Carol A. Hand
Many of the stories I was privileged to hear during my research years ago left me feeling sad. Not all of them were stories about children who were taken away from their families and community and placed in abusive situations. Not all of them were stories told by Ojibwe people. I just revisited two of the stories shared by Euro-American community members and find myself pondering why they evoke such a sense of sadness, of possibilities lost.
As someone who has studied gerontology and Native American issues, I’ve had an opportunity to see the importance of history and context as a foundation for understanding the present. This particular study reinforced another insight about storytelling and the powerful role it can play in building connections among people and to places.
[Please note: The names of people have all been changed in the following accounts to protect identity, and the names of states and towns have been removed. These stories could come from any of the states where Ojibwe reservations are located.]
Image: Microsoft Word Clip Art
Research Field Notes Thursday, October 25, 2001
I left the tribal elders’ center about 4:30 p.m., and headed back to my motel room. After eating, I went to the small gas station next door to ask directions. I had an appointment to talk with Ward Wright, a respected Euro-American county resident. He was among the community residents who were highly recommended by the librarians at the local technical college. Mr. Wright had graciously agreed to meet with me at his house at 7 o’clock this evening.
It was a dark, windy, snowy night, making it difficult to find Ward’s house as I drove along the road that wound along the shore of the lake.
I noticed a house on the west side of the road on top of a hill, with bright light radiating from the wall of windows along the front. I drove up the steep driveway hoping it was the right house. A tall, athletic-looking man was visible through the windows. As I walked toward the house, buffeted by strong winds, he motioned me to a door on the back porch. I entered the porch, and then into the bright kitchen.
After introductions, Mr. Wright asked me where I would like to sit. I suggested that we sit wherever he felt most comfortable, so he led me to the table in the dining room/living room. It was a large open room with a two-story cathedral ceiling, a stone fireplace, and an upstairs loft. Mr. Wright said that he had built the house, and pointed out the oak floor he and his son had just put into the kitchen, the dark cherry ceiling in the kitchen, and the sky lights over the kitchen table. He said that he had once worked in the lumber industry, and processed all of the materials himself.
On the table were boxes with old photos and articles from the border town’s past. He began telling me how the “Kintucks” were the primary non-Indian settlers in the area. He asked if I knew anything about “Melungeons,” and when I said no, he explained.
“In the 1500’s, the Portuguese landed in North Carolina, and some were left there. They intermarried with the Cherokees, called Melungeons, and over time became more Cherokee than Portuguese. My great-great grandmother was Melungeon.”
According to Wikipedia, “Melungeon … is a term traditionally applied to one of numerous ‘tri-racial isolate’ groups of the Southeastern United States…. Tri-racial describes populations thought to be of mixed European, African and Native American ancestry. Although there is no consensus on how many such groups exist, estimates range as high as 200. Melungeons were often referred to by other settlers as of Portuguese or Native American origin.” (Hyperlinks and footnotes have been removed, see original at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melungeon.) Interesting that Mr. Wright didn’t mention African ancestry as part of this heritage.
“The Potawatomies lived in Michigan, and in Chicog, the ‘land of stinking waters.’ The Sioux and Ojibwe fought here for control of the rice beds, and when the Ojibwe won, the Sioux moved out of the area.
“During the civil war, the US feared that the British would recruit Native people to use the conflict as an opportunity to attack US forces. The US built a military road from Fort Howard in Green Bay to Fort Wilkins on the tip of the Kewanaw peninsula in upper Michigan. The Canadians supported the south and were interested in the copper in the area.
“The oldest house in the county is in the tribal community. [It is the building the elders have proposed to renovate.]
“In the 1860’s this was a hard wood area, not pine. In 1864, the area was surveyed and pronounced as unredeemable. There were Indian huts and a French trading post. It is one of the latest areas in the state to be settled because it was so rugged. A stagecoach ran twice a week from a community on a major road to the southwest of here to the first town in the area. The trails were so bad, people often walked beside the stage.
“In 1892 the Northwestern railroad first came to the area from Chicago. It was a forested area at that time, not farm land, so the tracks zigzagged between the hills. This town was named after one of the men who worked for the railroad and settled here. At that time the State gave every other section of land to the railroad.
“One of the major lumber companies that harvested timber in this area had their corporate offices in Kentucky, in an area where they made moonshine. The largest feud in the US occurred in Kentucky between two families. My grandfather was from one of the families. He originally came here to escape the aftermath of feud killings. Fifty-two people were killed in the feuds. This is why my ancestors came here.
“’Kintucks’ were outdoorsmen: they could make it on the land and the area here is a lot like the land they knew. They lived off the land like the Native peoples, and did almost as well. My grandfather got busted for making moonshine. During the depression, people made big money on moonshine, which they ‘ran to Chicago.’ The feds ‘followed the sugar trail’ to catch the moonshine makers. The Kintucks and the Native Americans have lived together harmoniously. They could hunt, trap, fish.”
Mr. Wright showed me a number of photos, old articles, and booklets on the history of the area. Among the resources were an article from a major newspaper that described history of the area, and two booklets that are available at a store in town.
“Am I telling you the kind of things you wanted to hear, Agnes?”
“Yes Mr. Wright, these are fascinating stories about the history here. I wonder if you could also tell me more about the relationship between the community and the tribe and whether you’ve noticed any cultural differences that have relevance for children and child welfare.”
“I was the principal of the school in the tribal community for three years, when the elementary school was closed. I served as principal for the border town elementary school for more than 30 years. Of the seven guys who were in my cohort who were principals or in high stress jobs, four are dead and two had strokes. This is why I retired from a job I loved.
“I was born in a one-room log house close to the Ojibwe reservation. I was logging by the age of 12. I learned to hunt and I went to school with many of the kids from the Ojibwe community.”
He told a story of how he went on to become a teacher. When he was about 19 or 20, he was working at a factory in in a large central city. He would set his alarm for 2 a.m. every day and drive to work and come home. Some of his friends were visiting, and told him they were going down to begin their semester at the normal school in a city about 150 miles away the next day and they invited him to come with them. He told them he couldn’t: he had to go to work. His mother told the friends to stop by on their way anyway. When he awoke, it was 7 a.m., and his friends arrived shortly after, so he decided to go with him. His mother had turned off his alarm. It changed his life. He did enroll, and went on to the university in another city close to the school where his friends were enrolled.
“The Ojibwe tribe here has gone up and down. The casino has been good, it has increased ‘self-pride.’ People had a job and money, and they were generous. A low was the spearing rights controversy. Everyone has accepted the situation now.
“The 1960’s were a time of downswing with the VISTA [Volunteers in Service to America] program. I was asked by a VISTA worker when I was in DC how they could help tribes. My response was that tribes needed to help themselves. The VISTA program was a hand-out program.
“There are many cultural positives. There are differences in how they discipline kids, or worry about tomorrow. Homework may not be as important, or worry about education when they turn 20. They are very generous. They are very caring over kids. They love their kids as much as or more than white parents, but sometimes other things get in the way. They are more caring for grandkids, and uncles and aunties are often responsible for kids. Everyone takes part in raising kids.
“The negatives are not really different than those other populations face. Alcohol is a problem when it becomes a priority. It may lead to neglect. To be needed and wanted is a big thing for the ladies – to have a guy takes priority in life. If one relationship ends, a new one is started instantly.
“Over the years, the system has taken away self-pride. They are very giving people – a great positive. Ogema had great ability to bring Kintucks and Native Americans together. He filled community needs. He commanded respect and carried more responsibility than anyone else since. He was fair, generous, honest, forth-right. He was a tall man, and when he walked into a room, he had a commanding presence. After Ogema died, there was not a lot of leadership in the community. I was in school with Ogema. One of his descendants had some of this presence and leadership ability, but he got into trouble.
“Native Americans lose a lot of kids in adolescence. There was a straight-A student whose dad died. She started partying, and never reached her potential. Native American youth are so talented. They have so much athletic ability. It’s almost as if they don’t want to excel too much sometimes – they sabotage themselves. Some of the best Native American athletes have parental background. It seems to make a difference. Kids from one-parent families seem to get lost.
“The Ojibwe are friendlier than other tribes, and the non-Indian community is more accepting of the Ojibwe than others. Ojibwe people are very generous, giving, outgoing, more trusting. Other tribes stick to themselves.
“Per capita has had some negative consequences for tribes that do well with gaming. Now, a lot of teens are killed as a result of accidents. They can afford to buy cars, and replace them repeatedly if they are wrecked.
“Native Americans represent 25% of the population in the lower grades, but adolescence is hard on Native American kids. They do fine in grade school but get lost in middle-school (ages 13-15). Most Native American parents want their kids to do better than they did when they we in school.
“Social services has changed a lot. Directors have changed a lot, and there is high turnover. Allen James was raised here. His mother was raised on a farm near here, so he grew into the culture. The social services department is more stable now that he’s there as director. Allen knows the kids and the community and is pretty good to work with – he’s one of the better ones. He always has time for people, and is compassionate. There is a problem trying to find families that are willing to take on another person’s kids. ‘Kids are faithful mirrors.’”
This is a statement Mr. Wright repeated frequently to emphasize the impact of parents on how their children behave and ultimately turn out.
As we were talking, the wind grew stronger, propelling snow against the windows that lined the front of the house that overlooked the lake. The lights began to flicker and I realized that I was very cold – more from fatigue than from the room temperature. It seemed wise to end our meeting because it was late (after 9 p.m.) and the weather was deteriorating.
As I drove, I thought about the interview. It had been intense and uncomfortable. Mr. Wright talked about many things: his travels and hunting; his wife’s hunting; his philosophies on a fulfilling life. He had prepared for the interview by bringing boxes from his basement. He scheduled the interview when his wife was out: she went to a play in the small city nearby. He also spoke of his grandchildren. His granddaughter is engaged to an Ojibwe tribal member. It seemed he used this to emphasize his lack of prejudice toward Ojibwe people. He appears to be a man who is used to being in a position of authority, and using the position to help kids feel good about themselves and succeed.
The snow covered the road in places, but I made it back to my room, very tired. Too tired to type notes, I simply curled up under the blankets and slept.
Research Field Notes Monday, October 29, 2001
I packed quickly on this sunny day, and headed for my motel and then, on to my interview with Elizabeth Garrett in a nearby town.
When I arrived in the small town, I turned on the road by the high school, the directions I was given at the gas station in town, but I couldn’t find the elders’ apartment complex. After circling the block several times, I decided to ask some of the students who were playing in the field behind the school. Their directions got me to the building just a few blocks away.
The complex of two apartment buildings was surrounded by single family homes. The two buildings were well-kept and appeared to be of fairly recent construction. As I entered the building, I noticed a prominent sign which read: “Absolutely no children are allowed to run in the hallways.” It struck me as a profound contrast to the tribal elder’s center where children were ever-present – running, laughing, sitting in the laps of mothers or elders and often the center of attention.
Elizabeth Garrett was initially contacted by Fiona, the Benefit Specialist for the County Aging Department. Fiona had told her that I was interested in the history of the county. I wasn’t sure that this interview would be relevant, but I went out of courtesy.
Mrs. Garrett’s apartment was on the first floor of the building. I knocked, and she invited me in. As I entered, I noticed her mail piled around a corner chair closest to the door and window. She took my coat and hung it in the closet. I noticed that she was stooped over and her movements seemed to be painful. I sat in the chair nearer to the kitchenette area. She handed me a booklet that had been written about the history of the town done by the local copy shop, and a copy of her 1933 high school yearbook. The booklet included an interview with Mrs. Garrett, and I quickly scanned the summary.
Reflection December 23, 2015
As I reread this portion of my interview with Mrs. Garrett, I tried to remember when I first met Ken Laurent, the owner of the local copy shop and author of the booklet that included Mrs. Garrett’s old interview. But I couldn’t remember even though Ken would become such a crucial source of information and support for me in the future. I’m eager to revisit those notes. For now, though, it’s important for me to stick to my original plan. To follow the history of this study to see how I changed because of the people who shared their stories with me.
Research Field Notes Monday, October 29, 2001 (continued)
I also leafed carefully through the year book. The sepia-colored paper cover was brittle with age. The headings were done in hand calligraphy, with hand-drawn illustrations, no photos or typed comments on students. The copy was mimeographed. As I looked through the booklets, Mrs. Garrett continued to sort through her mail. When she was done, she began telling stories.
“In 1895, my grandfather walked the area and estimated the lumber. His wife came two years later when the railroad went through. In 1928, we lived in another Great Lakes’ state. My step-father and mother came to the town by train to visit.
“Cars went 25 miles an hour in those days, and the roads were sandy and had big holes. Farmers would dig the holes deeper so cars would get stuck, and the passengers would have to hire the farmer to pull the car out with his horses. My parents stayed overnight at the hotel, and put a down-payment on it. When I finished sixth grade, we moved.
“I remember that the road used to curve. I started the seventh grade here. I was one year older than the others in my grade, so I decided I wanted to finish high school in three years, and I did. There were no school buses in those days, so we walked to school. There was no lunch room in those days, so we had to run home at noon for lunch. I ran home to the hotel that was also the only restaurant in town then. I waited on the customers who came on the train at noon, so I really had to run. I never dawdled around like kids today.
“It was a bad time after the crash – they were always bad times. People were living outdoors from the camps. We used to call it “the jungle.” They didn’t have any shelter and slept and cooked outdoors. For meals, one would come to us and ask for an onion, another would ask for a carrot, and then go to another house for a potato, or to the butcher for bones. They would cook the food in a large can outside. They sometimes would steal chickens from my grandmother’s house. When my grandmother went out back, she would find the chicken heads.”
Mrs. Garrett recounted stories about a number of men who lived in “the jungle.”
“Porkchop Pete had a shack built from cardboard and pieces of tin next to a local pond. He would sweep the floor at the bakery in exchange for old bread. He gave some to the men who lived in the jungle. Chinaman Joe, Fiddler Joe, and Hemlock Joe were lumberjacks who didn’t know how to spell their names. Hemlock Joe would come to town with a big fish in a bag that he sold to my mother. He had a shack on Hemlock Lake. Humpy was a humpbacked man who lived on a creek. Chinaman Joe showed us a big geography book. He was a Cossack in the Russian army and he said he stole it in St. Petersburg. He did the Russian dance – he could balance on one leg and kick out the other one. The Cossacks rode horses – they were not part of the regular army.
“When we were living in our previous state, we lived next to a jewelry store and we got different records from all over the world, including the Mazurka. There were men from all over the world there, and I remember one day I played records from each man’s country and they would pay me $1. I made $15.
“Humpy John was a ‘chore boy’ for the hotel. Before he started at the hotel, he worked for a year in the lumber camp and ended up $17 in the hole.
“Then Roosevelt got in.”
Photo: 1933 – Civilian Conservation Corps Camp – Michigan (Source)
Photo: Date Unknown – Civilian Conservation Corps Camp – Minnesota (Source)
Photo: Date Unknown – Civilian Conservation Corps Camp – North Dakota (Source)
Photo: 1933 – Civilian Conservation Corps Camp – Wisconsin (Source)
“Humpy John worked for room and board and got a small salary. He was like a grandpa to my youngest son – he would buy him things. He was kicked by a horse when he was young, and his lungs were in bad shape. My son, Lenny, went to see him, and came to tell me that Humpy wouldn’t get up when he called. He died in his sleep.
“My husband drove a school bus. I worked in the kitchen of the hotel, and Humpy John tended bar. One day, a man came in and asked where the john was. Humpy responded that he was standing right there. The customer asked again and again, with the same answer from Humpy. Finally, I pointed out the restroom, and the customer headed toward it. When Humpy found out that “john” meant toilet, he was mad. Another customer came in and asked for Ham’s (meaning Ham’s beer). Humpy told him to go to the butcher’s shop if he wanted ham.
As she told these stories, Mrs. Garrett laughed heartily.
“In spring, the loggers went to the river to roll the logs. They had nails in their shoes so they could ride the logs. They worked in the woods all winter. Farmers from the southern part of the county would come up and work cutting trees in winter and would return home in the spring to plant their crops.
