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