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

Part One: The Early Years

Carol A. Hand


whose eyes I wear in my soul
in joyous praise for gnarled hands
precious children laughter in the soup of pain
Everyone of us beautifull
deeply as young pink birches in high white snowdrifts
the Native woman whose Black pimp stared me down
the many in the alcohol trap chewing off their legs
the strong, the fearful, the weary, the angry
the traditional, the assimilated, the ones on both sides
of the bloody borders
playing Bingo, dancing in Pow Wows
telling stories leaning against a cold fender
How beautifull we are How complete
just as we are
Grief & confusion wail through our hills
Above it I sing a song for my people
who always resist always fight
A song rising in our throats now
A song in our bellies now
A song in our hands now
A dark light in our eyes now
How we are beautifull

(Crystos, 1991)


This account of my mother’s life was originally written before her death, as she struggled with the end stages of Alzheimer’s Disease, an illness that robbed her of the memories of past times. Perhaps this was a blessing in disguise, for her life was not an easy one. Yet, the stories she shared with me about her experiences bring history to life. I felt it was important to record what I remembered just in case I, too, would forget. I also wanted to see if the stories and picture of past times would delay her cognitive losses, and help my grandchildren understand their heritage.

To me, my mother was remarkable. Although her contributions were modest, she touched the lives of thousands of people with her gentle, healing spirit and helped build a legacy for the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe reservation on which she was born. Those who read portions of my mother’s story during the ceremony that was held after her death in 2010 commented that it was an important account to share. They noted that her story shows that “Indian” people can overcome troubling childhood experiences and challenging circumstances and make a difference to the health and well being of their communities. Even in the final stages of a devastating illness, her gentle spirit continued to touch people’s lives.

This compilation of photographs and stories has been scanned and assembled with love for my family. Included are photographs found in albums, boxes, and donated by relatives, with commentary sometimes written on the backs of pictures in my mother’s elegant cursive script learned in boarding school. I know of no other way to pass on the stories I have heard about my mother. Unfortunately, I began this project as my mother entered the later stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. The stories are sketchy and incomplete. I could not look to her to fill in the blanks, and many of the elders who could have helped had already passed on.

I leave this partial account of my mother’s journey for those who have not heard the stories. Her life clearly demonstrates that there is hope in the most discouraging circumstances, nobility in the humblest among us, and the possibility for all of us to touch lives and leave lasting contributions that make the world a kinder place. Each one of us was born to be a song for our people, however defined, and for the earth we all share.

The Early Years

My mother, Norma Angeline Ackley, was born on the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe reservation at the beginning of the 1920s.


Main street in Lac du Flambeau, WI – 1920s – 1930s
Photo Credit: Marquette University Raynor Memorial Libraries
Bureau of Catholic Missions, Display 50

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.

At the time of her birth, the Ojibwe people (also known as Anishinaabe, Chippewa, and a variety of other designations) had been firmly rooted in their new northern midwest homes for more than 300 years and were spread across five states in the United States (Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, and Wisconsin) and four Canadian provinces (Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, and Saskatchewan).

Although little is written about the Ojibwe people before European contact, Ojibwe legends recount the journey their ancestors made many centuries before from their original home along the Atlantic Coast. The legends tell of a mysterious illness that killed many of their people. The visions of spiritual leaders led the survivors ever-westward along the St. Lawrence River and the northern and southern shores of the Great Lakes until they discovered the place of their new home, the lands where food grew on water, the land of wild rice.

Ojibwe migration

Photo Credit: Note: From The American Indians: Peoples of the Lakes,
by The Editors of Time-Life Books, 1994, p. 6.

Historical accounts estimate that Ojibwe people established a community in the Lac du Flambeau region by the mid 1700s, although archaeological evidence shows “that Woodland people were living at Lac du Flambeau at least 700 and perhaps 2,000 years ago” (Goc, 1995, p. 11). Ojibwe communities negotiated a series of treaties with the United States in the early 1800s that promised they would retain selected areas in exchange for ceding the majority of lands in the northern section of what would become the State of Wisconsin in 1848. The treaties also promised that the Ojibwe would retain their rights to hunt, fish, and gather wild rice within the ceded territories. In 1850, in response to pressure by the descendants of European immigrants for land and resources, President Zachary Taylor signed an order to remove the Ojibwe west of the Mississippi River. Most Ojibwe refused to move, although hundreds lost their lives during the winter of 1850 as a result of the federal government’s deliberate treachery. During 1854, Ojibwe leaders used this tragedy to negotiate the creation of four reservations in what was then the new State of Wisconsin. One of the reservations was located in Lac du Flambeau.

By the time my mother was born in 1921, the virgin forests had been cut down and more than half of the original land base was in the hands of the descendants of European immigrants (Loew, 2001). My mother’s great grandfather, Edward Sero, was one of the lumberjacks who was employed by the logging industries to help clear cut the northern forests. His daughters, Margaret, Agnes (my grandmother), and Sarah, spent at least part of their adolescence in a lumber camp where their father worked. Agnes’ mother was Angeline Shandreau, a shadowy figure my mother never mentioned. She did speak of Agnes’ younger sister, Sarah. Sarah died at an early age. She was a special aunt to my mother who described Sarah as the loveliest of the sisters, perhaps because of her hazel colored eyes, light brown hair, and paler complexion.

Agnes and sisters

Photo Credit: My mother’s photo collection

My mother told me many times that the sisters became prostitutes at an early age. Given where they were raised and how lovely they were, perhaps this is true, and if true, perhaps the only way they could exercise some control over their exploitation.

When Agnes gave birth to her first child, my mother, she was 17 years old. These photos suggest my grandmother, Agnes, was a playful young woman despite her childhood.

Agnes in tree


Agnes and friend

Agnes and doves

Photo Credits: From a Relative’s Photo Collection

My mother’s father, Raymond Ackley, lived in the Mole Lake Ojibwe community.

Ray 1Ray 2

Ray and AgnesPhoto Credits: From a Relative’s Photo Collection






Photo Credit: Agnes and Raymond – 1920?

My mother recounted her father’s lineage with pride. He was a direct linear descendant of prominent Ojibwe leaders, Chief Ki-chi-waw-be-sha-shi (Great Martin) and Chief Mee-gee-see (Great Eagle). His lineage also includes legends about his maternal great, great grandmother, Kawehasnoquay, a powerful medicine person (Levi, 1956). Raymond was also a direct descendant of William Ackley, one of the first white settlers in the area. William Ackley, who played an important role negotiating with the U.S. government on behalf of the Mole Lake Ojibwe community, married Raymond’s paternal great, great grandmother, Ma-dwa-ji-wan-no-quay (Maid of the Forest). Pride in her father’s lineage helped my mother counter-balance the negative messages she heard from whites about the inferiority of Ojibwe people.

Authors Cited

Crystos (1991). Dream On. Vancouver, BC: Press Gang Publishers.

Goc, M. J. (1995). Reflections of Lac du Flambeau: An illustrated history of Lac du Flambeau, Wisconsin, 1745-1995. Friendship, WI: New Past Press Inc.

Sister M. Carolissa Levi, 1956, Chippewa Indians of Yesterday and Today. New York, NY: Pageant Press, Inc.

Loew, Patty (2001). Indian Nations of Wisconsin: Histories of endurance and renewal. Madison, WI: Wisconsin Historical Society Press.

Marquette University Raynor Memorial Libraries Bureau of Catholic Missions, Display 50. Retrieved from http://cdm16280.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/p4007coll4/id/1680/rec/816 .

The Editors of Time-Life Books (1994). The American Indians: Peoples of the lakes. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books.



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