My husband and I have known for some time, ever since we received notice from the BIA and a genealogy chart, that he is descended from Ojibwe people on his father’s side, but we didn’t realize he had any close relatives on the reservation until recently through DNA testing. We contacted his cousins Lori and her mother, Sylvia, and arranged to meet them and to go with them to the annual Honor the Earth Powwow at the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation near Hayward, Wisconsin.
David and they are descended from Ojibwe Chief Nenaa’angebi through his daughter, fleet-footed warrior Ashaweia, who is David’s great-great grandmother (and, I realize, my great-great grandmother-in-law!)
At the Powwow the incredible creativity of every aspect of the people’s regalia, head to toe, covered in amazing beadwork and colorful fabric appliqués as well as abundant feathers, was exciting and inspiring. The over six hundred dancers, the many communal drumming and singing groups, the complete blend of the generations, the passion and wildness, the prayers of gratitude, were all very moving. We had heard from Lori about the drugs, the poverty, joblessness, and corruption on the tribal council, things that many tribes struggle with after the total disruption of their culture through losses of their land, their people, their language, their traditions, so it was good to see the fullness of life being shared together so vibrantly.
The next morning we walked a couple of miles on the Fish Hatchery Trail. A sweet man who was directing mountain bikers told us where the trail started and ended and informed us that the ridge we would be walking on was a glacial esker. The rich woods were full of wildflowers and those beautiful white-trunked paper birch trees from which everything from canoes to wigwam coverings to baskets to sacred writing scrolls were made. Then we had a lovely brunch with Lori and Sylvia on their deck overlooking Little Round Lake, pouring over old family photos and sharing our genealogy charts and information. We heard the haunting call of a loon.
Afterwards Lori took us to see tribal wild rice beds and cranberry marshes, and the St. Francis Solanus Mission Church that had brought the tribe Christianity. Sylvia had attended this school as a child. We bought some beautiful beadwork there. We heard that the Ojibwe religion of Midewiwin has some dark practitioners who hate whites and Christians. However, Lori took us to the area of the reservation that is the ancestral land of Ashaweia, where she is buried, and the present land of many of those descended from her, where Mide is still practiced in a pure way. There we saw their dance circle and the Mide lodge. We also saw the wooden spirit houses of the dead and the island on Little Lac Courte Oreilles Lake where in 1745 Ojibwe hunters and their families arrived, including the father of Eshpaion who was the father of Kekek who was the father of Nenaa’angebi, and made their home, thus founding the tribe.
In the evening we met Lori, wearing her jingle dress, and went to the Powwow again, where there were even more amazingly costumed dancers. The Jingle Dress Dance originated with the Ojibwe. Lori told us that jingle dresses have 365 jingles, prayers for each day. The dance is done as a prayer, remembering those who need prayers and healing, healing for the people of all nations. David danced with Lori during an “intertribal.” I danced, too, since I have married into this tribe! During the Powwow Lori introduced us to many other cousins.
Sunday we drove down to Rice Lake to visit the Bracklin mausoleum at Orchard Beach Cemetery. James Bracklin (whose parents came from Ireland) had been a big lumberman and mayor of Rice Lake who married Ashaweia, also known as Montanis, whose father, Chief Nenaa’angebi, had his headquarters there. Nellie Bracklin (Ogishioshikwe), their daughter, David’s great grandmother, is also buried there. Sylvia and Lori are descended from Thomas Bracklin, Nellie’s brother. Dams for log transporting destroyed the extensive wild rice beds of Rice Lake and the even more extensive beds at Prairie Rice Lake to the south. Reverently we put our feet in Lake Montanis, and saw what looked like a mink or weasel cross to the lake. We stopped at Indian Mounds Park prehistoric burial site by the lake where an eagle landed in the trees behind us. Wisconsin is full of these (pre-Ojibwe) burial and effigy mounds, and full of eagles, too!
Back home we sat on their deck overlooking the lake in the setting sun, and again a loon called, loudly resonating across the whole lake. In the evening Lori took us to meet Lawrence, another cousin, who follows the traditions closely. He shared with us some of his vision stories and told us about the cycle of their seasonal way of life: deer hunting in the winter, maple sugaring in spring, collecting of birch bark when the alteration of cold and warmth loosens the bark on the paper birches to be gathered up for use. In early summer is spear fishing. Late summer blueberry picking, then cranberry harvesting, and wild rice gathering in the fall. My father had grown up in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, and, visiting that land with him as a young woman, I was fascinated hearing about the Pineys’ cycle of hunting and gathering from the land, deer and sphagnum moss, blueberries and cranberries, medicinals and charcoal making. I loved being in the presence of both the wild blueberries in the woods and the cultivated ones on sandy ridges, the wild cranberries on river edges and the cultivated ones in constructed bogs. I loved hearing that they had to keep all their water sources pristine in order to flood the bogs and harvest the cranberries. This became almost an archetypal image for me of people harmoniously joined with nature. But, as far as I know these were the activities of rather isolated individuals.
Lawrence described how his people moved around in family groups shifting from one gathering site to another, thereby interacting with various relatives in each place. What was important were the relationships with each other and with the spirits of the land. Each Clan, designated by the Creator, was given authority over and responsibility for caring for the health of the various food sources, such that everyone was important to the work. There was a reciprocal relationship of the land providing for the people and the people providing for the land, real sustainability. He said they are trying to reestablish the Clan system, because it worked so well ecologically and spiritually. They are trying to bring fire back to the land where it is needed for the health of the forest and prairie. I know how important re-establishing fire is to our longleaf forests and savannas at home here in North Carolina. They are restoring elk to the landscape. We are, too. We talked about the incredible loss of the chestnuts and efforts to breed disease resistant ones. He said he has planted some. I could have talked with him for hours more, feeling a kinship with such a person and such people who care for the land. On our drive back to the motel the sky was so black and the stars so large and bright we got out to look and could clearly see the Milky Way above us.
Monday morning David and I went for a walk at the Wetlands Park at Stone Lake where we learned about the many uses of tamarack trees and saw beaked hazelnuts looking almost ready to harvest. On the way there we had rescued a small painted turtle crossing the road and put him in the wetland with a large beaver lodge and purple milkweeds blooming along the shore. Then we went to the Hunt Hill Audubon Sanctuary to walk in their tamarack bog, where we saw deep mounds of pink sphagnum moss, blue flags, purple pitcher plants, grass-pink orchids, cotton grass, and yellow loosestrife. Blooming in the lake were white water lilies, yellow pond lilies, water shield, white water arum, and purple pickerelweed. Continuing, we walked up the hill through the extensive, colorful prairie full of white everlastings, black-eyed Susans, pink clover and pink thistles, ox-eye daisies, common milkweed, orange hawkweed, lavender bergamot, and yellow tansies.
Two otters bounded across the road from one wetland to another on our way to the Lac Courte Oreilles Casino, where we met Lori for lunch. Afterwards we went to the tribe’s community college, and saw their museum of history and artifacts, where Lori explained to us about the harvesting and processing of wild rice. Then she took us to the beautiful tribal pipestone quarry in the woods. She said the Sioux, their old enemies, would have come there for pipestone, too, for their ceremonial pipes. It was the only place of peace because it was so sacred. According to Indian ethic, they would only take as much as they needed. The few pipestone quarries are protected by law — only Indians can take pipestone from them.
Back at their home, we had lemonade with Sylvia on the deck, and then went for a dinner of walleye, a delicious local fish, at the tribe’s restaurant, The Landing, on the Chippewa Flowage, where Lori in her jingle dress and others dance weekly for tourists. Perhaps there is some healing. This is where the federal government allowed a dam to be built that flooded out much of the reservation and their wild rice beds, a loss of the main food source from which they have never recovered. Walleye is the main fish harvested in spring by the ancient practice of night spearfishing. Their right to practice this treaty-given right was not recognized until 1983.
We were sad to leave them as Sylvia stood at her door waving to us. It’s hard to describe what a wonderful time we had. The farmlands and the “10,000” lakes, created by the scour of glaciers, were beautiful; the forest and roadside wildflowers were lush; the weather was lovely, clear, and blessedly cool. Sylvia and Lori were so warm and easy to talk to; we were comfortable with them the whole time. The walking we got to do at the nature reserves gave us a taste of the ecology, the Powwow gave us an eyeful of gorgeous creativity, and the cultural sites that Lori took us to made the visit spiritually meaningful. There was a satisfying richness of natural, spiritual, and social experiences in the midst of the realities of the tribe’s struggle to regain its language, its culture, its identity, to recover from its multigenerational trauma, its deep soul wound.
The land, the spirit of place, is the medium joining us to our ancestors. It’s not an abstract or mental relationship. We sense these tribal bonds through the earth, air, fire and water of the body of this northern Wisconsin land and its tangible spirits. It is my hope that we can draw upon the reality of these connections in our work to help heal the pervasive disconnection of our people from EarthSpirit in these times.
Betty Lou Chaika
Text and photos ©2017 Betty Lou Chaika