Carol A. Hand
“… disasters sometimes have the potential for destroying the sense of communality that holds people together, for killing the spirit of neighborliness and kinship that is so important a part of their world. One should speak of such things cautiously, but in a very reals sense the cultural bonds that connect people to one another and to the places in which they live are a kind of tissue that can be damaged and even destroyed by too sharp and too sustained an assault.” (Erikson, in Shkilnyk, 1985, p. xvi)
Photo: Ontario-Sanctioned Clear Cutting of Grassy Narrows’ Forest
In 2001, I set out to conduct a research study of Indian child welfare in an Ojibwe community. There were two particular books that had a profound influence on framing the complexity of colonialism and its consequences. As was the case in the literature I read before and after my study, I drew from differing historical times and many different genres to help me think critically about what I heard, observed, and experienced.
The first book, Night Flying Woman: An Ojibway Narrative, is a hopeful story of adversity and resilience (Broker, 1983). The account begins on a spring day as a mother begins to remember the past. Her children, now adults, had grown up in the city neighborhood where she had lived for several decades. They asked her to share all of the stories she had heard from Ojibwe elders. They were eager to learn about their history and culture so they could answer the questions their own children were asking.
“I reached my doorstep and sat enjoying the good day and remembering the past. It was funny, really, when I think about it. That day thirty years ago when we moved here, me and my children, we were the aliens looking for a place to fit in, looking for a chance of a new life, moving in among these people, some of whose ‘forefathers’ had displaced my ancestors for the same reason: looking for a new life. Their fathers were the aliens then, and now they, the children, are in possession of this land.” (Broker, p. 2)
Broker shared the stories of her great-great-grandmother, Ni-bo-wi-se-gwe (Night Flying Woman), known as Oona. Oona’s first five years were spent with her family, following their traditions as they made the seasonal rounds to hunt, gather, preserve food, and survive the long northern winters. She was five when news of dangerous strangers who were approaching their community reached their village. Her family was among the small group of families that decided to explore more remote parts of the northern forests to escape the arrival of the strangers. They sought a place where they could live in peace. It was on this journey that she first understood to listen to the si-si-gwa-d and understand its importance to Ojibwe people. Si-si-gwa-d, the sound the wind makes as it flows through the trees, speaks to those who listen carefully, foretelling safe or troubling times ahead.
Photo: Pose Lake, Minnesota Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area
Oona was still a child when the families were moved and finally confined on a reservation, that is, lands that were viewed as undesirable at the time by whites and hence “reserved” from a continent that was once under the sole stewardship of Indigenous Peoples. (The land wasn’t “owned” by Indigenous People, because the concept of private ownership was not part of how they viewed their relationship with the earth and their animal relatives. It was their responsibility to live in balance with their surroundings and take care of the earth for future generations.) Generations before Broker was born, her family arrived at their new permanent home on a reservation in northwestern Minnesota, White Earth Nation. It was also the birthplace of Vincent LaDuke generations later. His daughter, Winona LaDuke, has played a pivotal leadership role in efforts to reclaim land and rebuild community.
The second book, A Poison Stronger that Love: The Destruction of an Ojibwa Community, tells a more sobering story (Shkilnyk, 1985). Although the people of White Earth suffered greatly as a result of their move, the work of so many people, like Broker and LaDuke, demonstrates hope. The magnitude of harm done to the Ojibwa people of Grassy Narrows in the name of “progress” is a warning for all.
The Ojibwe people of the Asubpeeschoseewagong, or Grassy Narrows First Nation, were still living on their old reserve, allocated to them in a treaty in 1873, when the federal government of Canada exercised their colonial power. Their old community consisted of log cabins that were scattered in clearings and organized by clan membership on the islands and peninsulas on the English-Wabigoon River in the Canadian Province of Ontario. They followed the seasonal round, gardening, gathering, and hunting and supplemented their incomes by seasonal wage labor or by selling the fur and pelts they gathered. In 1963, the people of Grassy Narrows were forced to move to a new reserve that was more accessible by road. Although the new community had a school and electricity, a “little collection of frame houses in the middle of nowhere, all uniform in design, crowded together, and regimented into tight linear formations” (Shkilnyk, p. 1), it was disturbingly at odds with their past settlement – one that had been harmonious with their environment and culture. One that had honored family traditions and supported their connections to each other and their environment. The move disrupted their sense of community with troubling consequences.
“When survivors suffer from loss of community as well as from individual shock, it is not just a question of getting them back on their feet but of seeing to it that there is some kind of communal ground, as it were, for them to stand on once they are upright. We can dress their physical wounds, provide food and shelter and clothing, console them for their losses, ease their grief, find ways to calm their anxieties. But until we restore the communal surround that was so vital to their sense of health and security, they will remain like refugees in their own land, damaged in spirit long after they have been put together again in body, and feeling a long way from home.” (Erikson, in Shkilnyk, 1985, p. xvii)
Yet the disaster that struck had nothing to do with their move. The forced relocation simply eroded the community bonds that may have made new threats a little less destructive.
“The First Nation experienced mercury poisoning from Dryden Chemical Company, a chloralkali process plant, located in Dryden, Ontario that supplied both sodium hydroxide and chlorine used in large amounts for bleaching paper during production for the Dryden Pulp and Paper Company. Dryden Chemical company discharged their effluent into the Wabigoon-English River system.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asubpeeschoseewagong_First_Nation)
By the time Shkilnyk conducted her ethnographic study in 1976, the community was struggling with mercury poisoning and alarming rates of youth suicides, community violence, and alcohol addiction. She felt a sense of hopelessness given the multidimensional assaults and challenges the community was facing and the ineptitude of the federal government to address mercury poisoning and community disarray. Although the Province outlawed fishing in the river system, the effects of mercury poisoning were still a serious issue for Grassy Narrows residents in 2010.
The importance of place and community, and the unpredictability of the disasters that have befallen Ojibwe communities, should make us think about past and present day corporate environmental destruction and global climate change. We have witnessed the recovery efforts of the US government after Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy. Poor neighborhoods that provided the same sense of belonging for residents that the forests and waterways once did for the Ojibwe were seldom rebuilt with government funds, but instead were initiated by concerned citizens and volunteers. Many residents were left to fend for themselves without even the pittance offered to the people of White Earth and Grassy Narrows.
Photo: White Earth Nation
Is it realistic to wait for governments to fix the problems they created or for corporations to repair the damage done (even if it were possible)? Are micro loans from the World Bank the answer for helping struggling communities by focusing on spreading an individualistic, competitive entrepreneurial system instead of rebuilding a sense of connection to each other and to our “place?” It’s not an easy road for each of us to do what we can to reweave community with people whose perspectives and values may differ from our own. Yet Shkilnyk’s study underscores the magnitude of challenges we continue to face, while Broker’s powerful story suggests a path, as does the work of the White Earth Land (and Language/Culture) Recovery Project. The future rests with each one of us doing what we can to reweave community where we are.
Chi miigwetch (Ojibwe “thank you very much”) to all of you for doing what you do every day to build the best communities and world you can imagine for the future.
Ignatia Broker (1983). Night Flying Woman: An Ojibway narrative. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press.
Anastasia M. Shkilnyk (1985). A poison stronger than love: The destruction of an Ojibwa community. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
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