Red Lake Warrior Death Song, Watercolor, 11" x 14," 1985
I’ve never considered myself a great Native artist. In Native American art history, my art might warrant, at most, a footnote. When I began doing my art in 1984, I was two years into my sobriety and I was learning things about my Ojibwe culture. And the things that I was learning were reflected in the imagery of my art. It wasn't great art but it got the vision across.
I was 38 years old when I began my art career. However, I wasn’t by any means a stranger to art. As a boy, I drew constantly. I was encouraged, helped, and taught by my father, Patrick Robert DesJarlait, who is considered the first Native American modernist in Native fine arts. He was also a well-known commercial artist whose best known work was the creation of the Hamm’s Beer Bear.
I was expected to be an artist but I fell into a life of alcohol and drug abuse. And during that time, my interest wasn’t art but rather writing. I read the works of great writers and studied the art of fiction. I had the desire to write but alcohol and drugs affected my motivation to do so.
In 1982, I got married and quit using alcohol and drugs. It was a new life but I had no direction in what I wanted to do. I was working as a janitor at Control Data with excellent pay and benefits. But I couldn’t see myself working as a janitor for the rest of my life. I wanted something more than just cleaning offices.
Our elders teach that our personal lives move in a circle. We always come back to a point that we’ve left behind. We may bypass the point and move on. Or we may stop at the point and find something that provides a deeper meaning and direction on our path. In 1984, I reached such a point.
At that time, my wife, Nan, who was a lay-midwife, belonged to a group of midwives – the Woman’s Dance Health Project. Each year, they produced a calendar with one of the members serving as illustrator. In 1984, they were without an illustrator. Nan turned to me and asked me to do it. At first, I refused. I hadn’t drawn anything for years and didn’t think I could even draw a straight line. But Nan kept encouraging me and I finally agreed.
The calendar was distributed throughout the Twin Cities including two Native art galleries – Avanyu Gallery and Raven Gallery. John Boler, the owner of Avanyu, offered to exhibit the calendar drawings. To my surprise, all the work sold.
So I had circled back to a point that I had bypassed many times. It was a crowded point because writing was also at that point. I decided to pursue art and circle back to writing at a later point in my life.
In 1986, I did my first solo exhibition at Avanyu Gallery. Although writing wasn’t my main focus, I did nevertheless write. For my exhibition I put together a five-page booklet on my art. Interestingly, at the time that I was developing as an artist with an Ojibwe mindset, I was also developing as a writer writing from an Ojibwe perspective. Both my art and my writing were closely linked together. I knew little about the language at that time. I’m not sure of what language sources I was using. But despite the errors, my limited language knowledge allowed me to give cultural expression to my aesthetics.
Although it's tempting to correct errors and bring my writing, from that period, up to par with the double-vowel system we use today, I've decided to leave it as it is. It reflects a time in my life when I was struggling to learn about my history, language, and worldview of my people.
An Exhibition of Southwestern Ojibway Art
June 13-July 10
Born Mukwa Odem (Bear Clan), Anishinabe/Ojibway (Southwestern), 18 November 1946, Miskwagami-sagaigan (Red Lake Chippewa Reservation, Red Lake, Minnesota). My Red Lake ancestor is Pus-se-nous (Bus-i-noss), a great Red Lake ogitchida (warrior), ogima (chief), and nata-gigitod (orator). His daughter, Mish-ah-kee-be-nais-ikwe, is my anike-ninookomis (great grandmother).
My father is Patrick Robert DesJarlait (Na-gaw-bo) (1921-72), a self-taught, fine artist who received national recognition for his paintings of the Red Lake people.
As an artist, I paint and draw what gives meaning to me as an individual. And what gives meaning are those things Ojibway. I look at my art from a tribal (i.e., Ojibway) perspective. Through my art, I visualize a particular facet of Ojibway experience. Thus, I am a Ojibway artist (masinitchigeinini).
My drawings and paintings are personal visions of a tribal reality. These stylized, figurative images compose a micro/macro-scopic Ojibway Universe. Interwoven in this Universe are creation stories, origins of traditions, legends, and warrior-heroes, and, my central theme, Manidoo-wiwin Ojibway – the tribal spirit of the Southwestern Ojibway.
I approach my art from the traditional concept of Masinitchibiigewin – the act of, or the art, of painting and drawing. This old Ojibway term was used in relation to birch bark drawings (masinitchigan), and the sacred rock paintings (masinibii-assin). These tribal pictographs included delineations of Anishinabe man, the animal-beings, and the bird nations; Mide symbols represented the sky, earth, and her plant-beings, as well as sounds and spirit power. A simpler symbolism was used in dream symbols, clan marks, messages, and casual records.
In relation to this, my art focuses on a central image (masinitchigan) which projects a quality, or character, of traditional or contemporary tribal spirit. The white of the paper signifies the bark of the birch. My anatomical stylization of Ojibway people is influenced by father’s interpretation; this is particularly apparent in the facial structure. In function, my images represent pictographs. And, as in pictographs, in my images the teachings, beliefs, and (past and present) history of the Southwestern Ojibway is presented.
One particular figurative image that I favor is the Ojibway Warrior (Ogitchida). This is an area that hasn’t been explored by a contemporary, tribal artist. The Ogitchida were one of five forms, or aspects, of tribal duty. The basic duty of the Ogitchida was to defend and protect. Among the Southwestern Ojibway, the Ogitchida were especially strong – and essential. It was the Ogitchida that spearheaded the Great Migration (Kitchi Chi-bi-moo-day-win) into the ricing lands of Minnesota – thus fulfilling the Seven Fires Prophecy (Neesh-wa-swi-ish-ko-day-kawn) of the Third Fire: “The Anishinaabe will find the path to their chosen ground, a land in the west to which they must move their families. This will be where food grows on water.” Contrary to anthropological interpretation, the favored weapon of the Ojibway warrior was not a gun, but rather the warclub (pagamagan) which ranged from single-handed versions to elaborately carved two-handed weapons. The Ogitchida were men of heart – battles were a testing of spiritual strength and personal skill. With the establishment of reservation systems, the traditions of the Ogitchida faded.
My Ogitchida images are not historical depictions of Ojibway warriors (as in Remington, Bodmer, or Catlin). Nor are they fanciful revisionist images of a nostalgic past. These warriors are portrayed in my stylization of my people. The war regalia, though historically accurate, is also presented in stylized forms. The overall importance of the Ogitchida masinichigan (Warrior image) is the quality, or character of the tribal spirit that it represents – to protect and to defend. This tribal spirit is not lost or forgotten – it lives on in the contemporary existence of Anishinabe man.
Currently, a strong Ojibway art is emerging in Minnesota; this art is often mislabeled Minnesota Ojibway art. In defining this art, I use the term Southwestern Ojibway art; this loose, generic term defines a tribal geographical area which is producing a strong, visual art. This term is based on the four major Ojibway bands: Southeastern Ojibway (Michigan and Wisconsin), Northern Ojibway (Ontario), Plains Ojibway (Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Montana, and North Dakota), and the Southwestern Ojibway (Minnesota). This tribal art – Southwestern Ojibway art – is not a tribal style (for example, Morrisseau inspired Legend art); rather, Southwestern Ojibway art is a vibrant diversity of personal visions; it is a tribal idiosyncrasy of individual aesthetics.
This present exhibition of Manidoo-wiwin Ojibway is composed of 17 watercolor paintings, 14 graphite drawings, and one collage. Manidoo-wiwin Ojibway is a generic term that I apply to my work – to the totality and concept of my art; and, to the present, on-going phases of my art. Each piece represents an aspect (i.e., quality and/or character of Ojibway tribal spirit. These aspects are grouped under general headings: Ogitchida Masinitchigan, Ikwenimiidiwin Masinitchigan, Adisokan Masinitchigan, and Oshki Anishinabe Masinitchigan.
Categorization of Manidoo-wiwin Ojibway:
Ogitchida Masinichigan (Warrior Images):
Red Lake Warrior Pipe; Ma-en-gun Odem (Wolf Clan Warrior); Mukwa Odem Ogitchida (Bear Clan Warrior); Kitchi-Gami Anishinabe Migizi Ogitchida (Lake Ojibway Eagle Warrior); Sandy Lake War Canoe; Red Lake Scalp Dancer; Red Lake Warrior Death Song, Pisiw Ogitchida (Lynx Warrior); Kikiweon Nagamon (Flag Song).
Ikwenimiidiwin Masinichigan (Woman’s Dance Images):
Mother and Daughter; Father and Son; Mish-ah-kee-be-nais-ikwe; Earth Woman’s Vision; Ningotode Babamodiswin (Family Voyage); Ninga Adjik (Mother with Daughter); LittleWolf and BearHeart; Wana-Ikwe (Tail Feather Woman.
Adisokan Masinichigan (Legends and Mythos Images):
Last War Dance of Big Ojibway; Death Song of the Moose Clan; Onwe Bahmondoong; Odjbaa and the Red Swan; Niwin Kashkadinap (Four Hills); Mikan (The Path); Ma-en-gun Manidoowiwin (Spirit of the Wolf – Medicine Man’s Robe); Anishinaba; Anishinabe Migizi Opwagun (Ojibway Eagle and Pipe).
Oshki Anishinabe Masinichigan (Contemporary Ojibway Images):
Vision of the Assimilated Man; Fog Woman’s Vision; May 19th; Broken Circle; Ojibwa Medicine Man (Jim Jackson), Akoongiss (Self-Portrait).
The show sold out. Unfortunately, I didn't take photographs of my art, so I don't have a visual record of what was in the show. I also didn't keep a record of who bought what. The only work that remains from the exhibition is Red Lake Warrior Death Song. I gave that to my wife. It's part of a private collection she has of my work.
In looking back at my art, I don’t feel that my concept of Manidoowiwin Ojibway was overly stated. Although I felt that I had certain limitations as an artist, I nevertheless was able to artistically convey my aesthetic through my imagery. That is, after all, all an artist can do.
It’s not my intention to cover my career of art here. I will say that I was fairly successful as an artist – not in terms of fortune but in recognition as an artist - from the mid-1980s to the late 1990s. During that period, my art was featured in juried art shows, invitational art exhibits, and several solo and general art exhibitions. I taught Native art in schools and tribal colleges. I received numerous commissions from Minnesota Native organizations to illustrate posters and curricula. I also became a community artist with murals in the Twin Cities and throughout Minnesota.
In 1998, I decided to go to college. In 2001, at age 51, I received my BA in Ethnic Studies. I became a professional in the Native community and, for seven years, worked as the program coordinator for the Indian Child Welfare Act program at Ain Dah Yung (Our Home) Center.
In 2012, I took early retirement, under Social Security, at age 62. During those intervening years, I continued to do art albeit sporadically. My creative focus shifted to writing.
And that’s where I am today. As a writer, I am still an artist, only I mainly use words instead of paint. But visual art is never too far from my mind. As I sit here writing this, I can look over and see a pad of Canson 1557 Classic Drawing Paper, 18” x 24,” 90 lb., 24 sheets, that I bought over the weekend. On the other side of me is the book I’m writing. The book is my winter project. And it’s not winter yet. Like I said, visual art is never too far from my mind.
© 2018, Robert DesJarlait
The need for writing tribal histories is great, for among many tribes tribal history, language and culture are rapidly disappearing…as the tribal elders die, it appears that much of the tribal past will also disappear ~ Duane Kendall Hale, Researching and Writing Tribal Histories
Writing about dance history is not an easy task. One cannot presume that one is writing “the” history but rather “a” history. This is the approach that I take when writing about dances associated with the powwow. The difficulty of writing about Native American dances is that they have a history. They did not simply begin with the advent of the powwow. Exactly when and where they began is the task of the tribal historian to interpret through research and resources. The importance of tribal historical narrative is emphasized by Dr. Duane Kendall Hale:
Four distinct reasons for writing tribal histories are: 1) books have been written about Native Americans and not by them, so the Indians point of view is lacking in historical works; 2) historians have romanticized the so-called “Indian wars” of the nineteenth century; 3) historians have failed to write about Indians in the twentieth century [and twenty-first century] – ninety years of twentieth century [and twenty-first century] Indian history is waiting to be written; 4) a large number of books written about Indians have concentrated upon the larger well-known tribes and have ignored the smaller tribes which are rapidly disappearing.
Dr. Hale also writes: In the years leading up to 1989, tribes borrowed ideas, songs, dances, and other traditions from each other to such a great extent that it is often difficult to determine what is unique to that particular tribe.
Men's Woodland Dance is such a dance. Overall, Woodland dance itself is found among Northeastern tribes and Southeastern tribes and has been a part of the dance history and culture in those tribes for many years. To avoid confusion, the term "Men's Woodland" as used here refers to Woodland Dance among the Ojibwe in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Among the Ojibwe, the history of Woodland Dance is difficult to determine. Some see it as a “new” dance that began in the early 2000s. Its popularity among Great Lakes tribes has led to a new category at powwows – Men’s Woodland. It is a unique and specific style of dance with its own type of regalia and songs.
However, Men's Woodland is anything but new. Its history far predates its modern counterpart. Indeed, its history predates the advent of the origin of the powwow itself.
I don’t pretend to know the history of Men's Woodland. Under Dr. Hale’s criteria, it’s a dance that deserves to be written about. However, my knowledge is limited to an Ojibwe perspective and even in that regard, my knowledge is limited to dancers and elders that I’ve talked to and research that I’ve done. I’m sure that others will add to this history in the years ahead. There will be those who will disagree with the words I’ve put down in presenting this history. But then, that’s what history is about – a way of finding our way back to our roots as seen from our own cultural perspectives rather than colonial perspectives.
My own interest with Men's Woodland is not without a personal connection. I began dancing in about 1986. My style was Northern Men’s Traditional. My anishinaabe-agwiwinanregalia (regalia) reflected my Ojibwe cultural connections – floral beadwork and floral motifs. As time passed, I learned that Northern Men's Traditional wasn’t a dance that had deep historical ties to the Ojibwe. It was a dance given to us by the Dakota in the mid-1800s. The point of dispersion is usually attributed at Red Lake in about 1860. It was originally referred to as Bwaani-niimi`idiwin (the Sioux Dance) because of its dispersal by the Dakota. In turn, the Lakota/Dakota referred to the dance as the Omaha Dance because the dance had been passed to them by Omaha and Ponca dance societies.
Nine years ago, my wife decided to make me new anishinaabe-agwiwinan (regalia). She wanted to do agogwaajigan (appliqué) on black wool. Her method combines agogwaajigan with mazinita`ige (embroidery). Agogwaajigan and mazinita'ige were not uncommon among the Ojibwe. Long before the Invasion and advent of colonialism, Ojibwe women embroidered with gaagobiiwayan (porcupine quills). With the infusion of European trade goods, European fabrics led to agogwaajigan that was used on clothing featuring various floral and geometric motifs. The introduction of manidoominag (beads) overshadowed agogwaajigan and mazinita'ige, and by the late 1800s dominated Ojibwe aesthetics.
I found a photo of a man from Lac du Flambeau wearing a Woodland outfit in an old book, “The Book of Indian-Crafts and Costumes.” The photo, from 1946, served as an inspiration of making an outfit completely covered with floral motifs – vest, leggings, and apron. I created the design patterns using floral motifs from Carrie Lyford’s book, “Ojibwa Crafts.” My wife then did her agogwaajigan and mazinita'ige using my designs. I also decided to make an otter turban as I felt that a turban would be befitting and appropriate for my new regalia. I continued to wear my bimoonjigan (bustle), although my bimoonjigan had always been different. Before I began dancing in 1986, I had a dream about a bimoonjigan. I made the bimoonjigan in accordance with my dream – a flat back panel covered with eagle feathers with two spike feathers. I would later, surprisingly, learn that these types of bimoonjiganan were worn by four belt men in the Big Drum ceremony.
Six years ago, I saw my first Woodland Dance. The Bad River powwow committee was featuring a Woodland Special. I had no idea what that was. When I asked, I was told it was basically a men’s traditional style dance but dancing without a bimoonjigan. I noticed that a couple of dancers wore regalia like mine – beaded floral regalia with turbans – and without bimoonjiganan. I also noticed their manner of dance was different. They weren’t dancing the typical Men’s Northern style of dance. And then there were the songs – songs that I recognized as older war dance songs with a faster beat and tempo.
For me, it was easy enough for me to transition to Men's Woodland by simply eliminating my bimoonjigan. At age 71, it is an demanding and exhausting dance. But for me, it’s not about competing. It’s about dancing with, not against, my Woodland contemporaries.
As a writer, Men's Woodland piques my interest. What is this dance and where did it come from? How does this dance connect the present to the past?
Pre-Colonial War Dance
Above, "Chippewa War Dance" below, "Chippewa Scalp Dance," both by Peter Rindisbacher, ca. mid-1820s-1830s. Rindisbacher was an artist whose paintings and drawings depicted several tribes, including the Ojibwe who he visited. His works are notable for the changes he illustrated in tribal material culture. "Chippewa War Dance" shows a minimal impact of European trade fabrics on clothing. "Chippewa Scalp Dance" shows the strong influence of European fabrics on Ojibwe clothing. Equally important were the activities that engaged Ojibwe villages. Rindisbacher's work featuring the War/Scalp Dances underlines the continuity of the War Dance complex amid changing times.
Men’s Woodland Dance has a circular history. Although some attribute it as a modern powwow dance, its beginnings stretch far beyond establishment of the modern powwow dance complex. It is a direct descendant of the War Dance complex.
War dancing was widespread among many tribes across Turtle Island, and there were similarities in war dancing. The Scalp/Victory Dance were part of the dance complex generally referred to as the War Dance. The origin and point of diffusion is unknown. Among the Ojibwe-Anishinaabe ogichidaag (warriors), this old form of war dance was called Nandobaniishimowin. The name is derived from the term Nandobaniiwin, meaning warfare.
Although the Ojibwe did not have warrior societies that paralleled the highly structured Plains warrior societies, there was nevertheless a structure for activities related to warfare. “The Anishinaabe did not perceive war as a constant or even a long-term state, and as a result, permanent war leaders [Mayosewininiwag] were unnecessary…A mayosewinini had only limited authority, and his power was determined largely by the number of warriors who followed him for the duration of the crisis…Mayosewininiwag who consistently demonstrated combined military and spiritual power by winning battles and honors while incurring few or no casualties gained in influence.” Ojibwe “warrior societies had their own identifiable leaders, ceremonies, and prescribed rights for the group that cut across kin and village lines.” It was “restricted to the men who had won war honors.”
The Ojibwe War Dance complex consisted of several interconnected dances. Departure dances were held during the period when the war party was assembled and organized. Once on the war path, dances were held nightly until the area for engagement was reached. If the engagement was successful, the warriors composed songs of their deeds and valor they had achieved during the engagement. They would sing these songs and reenact their deeds through dance at the Victory/Scalp Dance that was held in their home village. Dancing by warriors was held regularly throughout the spring and summer as a part of village gatherings. The Striking-the-Pole Dance was a common feature at communal dances in which warriors struck a center pole and then sang and danced of their deeds in war.
In "Chippewa Music," Odjib’we provided information on Ogichidaag customs, regalia, songs, and dances. Regarding the Victory Dance, Odjib’we said: “On returning, a victorious war party sent runners in advance to carry news of their approach, and preparations for a suitable reception were begun at once. Meantime, the warriors made their last camp before reaching home; here they rehearsed the songs concerning the victory and arrayed themselves in their finest apparel. As they approached the village…the women came out to meet them. One woman led the party, to whom were given the scalps taken by the warriors. Then the women led the procession, the scalp bearers in advance, waving the scalps and singing. After the party reached the village preparations for the victory dance were begun. The [scalp] poles were stuck in the ground beside the pile of food, and the feast was called ‘feasting the Sioux.’ In response this song [the Gift Song] the warriors rose and danced, singing of what they had done on the warpath. Gifts were distributed to all the people by members of the warrior’s clan. The next event was the victory dance, which often continued until daylight, by the light of torches and bonfires. At the conclusion of these dances, the scalps were carefully wrapped until the next dance. [T]hey were sent to another village, where similar dances were held.”
Both the war dance and the scalp dance were non-secular dances – they weren’t social dances. However, changes began in the late 1840s and early 1850s that would bring the non-secular dances into the social dance. Both the war dance and the scalp dance were performed for visiting government dignitaries and missionaries.
William Warren described a nandobaniishimo in held in the early 1700s: “On occasions of this nature, the warriors work themselves by hard dancing, yelling, and various contortions of the body…” Actions and deeds on the battlefield were “boasted of in their triumphal dances and warlike festivities.” Ogichidaag gathered in the spring and summer “to engage in festivities and dances, during which the events and exploits of past years are sung and recited; and while they derive fresh courage and stimulus to renewed exertion, the young, who are listeners, learn to emulate their fathers and take their earliest lessons in the art of war.”
Regarding the customs of the Ogichidaag, Warren wrote: “This customary procedure on the eve of the an attack or battle, being performed, the warriors grasped their medicine bags, and hurriedly adorned their faces and naked bodies with war paint, those that earned them planted the eagle plumes on their headdress, which denoted enemies they had slain or scalps taken and…charms of supposed invulnerability were attached to different portions of their headdress, armlets, or belts.”
In preparation for a visit by Washington officials, Johann Georg Kohl wrote: “According to traditional custom, the pipe of peace passed from tent to tent…among the warriors. When each had smoked, the procession started, and marched with drums beating, fluttering feather flags…through the village, to the open space before the old fort of North-West Company. Here they put up a wooden post, and close to it their war-flag, after which the dances, speeches, and songs began. A circle was formed of brown-skinned dancers, with the musicians and singers in the middle. To the music, the warriors hopped around in a circle, shaking the otter, fox, and beaver tails attached to their arms and heads. At times the singing and dancing was interrupted: with flying hair and skins a warrior walked into the circle, raised his tomahawk, and struck the post a smart blow, as a signal that he was going to describe his warrior deeds.”
Henry Schoolcraft wrote: “This ceremony, together with what is called striking the post, was performed during our stay. The warriors, arrayed for war, danced in a circle to the music of their drum and rattles. After making a fixed number of revolutions, they stopped simultaneously and uttered a sharp war yell. A man then stepped out, and raising his club and striking a pole at the center, related a personal exploit in war. The dance was then resumed, and terminated in like manner by yells, when another warrior related his exploits. This was repeated as long as there were exploits to tell…”
By the late 1880s, the Nandobaniishimowin was overshadowed by the emergence of the Bwaani-niimi'idiwin (Sioux Dance). The adaption of the Bwaani-niimi'idiwin was a cross-over of the war dance. The dance and songs of this newly emerging men’s dance developed from the warrior societies of the Omaha and Ponca. The secular version incorporated items that were carried and clothing worn by warriors. Perhaps the most significant piece was the dance bustle, a piece not previously worn by northern tribes that had adapted the dance.
For the Ojibwe, the Bwaani-niimi’idiwin was an extension of the old war dance. War dance was a widely used term among northern tribes in connection with this dance. Originally, dancers who danced the new dance were called Grass Dancers in reference to the braided hoops of sweetgrass they wore. In the non-secular version of the dance among the Omaha and Ponca, warriors wore scalps. The secular version switched to braided sweetgrass. By the late 1800s, the dance broke into two differing dances – the grass dance, i.e., dancers who danced without bustles, and the war dance, i.e., dancers who wore bustles. In the Ojibwe language, bwaanzhii-niimi translated as “dance war dance.” The root word, “Bwaan (Dakota/Sioux),” connected the dancer to the new dance - Bwaani-niimi’idiwin. Overall, these dancers were called “war dancers” until the dance was more formalized as the Northern Men’s Traditional dance category in the 1960s.
At the time of the development of the modern war dance, i.e. the Sioux Dance, colonialism radically reduced tribal land bases and restricted tribal life to reservations. Enforced assimilation through missionaries destroyed the language and disrupted the clan system and traditional practices. Government policies replaced traditional council governance with Indian Reorganization Act governments.
Through the Bwaani-niimi’idiwin, the Sioux Dance, the Ojibwe maintained a connection to their old war dance, the Nandobaniishimowin. The non-secular elements disappeared largely because the way of the war path had ended. Ogichidaaag no longer went on the war path to achieve honor, and the villages no longer engaged in the dances associated with the War Dance complex. Everything was changing because of the impact of Euro-American colonialism. The Bwaani-niimi’idiwin allowed for the continuation of the war dance albeit under a newer and emerging dance complex – the powwow.
Traditionlists still tried to maintain ties to the old. Photographs from 1910-1920, show men at powwows dressed in full Woodland regalia. Other photos show the war and scalp dance performed at Ponemah and White Earth.
War Dance at Obaashing (Ponemah), 1910. Photo by Francis Densmore from Chippewa Music. Densmore attended the Fourth of July Celebration at Obaashing in 1910 and recorded over 40 songs that were dream songs. She wrote: "It is probable that most of the songs were used in war. This is not difficult to understand. The young man who had a dream in his fasting vigil was usually an individual of character and strength of purpose. War was the principal career which offered itself in the old days and the man of the dream had the qualifications which made for success. After he had sung his dream song on the warpath he sang it at the dances preparatory to war, and in time it became the common property of the tribe." Several of the songs that Densmore recorded were related to the War Dance complex. Some songs were preparatory war songs and others "used in the victory dances which followed a successful war expedition..."
Scalp Dance at White Earth, ca. 1910
Interconnections with Baaga'adowewin (Lacrosse)
Red Cliff vs. Bad River, 1937, Painting- Artist Unknown
The game of Lacrosse originated in the Northeastern Woodlands among the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), and dispersed among the tribes living in the St. Lawrence Valley system including the people that the Haudenosaunee called Dwăkănĕņ" - the Ojibwe. The Ojibwe called the game Baaga'adowewin, which is usually translated as “they bump hips.”
Games were played intertribally between communities. They sometimes served to settle supratribal conflicts, for healing practices involving communities or individuals, and to appease the Creator.
Although each tribe integrated their own tribally specific traditions and spiritual beliefs, the general theme of war and the War Dance complex were interwoven throughout the structure of the game.
In general, on the night before a game, players donned their warrior regalia and performed a dance similar to the Departure Dance in which war exploits were recounted through dance. At the conclusion of the game, the winning team would don their regalia and perform a Victory Dance.
Medicine men played a central role and conducted purification ceremonies on the night preceding the game, blessed players and playing sticks, and painted the players. During play, they often positioned themselves with the singers and drums that sang on the sidelines.
On the playing field, like the warpath, the players wore bare essentials – loincloths and moccasins. Like warriors, they wore talismans that would provide protection, strength and abilities on the playing field. Their playing sticks weren’t unlike ball-headed clubs carried into battle. Their faces and bodies were painted and their war cries echoed throughout the game. From the Pre-Reservation Period to the early Reservation Period, Baaga'adowewin provided a means for young men to develop physical abilities and to connect to their traditions as warriors.
Baaga’adowewin is deeply embedded in Ojibwe culture. Origin stories underline its longevity and importance among Ojibwe people. As the game spread among tribes located in the St. Lawrence Valley system, including the Ojibwe, tribes integrated their own mindsets, beliefs, and ceremonies into the game. Origin stories of how the game began evolved among the tribes that adapted the game. The origin stories invariably connected the game to the thunder-beings. Thunder-beings were associated with war and, hence, connected Baaga'adowewin to the way of ogichidaag.
“One Ojibwe belief is that the way of playing the game once came to a boy in a dream. In his dream, the boy saw a large open valley and a crowd of Indians approaching him. A younger member of the group invited him to join them at a feast. He entered a wigwam where a medicine man was preparing medicine for a great game. The lacrosse sticks were held over the smoking medicine to doctor them and ensure success in the game. After the players formed into two teams and erected goal posts, the medicine man gave the signal to start, and the ball was tossed into the air amid much shouting and beating of drums. In his dream, the boy scored a goal. When he awakened, he related his experiences to his elders, who interpreted it as a dictate from the Thunderbirds. This is how the game of lacrosse began.”
Interestingly, Baaga’adowewin isn’t attributed to Nenabozho, the Ojibwe culture hero. Nenabozho, our great uncle, provided us with the lessons of life and survival at the time when the Earth was new. Following the cycle of Nenabozho stories, a second corpus of origin stories emerged. These stories focused on the dawn of the Ojibwe world, when the awesiinhyag (animals) dominated the Earth and humans played a much lesser role in the Creation. These were ancient stories that explained how things came to be – why certain awesiinhyag had certain colors or behaviors or why the seasons changed. The following two stories indicate that Baaga’adowewin wasn’t a game that was just played among humans; it was also a game played by the awesiinhyag. The importance of the stories provides a timeline of Baaga’adowewin among the Ojibwe. In this regard, Baaga’adowewin wasn’t a new game that developed after the Ojibwe settled the Great Lakes region. Rather, the game existed long before that at a time when the Ojibwe lived in the St. Lawrence Valley. By the time the Ojibwe reached the Great Lakes, Baaga’adowewin was already well established and deeply ingrained in Ojibwe culture.
In “Why Birds Go South in Winter,” there was only one season – summer. Awesiinhyag (animals) play among each other. They play games including Baaga’adowewin. Maang (Loon) is especially fond of Baaga’adowewin and constantly encourages the other bineshiiyag (birds) to play matches with him. One day, Maang challenges Gekek (Hawk) to a match between the bineshiiyag.
Gekek’s team has gaagaagi (raven), gookooko’oo (owl), gijigijigaanshinh (chickadee), bineshiin (thrush), misko-bineshiinh (cardinal), meme (woodpecker), aagask (grouse), jaashaawanibiisi (junco), mayaagibine (pheasant), bine (partridge), apishi-gaagaagi (magpie), and mashkiigobine (spruce grouse). Maang’s team includes nikaa (Canada goose), wiindigoo-bineshiinh (kingbird), opichi (robin), gwaagwaashkwanjiins (sparrow), ozhaawasshko-bineshiinh (bluebird), waabanoong bineshii (oriole), miskwegini-binesi (scarlet tanager), jiichiishkwenh (plover), apagaade-ikwewinini (thrasher), zhaashaawanibiisii (swallow), gaazhigensiwi-bineshiinh (catbird), and ogashkimansi (kingfisher).
As always, a wager is made. In this case, the winner will announce the wager at the game’s conclusion.
It is a ferocious match with injuries on both sides. Gaagaagi (Raven), who has been injured, scores the winning goal. As a result of the victory, Gekek dictates that the east wind would bring clouds, rain, and thunderstorms, during which Baaga’adowewin can’t be played.
Maang, who feels that Gekek’s team has cheated, challenges Gekek to another game. Once again, Maang’s team loses the match.
This time, Gekek issues a sterner penalty for losing the game. As a result of the loss, the north wind will bring cold and snow, and Maang and his friends will have to leave the land and go south. Thus, certain birds fly south for the winter.
In “Thunderbirds and Fireflies,” the young thunderbirds are troublesome birds that were always causing great, destructive storms in their rambunctious play. Their fathers decided to teach them to play lacrosse.
Instead of baaga'adowaan (lacrosse sticks), the young thunderbirds use their wings to wield the ball that had been made from lightning. However, their furious play and flapping of winds causes a great storm and the ball falls to earth. The ball hits the earth and the impact creates Hudson Bay. The smaller pieces of the ball create the smaller lakes in Ontario. Stars fall from the sky and break into thousands of pieces that blink off and on. The falling stars change into fireflies.
As noted, the importance of these two stories emphasizes the early connection of Baaga’adowewin among the Ojibwe. The bird story points out the rough physical nature of the game and gambling as a central point in the game. The thunderbird story reemphasizes gambling and connects the game to war because of the thunderbirds association to war.
Another Baaga’adowewin story that focuses on the warlike attributes of the game is “Wakayabide is Killed Playing Lacrosse and Later Takes Revenge.” Wakayabide is a long story that comprises two, interlinked, central parts. In the first part, Wakayabide is introduced as a manidoo. He mysteriously appears in a village, naked with his intestines hanging out. The young ogimaa (leader) of the village, Madjikiwis, has three sisters. Madjikiwis is a powerful warrior whose bikwaakwado-bagamaagan (ball-headed war club) emits thunder and lightning. Through Madjikiwis’ intervention, Wakayabide marries the littlest of sisters.
The three sisters have been having affairs with other powerful men. Three of them challenge Wakayabide to disprove that he is a manidoo. The first two men are shape-shifters. The first one is gichi-makwa (grizzly bear) and the second one is waabi-makwa (polar bear). The third one has power over water and can make the rivers rise.
Wakayabide easily wins each challenge and he is accepted as a powerful manidoo.
The following day, a Baaga’adowewin match is announced. Gichi-makwa gives Wakayabide a baaga'adowaan (stick) to play with.
Although Wakayabide has brought his bow and arrows with, he leaves his belt at his lodge. The belt contains his spirit helper, ma’iingan (wolf), and ma’iingan had told him to always wear his belt for protection. Gichi-makwa attacks Wakayabide and kills him. He is eaten by the people in the village and his bones are tossed aside.
Inside his lodge, his wife hears the howl of a ma’iingan. She realized it is coming from Wakayabide’s belt. She opens a small pouch on the belt and a small ma’iingang appears. The ma’iingan sets out to find Wakayabide’s bones. Once the bones are found and brought back, they are placed in a pile. The ma’iingan howls four times. With the first howl, the bones reassemble into the shape of a man. With the second howl, flesh appears on the bones. With the third howl, Wakayabide’s eyes open up. On the fourth howl, Wakayabide begins to breathe again.
The next day, another Baaga’adowewin match is announced. In this match, Wakayabide wears his belt and brings his arrows. During the match, Wakayabide attacks gichi-makwa and kills him. Afterward, the bear is cut up, cooked, and shared through the village. The village plays Baaga’adowewin for live people. That is how they get their meat. They eat each other. The bear itself comes back to life the next day because he is a powerful manidoo.
The story of Wakayabide contains many elements that thread through many Ojibwe hero stories. Obviously, this story isn’t about humans playing Baaga’adowewin. It’s about Manidoog (Spirits) playing the game. The connection to the thunderbirds is maintained through Madjikiwis and his war club that flashes thunder and lightning. Indeed, Wakayabide’s association with the binesiwag (thunder beings) is emphasized through his marriage to Madjikiwis’ sister. Wakayabide’s belt is like other personal items that have preternatural qualities found in many hero stories. In this case, his belt protects him and holds his spiritual protector – the ma’iingan. The game that is played is violent and ends in death, although both Wakayabide and the grizzly bear are reanimated back into life. The game is undoubtedly a game between ogichidaag (warriors) in which the players display their skills as ogichidaag. Wakayabide obviously has the favor of the thunderbirds through his association with Madjikiwis. However, in the first game, he is over-matched because he lacks the proper protection (i.e., his belt); in the second game, he enters the field in full array and easily defeats his foe. A darker element of the story ties into the Wiidigoog, beings who were once humans that grew in size and bulk as a result of their consummation of human flesh.
The most famous and deadliest game of Baaga’adowewin happened at Fort Michilimackinac on June 4, 1763. In resistance of newly imposed British trade policies, the Ojibwe, with Sauk allies, attacked the fort as a part of Pontiac’s War. In “History of the Ojibway Nation”, William Warren provides an account of the attack:
During the whole night the Ojibways were silently busy in making preparations for the morrows work. They sharpened their knives and tomahawks, and filed short off their guns, In the morning these weapons were entrusted to the care of their women, who, hiding them under the folds of their blankets, were ordered to stand as near as possible to the gate of the fort, as if to witness the game which the men were about to play. Over a hundred on each side of the Ojibways and Osaugees [Sauk], all chosen men, now sallied forth from their wigwams, painted and ornamented for the occasion…
This game of Baug-ah-ud-o-way is played with a bat and ball. The bat is about four feet long, terminating at one end into a circular curve, which is netted with leather strings…
On the morning of the 4th of June, after the cannon of the fort had been discharged in commemoration of the king’s natal day, the ominous ball was up a short distance in front of the gate…and the exciting game commenced. The two hundred players, their painted persons streaming with feathers, ribbons, fox and wolf tails, swayed to and fro as the ball was carried backwards and forwards by either party, who for the moment had possession of it…
The game, played as it was, by the young men of two different tribes, became exciting, and the commandant of the fort even took his stand outside his open gates, to view its progress. His soldiers stood carelessly unarmed, here and there, intermingling with the Indian women, who gradually huddled near the gateway…
In the struggle for its possession, the ball at last was gradually carried toward the open gates, and all at once, after having reached a proper distance, an athletic arm caught it up in his bat, and as if by accident threw it within the precincts of the fort. With one deafening yell and impulse, the players rushed forward in a body, as if to regain it, but as they reached their women and entered the gateway, they threw down their wooden bats and grasping the shortened guns, tomahawks, and knives, the massacre commenced, and the bodies of the unsuspecting British soldiers soon lay strewn about, lifeless, horribly mangled, and scalpless.
According to Alexander Henry, a well-known trader who witnessed the attack, “of ninety troops, about seventy were killed; the rest were kept in safety by the Ottawas and then freely restored, or ransomed at Montreal.” The French who lived within the confines of the fort were left unharmed. The fort wasn’t held because the main focus of Pontiac’s Rebellion was to attack British forts and encampments, withdraw, and shift the attack elsewhere to drive the British from the hunting, fishing, and gathering grounds of the Great Lakes region. Warren notes that the Lake Superior Ojibwe weren’t part of the attack on Fort Michilimackinac.
Warren states: “The above is the account, much briefened, which I have learned verbally from the old French traders and half-breeds, who learned it from the lips of those who were present and witnessed the bloody transaction.”
From another perspective, Warren’s informants provide a descriptive look at the game itself. The game was played on a large playing field with goalposts at each end. Teams were composed of multiple numbers. The players wore paint, feathers, ribbons, and fox and wolf tails. Their game attire wasn’t unusual. The British were familiar with the game and had observed it many times. As such, they were familiar with the type of attire worn by the players. The fox and wolf tails may have distinguished each team, i.e., perhaps fox tails for the Sauk and wolf tails for the Ojibwe. However, wearing parts of animals and birds were common among Baaga’adowe players. The spiritual essence and character of the animals and birds were absorbed by Baaga’adowe players and provided swiftness and agility on the playing field. Of course, the wearing of animals and birds wasn’t merely for adornment. Like the wolf in Wakayabide’s belt, they provided players with strength and protection. The wearing of such items was the mainstay of ogichidaag who wore these items, for the same reason, on the field of battle. The wearing of paint was also an ogichidaag mainstay whose war paint had significant meaning to the wearer.
Such attire didn’t raise the alarm to the unsuspecting British. They had seen it before. It was part of the game. However, at Fort Michilimackinac, the symbolic battle field of Baaga’adowewin became a real battle field once the attack commenced.
Although the attack was strategically planned and executed under the guise of Baaga’adowewin, it would follow that everything associated with the game would be effectuated – purification ceremonies for the players, the pre-game Departure Dance, and the Victory/Scalp Dance to celebrate the taking of the fort.
Baaga’adowewin was well established among the Minnesota and Wisconsin Ojibwe in the Pre-Reservation period and early Reservation Period, i.e. mid-1800s-early 1900s. In Minnesota, Ojibwe bands engaged in inter-tribal play at Baaga’adowaaning located on the Gaazagaskwaajimekaag Ishkonigan (Leech Lake Reservation). Baaga'adowaaning is translated as “Lacrosse stick” or “The place where you play Lacrosse” and, in its English translation, provides the name of the town of Ball Club. Bois Forte played regularly against the Rainy Lake Ojibwe. Quite often, their games were played on ice. Some games were played at International Falls between U.S. bands and Canadian bands.
In Wisconsin, Baaga’adowewin was played regularly at Madeline Island during the mid-1800s. Bad River and Red Cliff of the Lake Superior Ojibwe hosted teams that played against each other and in tournaments with Ojibwe teams from outside the region. However, the history of Baaga’adowewin stretches back hundreds of years to the Pre-Contact Period when Madeline Island was called Mooningwanekaaning-minis (Home of the Golden-Breasted Flicker) and was the homeland for many Ojibwe before their migration into western and southern Wisconsin and Minnesota.
The historical record of Baaga’adowewin is sparse in regard to the various traditions that were incorporated into the game. Government officials and explorers witnessed games and wrote about them largely from the view as spectators. Anthropologists overlooked the importance of Baaga’adowewin and its rich history and traditions. To them, it was just a game, albeit a widely played game, and one among many games played by Native Americans. But photographs from Wisconsin provide intriguing clues as to the traditions that were incorporated into the game.
A photograph from 1918 shows the Bad River Ba-ga-dwa-in (Lacrosse) team on the playing field at Odanah, Wisconsin. Behind the team are four individuals holding hand-drums. These individuals would have provided songs that were sung during the game. Next to them is an elder holding a lacrosse stick. This would be the medicine man who conducted pre-game ceremonies for the players and who served in his capacity as the team’s spiritual coach on the sidelines. At the center of the group of players, an individual wears a playing uniform typical of the era. The stars on the uniform indicate that this man was the team’s captain. The players are dressed in post-game apparel – Woodland attire that includes leggings, aprons, floral shirts, fur or cloth turbans, and beaded belts. A celebratory dance, i.e., Victory Dance, and feast would follow.
Bad River players in post-game Woodland attire, 1913
The photos of Bad River Baaga’adowewin players depict a substantial link between the old Nandobaniishimowin, i.e. War Dance complex, and a more secular version that had emerged within the structure of the game. However, this secular game version itself has long historical roots, one that reached back to the Pre-Colonial period when tribes who lived in the St. Lawrence Valley system played the game and engaged in conflict with one another. In other words, the two – warfare and the game - existed side by side and both complimented the other.
By the Reservation Period, the secularized war dance, a direct descendant of Nandobaniishimowin, was a part of Ojibwe dance gatherings. Photos from the early 1900s attest that this type of dance, which could be properly termed as Woodland dance, was danced by traditionalists while the dance structure was undergoing changes with the emerging Bwaani-niimi'idiwin (Sioux Dance).
Red Lake, Woodland dancers, ca. early 1900s.
Deer River, Bois Forte Ojibwe, Woodland dancers, ca. early 1900s.
Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe, Woodland dancers, early 1900s.
.In 2007, the Hunting Moon Powwow, hosted by the Forest County Potawatomi, held the first Woodland Special in Milwaukee. According to D.J. Smith, one of the organizers: “This was something that was getting lost. My brother and I sat on the original pow wow committee and we always talked about that dance and you never see it. That’s why it started out as a special. We remember this from our younger years in ceremonies and later on the pow wow circuit.”
The dance field for the Woodland Special was largely composed of Menominee, Potawatomi, and Ojibwe dancers. The Woodland Special wasn’t a reinvention of Northeastern Woodland within a Great Lakes context like some observers thought. It wasn’t a new dance. Rather it was the reemergence of Great Lakes Woodland that had a long history among Menominee, Potawatomi, and Ojibwe. For the dancers, Great Lakes Woodland connected them with past dance traditions that had diminished greatly under the contemporary powwow.
The regalia reflected ties to the ancestral past – feathered turbans, bandolier bags, floral leggings, vests/yokes, and aprons, and ball-headed war clubs or baaga’adowaan (lacrosse sticks). Baaga’adowaanag further emphasized connections to Baaga’adowewin and its interconnections to Victory/Scalp Dance.
Following the introduction of the Woodland Special at Hunting Moon, other powwow committees in Wisconsin, most notably Bad River, began to sponsor Woodland Specials. From Wisconsin, the Woodland Special spread into Minnesota, reaching Leech Lake and White Earth.
Today, the Woodland Special is no longer a special dance featured at Ojibwe powwows. It has become a regular category dance – Men’s Woodland. It has kindled a renaissance among Ojibwe dancers, one that embodies the traditions of ogichidaag.
This article has focused primarily on Ojibwe historical roots to Men’s Woodland. There are, of course, many other tribes – Menominee, Potawatomie, Oneida, Ho-chunk among others - who have reconnected to the dance and have their own histories. In this regard, Men’s Woodland is not a homogeneous dance; rather it is a supratribal dance engaged by many. Like the War Dance of olden times, each dancer brings his own version of the war dance into the dance circle and, through his dance, tells the story of exploits on a war path connected to the tribal past. For the veterans who dance Woodland, the war dance is real-time expression of their experiences; for non-veteran dancers, the dance expresses the essence of one’s soul-spirit.
Men’s Woodland adds a rich hue to the tapestry of the powwow. But it is more than just dance. In our Seven Fires Prophesy, it is said that in the time of the Seventh Fire we will retrace our steps to find what was left by the trail. In Woodland dance, we have found something that was left by the trail. Through Woodland dance, what was left is strongly remembered, and one that will be passed on to the Seventh Generation. And in this, we help to fulfill a prophesy given to our ancestors when the Earth was new. Mii sa go.
Seventh Generation Woodland dancers / Photos by Ron Hamm.
© All Rights Reserved, Robert DesJarlait, 2018
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Note: This is my 2001 Capstone for my Bachelor's Degree in Ethnic Studies at Metropolitan State University. Although it is lengthy at 40 pages, it was extensively researched and included field trips to Oklahoma. The paper presents a history of the Southern Arapaho, but the primary focus is tribal language.
This paper focuses on language and ethnicity. More specifically, the focus is the effects of a dominate language on indigenous cultures. The five top ranking languages in the world are 1) Chinese; 2) Spanish; 3) English; 4) Bengali; 5) Hindi. However, within these dominant language groups, numerous indigenous languages have been absorbed, lost or, if they still exist, are endangered.
In the Western Hemisphere, the establishment of dominant languages was not a natural process. Dominant languages were established through the European quest for dominion in the Western Hemisphere. This included various assimilative methods in which many indigenous languages were replaced by the dominant language base.
Because of the scope and depth of this subject, I have chosen to focus on one specific indigenous group -- the Arapaho. The effects of colonialism on the Arapaho and their language represents a commonality that affected, and affects, all indigenous languages in North, Central, and South America today -- indeed, it affects indigenous languages worldwide. Part One of this paper focuses on the historical processes between dominant languages -- i.e., Spanish and English -- and indigenous languages. Part Two focuses on the development of the Northern Arapaho language immersion program and the problems in revitalizing language among the Southern Arapaho.
In 1492, Queen Isabella of Spain was presented with a copy of Gramatica. Written by Antonio de Nebrija, the Gramatica was “the first-ever grammar of any modern European language.”(1) Upon receiving the document, Queen Isabella asked Nebrija what it was for. Nebrija replied, “Language is the perfect instrument of empire.”(2)
At the time of the arrival of the Spanish over seven hundred indigenous languages were spoken in the Central and South America hemisphere. However, the languages of the Indios were not viewed as a proper languages, at least in the sense of civilized language; rather, the languages of the Indios were considered mere utterances of tongues of people who were, to the Spanish, inferior and uncivilized. In his journal of the First Voyage, Columbus noted: “I believe that they would easily be made Christians...I will carry off six of them at my departure to Your Highness, in order that they may learn to speak.”(3)
The language barrier was beneficial Columbus. In making landfall on the islands of culturally divergent peoples, Columbus could lay claim to those islands because he spoke in a language that was just as alien to the inhabitants as the language of the inhabitants was to him. As noted in European Voyages of Exploration:
If we examine [an] excerpt from the ship’s journal, it was clear that the first thing Columbus did after arriving on shore was to take possession of this new land in the name of the Spanish throne, imposing a European bureaucratic order and intellectual structure over a region that did not practice these particular customs. Care was taken to mention that a royal standard had been brought ashore and that the ceremony had been performed ‘in presence of all,’ including presumably members of the indigenous population who had been sighted before Columbus had even made his way ashore. Witnesses are formally noted in a parchment to verify that Columbus did claim the land in the name of the Spanish throne so that, if need be, they could testify at a later date that no one objected to the ceremony of its ultimate purpose. Perhaps it was with an eye towards eventual protests that he took advantage of the indigenous population by performing a strange ceremony in an equally strange language that Columbus takes time to mention later in the passage that “I observed that they quickly took in what was said to them.”(4)
To the Spanish, the languages of the Indios was, at best, rudimentary. Amerigo Vespucci wrote: “[I]n their conversation they appear simple...they speak little and in a low tone: they use the same articulations as we, since they form their utterances either with the palate, or with the teeth, or on the lips: except that they give different names to things. Many are the varieties of tongues: for in every 100 leagues we found a change of language, so that they are not understandable to each other”(5)
The overall perspective of the Spanish was that the Indios lived “like proper beasts”(6) and they committed “bestial obscenities.”(7) The humanist Juan Gines de Sepulveda wrote:
Compare then those blessings enjoyed by the Spaniards of prudence, genius, magnanimity, temperance, humanity, and religion with those of the little men (hombrecillos, the Indians) in whom you will scarcely find even the vestiges of humanity, who not only possess no science but who also lack letters and preserve no monument of their history except vague and obscure reminiscences of some things on certain paintings.(8)
What was clear to Spanish explorers and thinkers was that the Indios lacked a true language. The Indios had no written words or recorded history; however, they had the ability to make sounds and, therefore, could be taught to learn to speak a civilized language.
The advantage by which the Spanish made use of the language barrier was epitomized by the Requirimiento. The Requirimeinto was a document that informed the Indios of their rights as an oppressed people. In essence, “it informed the Indians in the simplest terms that they could either accept Christian missionaries and Spanish hegemony or be annihilated.”(9) The Requirimiento was a legal fiction that established a charter of conquest over the indigenous populations of Central and South America. “This elaborate dictum...was to be recited in the presence of the Indians although none of them understood a word of Spanish.”(10)
In all the journals, documents, and theological discussions of the Spanish, there was only one attempt to understand and categorize the languages of the Indios. In Chapter 40 of the Reacion, Cabeza de Vaca, a Spanish explorer who journeyed into North America in 1542, wrote:
I should like to catalog the natives and their languages all the way from the island of Doom to the farthest Cuhendados. Two languages are found on the island: those spoken by the Capoques and Han. On the mainland over against the island are the Charruco, who take their name from the forests where they live. Advancing along the coast, we come to the Deguenes and, opposite them, the Mendica. Farther down the coast are the Quevenes and, behind them inland, the Mariames. Continuing along the coast: the Guaycones and, behind them inland, the Yeguaces. After these come the Atayos, in their rear the Decubadaos, and beyond them many other in the same direction. By the coast live the Quitoles and, just behind them inland, the Chavavares and, adjoining them in order: the Maliacones, Cultalchulches, Susolas, and Comos. By the coast farther on are the Camolas and, on the same coast beyond them, those we call the “Fig People.” They all differ in their habitations, villages and tongues.(11)
Vaca was describing the native peoples of northern Mexico, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. However, Vaca’s Reacion went unnoticed because to recognize that the Indios possessed distinct languages was to put a human face on peoples whom the Spanish regarded as little more than wild savage peoples.
Most important, the Spanish order of conquest focused not only on the subjugation of the lands and the peoples but also of the destruction of languages. While the conquistadors used military tactics to separate and divide the tribes and, hence, establish provincial colonies, missionaries sought the assimilate the survivors of the holocaust through the suppression of language and conversion to Christianity. The Spanish formula for conquest of language was simple enough. By suppressing the language and imposing the dominant language, cultural identity was lost and Christian conversion completed the process of assimilation.
In 1861, after the Fort Wise Treaty was signed, Little Raven, principal chief of the Southern Arapaho, said: “[A.G.] Boone came out and got (the chiefs) to sign a paper, but (they) did not know what it meant. The Cheyennes signed it first; then I; but we did not know what it was.”(12)
In negotiating treaties with the U.S. government, the experience of the Southern Arapaho was not unique. In 1779, John Killbuck, a Delaware signatory, wrote to Colonel George Morgan that “he had been deceived because of the interpreter.”(13) Morgan’s response was “[t]here was never a Conference with the Indians so improperly or villainously conducted as the last one at Pittsburgh...”(14)
Treaties were the means by which the colonizing European nations obtained Native land in North America. Unlike the Spanish, the French and the British chose a diplomatic process to establish colonizing land bases, trade, and peace with tribal nations. Initially, treaty-making was a conference in which the two sides met and discussed the issues at hand. Francis Jennings writes:
As in European diplomacy speeches were translated after having been delivered in the speaker’s own language. The interpreter often became a very influential person, for his skill and intentions might make or break a treaty. Few Europeans spoke Indian languages...[b]y the end of a successful treaty conference the parties had made a contract that existed in two forms, wampum belts and treaty minutes. Sometimes the English asked the Indian chiefs to subscribe their marks on an especially important contract to validate it indisputably...[t]he question is always asked, Did the Indians know what they were signing? The answer varies. Procedure usually called for the English to read the document aloud to the Indians before the signing, and they did not always read what was on the paper. The Indians signed for what they had heard. The English held them to what was written.(15)
The obstacle of language was resolved through the role of an intermediary, i.e., the interpreter, who translated the issues between the parties. However, most interpreters were white and their allegiance was to their own nations or, more often, for their own personal gain. With the establishment of the United States, the treaty-making process continued. The focus of U.S. treaties was the expansion of its national boundaries. There was also a change in the treaty process itself. Whereas former treaties with European powers were recorded as minutes, U.S. treaties were drawn up first in Washington and then negotiated with tribal nations. And the language abuses continued. Vine Deloria notes:
Although a “treaty” seems to imply an equal bargaining position, the Indians were often at a clear disadvantage when negotiating such arrangements. The actual document was always written in English and was generally interpreted by people who had a stake in a successful outcome of the proceedings, so the Indians were not always told the truth during these sessions.(16)
After the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the United States began to initiate treaty-making methods in the West that had been successful in subjugating tribal land in the East. The experience of the Southern Arapaho epitomized the experience of nearly all tribal nations in dealing the U.S. government’s colonial policies via treaties of establishing U.S. land ownership, establishing tribal boundaries, creating a presence within tribal land and, through successive treaties, instituting assimilation through mission schools and boarding schools.
Most important, the language barrier played a pivotal role in the treaty-making process. In time, the United States would seek to resolve the language barrier by attempting to destroy tribal languages through specific treaty stipulations.
It is the language of the Arapaho that reveals their history as a people. In their early history, the Arapaho were one of many bands that comprised the Anishinaabe nation. The ancestral home of the Anishinaabe people was located in present-day New Brunswick, on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. At an early point, Anishinaabe bands began to migrate westward. These bands were, in essence, proto-tribes, i.e., they would develop into tribes in their own right; however, they would preserve their connections as Anishinaabe people through language and customs.
At that time, the Arapaho were called the Kana-nav-ish, the Path People in the language of the Anishinaabe. Their migratory path took them across Canada, into present-day Ontario, and then south into Minnesota. They were most likely located in northern Minnesota, near the source of the Mississippi River, at the time that Columbus arrived in the Caribbean in 1492. Sometime in the late 1500s or early 1600s, the Kana-nav-ish began to, once again, migrate to the west, across the Red River and into North Dakota. As they moved into a new biome of flora and fauna, their language underwent extensive modifications of its sound structure in a relatively short period of time.(17) In their own developing daughter-language, they called themselves the Hinana-aeina. In the mid-1700s, the Kana-nav-ish broke into two groups and separated at the upper Missouri River. The group that migrated into present-day Montana were called the Atsina (Gros Ventre), and the group that crossed the upper Missouri River into present-day Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, and Kansas retained the name of Hinana-aeina (Our People).
Concerning the Arapahoan language, Zdenek Salzmann writes:
Arapaho has certain characteristic grammatical features, among them a highly inflected verb and complex derivational morphology; a formal distinction between animate and inanimate genders -- the former referring to most living things as well as to some others classified by the Arapaho as living (for example, rock, tepee pole, rope); the distinction in the first person plural of verbs and possessed nouns between exclusive and inclusive forms, the former being employed when the addressee is not among the persons referred to, as when a woman in the presence of her husband talks to a visitor about “our children,” who clearly are not the visitor’s children (by contrast, inclusive forms subsume the addressee, or hearer, among the person’s referred to); the obviative, marking a form or construction, whether in singular or plural, that relates to the subordinate of two animate third person referents in a given context (as in “her horse” or “the chief’s son,” where “horse” and “son” would appear in the obviative form); and dependency (obligatory possession) of certain nouns, especially body parts and kinship terms -- that is, their occurrence exclusively in possessed forms (someone’s heart, my heart, my father, your mother, and so on) rather than also in absolute forms (dog, rope, and so on)(18)
After their move onto the Plains, the Arapaho were joined by the Cheyenne. The Cheyenne were also an Anishinaabe band that had migrated to the west. On the Plains, the ceremonies of the Arapaho underwent changes. One of the most important was the Offerings Lodge (i.e., the Sun Dance). Certain elements of the Offerings Lodge retained ties to the Mide Lodge (Medicine Lodge) of the Anishinaabe. These changes in ceremonies, and the habitation in Plains biome, led to a further development in the Arapahoan language through which the Arapaho established their ethnicity as a Plains tribal nation.
On September 17, 1851, the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Sioux, Crow, Assinaboine, Gros-Ventre, Mandan, and Arrickara signed the treaty of Fort Laramie. Although several of the other tribal nations had previously signed treaties, it was the first treaty the Arapaho had signed with the U.S. government. The Treaty of Fort Laramie recognized and guaranteed the Plains homelands of the Arapaho - i.e., present-day Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, and Kansas - and the homelands of the other tribes as well. Essentially, the treaty established borders between the tribal nations and established borders between those tribal nations and the United States. Because the Cheyenne were allies of the Arapaho and lived within the Arapaho land base, they were included as part of the homeland of the Arapaho.
One of the treaty’s stipulations is that it provided the right of the United States to build forts in tribal lands. On the surface this may have seemed reasonable since the Plains nations retained their homelands. However, by obtaining the right to build forts within tribal lands, the United States was able to build a network of forts throughout Plains sovereign territories and, hence, establish a military presence within those lands.
By this time, the Arapaho and their Cheyenne allies had divided into two divisions -- the Southern Arapaho and Southern Cheyenne, and the Northern Arapaho and the Northern Cheyenne. The division among the Arapaho did not cause a division of their ethnicity as Arapaho people. Through their language and ceremonies, the Arapaho remained a single ethnic group.
In 1858, gold was discovered in the Rocky Mountains. By 1859, 100,000 goldminers invaded the winter camp sites, i.e., present-day Denver and Boulder, of the Southern Arapaho. The goldminers, through the Kansas Territorial Legislature, established towns in the sovereign land of the Arapaho and Cheyenne. Although the influx of whites and the townsites were in clear violation of the Fort Laramie treaty, the U.S. government choose to do nothing about it. Rather, the pattern of invading tribal sovereign land was the same that had happened to the eastern tribes. With the expansion of the status quo, i.e., the white population, the original treaties were renegotiated and the tribal land base was drastically reduced or the tribal land title was extinguished altogether and the tribe was removed elsewhere.
True to the colonializing pattern of the United States, the government sought to renegotiate the Fort Laramie treaty with the Arapaho and the Cheyenne. In 1861, a treaty council was held at Fort Wise, Kansas Territory. The government’s negotiator was A.G. Boone, the grandson of Daniel Boone. Boone hastily called for the treaty meeting in the absence of Left Hand. Left Hand was a Southern Arapaho chief was spoke Arapaho, Cheyenne, and English. He was instrumental in interpreting treaty stipulations to his people and to the Cheyenne. In addition, the treaty was made in the absence of the Northern Arapaho and Cheyenne chiefs.
One of the treaty articles introduced assimilative stipulations. Article Four provided for the building of homes and for the aid necessary for agricultural pursuits. Without a clear understanding of the meaningless words on paper, the Southern Arapaho and Southern Cheyenne chiefs signed the treaty. Interestingly, a special provision provided land for the two mixed blood interpreters, Robert Bent and John Smith.
Three years after the signing of the treaty, the U.S. failed to live up to its obligations as promised in the treaty. The homes were not built and the agricultural aid was not provided. By this time, the Southern Arapaho and Southern Cheyenne had been reduced to a state of destitution and starvation. The bison herds were scattered and armed resistance by the northern groups led to anti-Indian hysteria by the white population. The southern tribes were ordered to establish a village within their boundaries. The site chosen was located on Big Sandy Creek.
On the morning of November 29, 1864, the friendly camp of Arapaho and Cheyenne was attacked by Col. John Chivington. The men were away on a hunting foray. In the ensuing massacre, sixty Southern Arapaho and one hundred Southern Cheyenne, mainly women, children and elders, were murdered and their bodies mutilated by Chivington’s troops.
Although the southern groups had been attacked without provocation, had been within the parameters of the treaty land base, and had not violated any of the treaty terms, the government, in a purely Kafkaesque move, negotiated a treaty in 1865 that took the southern groups out of Colorado and placed them in Kansas. This treaty, the Treaty of the Little Arkansas, did not stipulate any assimilation provisions. Rather, it was clearly intended as a means to remove the Arapaho and Cheyenne from their Plains land base.
However, Kansas did not want an Arapaho and Cheyenne reservation located in their state. This led to the Treaty of the Council Camp on Medicine Lodge Creek on October 28, 1867. The treaty not only removed the Arapaho and Cheyenne to Indian Territory, i.e., present-day Oklahoma, but it was also a precise instrument of assimilative colonialization.
The treaty provisions included the placing of an Indian agent on the Arapaho-Cheyenne reservation and several buildings to house the agent, a physician, blacksmith, farmer, carpenter, miller, and engineer. The assimilative measures included the building of a school-house or mission-building for the purposes of providing an English education. Article 7 states:
In order to insure the civilization of the tribes entering into this treaty, the necessity of education is admitted, especially by such of them as are or may be settled on said agricultural reservation, and they therefore pledge themselves to compel their children, male and female, between the ages of six and sixteen years, to attend school; and it is hereby made the duty of the agent for said Indians to see that this stipulation is strictly complied with; and the United States agrees that for every thirty children between said ages, who can be induced or compelled to attend school, a house shall be provided, and a teacher competent to teach the elementary branches of an English education shall be furnished, who will reside among said Indians, and faithfully discharge his or her duties as a teacher...(19)
To complete the assimilative process, the Arapaho and Cheyenne were required to adopt Euro-American clothing in exchange for traditional clothing. The Medicine Lodge Creek treaty was an explicit document of assimilation. At the core of the treaty was the reformist ideal of assimilation through the eradication of tribal language. Twenty years later, this Protestant reformist ideal was best expressed by J.D.C. Atkins, Commissioner of Indian Affairs. “In his 1887 report, the commissioner of Indian Affairs expressed his commitment to monolingualism and stressed the ‘importance of teaching Indians the English language.’ He further elaborated upon the language issue by stating that ‘this language, which is good enough for a white man and a black man, ought to be good enough for the red man.’ Thus, the Indians’ expressions of culture were relegated to nothingness...”(20)
Six months after the signing of the Medicine Lodge Creek treaty, the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 was signed by the Brule, Oglala, Miniconjou, Yankton, Hunkpapa, Blackfeet, Cuthead, Two Kettle, Sans Arcs, and Santee bands of Sioux and Arapaho. The Arapaho named here was the northern division who had allied with the Sioux and had taken up armed resistance after the Sand Creek Massacre. The Fort Laramie treaty was a mirror document of the Medicine Creek Lodge treaty. The Fort Laramie treaty included the same assimilation stipulations as the Medicine Lodge Creek treaty.
The land base provided for in the Fort Laramie treaty covered a broad area and, under the terms of the treaty, would include all the Indian nations named in the treaty. Because the treaty land base was centered in Sioux territory, the government had to renegotiate separate treaties with each of the tribes. On May, 10th, 1868, the Treaty of Fort Laramie, Dakota Territory with the Northern Cheyenne and Northern Arapaho was signed. In this treaty, the Northern Arapaho and Cheyenne agreed to the terms of the Medicine Lodge Creek treaty and that they would relocate to the reservation in Indian Territory provided for under the Medicine Lodge Creek treaty.
However, the Northern Arapaho did not want to leave their northern ranges. In September-October, 1876, a council was held and an agreement made with the Sioux, Northern Arapaho, and Northern Cheyenne. The agreement reiterated the assimilation stipulations set forth in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. Through this agreement, the Northern Arapaho were able to remain in their northern ranges; however, they were without a reservation. In October, 1877, the Shoshone consented to give up a southeastern portion of the Wind River reservation in Wyoming to the Northern Arapaho.
In 1869, the Southern Arapaho began moving into Indian Territory. The location of the reservation that had been provided through the Medicine Lodge Creek treaty was vague. In August of that year, President Grant issued a proclamation that provided a reservation for the Arapaho and Cheyenne that was located in the west central part of Indian Territory. The agency was located at Darlington, named after the agent who was in charge of the Cheyenne-Arapaho reservation. Brinton Darlington, a devout Quaker, was representative of President Grant’s peace policy of staffing Indian reservations with Quakers. It was the Quakers who could strongly implement the government’s three-point program of educating, civilizing, and Christianizing the Native populations on Indian reservations.
Beginning in 1871, “several different [government] schools were located on the Cheyenne and Arapaho land base. The first of these was the Arapaho Manual Labor and Boarding School at Darlington, followed by the Cheyenne Manual Labor and Boarding School at Caddo Springs [present-day Concho]. Seger Indian Industrial School at Colony was later instituted, followed by Red Moon School near Hammon and Cantonment School near Canton...”(21)
John H. Seger was instrumental in establishing and maintaining government schools on the Cheyenne-Arapaho reservation. After becoming the superintendent of the Arapaho Manual Labor and Boarding School, Seger noted in his annual report that ‘one of the major problems he encountered with students was their reluctance to converse in the English language,’ although they spoke it in the classroom. He therefore mandated use of the English language in every aspect of the school experience; those exhibiting the most fluency were extended certain privileges...”(22)
In 1880, the first Mennonite mission school opened at Darlington, followed by the Mennonite Mission School at Cantonment, and Mennonite Mission at Seger Colony. The missionaries and Indian agents were not only active in suppressing Southern Arapaho and Cheyenne ceremonies like the Offerings Lodge; “they were quite intolerant of tribal languages as well.”(23) The commissioner [of Indian Affairs] implemented his language policy on December 14, 1886, by directing Indian agents that ‘in all schools conducted by missionary organizations it is required that instructions shall be given in the English language.’ This was followed by another directive...ordering that ‘no school will be permitted on the reservation in which English is not exclusively taught.’”(24)
Although the Arapaho and Cheyenne were well aware of the Medicine Lodge Creek treaty stipulation concerning education, they refused to send their children to the agency school at Darlington. In 1880, Agent Charles F. Ashley reacted by instituting a policy of compulsory education. Under this policy, food rations would be withheld against families who refused to send their children to school. Arapaho and Cheyenne parents had no choice but to admit their children to school to learn the white man’s ways. Thus, in essence, Arapaho and Cheyenne children were held as hostages.
Henrietta Mann, a Southern Cheyenne, writes of her grandmother’s experiences at Cantonment:
The sadness, pain, alienation, and bad memories associated with deliberate destruction of a people’s verbal expression of their culture are indescribable. Prohibition, denigration of culture, harsh punishment, and forced acculturation are implied in the simple statement, “Oh! We were punished for speaking Cheyenne.” My grandparents’ facial expressions became masklike as they remembered the attempts to destroy their language.(25)
In 1890, the Jerome Commission initiated the allotment process with the Southern Arapaho and Cheyenne. On April 19, 1892, the 4,300,000 acre Cheyenne-Arapaho Reservation was reduced to 530,000 acres of allotted trust land.
One year later, “...the tribes numbered 3,086 (1,042 Arapahoes and 2,044 Cheyennes). Of them 600 could read, 750 could speak English, and 500 had adopted white dress.”(26) Five years later, Superintendent John Whitwell issued his first annual report. He noted that “instead of a ‘grunt’ the English language was used ‘in the schoolroom and playgrounds, in the workshops and on the farm...Whitwell concluded by stating: ‘The dark cloud of nonprogression which has cast a gloom over this district for so many years is slowly but surely being dispelled by the sun of civilization.’”(27)
On February 14, 1929, Public Law 760 was passed and it enforced “compulsory school attendance of Indian pupils, as provided by the law of the State.”(28) Mann writes:
Federal appropriations for the public school education of American Indian students had increased annually, but the goals of such an education, like the types preceding it, were still to “civilize” and homogenize. The public schools were no different in their attempts to transform American Indian children into marginal, dark-skinned white people, completely disregarding differences in orientation and world view that the tribal people had evolved since the beginning of time.(29)
The effects of acculturation on the Southern Arapaho culture were devastating. After the allotment act, the traditional chieftainship lost its political power. The younger generation that had attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial Training School and the Haskell Institute returned and, after the passing of the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act in 1936, became the political leaders of the tribe. No longer versed in the language or customs of their culture, these younger leaders, whom the elders caustically referred to as the scholars, instituted a colonial styled tribal government as dictated by the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act.
By the 1930s, the Offerings Lodge became virtually non-existent among the Southern Arapaho. With the passing of the elders into the Spirit World, there were no longer younger people who could carry on the ceremony because they could not speak their language. It was for this reason that the Southern Arapaho turned to their northern kin at Wind River for the maintenance of the Offerings Lodge.
The Southern Arapaho maintained their own obligations as the Keepers of the Sacred Wheel; yet, it was the Saeicha, the Sacred Flat Pipe, that held, and continues to hold, the Arapaho together as a nation. “While it belongs to the entire tribe and serves as the symbol of its existence and as guarantor of its safety, the Pipe is in the custody of a designated keeper from the Northern Arapaho.”(30)
The Northern Arapaho underwent the same pressures of acculturation as the southern division. The government boarding school was located at Fort Washakie; a Catholic mission, St. Stephen’s, was established in 1884 and, in 1913, St. Michael’s Episcopal Mission was established. All three espoused the government’s three-point program of educating, civilizing, and Christianizing on the Wind River reservation.
The Offerings Lodge (Sun Dance) was at the center of the government’s efforts to repress culture. “The [Northern] Arapahoes were strongly committed to the Offerings Lodge, and although some agents tried to enforce the Indian Office’s ban on the ceremony...the ritual continued to be held almost annually...the Arapahoes apparently convinced the Indian agents and military authorities at Fort Washakie that the Offerings Lodge would not interfere with the civilization effort.”(31) By 1923, the Offerings Lodge became an annual event that continues to the present day.
Like the Southern Arapaho, Northern Arapaho society was structured on an age-grade hierarchy. There were seven age-grades that began with youthhood and ascended to elderhood. The last age-grade, the Hinenniinoowu (Old Men’s Lodge), was the most sacred and the most powerful. The Hinenniinoowu provided direction for the tribe and it was through their approval that one could become a chief. “But ritual authorities faced serious difficulties that threatened to undermine their influence and minimize their role in reservation life. As priests died and agents took repressive measures to curtail the Indian ‘dances,’ the ceremonial elders found it increasingly difficult to pass their knowledge of tribal ceremonies on to younger men. Christianity was potentially competitive with the native religion and the government offered incentives and imposed sanctions to pressure the Arapahoes toward conversion.”(32)
With change, the Arapaho elders found a way for the continuity of their traditions. “Some aspects of the tribal rituals were altered or reinterpreted to accommodate the abilities of the men available to direct them. The elders emphasized flexibility in revising specific procedures and criteria for ritual leadership in order to perpetuate native religion in general. And so the rituals survived the crisis of leadership brought about by the deaths of priests and repressive government policies.”(33)
The Northern Arapaho overcame the problem by lowering the ages of the grades. Lowering the age requirements allowed younger men to gain status in Arapaho society. Most important, through the participation in ceremonies, the language was maintained. Loretta Fowler writes:
One of the puzzling facts about the Arapahoes has been that intermediaries frequently and convincingly maintained to whites that the Arapahoes wanted to “be like the white man,” yet they did not renounce their religion, cease speaking their native language, or replace native with white patterns of social interaction...[o]bservers often erroneously predicted the demise of traditional culture...[f]or example, in 1947 Feliks Gross found that Arapahoes gradually were losing their “traditional” cultural values. He based his conclusions on observations of behavioral innovations; young people, for example, spoke English more often and ‘better’ than they spoke Arapahoe. Contrary to Gross’s predictions, the elderly Arapahoe of today (the youths referred to in Gross’s study) speak Arapahoe often and, in the opinion of Arapahoes, expertly. Gross failed to inquire into the meaning of the use of Arapahoe as opposed to English in particular social contexts; in the Arapahoe view, Arapahoe was becoming culturally appropriate only in particular social contexts and most appropriate for speakers of particular age categories.(34)
Although Gross’s study was made in 1947 and Fowler’s remarks were published in 1982, it provides a key as to how the Northern Arapaho were able to maintain their language well into the 1950s.
Yet, the government’s efforts to eradicate the Northern Arapaho language was no less intense than the efforts that occurred on the Cheyenne-Arapaho reservation in Oklahoma. The young children who attended the government boarding school and mission schools were subjected the Protestant ideal of language and citizenship. This ideal was reflected in the policies and programs initiated by Indian Affairs commissioners in the late 1800s. David Wallace Adams writes:
Education for citizenship focused on language instruction and political socialization. The connection between language and citizenship stemmed from the belief that, along with all citizens, the Indian child should be compelled to read, write, and speak the English language. As Commissioner of Indian Affairs J.D.C Atkins argued in 1887: “If we expect to infuse into the rising generation the leaven of American citizenship, we must remove the stumbling blocks of hereditary customs and manners, and of these language is one of the most important elements.” According to Atkins, “no unity or community of feeling can be established among different people unless they are brought to speak the same language and thus be imbued with the like ideas of duty.”...[T]he bottom line was that Indians, as a colonialized people, could be expected to take on the tongue of their conquerors.(35)
In 1891, Congress authorized the Indian Bureau to deny rations and clothing to parents who withheld their children from boarding or mission schools. Interestingly, this official policy of compulsory education was the same policy that the Southern Arapaho had been subjected to eleven years before.
The Arapaho were one people, separated by northern and southern designations, who shared the same customs and ceremonies. And, they spoke the same language. Both were subjected to strenuous government policies that sought to destroy their language. Though greatly diminished, the language survived, more so among the Northern Arapaho than Southern Arapaho. However, it survived only to become one of many tribal languages that today have become endangered languages. Salzmann writes:
The Arapaho vocabulary is very rich and nuanced and is capable and ready to generate terms for new concepts that have entered the Arapaho cultural universe from the outside (words for automobile, radio, and the like). Whereas before World War II most adult Arapaho, at least in Wyoming, either spoke Arapaho actively or understood when it was spoken to them, the number of Arapaho speakers has declined dramatically to such an extent that the younger generations are for all practical purposes monolingual in English. Moreover, English has even come to influence the speech of those individuals who have managed to retain command of their native language. In short, Arapaho is no longer a flourishing or enduring language; rather, it is a rapidly declining language that has reached the initial stages of obsolesence. The only individuals among the Northern Arapaho who have full command of their language, even if they no longer use it habitually, are members of the oldest generation, which means that parents do not teach Arapaho to their children in the home. As a result, the numbers of active speakers and of those who have some passive knowledge of Arapaho are declining very rapidly; English is preferred in essentially all situations, including even some traditional ceremonial contexts, and the language is losing its communicative viability -- its capacity to adapt successfully to new situations -- not because of some inherent deficiency but as a result of disuse. Unless a prompt and massive revitalization and restoration program is undertaken, the rich and vibrant language of the Arapaho will cease to be spoken altogether within a generation or so.(36)
According to the 1990 Census, there were 1,038 speakers of Arapaho; this includes the Arapaho populations of the Wind River Northern Arapaho and the Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma. The total Arapaho population for both areas combined, in 1990, is approximately 12,000. Because both groups speak the same language, this means that approximately 10% of the Arapaho population spoke their own language.
If the Arapaho population is separated by their designated divisions, i.e., Southern Arapaho and Northern Arapaho, the numbers become even more alarming. Out of the original number of speakers, i.e., 1,038, approximately 200 hundred were Southern Arapaho -- out of a population of 7,000 -- and the remaining number of 838 were Northern Arapaho -- out of a population of 5,000. Thus, in 1990, less than 1% of the Southern Arapaho were fluent in their tribal language and 9% of the Northern Arapaho spoke their language.
However, even these figures are misleading because they are based on the assumption of 1,038 speakers. “[T]his is probably a conservative estimate of the threat, since the Census has no way of knowing whether these are fluent speakers. It [the Census] simply asks the rather vague and ambiguous question: ‘Does this person speak a language other than English at home?’ But not ‘How well?’ ‘How often?’ or ‘Under what circumstances?’”(37) In other words, an Arapaho person with rudamentary knowledge of Arapaho language could, and most likely did, respond affirmatively to the Census question of language.
In 1991, Joshua Fishman, in his book Reversing Language Shift, postulated a continuum of eight stages of language loss with stage eight being the closest to total extinction and stage one being the closest to dynamic survival. Fishman’s study was based on minority languages worldwide.(38)
Current Status of Language
Stage 8: Only a few elders speak the language.
Stage 7: Only adults beyond child bearing age speak the language.
Stage 6: Some intergenerational use of language.
Stage 5: Language is still very much alive in the community.
Stage 4: Language is required in elementary schools.
Stage 3: Language is used in places of business and by employees in less specialized work areas.
Stage 2: Language is used by local government and in the mass media in the minority community.
Stage 1: Some language use by higher levels of government and in higher education.(39)
Thus, under Fishburn’s stages, in 1990, Southern Arapaho were at Stage 8 and Northern Arapaho hovered between Stage 7 and Stage 8. The Arapaho language is one of 175 tribal languages spoken in the United States; 155 of these - 89% - are moribund, i.e., they are spoken only by adults who no longer teach them to the next generation.(40)
Michael Krauss, who has postulated a category system for endangered languages, writes:
Out of over three hundred languages [U.S. and Canada], two hundred and ten are left, but for how much longer? We need to assess the viability of those languages in terms of what I consider the most crucial factor: namely, are children learning these languages in the traditional way, the best way, that has worked since time immemorial for uncountable generations. I would categorize in viability Category A those languages that are still being learned by children in the traditional way.
Category A is unfortunately now the smallest category in North America. About 175 of the 210 languages are spoken in the United States; the other 35 are only in Canada. Out of those 175 languages in the United States, only about 20, or eleven percent, are still being learned by children from their parents and elders in the traditional way. Things are somewhat better in Canada, where about 30 percent of the indigenous languages are still spoken by children. This improves the North American total, but Category A remains the smallest.
The second category is Category B, with about thirty languages, seventeen percent, in both the United States and Canada. These are languages still spoken by the parental generation, which could theoretically turn around and start speaking their native language instead of English to their children but generally they do not. Category B is the second smallest category.
The largest categories by far, unfortunately, are Categories C and D. Category C consists of languages spoken by the middle-aged or grandparental generation and up only. Note that I am not citing the number of speakers, since it does not really make that much difference if such a language has a million speakers or only a hundred. If a language of a million people is not spoken by anyone under fifty, then it is not going to last much longer than such a language spoken by a hundred people. A large number of speakers in itself does not assure survival. Category C languages are found in about the same percentage in the United States and Canada.
Category D languages are those spoken only by a few of the very oldest people. These elders often do not have the chance to talk much to each other. The language may be completely out of use, or it may be only remembered, so not quite extinct. California is the state that has by far the largest number of indigenous languages in North America. Approximately forty of these languages are still remembered by at least one or two people in their eighties.Category C includes about 70, or 40 percent, of our languages in the United States, and Category D about a third. Whereas the United States has a very small number of Category A languages still spoken by children, Canada has a much smaller number of Category D (nearly extinct) languages.(41)
In the late 1970s, an Arapaho language immersion class had been initiated in the Wind River reservation public school system. “By 1984, Arapaho was being taught from kindergarten to grade 12. Language instruction was conducted for 15 minutes a day each day of the school week.”(42) In 1992, Northern Arapaho elders became concerned that the Arapaho language was not being taught properly to the children. What was being taught was limited to basic vocabulary words - names of animals, numbers, colors - and several simple phrases.
In 1993, Stephen Greymorning, who is Northern Arapaho and a University of Montana assistant professor of anthropology and Native American studies, and a language specialist, was brought in by the Northern Plains Educational Foundation to develop a more comprehensive language and culture program in the reservation public schools. Greymorning began by hiring six instructors who were fluent speakers of Arapaho. These individuals had to pass a review of elders who were fluent speakers and who composed the Arapaho language commission.
One of the main problems that Greymorning discovered was the lack of time allowed for language immersion. He found that fifteen minutes multiplied by the one-hundred eighty day school year equaled forty-five hours of language instruction per year. Greymorning was able to implement an 18 week pilot study in which a kindergarten class received an hour of language instruction each day.(43)
The language class was composed of 15 children who were divided into three groups of five. Each group rotated through three language stations that offered fifteen minutes of instruction. Each station focused on a specific area of language proficiency, e.g., vocabulary, asking questions, responding to questions. For the remaining fifteen minutes, the children were brought together as one class. This last station emphasized whole language learning. After twelve weeks, the acquired a command of 163 words and phrases(44)
Based on this success, Greymorning was able to expand the class time for pre-schoolers twice in 1994. In 1995, Greymorning was able to implement a weekly full day immersion pre-school class; a year later, a second pre-school immersion class was added. These two pre-school classes became the basis of the Hinono’etiit Hoowu’ -- the Arapaho Language Lodge. This is a non-profit organization that maintains a language environment that will generate new Arapaho speakers.(45)
Although the immersion programs have been successful in widening the vocabulary of the children, full fluency remains elusive. Greymorning writes:
The strong start of the class led me to hope that the elusive goal of fluency among the immersion class children would be realized. Unfortunately, as in previous years, while the children of both immersion classes were speaking far more Arapaho than children had mastered the year before, they were still only using the language within the confines of what they had been exposed to, and that, when compared to the fullness of the entire Arapaho language, was very limited. Again, the key that seemed to be lacking was an understanding of that facet of language acquisition that allows children to begin to independently use and manipulate language on their own. Thus, it is not enough simply to teach children language phases. If the objective is for the children to acquire our native languages, then children must be exposed to every facet of whatever native language they are meant to acquire...[t]he only way to get children to speak in such a full manner is to systematically expose them to speech forms in a way that requires them to not only hear the usage of such forms but also requires them to verbally respond to such speech acts by using a full array of speech forms...[f]or those who would wonder why anyone should have to worry about whether someone should actually be able to say such things, the response is that it is because of the fact that a speaker possesses the ability to go beyond saying isolated words and phrases to say such things, and much more, that they are recognized as fluent. Furthermore, if we cannot pass on to our developing speakers this ability our languages will be lost. Therefore, if we are to maintain any hope of keeping our languages viable and alive, it remains absolutely essential that we shift our focus from teaching our children words and phrases to passing on to them the ability to think and effectively communicate in our native languages.(46)
In 1994, the Walt Disney Co. and Greymorning worked together to translate the Disney animated classic, Bambi, into Arapaho. Thirty Arapaho members, including 18 children, were chosen for the speaking roles. Bambi is part of Greymorning’s multifaceted approach to language immersion: “This means that efforts should be taken to have the language seen and heard in as many places as possible, like on street signs, the radio, computers, and books. Some of those early efforts produced audio cassettes of children’s songs and stories that children could sing to or read along with, also animated computerized children stories, and a prototype for a talking dictionary with word phrases that linked to animated recreations of what was being said.”(47) Currently, Greymorning is working on Arapaho translations of the animated films, The Little Fox and Willie The Sparrow, as a continuing part of this multifaceted effort.
Despite the success of his efforts, Greymorning encountered a problem that often plagues native immersion programs. He writes:
It is interesting how some of our strongest efforts can at times bring about opposition from our own people. As our language efforts intensified so did the criticism. I frequently heard comments about the sacredness of the language and that it should not be used in a cartoon, in books, or on a computer. Comments like these made me wonder what benefit could come by keeping language locked away as though it was in a closet...[w]e have been given something sacred, and we recognize its sacredness, but instead of blessing our children with this Sacred gift, a vast majority of speakers seemed to have buried their language out of reach from our children and out of reach from our future.(48)
Among the Southern Arapaho, language has reached the extreme end of Category 8. To date (June 2000), there are among an Arapaho population of approximately 9,000, five fully fluent speakers of the Arapaho language. Unfortunately, there has been no concerted effort to establish an Arapaho language immersion program.
In 1995, efforts to create an immersion program was started by the staff of the Head Start program at Canton, Oklahoma. Initially the Canton staff attempted to access elders in their community. They discovered that several were in nursing homes and that the few who lived in their own homes in the community could not work with young children. The staff did locate one Arapaho elder who lived in Oklahoma City but limited Head Start funds prohibited transportation costs. The staff then hired a teacher’s aid who, though not a fluent speaker of the language, taught basic vocabulary words that consisted of numbers, days/weeks/months, birds, and animals (singular and plural). Although the children successfully learned to speak the words, funding limited class time to one short session a week.
Unfortunately, due to internal political problems, the Canton Head Start program, housed in the historic Cantonment building, has been shut down and the Canton staff is no longer employed. The other two Cheyenne-Arapaho Head Start centers in Watonga and Concho have never integrated language programs. Thus, there are presently no language immersion programs existing among the Southern Arapaho in Oklahoma.
The Southern Arapaho are in an unusual position. Although the language will become extinct among the Southern Arapaho, their language will in fact still exist. This is because the Southern Arapaho and Northern Arapaho share the same language and, as noted in the foregoing, the Northern Arapaho have revitalized their language through language immersion programs. Yet, there is the question of dialectal differences. What of Southern Arapaho vernacular, cant, and jargon? Are there terms, phases, and words that are specific to the language of the Southern Arapaho? What of flora and fauna? Are there specific plants -- in particular, medicinal plants -- that were used by Southern Arapaho healers? It is these nuances that will be lost forever once the language becomes extinct among the Southern Arapaho.
As mentioned previously, the main connection between the Southern and Northern Arapaho is culture. In their culture they are one nation. In July, the annual Arapaho nation Offerings Lodge (i.e., Sun Dance) is held at Wind River. The Offerings Lodge brings Southern and Northern together. The Offerings Lodge provides the opportunity for Southern and Northern families to reunite, and for reinforcing tribal solidarity.(49) Another important cultural link is the Saeicha, the Sacred Flat Pipe. The Saeicha, which has been among the Arapaho for thousands of years, continues to bind the Arapaho together as a people.
However, without language, the Southern Arapaho cannot become a living part of their own culture. And without language, what will be the effect on the unborn generations of Southern Arapaho? As Steven Graymorning has said: “...if we lose our language we won’t be able to think in the Arapaho way. If we lose our language we will lose our ceremonies and ourselves because our life is our language, and it is our language that makes us strong.”(50) Jon Reyner writes:
...[E]ach language carries with it an unspoken network of cultural values. Although these values generally operate on a subliminal level, they are, nonetheless, a major force in the shaping of each person’s self-awareness, identity, and interpersonal relationships. These values are psychological imperatives that help generate and maintain an individual’s level of comfort and self-assurance, and, consequently, success in life. In the normal course of events these values are absorbed along with one’s mother tongue in the first years of life. For that reason, cultural values and mother tongue are so closely intertwined in public consciousness that they are often, but mistakenly, seen as inseparable. For the majority of young Natives today, culture and language have, in fact, been separated. As a result, most of these young people are trying ‘to walk in two worlds’ with only one language. This is a far more complex and stressful undertaking than the ‘two worlds’ metaphor would suggest.(51)
Greymorning and Reyner suggest that without language, an individual cannot exist culturally. If one cannot think in the Arapaho way and there is not an unspoken network via language of cultural values, then how much longer can the Southern Arapaho exist as a culture? Certainly, the Southern Arapaho still have access to their language through the Northern Arapaho. Yet, how can the connection to that access become viable enough to revitalize language among the Southern Arapaho?
One of the obstacles to the revitalization of language is the political structure of the Southern Arapaho. Although the Southern and Northern Arapaho share the same ethnicity, their political structures differ. This is due to historical circumstance. The Northern Arapaho were able to maintain strong ties to their age-grade system whereas the Southern Arapaho were not. Through the Allotment Act and the subsequent loss of their land base, the Southern Arapaho were literally separated and divided on trust land. They faced strenuous efforts to assimilate and, once Public Law 760 was passed, they entered a blatantly racist public school system. The later generations that went through the school system are the leaders of today and they have little or, more often, no connection to their culture or, at best, their connection is tenuous. Indeed, most do not attend the annual Offerings Lodge. Unfortunately, these political leaders have totally overlooked the importance of language immersion programs.
Within the historical process, the Southern Arapaho chieftainship lost its power base. As the elders of the Southern Arapaho age-grade societies passed away in the early 1900s, so did the language. Without the language, ceremonial life diminished. Because the age-grade socieites provided direction and guidance to the chieftainship, the Southern Arapaho chieftainship - individuals who themselves were descended from the age-grade societies - lost their own power base. Although the chieftainship still exists, they have become mere cultural figureheads who have no political power nor cultural power. There are eight-ten Southern Arapaho chiefs, yet they are not fluent speakers in their language. Basically, these individuals serve in nominal, honorary positions as chiefs. Their lack of cultural power prevents an influence that could help lead to a revitalization of language.
The largest obstacle is the State of Oklahoma public school system. Whereas the Northern Arapaho were successful in breaking the racial barriers by establishing Arapaho language programs in the State of Wyoming public school system, the Southern Arapaho face a state school system that is seemingly intolerant of providing a sense of identity to its Native American population. And although public schools systems nationwide have historically opposed the integration of Native American curricula and language, there is a growing sentiment to incorporate culturally specific education. For example, in 1993, the State of Washington passed legislation that allowed Native students in public schools to take tribal language classes as part of their language requirements.
In a state with the highest Native American population -- 252,000 (1990 Census) representing twenty nine major tribes, and thirty eight small tribes that are not recognized separately -- it would seem that an educational initiative between the major tribes could seek to establish state educational legislation that would revitalize tribal language programs in public schools. With 23 of the twenty nine major tribes’ languages on the verge of extinction, the common goal should be tribal language classes that fulfill language requirements.
Certainly, the Southern Arapaho have access to the means of language revitalization. The Northern Arapaho language immersion programs are essentially a pilot programs that offers a way of revitalizing tribal language in the Southern Arapaho community. Yet, the Southern Arapaho needs to take the initiative to integrate language immersion into their community. Because without language, the Southern Arapaho may be doomed to become only a shadow of ethnicity. As Joshua Fishman writes:
The most important relationship between language and culture that gets to the heart of what is lost when you lose a language is that most of the culture is in the language and is expressed in the language. Take it away from the culture, and you take away its greetings, its curses, its praises, its laws, its literature, its songs, its riddles, its proverbs, its cures, its wisdom, its prayers. The culture could not be expressed and handed on in any other way. What would be left? When you are talking about the language, most of what you are talking about is the culture. That is, you are losing all those things that essentially are the way of life, the way of thought, the way of valuing, and the human reality that you are talking about.(52)
Recently I was at a niimiwin (powwow) and, as I stood in the dance circle after Grand Entry, I listened to the invocation offered by an Ojibwe-Anishinaabe elder. Throughout the years I have listened to this man speak. And I have listened like a man half deaf. My knowledge of my own language is limited to key words and several simple phrases. I knew that this elder was asking Kichi Manidoo (the Great Spirit) for blessings for all the dancers, the singers, the drums, the spectators, the young, the old, the infirm. And I knew that he was reciting the creation story of the Ojibwe-Anishinaabe -- from the point of our creation as Anishinaabe (Human Beings) to that particular point in time where we were gathered at that particular niimiiwin. I heard him but didn’t hear him. I heard him fully with my heart, but my mind only partially understood his beautiful words.
When he was finished, I looked up and I could see how much he had aged in those long years on the powwow trail. He was already an elder when I first heard his prayers sixteen years ago. I thought about something someone had said, that when we lose an elder we lose a library. And when I looked at this elder, I knew that when he passed homeward to the Spirit World, we would lose one more voice whose words connected us to our past.
I am a legacy of the perfect instrument of empire. Nind Na’wunena beshwaji (My Southern Arapaho close friends) are legacies. And there are many like us -- one people of many nations who live in the shadow of stolen and lost languages.
In 1990, Congress passed Public Law 101-477, October 30, 1990, Title 1 - Native American Languages Act. Ironically, the very government that sought to destroy, to rub out, tribal languages through its federal policies in the 1800s and 1900s, now seeks to save face by passing a law that has no teeth to it. Basically, Public Law 101-477 is like throwing an untied rope to a man clingling to a cliff.
As Greymorning pointed out, one must be able to think in the language for one to be fluent. To some extent, many of the tribal languages that are near extinction may never truly become extinct since many of the key words have been recorded and are taught in one-dimensional immersion programs. Rather, fluency will become extinct but the words will continue to be spoken. In this sense, then, our languages will become like the individuals who are descended from the peoples who spoke the languages. They will exist in a world in which the languages will be hybrid counterparts composed of red words and white.
As the example of the Southern and Northern Arapaho has shown, the path back to our languages is a difficult one. And, although many of our languages may never be restored to full fluency, we need to continue to teach what we know to the younger generations and to the unborn generations. In this way, the continuity and change of our languages will provide for the maintenance of our race, ethnicity, and cultures.
1 Williams, Robert A., Jr., The American Indian in Western Legal Thought: The Discourses of Conquest, New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992, 74.
2 Ibid., 74.
3 Sale, Kirkpatrick, The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy, New York: The Penguin Group, 1991, 97.
4 European Voyages of Exploration: Christopher Columbus, Internet, http://www.
acs.ucalgary.ca/HIST/tutor/eurvoya/columbus.html, March, 2000, 4.
5 Modern History Sourcebook: Amerigo Vespucci (1452-1512): Account of His First Voyage, Internet, http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/vespucci- america. html, March, 2000, 4.
6 Kirkpatrick, op.cit., 202
7 Ibid., 202.
8 Ibid., 202.
9 Williams, op.cit., 91.
10 Polzer, Charles W., The Problem of Conquest: Revisted, Internet, http://www.
English.swt.edu/CSS/CWPolzerCDV.HTML, March, 2000, 4.
11 Cabeza de Vaca’s Adventures in the Unknown Interior of Amerca (1542), Internet, March, 2000.
12 Coel, Margaret, Chief Left Hand: Southern Arapaho, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1981, 121.
13 Prucha, Francis Paul, American Indian Treaties: The History of a Political Anomaly, Berkely/Los Angeles/London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997, 33.
14 Ibid., 34.
15 Jennings, Francis, The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest, New York/London: W.W. Norton Company, 1976, 122-123.
16 Deloria, Vine, Jr., American Indians, American Justice, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997, 5.
17 Picard, Marc, Principals and Methods in Historical Phonology: From Proto-Algonkian to Arapaho, Montreal/Kingston/London/Buffalo: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1994, 39.
18 Salzmann, Zdenek, The Arapaho Indians: A Research Guide and Bibliography, New York/Westport/London: Greenwood Press, 1988, 11.
19 Kappler, Charles J., Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties, Volume Two - Treaties, Internet, Oklahoma State University/TechBooks, http://www.library.okstate.edu /kappler.html, April, 2000.
20 Adams, David Wallace, Fundamental Considerations: The Deep Meaning of Native American Schooling, 1880-1900, Harvard Educational Review, Vol. 58, No. 1, February 1988, 9.
21 Mann, Heniretta, Cheyenne-Arapaho Education, 1871-1982, Niwot: University of Colorado Press, 1997, 111.
22 Ibid., 88.
23 Ibid., 77.
24 Ibid., 78.
25 Ibid., 139.
26 Ibid., 98.
27 Ibid., 95.
28 Ibid., 106.
29 Ibid., 120.
30 Salzmann, op.cit., 8.
31 Fowler, Loretta, Arapahoe Politics: Symbols in Crisis of Authority, Lincoln/London: University of Nebraska Press, 1982, 114.
32 Ibid., 118.
33 Ibid., 120.
34 Ibid., 5.
35 Adams, op.cit., 8-9.
36 Salzmann, op.cit., 11.
37 Crawford, James, Endangered Native American Languages: What Is to Be Done, and Why? Internet, http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/ JRCRAWFORD/brj.html, April, 2000, 2.
38 Reyhner, Jon, “Some Basics of Indigenous Language Revitalization,” Jon Reyhner, Gina Cantoni, Robert N. St. Clair, Evangeline Parsons Yazzie, ed, Revitalizing Indigenous Languages, Flagstaff: Northern Arizona University Press, 1999, 2.
39 Ibid., 2-3.
40 Crawford, op.cit., 1.
41 Krauss, Michael, “Status of Native American Language Endangerment,” Gina Cantoni, ed., Stabilizing Indigenous Languages, Flagstaff: Northern Arizona University Press, 1996, 1-2.
42 Greymorning, Stephen, “Running the Gauntlet of an Indigenous Language Program,” Cantoni, op.cit.
43 Greymorning, Stephen, “Going Beyond Words: The Arapaho Immersion Program,” Teaching Indigenous Languages, Jon Reyhner, ed., Flagstaff: Northern Arizona University, 1997.
44 Greymorning, “Running the Gauntlet of an Indigenous Language Program,” op.cit.
46 Greymorning, “Going Beyond Words: The Arapaho Immersion Program,” op.cit.
47 Greymorning, “Running the Gauntlet of an Indigenous Language Program,” op.cit.
49 Salzmann, op.cit., 8.
50 Greymorning, “Going Beyond Words: The Arapaho Immersion Program,” op.cit.
51 Reyhner, Jon, “Rationalizing and Needs for Stabilizing Indigenous Languages,” Cantoni, op.cit.
52 Fishman, Joshua, “What Do You Lose When You Lose Your Language?” Cantoni, op.cit.
© All Rights Reserved, Robert DesJarlait, 2018
When the Earth was new, Anishinaaba (Original Man) was created and placed on Ashkaakamigokwe (Mother Earth). Anishinaaba stood naked and cold, slumped over, head hung down, his face hidden under his long tangled black hair.
This first human being was an arrogant and brash fellow who, because he was the first human, thought himself better than all.
Yet, he did not know how to walk, crawl or jump.
"How is it that someone as superior as I cannot walk, crawl of jump," thought Anishinaaba.
Angrily, Anishinaaba lurched forward, lifting his leg high and bringing his foot down harshly on the ground. The jarring blow of his step was cushioned by the soft green hair of Ashkaakamigokwe.
Surprised by the gentle touch of the grass, Anishinaaba swept the hair from his face and looked around him, and he was startled and overwhelmed by the beauty that surrounded him.
What he saw was sacred - mitigoog, zibiwan miinawaa agamiin, ozaagakiig, miinawaa manijooshag (the trees, rivers and lakes, the plant-beings, and the insects).
Closing his eyes, Anishinaaba heard a calm, soft drum beat wavering upon the wind. Anishinaaba then gently lifted the same foot and took a second step softly.
Keeping his eyes closed, he repeated his two steps with his other foot - one/two left foot, one/two right foot, back and forth from right foot to left foot, again and again, in rhythm with the drum beat upon the breeze.
And it was that on the first day of his creation, the first human being, who knew not how to walk, crawl or jump, danced in rhythm to the heartbeat of Ashkaakamigokwe.
Anishinaaba's two steps became the the traditional dance steps that have been passed down through hundreds of generations to present-day Anishinaabe dancers.
Note - This is based on a traditional story I was told many moons ago at a campfire at a powwow.
© All Rights Reserved, Robert DesJarlait, 2017
Original text and illustration from Niimiwin: An Ojibway Dance Coloring Book, Northern Winds Press, 1995
Dedicated to Windy Downwind who told a version of this story 20 years ago at a winter camp at White Earth.
On a cold winter night at Gaa-waabaabiganikaag (White Earth), a child asked the storyteller: “Why are you called Windy?”
Windy smiled and said to the children gathered around him, “Have any of you ever heard of the Wiindigoo?”
The children shook their heads no.
“A long time ago, there were these bad people called Wiindigoog,” the storyteller began.
“They were mean and ferocious. And the Ojibwe feared them because they ate people.”
“On cold winter nights, they would sneak into wiigiwaaman, steal people, and take them back to their village where they were cooked in a pot and then eaten.”
“People would sit up all night around their lodge fires, huddling and shivering together…not because they were cold but because they were afraid of the Wiindigoog.”
One day when the women were checking their rabbit snares and the men checking their trap lines, they heard the children screaming and yelling. They ran back to see what the commotion was about.
They stood on a hill and looked down. There on a log sat a huge man with children all around him.
“It’s a Wiindigoo!” the parents hollered as they ran down the hillside, picking up sticks and branches to beat the Wiindigoo with.
But when they got close, they noticed that the children weren't screaming and yelling because they were about to be eaten. The children were screaming and yelling in laughter, some laughing so hard that they were rolling in the snow. They were laughing at a Nenabozho story that the Wiindigoo was telling…a story about Nenabozho getting his butt burned in a fire and his butt fell off and got so mad that it chased Nenabozho all around his camp.
The Wiindigoo looked over at the parents and smiled: “Oh, you don’t have to worry. I’m not here to eat the children. Their laughter and smiles is what feeds me.”
Thereafter, Windy - as the children called him - came back at night and told his Nenabozho stories. When he went home, Windy was happy and filled with the laughter and smiles of the children within him. And in the lodges, the dreamcatchers of the children were filled with good thoughts and bright dreams.
“So you see,” the storyteller said, “I’m the Wiindigoo in the story but everyone just calls me Windy. And whenever you hear the name Wiindigoo, you’ll remember me because I am the best known and kindest Wiindigoo on Mother Earth.”
Then he grabbed the child who asked him about his name and tickled her. Amid the crackles of the wood burning stove, the storyteller, the child, and the other children smiled and laughed on that cold winter night at Gaa-waabaabiganikaag.
Illustration, Robert DesJarlait, from The Creator's Game: A Story of Lacrosse/Bagaa'adowe, Art Coulson, 2013, Minnesota Historical Society Press
Note: The following are excerpts from an article I am currently working on.
There’s a saying in lacrosse – Grow The Game. When I illustrated “The Creator’s Game: A Story of Bagaa-adowe / Lacrosse” by Art Coulson in 2013, little did I know that I would grow the game on a personal level. The game would draw me deeper in, much deeper than I ever expected.
I began to personally grow the game when I first touched pen to paper for the drawings for the book. At that time, I had a basic knowledge of lacrosse. But to do the drawings, I had to research the topic. Once the book was completed and published, I thought I would continue on my way. But then something about lacrosse pulled me in. It grew within me.
Certainly, it was part of my inquisitiveness as a tribal historian. Here was a game that was deeply embedded in my culture. It wasn’t merely a game of competiveness. Rather, there were spiritual and medicine connotations to the game. So far back does the game go that we have our own origin story about lacrosse and the game has played a significant role in several traditional stories. It was a game that reflected ogichidaag traditions. The war dance and victory dance were incorporated as part of the game. Writers like William Warren, Francis Densmore and Johann Kohl offered little insight into lacrosse and the game became a historical footnote not just to chroniclers of Ojibwe culture but also to the Ojibwe themselves. The tournaments that were played between different reservation communities were largely forgotten. Colonialism and assimilationist policies undermined its demise on Ojibwe reservations. We not only lost a part of our history but also the spiritual legacy that imbued the game.
The story of lacrosse among Native peoples is wrought with racism and cultural appropriation. Lacrosse is a microcosm of the macrocosm. We need to look no further than lacrosse to understand the prejudice and bias directed toward us as indigenous peoples.
When George William Beers, the so-called father of modern lacrosse, wrote “Lacrosse: The National Game of Canada,” he encapsulated the Native version as a game played by uncivilized redskins. Revisionists point out that Beers was using the language of his time. However, Beers’ view continues to permeate the game today.
For our part, we need to Grow The Game. Although there is a resurgence of the game among our youth, we need to more strongly emphasize the game’s history and traditions. The ceremonial protocols that were once part of the game are lost in the mists of time. But we can reassert the traditions we have. We can smudge the sticks and players, have a medicine man offer prayers before and after the game, have a drum at a game with singers singing war songs, and celebrate with a feast and victory dance when the game has ended. Games can be played for competition and games can be played for medicine. In medicine games, games can be played for people who are stricken with cancer, heart disease, diabetes, or other ills that affect our people.
Lacrosse is like our language. It gives us identity and direction as Ojibwe people. This is the game that the Creator gave us. Let us honor that and Grow The Game.
© All Rights Reserved, Robert DesJarlait
As a tribal historian who is also an artist, I’ve always been interested in tribal material arts from other regions. Because I live in close proximity to North and South Dakota, the tribal arts of the Plains has always held my interest. Southwestern tribal arts have also been an area of interest. I have a sister who is from Laguna Pueblo. I’ve visited her on several occasions and she introduced me to the art of that area. Through her, I have a small art collection – pottery from Acoma and several Kachinas.
Recently I traveled to Niagara Falls, New York for a cancer conference. Niagara Falls, Buffalo and the surrounding area is the homeland of the Seneca. In their own language, the Seneca are called the Onöndowága - the Keepers of the Western Door. They are part of the Haudenosaunee – the Iroquois Confederacy. Of the Six Nations, the Seneca live furthest to the west. They are also known as the People of the Green Hill.
Although I’m familiar with the Haudenosaunee in relation to politics , I’ve never looked at their material arts. I find this odd since the Iroquoian language tribes and Anishinaabe language tribes resided in the same region. Despite tribal conflicts and warfare between the two groups, the cross-cultural transmission of values and arts would have occurred in times of peace through gatherings and trade.
I never really looked at Iroquoian art per se until recently. Not too long ago, I did a survey of Iroquoian moccasins on a Facebook page. The commonality between the Iroquois and Ojibwe moccasins was the use of floral motifs which is expected regarding Woodland peoples. However, the method of application differed. The Iroquoian peoples used a raised beadwork technique; the Ojibwe used a flat beaded method. In addition, older Iroquoian moccasins used porcupine and bird quills, and shell beads before the advent of European beads via the trade network. It can be assumed that the Ojibwe also used similar materials although we don't have examples of such moccasin work from that time period.
My personal introduction to Haudenosaunee art was a visit to Ganondagan located near Victor, New York. The area was the focus of the war against the Seneca and the atrocious French Expedition of 1687. Although the expedition failed, it left Seneca villages in ruins with longhouses, gardens, and corn bins in flames under the scorched earth policy of Marquis de Denonville.
In 1966, the site of Ganondagan was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The Ganondagan Longhouse was built at the site of the village and dedicated in 1998. The Longhouse is “furnished as closely as possible to an original 1670 longhouse, complete with replicas of European and colonial trade goods and items created and crafted by the Seneca. Also in the longhouse are crops, herbs, and medicines grown, harvested, and preserved by the Seneca who lived atop the hill at Ganondagan.”
In 2015, the Seneca Art and Culture Center at Ganondagan opened. The Center features interactive, multimedia exhibits and galleries, and an orientation theater featuring the Iroquois Creation film.
My host and guide for my trip to New York was Joy Rivera. I was a co-presenter with Joy for a breakout session by the American Indian Cancer Foundation. Joy is Seneca and from the Cattaraugus Reservation. I couldn’t ask for a better guide.
The conference ended early Sunday and Joy gave me a list of things to do. One of the items on the list was Ganondagan and that immediately piqued my interest. I wanted to know more about the people whose homeland I was visiting.
We made the two hour trip to Ganondagan and arrived at 3:30. Before touring the Ganondagan site, you are at first led to the orientation theater. We watched a film on the Iroquois creation story featuring Skywoman, Turtle Island, and her twins. It was a beautiful film, extremely well-produced, with live action combined with animation and CGI. We have a similar story in my culture (Ojibwe) but the Iroquois story differs in certain details. Of course, there is a shared commonality in the origin story of Skywoman. Famed writer Basil Johnston collected several origin stories that featured cross-connections between the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe.
When the film was over, the staff recommended we visit the Longhouse because it closed at 4:00. When we returned, we had about a half-hour to tour the interactive gallery.
One of my disappointments was the gift shop was closed when we got there (it closed at 3:00). I was interested in looking at books for sale. But there were two books available at the information desk – “Art From Ganondagan” and “War Against The Seneca: The French Expedition of 1687.” I purchased both.
Art From Ganondagan was/is especially interesting to me. When I was teaching Native Art history in tribal schools and tribal colleges, I always emphasized that early traditional tribal art formed a common language. Indeed, early art worldwide was a common indigenous language. Pictographs were thoughts and ideas expressed through visual images. Because there were no written languages, there were barriers to understanding one another supratribally. However, there was a commonality in the earliest traditional art forms that are depicted in rock art, i.e., pictographic art. Such art later was incorporated into the motifs and designs in the material arts. Tribes maintained their own styles, yet the imagery was interconnected and understood with other tribes, particularly between tribes whose homelands overlapped. The Iroquois and Anishinaabe were/are Woodland peoples. Both incorporated floral designs, first in geometric/abstracted quillwork and then representational beadwork, that reflected the shared environment they lived in.
When I read the essay, Art From Ganondagan, I was struck by the similarities between Anishinaabe art and Iroquois art. Certainly there were differences because they represented two different tribal belief systems, yet they spoke a common language.
As noted by Richard Hill in his essay, Art From Ganondagan:
“Tribal art provides evidence for the social order, spiritual values and the history of a people. Art is essential to the daily life of traditional societies. Native American art reflects fundamental truths about relationships between people, and the interdependence of their society with the natural environment…Art transcends generations. Traditional images suggest what previous Seneca felt and thought…Seneca art of the seventeenth century is characterized by cultural metaphors and personal emblems that make a strong statement about the community’s ability to endure…The oral history and material culture of the Seneca are intimately related. Natural materials are modified by hand to convey individual messages through an accepted community aesthetic. Art connects the people to their society, to nature, and to the forces of the universe.”
“Seneca belief impacted directly on the art of Ganondagan. Seneca narratives are full of images that help keep the tradition alive. Plants, animals, celestial bodies, and spirits are personified. Everything has animate energy.”
“In general, the art of Ganondagan can be grouped into three design categories. The first is geometric. Common motifs are repeating patterns of triangles, parallel lines, zig-zags, crosses, circles, arches and dots. The second is semi-realistic three-dimensional figures on clay pipes, antler figures, wood carvings, and pottery rims. The third is two dimensional images on antler and wood combs.”
Art from Gannagaro
The last section of the book features photos of the art of Gannagaro (the European name for Ganondagan). The forward to the book - A Theft From The Dead: An Iroquois Perspective – notes:
“We do not doubt the artistic merit of these works, but are troubled by the important ethical question of how the works were acquired. Most of the objects illustrated in this catalogue were taken from the graves of Seneca men, women, and children. ..We mourn the loss. We are opposed to any disturbance of the remains of our ancestors.
“It is no surprise that the best examples of Seneca art are found in graves. It is a testament to the significance of the burial ritual. It is a demonstration of the humanity of the people who produced the art and wanted their deceased relatives to carry these objects to the spirit world. We continue to believe in that journey; it is part of our spiritual identity. The proper care of these objects is part of our moral obligation to the past, the present, and the future.
“Our survey of museum collections has only affirmed that most of the archaeological objects have come from graves. We ask that you consider this as you look at the works of art in this publication.”
Richard Hill notes: “When viewing the art in this catalogue, it is evident that the works are not static. These three hundred year old objects move the modern viewer. Even though the Seneca have no word for it, art was an everyday activity in Seneca society. The visual arts have become a special expression of many Seneca. The illustrations that follow remind us that art in the Seneca community has a long history of manifesting personal identity and providing a Seneca perspective to a changing world.”
The following features some of the items in the catalogue with their accompanying notes.
Shell Gorget: Worn as a necklace, clan shell discs were often engraved with geometric designs. The triangles on the gorget could represent the Iroquois nations.
Shell Gorget: The circle is a common Indian symbol of unity and is repeated on this fragmented gorget.
Shell Disc Necklace: Discoidal shell beads appear to have been very popular and fashionable among the old Iroquois and thousands of beads have been found at Seneca sites.
Shell Bird Effigy: The beauty in the simplicity of this rendering of a bird makes this small pendant exceptional. The line around the neck suggests that this piece represents a loon. There are two holes on each shoulder that could have been used to attach a pair of wings.
Shell Beads: Long tubular beads were fashioned from the thick center section of large conch shells.
Pottery Marking Tool.
Hair combs were made from wide sections of elk or moose...Animal effigies are the most popular motifs on Seneca hair combs, often reflecting the clan or medicine animal of the wearer. Hair combs provide examples of the bilateral symmetry that is characteristic of much Iroquoian art. Such designs evoke a feeling of harmony and balance.
Spirit Lines: These figures have special lines engraved in their surfaces that go from heart to mouth. These lines can be called spirit lines, since they represent the life and power of the animal spirit. The bear is associated with great medicine.
Clay from Mother Earth provided one of the most versatile media for the Seneca artist. Although the use of native ceramics began to decline in the 17th century, examples of Iroquoian pottery remained in Seneca households.
Smoking Pipes: The Seneca took their smoking seriously, producing a great number of clay pipes...Clay pipes illustrate the diversity and creativity of Seneca design. Handmade pipes were popular with both men and women. An effigy figure usually faces the smoker.
Stone Otter Effigy.
To me, the art of the Seneca, and the art of the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island, equates the ancient art of Africa, China, Egypt, or any other world art. Art represents the human experience. The white world holds its ancient art aloft as a form of racial superiority. For them, it is a pillar of civilization. However, all art represents civilization. Art is the innate human ability to express to historical-cultural experiences artistically. The aesthetics used do not imply primitiveness or superiority. They are all equal regardless of aesthetics. They inform us of the past, the present, and the future. When we teach our children about art, the focus needs to be one's cultural art and the art of the indigenous peoples with whom we live and whose history we share. Because the art of Turtle Island is us. Through tribal arts we know who we are and where we came from. We are the beauty of this land and that beauty is expressed through our arts. It can be nothing less.
© All Rights Reserved, 2017, Robert DesJarlait
She lay within a glass case. That is, what remained of her. Floral beaded bandolier bag, moccasins, a pipe bag containing a small pipestone bowl with a stem of sumac, an otter skin medicine bag, a sheet of birch bark with etched song images, and a hand-drum painted with a bear and a thunder-being. Her resting place was located in a dusty corner of the store, under a grimy window through which daylight filtered in amid dust motes. The people who found her had never known her name, so they named her after the river by which her grave was found.
Rachel Larrsen stood looking down into the display case. It was quiet in the store today, as it usually was during the summer months. Occasionally a customer stopped in for gas, but most went down the road to the new Super America, where gas was a few cents less. Most of the small sport center’s business came in the fall and winter, when the snow was on the ground and people from Chicago, Detroit, and Minneapolis came to their winter cabins in northern Wisconsin and wanted their snowmobiles serviced or to buy a used one.
The regular customers, when they first came to do business, spent a fleeting moment or two looking at Red Medicine Woman; but, once seen, the allure of the past was quickly forgotten. Occasionally, a tourist or two would stop and spend a several minutes gazing at her belongings; however, most tourists, at least those interested in local Indian culture, went to the next town over, Wellby, where the Namadji County Historical Society had a center filled with curios and artifacts from the Indian past.
The light of the sun reflected Rachel’s face on the glass case. She saw a woman in her mid-thirties, with brown eyes, and dark brown hair. Her tired expression and pale complexion indicated a woman who had endured a life that was, at best, difficult. Rachel, like Red Medicine Woman, lived within the confines of a limited world. Instead of a world confined by glass, Rachel’s world was confined by the shadow of her husband, Jim. For the past nine years, she had been the good wife who always did her best to please a husband who no longer expressed his gratitude for her efforts. Nevermore a kind word for washing clothes, cooking meals, cleaning silverware and plates, scrubbing floors, or tending the cash register in the store.
Yet, Rachel accepted all this because it was the way she had been raised. She grew up on a farm, not far from Nestor Township. On her parent’s farm, and in the surrounding farmsteads, the men worked the fields, from sunrise to sunset, and the women took care of the household chores. Every Sunday at Sunday school, Rachel and the other girls were reminded that it was the duty of women to take care of hearth and home. Thus, the women who toiled in the shadows of their husbands accepted this existence because, after all, it was God’s will. For women like Rachel, it was best to move on through life, as best as one could, and then get to the hereafter, where things would, hopefully, be better.
On those quiet days, Rachel would often walk over to the glass case and stare down at the belongings of the Indian woman. They had been found by Jim’s great-grandfather in the 1880’s. When Jim’s grandfather opened the Nestor general store, the items were put on display, in hopes of attracting business. The store, and Red Medicine Woman, passed down the family line to Jim. No one in the family really knew what the items were. To generations of Larrsen family members, they were just nameless, forgotten artifacts that had belonged to a Chippewa squaw.
But today was different. Red Medicine Woman was no longer the remnants of a forgotten past; rather, for Rachel, Red Medicine Woman was a past remembered. This remembrance was, as yet, vague; but with each heartbeat, the memory grew stronger.
Four days ago, an old Indian man had come into the store to pay for his gas. Rachel was busy restocking the cigarette shelf when he walked in.
“Ah-neen,” the old man said as he walked up to the counter. Rachel looked at him oddly, not understanding what he said. He quickly added, “That means how are you, how are you doing. It’s an Ojibwe word for greetings.”
“Oh...well, hello,” Rachel replied. After paying, the old man shuffled off and Rachel returned to her task. She noticed that the old man had stopped at the glass case and, bending over, carefully looked at Red Medicine Woman’s belongings. Rachel didn’t think too much about it. The Lake Sis-kay-way Chippewa reservation was only fifty miles down the road. Once in a while an Indian person would stop for gas and, after paying, look at the items in the glass case. However, the Indians from Lake Sis-kay-way stopped coming by after the incident between Jim and a young Indian man from the reservation.
Nearly twenty minutes had passed and the old man was still at the glass case, and singing. He was singing in a language that Rachel didn’t know, a softly sung song that reminded her of the kind of songs that Indians sang at powwows.
Rachel walked over to the glass case and stood next to the old man; she noticed that he had sprinkled tobacco over the top. He stopped singing and looked down at Rachel. “That song you were singing...it was beautiful,” she said. “What does it mean?” she asked.
“It’s an Ojibwe song...a healing song,” the old man replied. “You see, when they took her body from the earth, they interrupted her journey to the Spirit World. That song is to help her back on her path. I just learned it.”
“You just learned it? You mean you just made it up now?”
“No...see that sheet of birch bark in there? That’s the song. The Ojibwe wrote their songs...and their history...on birch bark. You just have to know how to read the drawings.”
“Ojibwe?” Rachel said. “But I thought she was Chippewa. Isn’t it the Chippewa who live around here?”
“Well, she wasn’t Chippewa...she was Ojibwe. Chippewa was a name that the government gave our people back in the treaty-making days,” the old man replied. He added, “It was one more way to take away our identity.”
“Do you know who she is?”
“She was a Midé – a medicine woman. That otter skin pouch was her medicine bag. Only people who belong to the Midéwiwin, the Medicine Lodge, can have a bag like that.”
The old man explained that the Midéwiwin was a society of medicine people that had been around for over a thousand years. They helped heal people with herbs and plants And they provided principals and morals for people to live by. He told Rachel that the images on Red Medicine Woman’s hand-drum indicated that she belonged to the Bear Clan and that her spirit helper was a thunderbird, a thunder-being, with rays of power emanating from its body. The thunder-being protected her and gave her strength in her times of need.
“She needs to go home,” the old man said. “Until that happens, you need to put tobacco out for her. It’ll help heal her...let her know that someone cares and is praying for her. But most of all, you need to do this, because you too are related.” The old man smiled kindly, placed a hand on her shoulder, and handed her a crumpled foil pouch of Prince Albert tobacco. He stopped at the front door and turned to her: “You both need to find your way home. Don’t be afraid to come up to the rez and see me. Just ask around for George Red Bear Standing.” Then he was gone.
Rachel was sure that somehow the old man knew her, that he knew who she was. That she had Indian blood had never mattered to her. Rachel never denied it, but then, nobody ever bothered to ask her about it. In all the years she stood behind the counter, Indian people never questioned who she was. They just seemed to think that she was simply a white woman working the cash register. She always thought of herself as a white person who happened to have a little Indian blood. And, nobody had ever said anything. Occasionally Jim, in moments of anger, would make disparaging remarks about her having squaw blood. Other than that, no one said anything.
Well, not quite. There was that time when she was fifteen years old and, at a family reunion, she overheard the men complaining about Indians because the Indians were demanding that Indian children needed to be placed in Indian foster homes, and her father, Frank Erickson, said that was wrong, just look at Rachel and how good she had turned out. And Rachel had gone into the house, into the bathroom, and looked at herself in the mirror. And what she saw was, well, simply a fifteen year old girl. One who happened to have been adopted. And, one who happened to have a little Indian blood in her. She didn’t think that there was anything unusual about that. That she had just found this out didn’t upset her. Rachel knew that there were other girls like her out there.
As Rachel stood before the glass case, clutching the pouch of tobacco that Red Bear Standing had given to her fours days ago, she thought about her husband, Jim. Rachel had met Jim at a family church picnic. After that, Rachel began going out with him. Jim knew about Rachel’s background; in Nestor Township everyone knew each other. To Jim’s mother, Rachel was Frank and Alice Ericksson’s daughter; that she had been adopted and may have had some Indian blood made little difference to her or to her son. They considered her one of them.
After they graduated, Jim asked her to marry him. Rachel never hesitated. She liked the idea of being a store owner’s wife rather than a farmer’s wife. For three years, their marriage was a happy one, filled with romance and tender moments. Jim went to a mechanics class at Burnett Community College, got his certificate, and added a snowmobile service garage to the back of the store. The family house, located on a knoll overlooking the store, was rebuilt. On summer nights, they sat on a swing that hung from an old birch tree and they talked about all the children that they would have. Then Jim found out that he was sterile. He never really said anything to Rachel about it. But Rachel could feel his angry silence - a silence that made Rachel feel as though she was the barren one.
Jim’s silence gave way to a growing verbal tirade toward Indian people. Certainly, Jim had never sympathized with the plight of Indian people. Few white people who lived in Namadji County did. Jim, like everyone else, complained whenever Indian people asserted their treaty rights or laws that were passed to protect Indian rights. But Jim’s attitude began to go beyond the norm. Like a needle stuck in a record groove, Jim’s conversation revolved around an endless tirade against Indian people. It just wasn’t what he said, but how he said it. The incident two months ago showed just how close Jim was to the edge.
A young Indian man had come in to pay for his gas. Rachel was behind the counter and Jim was filling the Coke machine. On his way out, the young man stopped by the display case. He leaned over and peered closely at the items. He reached into his jeans pocket, pulled out a foil pouch of tobacco, and began to sprinkle some on top of the case.
“Hey! What do you think you’re doing?” Jim said.
“Offering her some tobacco...it’s how we show respect for our elders,” the young Indian man replied.
Jim walked over to the glass case, saying, “My wife just cleaned this case yesterday. I don’t appreciate you dirtying it up,” Jim began sweeping the tobacco off with the edge of his hand.
“Look, man, I was just trying to offer a prayer.”
“I don’t care what you were trying to do,” Jim said. “If you want to pray go to church. That’s how you pray. You just don’t come into a whiteman’s store and start with that pagan Indian stuff.”
“She was a traditional woman. I have a right...” the young man started to say.
“You have a right!” Jim said, his voice rising. “You’re on my property here. I’m the one who has rights, not you, not on my land. You want your rights, go back to the reservation.”
“Hey, you don’t have to shout at me,” the young man replied. “I mean, you should be glad that someone is willing to show this woman some respect. You people sure as hell haven’t.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“You don’t show a person respect by opening their grave and putting their belongings on display,” the young man said quietly.
“First of all, it was my great-grandfather who found her on his land. Second of all, how much more respect do you want? We got her stuff on display so people can learn something about you goddamn people. If anything, you should be thanking me.”
“Thanking you!” the Indian man replied. “Thanking you for what? Because your great-grandfather robbed her grave? You know, we have a repatriation law, and...”
“Fuck your goddamn repatriation law! That goddamn squaw isn’t covered by any treaty rights or fucking laws. She’s bought and paid for. And as long as I’m alive, she’s staying in that goddamn case.”
The young man stood there with a stunned look on his face. Jim leaned across the case, fists clenched: “Get out!” Jim yelled. “Get the hell out of my store before I call the cops. You don’t come in here and accuse my family of being grave robbers, you sonofabitch.!”
Rachel stood behind the counter, shocked at Jim’s behavior. The young Indian man glared at Jim, took a handful of tobacco, threw it across the top of the glass case, and stalked out of the store.
After that incident, the Lake Sis-kay-way people stayed away from the store. Rachel knew that Jim had made a terrible mistake - the Lake Sis-kay-way people brought in needed income. Especially in the summer when things were slow. Now, the only Indians who came in were those who were on the road, needed gas, and didn’t know about Red Medicine Woman.
And now, as Rachel stood before Red Medicine Woman, spreading the Prince Albert tobacco on the case top, her reflection staring back at her in the morning sunlight, she glimpsed what the old man had seen four days before. A Chippewa squaw...no, an Ojibwe woman...who happened to have white blood in her. Rachel watched as a teardrop fell gently on the top of the glass case. A teardrop, not for her, but for the woman trapped within the glass case. And then, a second teardrop fell, and this teardrop was for her, for Rachel, for the mistake that her life had become. And the second teardrop was followed by a third, a fourth, and then a torrent burst forth, washing the glass top with the anguish of a past long denied.
Two hours later, Rachel stood in front of the receptionist at the birth record department at the Namadji County courthouse in Wellby. Her adopted father, Frank Ericksson, had died of a heart attack when Rachel was eighteen and he had never told Rachel anything about her real parents. Alice Ericksson, who died of cancer two years after Rachel’s marriage, told Rachel, on her deathbed, that she didn’t know how Rachel’s mother spelled her last name, only that it was pronounced Di-zal-lay.
“You don’t know how to spell it?” the receptionist said.
“No, I just know how it’s pronounced,” Rachel replied.
“What year we looking for?”
The receptionist told Rachel to take a seat since it would take a while to track down the last name. Twenty minutes later, the receptionist called Rachel back to the desk. “Well, it took a bit of looking, but I think I might have what you’re looking for,” the receptionist said, handing Rachel a photocopy of a birth certificate. The birth certificate was for Rachel Denzalle, born November 18, 1962. Mother: Helen Denzalle / Color or Race - 1/2 Chippewa, Residence of Mother - Lake Sis-kay-way Res., Father: Jon Olofson / Color or Race - White, Residence of Father - Wellby, Wisconsin.
After paying the fee for the birth certificate, Rachel went outside and sat in her car, once again reading about her past. Her real parents had never married. In that day and age, she was considered illegitimate. When her parents had died, she was taken away and placed with a white family. Raised with images of white people, she became like one. Of course, Rachel had little choice in the matter. Although her adopted parents had been good to her and never mistreated her, they had never taken her to any powwows, had never given her an opportunity to know about herself and her heritage. Yet, none of this would have mattered if that old man, George Red Bear Standing, hadn’t stopped for gas and sang his healing song. Rachel knew that she could just go home and forget about all this. Go back home and get supper ready for Jim. Continue to sit behind the cash register and stare forlornly at the glass case in the dusty corner. Or, as the old man said, she could go home again.
As Rachel drove over the bridge into Nestor, she slowed down, wondering where along the river bank Red Medicine Woman’s grave had been. Not far from here, she thought, Red Medicine Woman lived in a birch bark lodge. She suckled her children at her breasts and hung dream catchers from their cradleboards. She gathered herbs and roots along the river bank and sang songs to heal the sick. She called on the thunder-beings when she needed strength and protection. And, when she died, a Swedish immigrant tore open her grave and stole her body and belongings from the earth.
Rachel pulled into the store lot and parked her car in front. She went into the store, leaving the closed sign turned around. Rachel sat down behind the counter and reached for the phone. She called information and got the number she needed. After dialing the number, a voice answered: “Lake Sis-kay-Way tribal office.”
“I would like some information on someone who was from Lake Sis-Kay-Way,” Rachel asked. “Her name was Helen Denzalle.”
“Could I ask who is calling.”
“Her daughter,” Rachel answered. “This is her daughter. My name is Rachel Larssen.”
“Could you please hold.”
As Rachel waited, she looked at the clock. It was now 4:00; Jim, who had gone to Hayward for some supplies, would be back around 7:00. A few minutes later, the voice came back on: “Rachel? I have some information here. What would you like to know?”
“What year did she die?”
“According to this, she was killed in a car accident in 1963. The car she was in went off the bridge in Nestor, into the Red Medicine River. Ah...you don’t know any of this?”
“No. I’ve been away for a while...actually I’ve been away for a long time,” Rachel replied. “Do you have any more information on her?”
“Well, let’s see,” the voice said. “She was an enrolled member of the Lake Sis-Kay-Way Band. She also belonged to the Bear clan.”
“Yes. We keep records, tribal records, of a person’s affiliation with the band, including their clan. A lot of our children were placed in white foster homes or adopted into white families before the Indian Child Welfare Act went into effect in 1978. Sometimes those people want to know about themselves. So, we keep a record of clan membership. Folks who can’t find extended family can at least reconnect to their kinship clan.”
“Does she...do I have any relatives up there?”
“Well, most of the Dezalles’ have moved off the rez. There’s some in Minneapolis and I think a few in Milwaukee. The main one living up here is Sissy Denzalle. She’s married to George Red Bear Standing. She would be your auntie. Also a few cousins who come and go”
“Thank you for the information...I really appreciate it,” Rachel said.
“Rachel? If you ever come up this way, just stop at the casino. George and your auntie are always at the nickel slots.”
“Thanks,” Rachel said and hung up the phone. She went over to the glass case and stood before Red Medicine Woman. How many times for how many years had she stood there, not knowing why? How long had George Red Bear Standing known? She went around to the back of the glass case; the back of the case was wood with a hinged door held fast by a lock. Jim had the only key and it was on his key ring, jingling somewhere between here and Hayward. Using a screwdriver, she tried jimmying the lock off but it held fast. Rachel walked back to the counter and got a hammer and screwdriver. She went back behind the glass case and, placed the screwdriver against the lock and swung down with the hammer. The lock held. Rachel struck the lock a second time, a third; on the fourth swing, the lock gave way. Outside, rain began to patter on the rooftop; thunder from afar rolled from one end of the sky to the other.
Rachel found an old canvas bag and began to put Red Medicine Woman’s belongings into it. As she reached for the hand-drum, she looked at the bear pictograph and thought: we are all related; all this time you were singing your song, but I couldn’t hear it. She managed to get everything into the bag, went to the counter, and put the bag on the countertop. Rachel sat down behind the counter and waited.
The time passed slowly and, finally, the hands read 7:00; Jim would be here soon. She knew that she could just get in her car and leave. It would be such an easy thing to do. Too easy. No. She wanted him to know that she was leaving. Any other way would just mean she was running and she had been running all her life. She just didn’t know it. Jim had to know. Then the running could end.
Ten minutes later, she heard his truck pull into the driveway. She listened as the truck went to the back of the store. The back lot was enclosed with a ten foot chain-link fence; whenever Jim returned, he pulled up to the gate and Rachel would let him in. She heard him honking his horn and imagined the words running through his head: Fucking goddamn squaw...open the goddamn gate! But she wasn’t listening to Jim’s imagined words or his honking anymore; instead, she heard the voice of the thunder-beings and the flash of the lightning as the storm approached.
A moment later, the back door banged open and Jim came scurrying in, a look of passing terror on his face. Rachel knew that Jim was always like a little boy whenever it stormed; Jim was terrified of storms, ever since his father was struck and killed by lightning fifteen years ago. She saw him look quickly around the darkened room illuminated only by blue flashes of lightning. Then he saw her, standing beside the counter, her hand on the canvas bag. “Rachel...what the hell’s going on? Didn’t you hear me out back?”
“I heard you, Jim,” Rachel said quietly.
“Well, if you heard me, then why the hell didn’t you open the goddamn gate, woman?”
“There’s something I need to tell you, Jim. I’m leaving. I’m taking Red Medicine Woman with me. I’m taking her back to where she belongs.” Then Rachel turned and began walking toward the front door. Jim ran over to the door, blocking Rachel’s exit.
“Have you gone crazy?” And what’s this crap about Red Medicine Woman?”
“We’re going home,” Rachel said.
“You ain’t going anywhere, you goddamned squaw,” Jim yelled. His hand struck her on the side of the face. Rachel was stunned. In his bad moods, he had yelled at her but had never struck her. She could feel the blood welling in her mouth. But now, the thunder-beings were directly overhead, calling to her, calling her home. She began moving toward the front door, intending to step around Jim. She reached around him and opened the door. His next blow was with a closed fist to her face; the force of the blow sent her reeling backward and onto her back. For a moment, she saw only blackness; then she saw flickering blue light and heard the crackling of thunder. Rachel got right back up, still clutching the bag.
Rachel came face to face with Jim. A bolt of lightning struck close by; the deep rumble of the thunder shook the building and rattled the windows. Overwhelmed by his fear, Jim fell back against the door. As Rachel hurried past him, he reached out and grabbed her arm. Lightning flashed, thunder roared. Jim let go, covering his face, hiding from the flashing, blinding light. Rachel strode into the night, her back illuminated by flashes of lightning. Jim lunged toward the door, making one last desperate attempt to stop her, but the roaring thunder sent him reeling back into the store. Rachel was only a few yards away, but the thunder-beings held him back.
Rachel got into her car, put Red Medicine Woman next to her, started the car, and pulled out onto the highway. She reached into her pocket and got out the crumpled pouch of tobacco the old man had given her. Rachel opened the window and sprinkled a handful outside, thanking the thunder-beings for providing her with strength and protection in her time of need. Rachel and Red Medicine Woman were going home.
© All Rights Reserved, Robert DesJarlait, 2017
“He said he is going to kill himself.”
I listen to my sister-in-law speak on the phone, her voice calm but urgent.
“You have to come here and try to talk to him,” she says. “I’m leaving him but I’ll stay with him till you get here. He said he wants you to come.”
I glance at the clock. Nine o’clock. I won’t get there till one or one-thirty in the morning. A long drive on a cold, rainy September night.
“Okay. I’ll try to get there as soon as I can...depends on the weather,” I answer.
“Mii’gwech, Endaso. Be careful, but please get here soon. He’s serious.”
I hang the phone up and think about my brother. This isn’t the first time he has made these kind of threats. Talking about walking the Bear Walk isn’t anything new. My people have all talked...and walked...the Bear Walk ever since they brought the Crazy Water to us. Graves filled with those who walked. Tree limbs creaking with ghosts of those who walked with ropes. Bare floors soaked with ethereal blood of those who walked with a razor blade or a gun. Sorrowful genocide in a bottle of whiskey. All wrongs amplified and deadened in a stupor of pity. Their anguish feeding a dark presence.
The presence darkly looms on the edges of the consciousness, red eyes gleaming, sharp teeth gnashing, paws held out and beckoning. The hulk dissolves into a pin point ball of bluish light zigzagging through the air, and strikes the back of the head. With entry, its power grows and guides the hand to slip a noose over the head, to grasp a razor and slash at the wrists, to squeeze the trigger of a gun held against the head or heart.
How many times had I talked the walk? How many times had I seen that blue ball of light coming toward me, only to turn away at the last moment to deny its entry.
From upstairs, I hear my children running, playing, and laughing. The floor rumbles with the reverberations of my wife’s sewing machine, the needle stitching silver jingle cones onto a purple calico medicine dress for my daughter. Can I be like the medicine dress and heal the wounds of a jaded heart?
From the top shelf, I pull down the birch bark tray and set it before me. I lift up the red and black striped blanket that covers it. I spread it out on the floor. I take out the pipe bag. A soft, white brain tan bag with long fringes on the end. A four pointed beaded star beaded on the center...each point representing the Four Directions. Glittering glass beads shaped into points of yellow, red, black, and white. Wa-bun-noong, Zha-wa-noong, Ninga-be-uh-noong, Ge-way-din-noong.
Carefully, I remove the contents. A pipe bowl hewn of red pipestone. A long stem carved from sumac. Niin Opwaagan. It is a gift given to me after finding my way to the Path of Life. A pipe I use for my own prayers, for my wife, my sons, my daughters, and for my extended family. I hold the pipe bowl close to my eye and peer deep within. The colors are still there. Soft, muted colors that swirl deep within the bowl. Opawaagan Chee-jauk. The spirits within call me.
Endaso-Giizhik, rise up and journey forth. The Thunder Beings alight the night with flashing eyes. The Four Skies echo their voices. Rise up. They will guide you as you tread the dark night. Venture fearlessly, Endaso-Giizik. Your helpers await you.
Three hours on the road and my helpers are far behind me, my rear view mirror reflecting the flash of their diminishing presence. The woodland of pine and birch line the shoulders of the dark, wet highway. Wisps of fog appear and thicken into a cloud world. I am alone, traveling through a dreamscape filled with spirit forms that swirl before me, guiding me homeward.
For a moment, a flash of reality catches my eye. In the glare of my headlights, a tattered, peeling sign informs the wayfarer that Larssen’s Sports Center features the relics of Chippewa Princess, Red Medicine Woman. A sign like so many others on this road. Stolen pasts for tourists to gaze upon.
A few miles down the road and the dream fog lifts as I pass the ruins of Larssen’s Sports Center. Wet, blackened beams rise from the debris of the building and the house beyond. I recall the story. Of the white man who went crazy one night. Torched the house and building. Walked the Bear Walk with a .38 caliber to his head as the flames roared around him. Blackened floors soaked with ethereal blood of a stealer of ancestor pasts.
I cross the bridge over the Red Medicine River. Spirit shapes swirl from the currents of the hidden river. I follow a long curve in the road and I sense a presence to my right. A magnificent buck, crowned with a huge rack of horns, emerges from the woods and steps onto the shoulder of the road. I stop my car and look at this wondrous being that seems formed from the fog that swirls around its muscled body. He looks toward me and his thoughts touch my mind.
Endaso-Giizhik. Venture onward. Your path is guided. The spirits are with you. But remember the Deer Clan people. Waa-waash-ke-shi O-do-i-daym Anishinaabeg. Remember and you shall know the secret of the darkness beneath the jaded heart.
The buck crosses the road. He reaches the other side and takes one last look at me. Slowly he walks into the woods, his body enveloped by swirling fog. I reach down and pick up my foil pouch of tobacco. I roll my window down, take a pinch of tobacco, and offer it to the Waa-waash-ke-shi. Niin Endaso-giizhik asemaa ingiimiinigo idash ningaagiizomaa waawaashkeshi: I, Endaso-Giizhik, speak for this tobacco and I appease the deer.
I drive on and think about what the deer has told me. Remember the Deer Clan people. The Waa-waash-ke-shi O-do-i-daym. Long ago, they had all walked the Bear Walk. Killing themselves by killing the soul-spirits of their children. Beating them. Abusing them in unspeakable, obscene ways. Fathers with daughters. Mothers with sons. Mothers and fathers striking their children. Fathers and mothers striking each other. Reed mats on wigwam floors soaked with the blood of the innocent.
In anger, the other clans rose up and, in the darkness of night, attacked the Waa-waash-ke-shi O-do-i-daym. The few Waa-waash-ke-shi that survived fled into the woods and became wanderers, forever banished from the warm fires of the villages.
Less than an hour away, I think about my brother. I see him sitting at his kitchen table, lines of sorrowful rage etched on his face. His wife and three children huddled on the couch casting fearful glances in his direction. What are his thoughts, this flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood? What has brought him to this point? What secrets lay neath the jaded heart?
Images of days past, our families together. Laughter filtering through a haze of sun lightened days; gasps of wonder on starry nights aglow with the lights of ancestors dancing in the northern skies. Did I miss a dismayed look on his wife’s face as she turned to the oven to cook frybread and walleye? Was I blind to the looks of his children that turned sullen as I turned away to watch the clouds dance in shimmering blue skies?
Slowly, I drive through the town of Wellby. Dark buildings glisten with fog dew. Yellow caution lights at intersections blinking in the emptiness. Everyone is dead. In the morning, they will awake slowly as their soul-spirits return from their vision journeys. The people will arise, their eyes on the tasks of the day before them. Forgotten will be the gratefulness for the new day. Ungratefulness will mark this day, like everyday behind them and everyday before them. The guilt of stolen pasts will gnaw at their hearts and bitterness shall fill their shallow souls with shame.
On the other side of Wellby, I see a sign that tells me I am fifty minutes away from the Lake Sis-kay-way Casino and Lodge located on the Lake Sis-kay-way Ojibwe Reservation. A few miles further and I take a right off the highway and turn onto the old reservation road. A road from my old life. A lost, twisting road traveled with whiskey in one hand, a joint in the other, and Willie, Waylon, or Hank Jr. wailing songs of hearts jaded by love lost. The road of my old life before I became Endaso-Giizhik.
Then my new road. Finding my way from the tangent I had wandered onto and stepping back on the Path of Life. George Red Bear Standing sitting in my living room, blanket spread before him with his Pipe, an eagle feather, and an abalone shell with a smoking ball of sage that fills the room with its sweet, musky scent. Red Bear Standing picking up his hand drum and softly singing my new name into existence in each direction. The song finished, he turns to me.
This name that I give you is old and goes back four hundred years. The first three men who had this name were Ogichidaa...warriors. Every day they protected and defended their families, their communities. This name...Endaso-Giizhik...means Everyday. It may seem like a simple name, yet it is a name that bears great responsibility. The spirits gave me this name to give to you. The spirits told me that you are the one to carry this name in this time and place on Earth. With this eagle feather that I give you, rise in the morning, hold this feather, and think about that name and think about those who have gone on before you who have carried this name. In times of trouble, think of your name, hold this feather, and the spirits will be there to help you.
I park outside my brother’s trailer house. Only the dim light of a living room lamp lights the gloom within. I grab my eagle feather from the dashboard and the pipe bag on the seat beside me. I step out and a light mist moistens my face and speckles my glasses. Tree limbs creaking.
I hesitate before knocking. I am only a common man. Yet, I am now about to cross a threshold into uncommon experiences. I want to turn around and leave. Hesitantly, I knock and my nephew opens the door. I cross the threshold.
My sister-in-law hugs me, tells me she is going to her mother’s, and then she, my nephew, and my nieces are gone. I stand in a realm of gloom. I see the dark shape of my brother at the kitchen table, head bowed, arms on the table with a beer clenched between his hands, and a crumpled, plastic bag of marijuana at his elbow. I walk to the table, pull out a chair and sit across from him. I place my pipe bag and eagle feather before me.
There is danger here. In the dark corners of the house, fear takes shape and form, and moves at the edges of my eyesight.
In times of trouble...
In times of trouble...
I pick up my eagle feather.
My brother raises his head and looks at me. “Hey, my bro. Good to see you,” he says. “I just wanted to see you one last time. I’m checkin out...movin on. Fuck this shit.”
I look at him. Red eyes framed by tangled, matted hair. Sharp teeth gnashing. I look down and see the dark shape of a revolver between his arms. The dankness of his breath reaches me and I smell the foul odor of a sullen rage fueled by beer and reefer.
Wisps of fear swirl out from the dark corners, touching me, chilling me. Cold sweat slowly beads my forehead. Gloom darkens and presses in on me. I can hardly breathe.
In times of trouble...
I remember my name. The spirits guide my hand and I reach into my pipe bag and take out a tied bundle of sage. Cleanse the air of this stench of fear, they tell me.
“I have to do something first,” I say. “I want to smoke the house down. When I am done, we can talk.”
“Fuck that goddamn shit,” he says. “Fuck your Great Spirit. Fuck God. Fuck the Creator.”
I stand up and hold a match to the end of the sage bundle. The end begins to smolder and the pungent, musky smoke wafts upward. I fan the smoke out with my eagle feather. I begin moving through the house, fanning the smoke into dark corners. My brother’s words follow me. “Goddamn fuck....goddamn fuck...goddamn fuck...”
After I am done, I return to the table. I take out my turtle shell. Taking some loose sage, I roll it into a ball, put it into the shell and light it. Thin strands of smoke rise upward. Fear no longer befouls the air around me but still lurks in the dark corners.
“You think you’re a fuckin medicine man now?” my brother says. “You think prayin is gonna do any good? Fuck that...don’t mean nuthin.”
“Why did you ask me to come here then?” I say. “Do you think I drove four hours just to come here to watch you kill yourself?”
“No. I want someone to hear me. To know why I am going to do this.” he answers.
“Tell me then. Tell me why it’s come to this. Help me to understand this.”
In times of trouble...
Every Day. Everyday the sun rises. Gold beams light darkened corners. Wisps of shadowfear burrow and hide in the deepest crevices. But it is night and I must walk through the darkness. There is danger here. Remember and you shall know the secret. Tree limbs creaking. Bare floors soaking. It is the time of the dead and when soul-spirits roam. I too should be dead but I am awake. I have to walk through this night. I must hold back the darkness until the sun rises. I must not awake at the dawn. I must be undead with the dawn.
He is talking to me. I sit and listen, staring at a stained spot on the floor. Ethereal blood. Dark shapes swirl at the edge of my vision. The sage has burned out. I relight it. Thin plumes of smoke rise up and whiten the darkness. Fear lessens but is ever present.
She’s leavin me...Movin out...I always tried to do the right thing...Get food on the table...But that ungrateful bitch dont care...Gettin down on me cause I aint got a regular job...Fuck, man...I brung money in the house...I got a good business...Always get grade A weed...Always get them to come back and buy from me regularly...Cut’em a deal and they always come back...Then, she gets mad when I quit my casino job...Best motherfuckin blackjack dealer they had...But, shit, man, I don’t wanna work for the fuckin tribe...Fuck that...I ain’t no suck ass...I’m my own man...Aint no one tellin a Denzalle what the fuck to do...We blue blood here...We come from chiefs...Them damn muttbloods on the council got no right tellin us what to do...Fuck man, I like being here...doing what I want...Long as I’m bringin money in, she got no reason to bitch...And, yeah, I started drinkin again... But, fuck, I quit for two years...Nothin wrong with havin a beer or drink once in a while... Aint like I drink every damn night...And these people who come by to get some reefer...they like having a beer or two over business.
