A Life Lived as a Song for her People: An Ojibwe Woman’s Story – Part Two

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.

lac du flambeau www dot distancebetween cities dot net

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.

Norma aNorma a1


Norma b




Norma b1r2

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.

Norma postcard a

The caption reads: Scene at Rim Rock Lodge
Lac du Flambeau, Wis.

Norma postcard b

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.

Norma c

Written on the back of the picture:
“Taken at our Summer Home”

Norma d

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.

Norma eNorma f

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.

norma 1

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.

norma 2

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.

Authors Cited:

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.



30 thoughts on “A Life Lived as a Song for her People: An Ojibwe Woman’s Story – Part Two

    1. Thank you for reading the story, Susan, and for taking the time to offer such thoughtful comments. It is especially meaningful coming from you, as someone who has traveled around the world and writes such engaging stories about your adventures.


  1. That’s one thing that capitalist society seems to be particularly good at – destroying culture. It seems to be one of the first rules of colonization. I think the basic problem is that Europeans left their culture behind so long ago they don’t even remember that they had one. I spent the first 30 years of my early life deeply envious of African Americans and Native Americans because they had a culture and I couldn’t see that Europeans had any culture. It was almost like, “Dude, where’s my culture?” (after Michael Moore’s book by a similar title.)

    Last year I realized that Europeans did have a culture prior to the Enclosure Acts that started in in the 16th century. These English laws threw families off communal lands they had used for grazing and growing crops for more than 1,000 years. There was a whole culture built around communal agriculture (with songs, dances, etc) but this was lost along with the communal lands.

    Fred Harrison writes about this in The Traumatised Society. He describes in some detail how this original European culture was replaced by a culture of money and cheating – which explains, I guess, why Europeans go around destroying everyone else’s culture.


    1. You have raised such important issues, Dr. Bramhall. Clearly the serfs of English estates suffered an incomprehensible loss as the lords of the manor decided it was in their economic best interest to raise sheep to weave wool in the early days of the industrial revolution. The cities grew as thousands of displaced people looked for some way to feed themselves and their families.

      Children were scooped from the streets of England by the thousands and sent to the earliest colonies in what is now the U.S., and then Australia, and the prisons were emptied likewise. During the unionizing times, corporations went to Europe to recruit new workers who couldn’t speak English to replace unionizing workers, and the railroads recruited others to populate towns every 20 miles along the new lines that were built across the country.

      All of these traumas were profound, yet somehow, people survived and adapted and assimilated into a predominantly Anglo-Protestant culture. And because it’s dominant, it’s invisible to those who don’t remember anything else.

      I do think people try to fill in the “holes in their souls” with money and power, willing to do whatever they can to fill the emptiness that comes from losing their connections and roots. And yes, peoples who have a sense of connections and roots become a too-painful reminder of what has been lost and need to be eliminated.

      I am grateful that you had a chance to discover your sense of roots and connections, and I am also grateful that you are part of my community.


    1. Thank you, Gator Woman. I appreciate your kind words 🙂

      Many years before my mother developed Alzheimer’s disease, I asked her permission to share her story in a workshop on cultural differences. She gave her permission, telling me she hoped that her experiences could help someone else.


  2. It’s horrible to imagine someone you love going through painful times. Thanks for sharing, Carol.


    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Nicci. As I mentioned to Diane, writing this story made me realize how many people suffer far more trauma than my mother, and much of it is unnecessary and preventable. If we could only learn to care more about each other and the earth we share, things would be different.


  3. What an extraordinary woman. After so much trauma and so much taken from her, she committed herself to the community and gave and gave and gave.


    1. Thank you for recognizing these strengths, Diane. Sometimes, I believe caring about the well-being of others is the only healthy way to deal with trauma. Writing this story helped me realize how many people have suffered far greater trauma than my mother, and still are at this very moment. Some are strong enough to survive and lucky enough to have the support of others at just the right times. I’m grateful that my mother was one of them.


    1. Thank you for your kind words, Claire. I started a book, but I’m not sure what to do with it once it’s done so it’s hard to find the time and motivation to continue 🙂


      1. If you decide to self-publish, go to smashwords.com and download “Smashwords Style Guide” for free. Indispensable for writers considering an ebook. It’ll show any person how to format a decent ebook in Microsoft Office – and save many headaches. YouTube has tutorials for creating ebook covers in Paint.
        Hope your mother is doing well. 🙂


        1. Thank you for the resource information, Jerry!

          (Thank you for sending good wishes to my mother. She is finally at peace. She died in October of 2010 not far from the place where she was born.)


  4. It really is sad what we did to the Native Americans in our country. I am sorry your mother had to grow up this way,but she took what gifts she was given and lived a productive life. I grew up near the Great Lakes, so I know about the resorts and how people from the Chicago area would go up to Wisconsin and do quite a bit of damage to nature:-(
    Thank you for sharing your mother’s story:-)


        1. Thank you for being so kind. Maybe I will be more inspired to continue with the two I have started when I can balance my life by spending time outside working in the garden (getting my hands dirty) and less time grading student papers.


  5. The people have spoken and they want you to write a book! After the semester is over, of course. 🙂

    The legacy of the boarding schools has cast a long shadow that almost no American schools or history textbooks address in a meaningful or in-depth manner. We are privileged to get to hear some of the indelible melodies you’re mother’s life engendered. She is not the only one whose life is a song to her people. Peace to you, Carol.


    1. This is a powerful film that brought tears to my eyes, and of course, made me deeply angry. Nonetheless, I am so grateful you shared this, Jeff. Chi Miigwetch.


  6. A very moving story. My Mum went to a mission school in Papua New Guinea but she was still able to walk home to see her mother. There are many stories of stolen generations of Indigenous women in Australia, have met some of the daughters of this generation who are seeking to heal the past through testimony of what their relatives went through. Important that you tell this story. The postcard exploitation was sad!


    1. Thank you for sharing stories about your mother and the lost generations in Australia, June. The legacy of trauma generation after generation for Indigenous Peoples around the world is a heavy burden for people to carry and I’m glad to hear that Indigenous women in Australia are sharing their stories as a way to heal. I appreciate your kind words — they mean a great deal to me.


  7. Thank you for sharing your mother´s story. 🙂 “Squaw” is a word I have been banashing from my vocabulary for years, ever since native friends told me that it was, really, an insult meaning more or less “slut” (sorry for that). Maybe the meaning changes from tribe to tribe a little but this word still makes me very uncomfortable. The link your provided has opened my eyes to quite new horizons in this context.


    1. I appreciate your comments and kind words, La Belle!

      I have also heard that the word squaw is derogatory, but I wanted to make sure that what I had heard was accurate, I checked and found another plausible interpretation and cited it. Yet I still feel that the label “our little squaw” on the postcard with my mother’s photo was exploitive, patronizing, and disrespectfully “cutesy.”


  8. What a beautiful post, Carol … As the song goes> The fundamental things apply as time goes by”… It makes sense, doesn’t it?….
    Best wishes and also congratulations on your blog, which seems committed with main causes and very clever, Looking forward to reading more, Aquileana 😛


    1. Thank you for your kind words, Amalia. It does make sense to learn what is important “as times go by” and live by what we find. Your blog offers a wealth of information about lessons learned and recorded in stories and mythology. I look forward to following your blog and reading more of your posts as well!


Comments are closed.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: