Carol A. Hand
My mother was born on the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe reservation in 1921. I wonder what her world was like then. The photos I have of her as a child convey contrasts between the wealthy whites who flocked to the northwoods lakes to build summer resorts and family retreats and Ojibwe families and children relegated to the land that remained after many broken treaties.
Photo: My mother in 1923
(She’s dressed in clothing purchased by the wealthy woman in the picture who wanted to “adopt” her even though both of her parents were alive.)
Photo: My Mother in 1928
Titled “Grapes of Wrath” in my mother’s lovely cursive writing on the back of the photo.
(Obviously her clothing allowance ended when my mother’s family refused to let her be taken away.)
My mother was exposed to these contrasts early in life, embittered by her relative material poverty and exploited by resort owners to attract new clientele. She internalized the belief that she was inferior because of her Ojibwe heritage. It’s easy to see why as I read archival documents that chronicle the times.
Photo: Postcard for the Rim Rock Lodge – My Mother in 1925-1926?
The caption reads: Our Little squaw at
Rim Rock Lodge
Lac du Flambeau, Wis.
These photos were among my mother’s belongings but many details about her life remain incomplete. Fortunately, I have discovered an incredible archival collection for anyone interested in exploring Native American history in the US from 1902 through 1968 – The Indian Sentinel. Housed in the Raynor Library at Marquette University (thankfully available online), the publication offers a fascinating glimpse of tribal cultures as seen through the biased, but sometimes respectful, eyes of those who “felt the call” to minister to the Native heathens and save their souls through their work with Catholic missions. The Sentinel is filled with biographies of priests and tribal leaders, photos of students and buildings, and descriptions of the first reservation in the US and the building of a hydroelectric dam in Pine Ridge, SD in 1919-1920 using the backbreaking labor of students attending the Catholic mission school.
As I work on revising a story about her life, I wanted to know more about the context at the time she was born. I also wanted to see if I could find any records of her time in the Catholic boarding school she attended as a child. The answer is maybe. I have read a short account of my grandfather’s war injury in a student’s essay and found a possible reference to my mother’s school records that will require further archival research. Yet today, I want to share a poem that conveys the historical context for First Nations people during the beginning years of the twentieth century. The myth of the vanishing Native that inspired anthropologists and photographers was still in its heyday in the early 1900s.
Ye say they have all passed away,
That noble race and brave;
That their light canoes have vanished,
From off the crested waves;
That, ‘mid the forests where they wandered,
There rings no hunter’s shout:
Their name is on your waters –
You may not wash it out.
‘Tis where Ontario’s billow
Like Ocean’s surge is curled;
Where strong Niagra’s thunders wake
The echo of the world;
Where red Missouri bringeth
Rich tribute from the west;
Where Rappahannock sweetly sleeps
On green Virginia’s breast.
Ye say their conelike cabins
That clustered o’er the vale,
Have disappeared, as withered leaves
Before the autumn’s gale;
But their memory liveth on your hills,
Their baptism on your shore,
Your everlasting rivers speak
Their dialect of yore.
Old Massachusetts wears it
Within her lordly crown;
And broad Ohio bears it
Amid her young renown;
Connecticut has wreathed it
Where her quiet foliage waves,
And old Kentucky breathes it hoarse
Through all her ancient caves.
Wachusetts hides its lingering voice
Within its rocky heart,
And Allegheny graves its tone
Throughout his lofty chart;
Monadnock, on his forehead hoar’
Doth seal the sacred trust;
Your mountains build their monument
Though ye destroy the dust.
Mrs. Lydia H. Sigourney (1902-1903). The Indian Sentinel, (p. 2). Washington, DC: Bureau of Catholic Missions.
Although Indigenous tribes were no longer visible in the eastern US states when this poem was written, the survivors of removal in the 1930s and Indian wars of the 1850s and beyond were still a presence further south and west. Still souls that needed saving. This was the view the year my mother was born, conveyed by the missionaries that would soon be her teachers.
“Owing to the great affection existing between the Indian parents and their children, the education of the latter is a most effectual means of improving the conditions of the former and bringing about their conversion” (The Indian Sentinel, 1920-1922; Vol. 02, no. 06, p. 257.)
Although her family was able to protect her from removal when she was two, the Bureau of Indians Affairs took her away from her family and community eight years later (or maybe sooner) and placed her in Holy Family Indian Mission boarding school in Bayfield, Wisconsin, more than 100 miles from her home.
Photo: Holy Family Church – Bayfield, WI
As many life experiences do, this turned out to be a mixed blessing. She lost a sense of connection to her family and community, but she had a chance to internalize a cultural foundation that helped her survive and develop skills that she used to make other’s lives better. She learned to write in her beautiful cursive, graduated as salutatorian of her (almost all white) public high school class, and went on to become a gifted nurse due to the generosity of the woman who couldn’t adopt her when she was two. In 1978, she wrote a grant and accompanied the Tribal Chairman, William Wildcat, to testify before the US Congress to establish the health care center in Lac du Flambeau, the reservation community where she was born. Although the tribe only honored her contributions after her death in 2010, what mattered most for her was doing the best she could to help other people and her community.
Photo – My Mother’s First Communion – 1933?
In retrospect, I realize that the work the missionaries did was not all destructive. Their efforts helped people survive and provided a buffer from those in power who wanted to leave only the Indigenous place names and none of the people. Catholic missions, and priests like Father Baraga, helped create the possibility for Indigenous Peoples to assume a veneer of outward assimilation that kept them alive and their cultures hidden for future generations. My mother’s education may have created a distance between her and others of her generation who remained on the reservation, but it also helped her develop the skills to leave an important legacy that helped people in community to survive.
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