“When camp members were buried, no one knew how to spell their names, so they guessed. Many have no grave markers.
“In the past state where we lived, mother cooked at a camp and delivered food on a wagon. It’s where she moved after she married my real dad in Detroit. When she first came to this country from Finland, she went to Ellis Island. Then she lived in Boston and worked for a Swedish family, so she learned Swedish. Then she went to Detroit. My father was a band leader, and they lived in every town in the state. We lived in a log house in one town that had a breezeway. Fall was rainy season, and during one storm, we stood in the breezeway watching the lightening. We learned not to be afraid of storms.
“My mother decided that we kids needed to go to school. She worked at camp in the winter. Then in the summer she worked at a resort with kids from Chicago who all went to school. After that we went to a country school. Mama made me a dress out of a flour sack. [As Mrs. Garrett spoke, she worked on an imaginary dress, showing how it was cut like a box.] My mother put ruffles on the hem and sleeves and dyed it pink. She made pants for my little brother that had four sets of buttons as fasteners: front, sides, and back. The first time he wore them to school, he couldn’t get the back buttons unfastened without help so he was teased because his sister had to help him get undressed so he could go to the bathroom.
“My mother was cooking in a hotel before we moved here and my family stayed in the hotel. People who lived there adopted two girls, and one day, they gave the children something to eat that had nuts in it. One girl choked to death. This was a sad thing for a kid.
“Mama wanted to have a restaurant, so she got this place. One day when we were there, we saw a drunken man heading our way. We all hid under the counters. Finally, mama got up and waited on him.
“One day when we came home from school, the house was closed. We didn’t know what was happening, so we got in and hid in the basement. My mother married my stepfather, and called us when they got home. After she married him, she found out that he was a gambler. He had a photographic mind and could remember all of the cards that were played so he would win. They bought a house but decided to move. Mother took care of her new husband’s brother who had TB until he died. My step-father bought the hotel.
“Chore boys were the closest thing I had for grandfathers.
“All of the poor guys lived outdoors in the jungle until Roosevelt was elected. He built a soup kitchen and a place with beds. That’s why we were always Democrats – because he was kind.
“There was a poor farm up north not too far from here. We would drop off juice that my mother made for a man who was injured in an accident. His mouth was blown up when he was setting up a dynamite cap.
“We had to help out a lot of people.
“Elmer and I eloped. There was a depression. Mother sent me to the big city in the southern part of the state to go to beauty school. I wanted to be a teacher but my family couldn’t afford it. While I was gone, Elmer wrote me every day. When my roommates graduated before me and were leaving, I knew I couldn’t afford rent, so I worked for families for room and board to save money.
“I wanted to go to church in the community. I was Lutheran, but I was confirmed in a Finnish-speaking church. My confirmation certificate was written in Finnish so I couldn’t prove that I was confirmed to the local church. They wouldn’t let me go communion because they couldn’t read Finish, so I didn’t go to church.
“I became Catholic when I was living with a family in the city – Elmer was Catholic. He came down to visit me and we got married there. A taxi driver and the priest’s housekeeper were witnesses. We didn’t let anyone in the community know, but the announcement was put in the local paper and people knew anyway. When we arrived in town by train, the whole town was there to meet us. They shivareed us right away. [Shivaree, or charivari, is a mock serenade with kettles, pans, horns, and other noise makers given for a newly married couple. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/shivaree ]
“We stayed to care for Elmer’s folks, and stayed with my folks and saved money. Elmer drove for the fire patrol. We picked berries every day and canned them. We canned partridges and deer. We saved money and bought the hotel. My mother gave us her half and we bought out my step-father. There were 2,500 people in the area during hunting season, lumberjacks, veterans, and nine boarders. We raised three children while running the hotel. My daughter, Patty, went to the university.
“I met all kinds of people. There was a millionaire who used to drink and had an accident. His tongue was sewn in, and it was hard to understand him. I understood him because I grew up with people who came from all over the world and who spoke with all different kinds of accents.
“Tourists started coming then. There was another millionaire who came once a month. My husband would take people out hunting – doing deer drives.
“My son, Lenny, the youngest, was not doing well. He had a big belly, so we spent the winter in Arizona. One of the hotel customers made the arrangements for us. Lenny was in pre-school or first grade. There were a lot of little Mexican kids, and Lenny could understand them. We lived next to Jewish people. One family was from New Jersey and I offered to set their hair. Lenny got healthy after the trip. He came home brown as a berry.
“I miss the customers and my garden. I planted apricot trees. They did well at first, but then stopped producing fruit. I was told to use wood ashes, and they helped the trees produce. The branches were so loaded with fruit that they broke.”
At this point, Mrs. Garrett got up to go to the restroom. When she returned, she asked me if I would like some tea. I said yes, so she made tea, put a pastry with whipped cream on the kitchen table at my place. We moved to the table for the rest of our talk.
“My daughter is picking me up on the 15th and taking me to Kentucky for the winter. I will spend the summer here. My daughter is a teacher, and three of my grandchildren are teachers. I always wanted to be a teacher. One granddaughter is in Alaska – she is the head of social services in one of the cities there. She just got married.”
Mrs. Garrett spoke of her other grandchildren, and her two sons.
“Lenny became ill and is on dialysis now,” she said tearfully.
It seemed a good time to shift focus. “Mrs. Garrett, can you tell me anything about how the community has viewed Native Americans?”
“We were always good friends with one of the tribal leaders. He used to walk ten miles to town and ten miles back. At that time, Elmer used to drive out to set minnow traps and drive back to collect the minnows. The tribal leader and his family would wait for Elmer to take them to town. The leader took kids to North Dakota and put them in schools. My daughter has a book about this. The county took the tribal leader’s daughter to Chicago and put her with a family in a bad neighborhood. She came home pregnant. Her father walked ten miles to town for milk and kerosene for the heater for the baby. She didn’t have any money, so the daughter picked strawberries to pay my husband and back for anything we gave them.
“Some people in the community are jealous now that the Native Americans are successful. I’m not. They deserve to be successful. One of my teachers told us how the government marched them west, but many whites didn’t listen to her.
“When the tribal leader needed money, he would leave things in exchange for what he borrowed. We always gave it back when he paid us. The butcher would store things in the window, and the tribal leader’s drum was destroyed by the light and moisture. The butcher wouldn’t give the leader’s things back. Some people are so greedy. Another tribal member, a woman, would pawn things – TV, radio. She was honest and pointed out that she owed more than my records showed.”
Mrs. Garrett ended the interview by telling funny stories about Jewish customers, and about her cousin who fought in Finland’s war with Russia. Russia was trying to get a seaport. Her cousin was captured and put in jail, where he died.
As I left, I thanked Mrs. Garrett. She expressed her hope that I would write up our conversation so she could give it to her grandchildren, so that they would know all about the community and her life. She was kind and generous, and laughed frequently as she related stories from the past.
(On November 7, 2001, I received a handwritten note from her relating stories about the Native American woman she had told me about during the interview. She shared stories about the ways she and her husband had tried to make her life a little easier.)
I wonder how lives might have been transformed if the high school students who gave me directions to the elder apartments in the small town had assignments that connected them with elders. I wondered how the stories that the former principal shared might be able to transform community relations between residents of the reservation and the border town. What if there were historical skits that brought the two communities together to learn from each other?
Image: Microsoft Word Chip Art
I also think about what these two different perspectives offer in terms of the neighborhood where I live now. Across the street is an elders’ apartment building, with an elementary school and high school within walking distance. For many elder residents, the highlight of the day is waiting for the mail to arrive. The lobby of the building is filled with eager anticipation as residents wait. I’m not sure how many are disappointed. I wonder what could happen if connections were made with the schools. There are so many things elders can teach. Not just history, but all types of practical knowledge and skills – gardening, food preservation, sewing – that have been lost with our focus on standardized tests that only measures the ability of students to regurgitate “factoids” without context.
What if connections were made to have students interview or work with elders on projects? I think of all the relevant subjects that could benefit from this approach. But more importantly, from my perspective, I’m excited by the possibility of the human connections that might evolve. And the deeper sense of connection to one’s place that could be rewoven.
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