He goes on and on. Repeating himself over and over. Never blaming himself. Always blaming her. Or blaming others. But at least he is talking. And as he talks, time passes, albeit slowly. Four-thirty a.m. Still at least another half hour before the eastern skies begin to glow. I sit quietly. Letting him talk. I keep the sage going. I gaze at a dark, bluish spot on the bare floor. Bare floors soaking. The spot seems to rise up and float toward my head. Floating before my eyes, it envelops my head in a warm darkness. Sharp teeth gnashing. I open my eyes suddenly. His fearful words reach out and grasp at my heart.
I’m gonna kill that fuckin cunt, man...If she don’t want me, then no one is gonna have her...That bitch belongs to me...I own that cunt...I’ll be fuckin goddamned if I’m gonna let that bitch live while I am six feet under...It’s pay back time and that bitch is gonna pay big time...Goddamn her...Why she have to do this?...Fuck it, it don’t mean nuthin...Fuck no, man...I’m taking that cunt for a ride tomorrow...Ask her to come with me...Just pretend that I’ve accepted things and want to talk to her one last time...Go for a drive out by the lake...Got a nice spot picked out where I’ll do it...Have my gun behind my seat...Ask her to look at something out on the lake...And when she turns her head, I’ll reach for the gun...When she turns her head back, she’ll be looking down that muthafuckin barrel...I’ll say...“You fuckin bitch, look what you done, look what your making me do”...I’ll pull that fuckin trigger and blow her brains out...Then I’ll put the gun against my head and do myself.
“What you think of that crazy shit, bro?” he says.
I look up and over at him. A shadow in the gloom. The cold of the room turns my breath into white vapors. My voice quivers from the fear that squeezes my heart: “But why? Why this? Why does it have to come to this? And your children...what will your children do?”
“Can’t you see why?” he replies. “I can’t live without her. And if I can’t live with her, then there is no sense livin. But I don’t wanna be alone dead. I can bring her with me. And the kids...they’ll be ok. They got their uncles and aunties to take care of them.”
Remember and you shall know the secret of the darkness beneath the jaded heart.
“Dammit, Clayton,” I say. “There’s more to this. I know you, man. You’ve been through broken relationships before and moved on. You’ve loved women before and moved on. But you’re not moving on now. Why?”
“Aw shit. Aw fuck, man. I messed up. I messed up big time. I lost it on her one night. Some people come by for some smoke. We were outside, havin a few beers, smokin some doobies. It started rainin. I come in...told her I wanted to bring my friends in. But she said no...kids were in bed and had school the next day. And I dont know what happened. It was like I blacked out. I hit her...beat her. I couldnt stop. Mark got up and tried to protect his ma. I hit him. I didnt know anything till the next day.”
We sit in deadened silence. I hear the clock ticking and glance at the time. Five fifteen. Dawn is close. Gloom darkens. It is near the time of when night meets day. The time when night gathers its strength to hold back the light. The time when soul-spirits return from their night journeys. There is danger here. I feel a presence growing on the edge of my vision. I look at a corner in the living room. And I see it. A blackness in the shadows where the walls meet. And I know there are yet more words to be heard.
Remember and you shall know the secret of the darkness beneath the jaded heart.
“A few nights later, I got drunk again. I passed out on the couch. I woke up in the middle of the night. Kinda half-awake. It was dark. I saw my wife sleepin on the other couch. I thought that if I was good to her...made love to her...things would be ok. I sat up, pulled my boots off, took off my jeans and shorts. I went over and lay down with her. She had her back turned. I pulled her panties down, reached around, and started rubbing her with my finger. Man, I was still half-drunk but I just know I wanted to fuck her. I could feel myself getting hard. Could feel it getting hard between her legs, from behind. So I started movin. I was slidin myself between her legs and rubbin her with my finger. She woke up and started strugglin. But I moved faster. I started to cum. Suddenly the lights went on and my wife was standing over me. I looked down to see who I was with. It was my daughter.”
He leans over the table, head between his arms, words choked off by an anguished cry, his forehead touching the black shape of the gun, his right hand grasping the handle. Night specters steal through the room. In the light of the false dawn, the shadow in the dark corner begins to move, and slides over the couch and across the floor.
I hear moaning. It is a woman moaning. A forlorn moaning that turns into a crying lament. I stand up and look around the room. Who is here? Somewhere a woman weeps and cries. I clearly hear her sobbing. She is behind something. A door. A closet.
I begin to move. Sweat stings my eyes. I stagger across the room. Her sobs grow stronger. She is here. Not behind a door or in a closet. But inside my head. Her weeping begins to turn into a scream. The floors and walls tilt and turn. I reach the hallway. Her scream turns into a screech. There is a flash and I feel the warmth of a sunbeam strike my cheek before darkness overcomes me.
I open my eyes and see my brother bending over me. He helps me up and leads me to the couch. I lay down, think, and can’t remember anything. Just a gray fog clouding my vision and a maddening moaning rising to a screech. I look at my brother and see his look of concern. I tell him I’m okay.
“Jesus. I didn’t know what the fuck to think,” he says. “You got up and just started staggerin across the room and fell down. I jumped up and ran over to you. You were just layin there, your eyes rolled back into your head. Scared the shit outta me, man.”
“You didn’t hear anything?” I ask.
“Nothing, ” I say, sitting up slowly. “Look. Let’s go for a ride. I want to go to the lake. There’s something I need to do.”
The morning is fresh with the scent of pine. Green boughs glow yellow in the light of the morning sun. We get into my car and I place my pipe bag between us on the front seat. We head out and follow the road the along the western shore of Lake Sis-kay-way. Between the trees, I see the lake glittering in the sunlight.
I turn off onto an old fishing camp road. The old road follows close to the shoreline. I find a open spot and drive right up to the shore. Looking through the windshield, the vastness of the lake opens up and, looking east, I see nearly fifty miles of water. Pine and birch circle the lake with a solid wall of green.
I open my car door, grab my pipe bag, and begin to get out. “C’mon, Clayton. Come sit with me,” I say to my brother.
“I don’t know, Endaso,” he says. “I know I said some crazy shit last night. And you just being there, listenin to me, helped me cause I was ready to do some crazy things. But I don’t know about that pipe. You don’t know how much I prayed. How much I asked for my life to be better. Prayin for my wife to understand things and let things be. I asked for a sign. Anything so I would know things would be ok. But I never saw anything. Sorry, Endaso, but I just don’t believe in that anymore. If there was anything to it, why did I have to go through what I did last night?”
“Maybe you were praying for the wrong things, Clayton,” I answer. “Come sit with me and let’s talk. You don’t want to smoke my pipe, no problem. But come sit with me.”
I close my car door and walk to the shore. I close my eyes, feeling the fresh breeze in my hair and on my face. I listen to the waves lapping on the white sandy shores, the waves speaking to me, singing to me, welcoming me home. I open my eyes and far off I see four birds circling high over the lake.
I sit down, reach into my pipe bag and take out my red and black blanket. I spread it before me. I remove the contents of my bag and place them on the blanket. Niin Opwaagan. A pipe bowl hewn from red pipestone, a pipestem carved from sumac, a turtle shell, and a long, thin eagle bone used to clean the pipe. I light the few remaining sage leaves and stems and smoke down the bowl, stem, eagle bone, and tobacco pouch. I hear the car door open and close and my brother comes over and sits in front of me. Over his shoulder, I watch the four birds approach.
I take the pipe bowl and stem and put them together. Taking pinches of tobacco, I offer a greeting and prayer to each of the Directions, Grandfather Sun, and Mother Earth, and load the pipe bowl. I set the loaded pipe before me. I watch the four bald eagles circle low and land near us. And the spirits will be there to help you. I notice my brother looking at the eagles.
“My helpers,” I say. “You said you don’t believe in anything, Clayton. But look around you. Eagles just don’t land and walk close to people like this. They came here for a reason. They know I’m here with this pipe.”
“Think about what you prayed for, my brother,” I continue. “Everything you prayed for was for you. You said you asked for a sign. Maybe you were looking too hard. Because it’s when you’re not looking when signs come to you. Like these four eagles. I didn’t ask that they come here. I wasn’t expecting them to be here. Yet, here they are.”
We sit quietly and observe the eagles as they walk around, talking to each other and looking at us. “What happened back there at the house?” he asks.
“I don’t really know, ” I answer. “There was...something there. Something that passed through me. And, I heard this woman moaning. It kept getting louder and louder and turned into a scream. That’s when I passed out.”
My brother looks at me, a frown on his worn face. “What?” I ask.
“A long time ago, there used to be a house where the trailer is now,” he begins. “Back in the 70s, I think. There was a couple livin in it. They had a kid. Don’t remember everything about it, but things weren’t good. Always fightin. She was a bad one...always bringin guys over and fuckin’em when her old man was out. One night, she killed him. Happened outside a bar. Stabbed him in the chest. She went back home. Cops showed up and surrounded the place. They were gonna break in but she was threatenin the kid, so they backed off. Later, she let the kid out and then set the house on fire. She burnt up with the house. They thought maybe she set the house on fire then killed herself since most people would run away from flames.”
The Circle. The past becomes present and the present becomes the past. What goes around comes around.
“I don’t know what to say about the things that happened...with your wife and daughter,” I say to my brother. “You can’t really undo what’s been done. What’s happened has happened. There are reasons why things happen. But we may not always understand why. What happened to me...I may never know. Same thing with you. The best thing for you to do is move on. Maybe go live in the city. Your family needs time to heal and you too need to heal. But it won’t happen while you are drinking and using. I think you want your family back. And I really think you want things to be like they were before all this craziness started.”
“But I’m afraid if I leave...then we’ll never get back together,” he says. “And, if I leave, I’ll grow away from my kids. I mean. I see that happen to a lot of guys. They cut themselves off and end up not having anything to do with their kids.”
“That happens because they want it to happen,” I tell him. “Clayton, you want things to be the way you want them to. You’re still looking for excuses and justifications. Only way you’ll grow away from your kids is if you want that to happen. And, I’m not saying that at some point your wife will forgive you and give you another chance. Because it may never happen. You’re dealing with another person who has feelings of their own. The thing to do is take care of yourself.”
I reach down and pick up my pipe. “I want you to share this pipe with me. I want you to pray...but not with what is in your head but what is in your heart.”
I light the pipe, draw deeply on the stem, and bring the smoke within me. I thank the Creator for the day and for the strength given to me in my moment of need. I give thanks for the helpers who have been sent to me. I ask blessings for the elders, our women, our children, for the Earth. I ask blessings for my sister-in-law, for my nieces and nephew, for my brother...that he may find his way and live in a good way.
I silently say my prayers with four draws of the pipe and then pass it to my brother. He takes the pipe, closes his eyes, and begins his silent prayer. Tears begin to flow down his cheeks and I know he is speaking with his heart. I watch one of the eagles rise up, circling above us. I watch as it rises higher and higher, becoming a mere speck in the blue sky. Far into the Four Skies it soars, carrying our message home to Grandfather Above.
© All Rights Reserved, Robert DesJarlait, 2017
It would be simple to say that the Anishinaabe place in contemporary visual art began with Patrick DesJarlait and George Morrison and everything fell into place after that. But the history of Anishinaabe art is much more complex than a simplification. Placing Anishinaabe art within a specific period, e.g., contemporary, overlooks the evolution and history of Anishinaabe art. The ethnocentric perspective of Native America art history establishes labels and categories – applied art, handicrafts, decorative arts, fine art, and visual art. But from a Native American worldview, there are no borders or boundaries.
Melville Herskovits writes: “Our [Western] fixation on pseudo-realism contained a hidden, culture-bound judgment wherein the values of our own society, based on our particular perceptual modes, were extended into universals and applied to art in general…The ‘natural’ world is natural because we define it as such because most of us, immersed in our own culture, have never experienced any other definition of reality.”
Herskovits was writing about the Euro-American perspective regarding “primitive art.” The notion of early Native art as being primitive, at least according to European standards, was established by anthropologists. Native art was considered crude and childlike. As such, it lacked aesthetic value and was purely a functional and utilitarian art. Hence, the boundary was set between Native American, African, and Oceanic indigenous art and the aesthetics of European art.
Wolfgang Haberland further defines the differentiation of aesthetics: “There are several kinds of aesthetics…‘Universal aesthetics’ embraces the general human ability to create and appreciate objects of beauty. ‘Group aesthetics’ embodies a given culture’s ideas about beauty. It is shared by all or most members of the group…‘Individual’ aesthetics refers to the individual ability to appreciate, or, in the case of an artist, to create beauty.”
Haberland adds: “Anthropologists, art historians, and art critics interested in non-Western art are always trying to explain foreign group aesthetics through European-formed views of individual aesthetics.”
And therein lays the crux of the problem of defining Native art. Compartmentalized, categorized, and labeled, the interconnectedness of Native art and its inherent aesthetics are disconnected. In the ethnocentric perspective, artist and art become maker and object. The finger strokes on a rock are not connected to a paint brush on canvas.
To understand Anishinaabe art, one needs to set aside labels, such as “contemporary,” and view Anishinaabe aesthetics from an Anishinaabe worldview. In this worldview, there is no separation between art forms; rather there is a continuity of aesthetics, although the medium differentiates the application and expression of those aesthetics.
It should be noted that Anishinaabe art is representative of the art forms and aesthetics that evolved among indigenous peoples in North America. In this regard, Anishinaabe art is a microcosm of the macrocosm of Native American art.
In Minnesota, the oldest forms of the Anishinaabeg art are found on rock faces in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Lake Superior National Forest and extend into Quetico Provincial Park in Canada. Dating ranges from 1000-1500 AD. Pictographs are defined as images painted or etched on rock.
However, Anishinaabe writer Gerald Vizenor provides a more expressive, worldview definition – pictomyth: the believable Anishinaabe pictures of myths or believable Anishinaabe myths of pictures. Vizenor’s definition correlates to A. Irving Hallowell’s study of Anishinaabe people and “other than human persons” and the relationship to stories: “Ojibwa myths are considered to be true stories, not fiction.”
In this view, pictomyths are the representation of the imagery of dreams and visions that formed the basis of origin stories. Pictomyths are true in the sense they are not fanciful representations of tribal myths; rather, they represent the reality and experiences of the artist in the real world.
The individual aesthetics of painted rock imagery was more focused on content than form. But the forms were interrelated to a group aesthetics as evidenced by the pictomyths etched on birch bark scrolls. The differentiation between the two was media, medium, and technique.
The rock pictomyths were painted with red ochres composed of iron-stained earths. According to Northern Anishinaabe artist Norval Morrisseau, the red earths used for paint resulted from a battle between two thunderbirds. The blood from the battle rained upon the earth turning the sands red. This particular sand was, in the Anishinabe language, called onaman. The binding agent for onaman was fish glues or egg fluid, or bear grease. Although brushes with moose hair bristles were employed, many pictomyths were painted by finger.
Selwyn Dewdney writes: “[T]he artist’s preference [was] for a vertical rock face close to the water. The sites themselves show a bewildering variety of locations…there are groups of obviously related material that form compact, well-designed compositions…[and] instances where the natural flaws of the surface are incorporated into the whole concept.”
Dewdney categorized pictomyths into several groups: animal, birds, mythological creatures, hands, other human subject matter, man-made objects, and, the largest group, unidentified abstract symbols.
Overall, the rock pictomyths focused on the relationship between humans and the aadisookaanag, i.e., other than human persons: the Four Winds, Sun, Moon, Thunderbirds, “owners” or “masters” of species of plants and animals and the characters in myths – collectively spoken of as “our grandfathers” or ancestors.
Like the individual aesthetics with its focus on content rather than form on rock pictomyths, the development of birch bark pictomyths expressed a group aesthetics that was cultural in form yet emphasized content. Birch bark pictomyths were a cultural mode of communicating and recording history, migration, ceremonies, traditions, stories, and songs. Hence, Anishinaabe art, in its earliest forms, was a means of communication. The form itself conveyed the message. However, the imagery of the form expressed a group aesthetic. That is to say, the designs were specifically Anishinaabe and the use of these designs extended beyond birch bark pictomyths and were used by the tribal whole.
Wooden spoons, ladles, and bowls, birch bark containers, woven reed mats, yarn bags and sashes, moccasins and clothing were decorated with pictomyths. As such, Anishinaabe images had a decorative, i.e., aesthetic, intent and the creation of such imagery was largely the work of women.
The techniques varied greatly. Etchings on wood, plaiting on wicker baskets, drawing and cutouts on birch bark baskets. The imagery reflected the aesthetics of the rock paintings and birch bark scrolls.
Art by men was largely confined to carving and sculpturing. This included wooden spoons, ladles, bowls, cradleboards, war clubs and pipes. The sculpturing on pipes, war clubs, and figurines were three-dimensional human and animals figures based on pictomyth imagery.
The main form of expressive art was through quillwork and, to a lesser extent, animal hairs. Dyes were obtained from barks, roots, leaves, flowers, and berries and used to color quills and animal hairs, including various fibers. Geometric quilled images depicted the individual’s clan affiliation and dream symbols. Abstracted motifs of animals, flowers, insects, and leaves were common in quillwork. Quillwork tended toward abstraction because of the rigidly of the quills.
However, Carrie Lyford noted: “The Ojibwa introduced the curvilinear pattern into the western region adopting and embellishing it to their fancy.” From the curvilinear pattern, Anishinaabe artists developed a symmetrical double curve motif that curved out from a central point. The opposing curves were decorated with leaves, buds, and flowers that were also arranged symmetrically.
With the introduction of the fur trade, broadcloth, blankets, yarns, ribbon, and beads provided new media and mediums to express group and individual aesthetics.
Lois Jacka writes: “As skills were passed down through the ages, new materials became available, new techniques developed, and each succeeding generation contributed its own interpretations and innovations.”
Bands on woven bags featured diamonds, hour glasses, zigzags, and hexagons. Narrow bands included thunderbirds, underground panthers, deer, butterflies, dragonflies, and otter tracks. Lyford writes: “The Ojibwa laboriously frayed out woolen blankets…respun the wool, and redyed it…Native dyes were used to color the commercial yarns…later, colored commercial twine and yarns and commercial dyes were introduced.”
Ribbons in bright colors were used in appliqué border designs with various geometric motifs. Graceful curvilinear floral patterns were later developed and used as borders on robes, leggings, and breechcloths, on binding bands of cradle boards, and on the cuffs and front pieces of moccasins. Like the double curve of the pre-contact period, floral designs were arranged symmetrically in appliqué work.
The most significant media introduced to Anishinaabe artists in the contact era was trade beads. Whereas quillwork was the media for the depiction of group aesthetics in the pre-contact period, beads all but replaced quills as the new media. This new media provided for a fuller expression of individual aesthetics for Anishinaabe artists.
Two techniques were employed in the application of beadwork. Bead weaving was done on a loom and bead embroidery was applied directly on broadcloth or velvet. On breechcloths, the design was symmetrical. On leggings, the pattern was asymmetrical, although the design on the left leg matched the design on the right leg. On vests, the front panels followed the same pattern as leggings. The asymmetrical pattern on the left side matched the pattern on the right side. On the back of the vest, the pattern was symmetrical.
The most elaborate beadwork was the ceremonial (bandolier) bags worn by men. The large beadwork front piece panel and strap panels were woven on looms or embroidered on fabric. The patterns on the panels were usually asymmetrical and featured floral motifs or geometrical motifs. Making bandolier bags was the providence of Anishinaabe women.
In the post-contact era, the impact of reservations and boarding schools led to a diminishment of tribal art. Ethnocide, linguicide, historical trauma/intergenerational trauma, and the imposition of Christian values and incorporation of Euro-American political structures affected all levels of Anishinaabe life. In art, the vitality of group and individual aesthetics became limited to the Anishinaabewishimo, i.e., the powwow. Many of the Bwaanzhiiwi`onan (dance outfits) worn by dancers maintained floral patterns and designs passed down generationally to families. Additionally, beaded items were sold through the tourist market. Such items were bought by collectors and museums.
It was during this later period that “new materials became available [and] new techniques developed”  and opened a new area of expression in Anishinaabe art – the visual arts. The works of Patrick Robert DesJarlait (1921-1972) and George Morrison (1919-2000) created an alternative modernism and embodied deeply felt connections to the specific geography of northern Minnesota and to their identities as Anishinaabe artists.
Bill Anthes writes: “DesJarlait and Morrison maintained powerful connections to Red Lake and Grand Portage, where their people had lived for generations…their modern lives led DesJarlait and Morrison away from their reservations to discover their artistic vision in the larger world – their traditional homelands became in their art an essential resource for both artists.”
Visual arts itself is a misleading term since such art extends beyond the paintings of DesJarlait and Morrison, and the Woodland Art Movement established by Norval Morrisseau. Anishinaabe visual arts includes the contemporary work of artists whose media and aesthetics focuses on quillwork, beadwork, and appliqué work. These artists provide continuity to the aesthetics and motifs connected to the past, and have revitalized Woodland styles in clothing and accoutrements. In this regard, Anishinaabe art is worn and expresses the cultural identity of the wearer.
The main connection between contemporary Anishinaabe artists of today is, obviously, their Anishinaabe descendency. Their art expresses their heritage and history. As such, their art conveys an evolving individual aesthetic that is rooted in the art of the traditional past.
© All Rights Reserved, Robert DesJarlait, 2017