Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Book Review--My Grandmother's Knocking Sticks


Those who pull walleyes from Minnesota's 10,000 lakes are all fishermen, says Brenda J. Child, in her fascinating new study of Ojibwe* life, and there's the rub. That the dominant Anglo culture didn't even have a word for her Ojibwe ancestral fisherwomen is itself an indication of the inability of white people to understand her people and heritage, the very character of Ojibwe culture. They simply didn't get it, Ms. Child might have said.

In My Grandfather's Knocking Sticks: Ojibwe Family Life and Labor on the Reservation, Prof. Child uses a variety of sources to assert that Ojibwe women did yeoman's work when it came to tribal fishing, a mainstay of tribal life both before the white man came to the northwoods country and still today. We're not talking about angling here, sport fishing; we're talking about fishing as an industry with employees and credit and debit sheets. We're talking about workers taking thousands of pounds of fish from lakes all through Ojibwe land, which was, once upon a time, an immense chunk of the Great Lakes Region of North America.

If the only portraits of Native people in your perceptions are Great Plains Lakota, you might have some trouble imagining the Ojibwes, who actually drove the Sioux (Lakota, Dakota, Nakota) people out of the lakes country in the 17th century, banishing them to the naked plains. To here, in fact, where Vanden Bos, Muilenburg, Vander Waa, et all, probably encountered Yanktons.

The Ojibwe may have hunted the occasional buffalo, but they're weren't nomadic, which means they didn't live in teepees (thank goodness in northern Minnesota!), and generally maintained an 18th century address, which should have made them easier to, well, "tame" than the nomadic Lakota or the semi-nomadic Navajo. 

Not so, Prof. Child would argue.

Knocking Sticks tells the story of Child's own parents, Fred and Jeanette Auginash, both Ojibwe, who were nonetheless day-and-night different in almost every way, including age (whey they married, he was 40 and she was 23) and education (she went to boarding school, he had little education at all). But what Ms. Child makes clear is that despite what you and I might think, the two of them were somehow able to create a loving family circle, a nurturing home.

And that's the general mission of the book--to show beyond reasonable doubt that Ojibwe life is its own, that it hasn't been and that it won't be the step-child of the majority culture.

It's more history than memoir, more thesis-driven than a portrait of her own family circle. Prof. Brenda J. Child is an academic historian who knows how to create an argument out of materials not commonly accessible or else traditionally neglected. What she is interested in doing is making an argument that may not be new, but is certainly not widely known among American's dominant culture--that life went on quite well, thank you, among Native people before swarms of European immigrants (some Native people say, "illegal" immigrants) determined that land once happily inhabited by an indigenous culture really had no inhabitants and was mostly free for the taking.

What Child quite uncomfortably shows (uncomfortable for a white man like me) is that Ojibwe culture adapted to modernity on its own and had, therefore, a life of its own. What she despises is the species of white paternalism that presumes--and argues--that once white people came to the wilderness the lot of Native people was blessedly improved, once white cultural ways were adopted.

Case in point--the jingle dress, a piece of traditional clothing wore for special occasions and powwows. Child argues that its origins are go back only to the early years of the 20th century, when Ojibwe women traditionally believed music to be an integral part of the therapy required to cure the wave of influenza that killed many thousands of European-Americans and thousands of indigenous people. Today, on the powwow circuit, jingle dresses are ubiquitous. But, Child says
If we imagine a jingle dress dancer in 1918, living on a reservation in rural Minnesota or Ontario, as only following an older tradition and not part of making the modern world, we would have to ignore how creatively Ojibwe women responded to the global epidemic.
She's arguing here--as she does throughout the book--for the legitimacy, the very life of Ojibwe culture, for its relevancy and currency in the face of the overpowering, unjust force of the white, dominant culture.

That's what My Grandfather's Knocking Sticks is really all about. It's an argument for life.

Just recently, Prof. Child and My Grandfather's Knocking Sticks won the first Jon Gjerde Prize granted by the Midwestern History Association, a brand new academic association dedicated to the study of Midwestern culture and history.
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*Just thought I'd mention that my spellcheck program didn't recognize the word Ojibwe. 

My Grandfather's Knocking Sticks was published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press in 2014.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My only one thing to do is to be a witness, participant, in the Anishinabee ricing season at the home of Jim Northrup on the Fond du Lac Rez. near Duluth, MN. I was fortunate to take their "sugar-bush" season a few years back. Ricing is done in late Aug. and into Sept. I even have my own winnowing basket, made by a Navajo to use after the parching.