Carol A. Hand
The original version of my mother’s story was intended for a specific audience – my mother, my family, and the caregivers in the assisted living center who provided the 24-hour care she needed during the last fourteen years of her life. There was little reason to include the historical context of the ever-shifting federal policies that dictated the ongoing efforts to gain access to Indigenous lands and resources. My mother’s early childhood, though, was profoundly affected by the larger socio-economic context and federal policy shifts.
The reservation where she was born had already been significantly impacted by previous treaties and legislation.
“From 1785 to 1867, the United States signed 42 treaties with the Ojibwe nations. Some of these treaties are known as the 1836 Treaty, the 1837 Pine Tree Treaty, the 1842 Copper Treaty and the 1854 Treaty. All of these treaties were signed between equal nations—tribes and the U.S. government. However, the tribes had to agree to cede, or give up their ownership, to the land” (Sue Erickson, 2006, p. 12).
Treaties were often ignored when interest in Indigenous lands and resources grew with an exponentially increasing non-Native population. The Dawes Act of 1887 was intended to free up more tribally controlled land. The Act ended collective tribal ownership by allotting acreage to individuals, resulting in a significant loss of land for Indigenous tribes, including my mother’s reservation.
“The act also provided that any “surplus” land be made available to whites, who by 1932 had acquired two-thirds of the 138,000,000 acres (56,000,000 hectares) Native Americans had held in 1887” (Britannica).
By 1921, my mother’s reservation had been checker-boarded. Only some land was still owned by tribal individuals who had been awarded allotments. The rest was owned by newer affluent non-Native arrivals from urban areas, many of whom had acquired prime lake front property where they built palatial summer homes and tourist resorts.
There were other serious consequences of the Dawes Act for tribes as well.
“The social structure of the tribe was weakened; many nomadic Native Americans were unable to adjust to an agricultural existence; others were swindled out of their property; and life on the reservation came to be characterized by disease, filth, poverty, and despondency” (Britannica).
The 1920s were a time of great change.
“The Roaring Twenties was a decade of economic growth and widespread prosperity, driven by recovery from wartime devastation and deferred spending, a boom in construction, and the rapid growth of consumer goods such as automobiles and electricity in North America and Europe and a few other developed countries such as Australia” (Wikipedia).
Affluence, railroads, and automobiles made it possible for people from cities to the south, like Chicago, to flock to the lake-studded beauty of the northwoods reservation during the summers. Although resorts and summer residents provided jobs for some tribal members, they also exposed people to a decadent lifestyle that had many negative consequences.
Prohibition (1920 – 1933) affected the reservation as well. I remember my mother’s stories about the mobsters and bootleggers who came up from Chicago and hid out in the sugar bush where the tribe harvested maple syrup in the spring.
The direct impact of the Great Depression (1929-1933) was minimal from my mother’s perspective. Her family had always been poor. The aftermath, though, brought many changes for tribes during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945). New Deal programs included the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. This Act ended the loss of tribal lands as well as federal support for Indian boarding schools. Instead, the Johnson O’Malley Act of 1934 was enacted to provide federal funding for local public schools to integrate Native American children who lived on reservations.
The communities that bordered reservations were not often welcoming places for Native people, including those that surrounded my mother’s community. My mother’s childhood and education were affected by all of these factors as the following account highlights.
Norma Angeline Ackley Graveen Coombs
Public School Days
Norma did’t speak about her years at boarding school often. leaving the question about when she attended unanswered. She was allowed to come home at some point before high school to care for Anna. These were not happy days. She remembered being repeatedly told that she would be on the street if Anna had not taken her in.
For a brief time, Norma went to live with her cousin, Hazel, Anna’s oldest daughter who married and moved to Chicago. Those were happy times for Norma, but she returned when Anna’s illness worsened and finished high school in Minocqua. As Norma told it, she was one of the first Native American students to attend school in Minocqua. “It almost took an Act of Congress to force the school to admit an Indian” Norma told me years later. Pictures from those days reflect her struggles as well as her resilience.
Norma laughingly told me about her high school days in Minocqua. As one of the only Native Americans, she had very few friends at school or at home. She did have a white boyfriend, but his parents did not approve. So, she had a lot of time to study and was elected Class Secretary. She graduated in May, 1939, as Salutatorian (2nd in her class).
After graduation, Norma took care of Anna who remained ill and incapacitated, although she longed for more. She was engaged to a young man from the reservation who was sent off to war. I know that she told me his name, but all I remember is this photograph saved with her few precious documents. The photo is simply signed, “With Love, ‘Edward.’” While she waited, she spent time with friends and family.
Sue Erickson (2006, March). Ojibwe Treaty Rights
Understanding & Impact. Odanah, WI: Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission.