center of the Ojibwe nation. It wasn’t until after the Civil War, in 1880, that the Holy Family Mission Boarding School opened nearby, in Bayfield, Wisconsin. It was “staffed by Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis of Mary Immaculate” (Bantin, 1984, p. 357). Before it closed in 1936, it became my mother’s home during crucial childhood years even though a government-run Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) boarding school had been built in 1895 less than a mile from her aunt’s house. Her pivotal childhood experiences involved this BIA institution as well.
When she was very young, my mother was rounded up by BIA officials with 100 other children from the community. They were taken to the BIA boarding school in Lac du Flambeau and housed in a large room where they all had their tonsils removed in an assembly-line procedure. My mother became very ill after the operation: her throat was so sore and she was so sick that she knew she would die. One of her aunts (name unknown) came to visit her, saw how sick she was, and brought “Indian medicine” (alum) to heal her. As soon as my mother took the medicine, she got well.
When my mother was about five, Anna became very ill and my mother was scooped up by the BIA. Instead of sending her to the BIA school in Lac du Flambeau less than a mile from her home, she was put on a train, alone, to travel to the Holy Family Mission Boarding School in Bayfield. It was a frightening 100-plus-mile trip for a young child. She told me only two stories about her years in boarding school. She was proud of the fact that she was a good student and, in the eyes of the nuns, “not like the other Indians.” She also remembered scrubbing the floor of the long hallways and stairs on her hands and knees with a toothbrush. Only once did I hear her comment that she did not forgive the Catholic Church for how she was treated. I remember these stories clearly because my mother rarely mentioned those years. As I look back, I can’t help but wonder what other experiences she might have had that were too painful to share.
There are a few other photos from mother’s earliest years.
These were taken when she was 9 and 10.
Perhaps this photo was taken before she left for boarding school, or when she was home during a vacation from school.
One of the results of my mother’s boarding school experience was her acceptance of the Catholic religion, an important foundation for her earlier years.
I can’t help noticing something obvious about the “before and after” boarding school photos. Nothing about my mother’s living situation appears to have changed during those years. All that has really changed is her outward appearance and the deep, invisible wounds to her spirit. Despite many challenges, she graduated from the local all-white high school as salutatorian of her class and went on to Loyola University in Chicago to study nursing, thanks to the generosity of one of the wealthy resort owners who employed Anna. In her later years, she returned to Lac du Flambeau to write the federal grant that funded a health care center for the community, and later worked there as a nurse before she retired. She was remembered by many community members for her kindness and compassion, gifts that were hard-earned by the many challenges she faced in her own life.
Bantin, Philip C. (1984). Guide to Catholic Indian mission and school records in Midwest repositories. Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Libraries Department of Special Collections and University Archives.
O’Brien, Sharon (1989). American Indian tribal governments. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.