Tag Archives: Ojibwe

turtle crossing


Wabasha just gets better and better! I walked into the bookstore around noon and met Nancy, the proprietor, who greeted me like a friend and told me she had noticed me at the riverfront park yesterday afternoon and thought I had been dancing. (I was just talking on the phone with my friend Cori, but that’s a fine reason to dance, why not!) Nancy grew up in Cass Lake, and like Guy, the excellent man who sold me the now-slightly-famous 17 foot kayak, has a degree in anthropology. Guy, too, spent some time in Cass Lake, so I’m beginning to feel that Cass Lake anthropologists are one of the ongoing threads of this trip. Nancy’s father was an Episcopal priest, and her mother still lives there, and Nancy has paddled many segments of the river, and went to summer camp on that stretch of land between Lake Andrusia and Cass Lake, and we agreed that there are definitely ghosts there, both good and bad.

Nancy told me her father spoke Ojibwe but he didn’t teach her the language; and of course, I have the same relation to the Armenian language, I don’t even know 300 words and the present tense in Armenian despite the fact that it was my father’s native tongue. And I am thinking that the scars of exile can be subtle as well as obvious, and perhaps the former is more dangerously destructive: something you know you’ve lost can be mourned, memorialized, and perhaps even constructed anew, but something you don’t even know you’ve lost is obliterated forever.

Anyway. I asked Nancy where we should go to church Sunday, and she recommended the Episcopal Church because it has an especially excellent Tiffany window. And she invited us to come to rehearsal of the gospel choir she sings in on Sunday evenings. And then she told us that the turtles were being born and gave me very precise instructions about where to find them crossing the road. And by this time it was clear I was not going to paddle on Sunday, that we would take the day off to follow up on all these treasures.

(And check it out fellow Interlochen campers: the music that accompanied this whole conversation was Howard Hanson’s Second Symphony “the Romantic.” OMG! I don’t think I’ve heard that piece in twenty-five years, thirty-five even? but I bet anyone who went to that camp, no matter how many years ago, can sing every note of every voice of that theme. okay, laugh, if you like, corny, yes, but it really is pretty fabulous.)

So after I picked up Mac from his kayaking day, we all headed out to the turtle road. Nancy had said they are really small at this phase, no bigger than a 50 cent piece, so we walked down the road a while, and I actually found one! And then Mac found a bigger one, a Painted Turtle maybe?, and the walk itself, on this back road in the late afternoon light that is really special and gorgeous in Minnesota, was a really excellent end to an altogether wonderful day.


We Expect Visitors


Last night Mac and I decided to take today off from paddling for the first time since our daytrip to Hibbing on 9 August, which Mac wrote about here. We’ve been alternating paddling ever since Richard left for the Twin Cities, and we’re getting too fast for our own good! Not really, but since we’ve kind of fallen in love with Little Falls, despite the gaping lack of a proper internet cafe, it seemed like a cool thing to spend the day here, an actual day off.

Since it’s Sunday, I wanted to find a church for my weekly immersion in community life. After the not-really-Lutheran church the first week, I’ve been to a very friendly Methodist church in Deer River, and a (real) Lutheran church in Palisade, where they had a really touching baptism the Sunday I was there. I considered going for a Catholic mass this week, but the church had giant pro-life billboards out front, which seemed a bit much, and I do feel uncomfortable about the whole communion question in a Catholic church. I thought Lutheran might be interesting given this week’s decision about gay and lesbian clergy. But then we passed an Episcopal church that had a sign saying ”We Expect Visitors,” so we had to go there. I’m really glad for that: the parishioners take rightful pride in their beautiful windows and sanctuary, they had a real pipe organ and good music, and the priest and all the parishioners were very warm and down to earth. The gospel reading had that excellent moment where Jesus tells the apostles they can leave if they want, and Peter says, sort of plaintively to my ear, “Where would we go?” Like if he could think of something better than following this crazy guy around, he would do it in a heartbeat.

One stained-glass window depicted Bishop Whipple, who famously went to Washington to talk Lincoln out of killing 264 of the 303 Native people who were convicted of murder in the 1862 uprising. The window had a crest at the top that had a tomahawk and a peace pipe crossed underneath the Christian cross; our host thought that maybe that’s the crest for the Episcopal mission to the Native peoples.

Afterwards we headed to the grocery store where we found real Greek yogurt, yay! So we bought a bunch of berries to go with the yogurt and ran square into Tony, who had stopped us the first time on the steps of the library Friday afternoon to expostulate about how cool our kayak was and ask about our journey. (Tony is the third schoolteacher I’ve met so far on these travels, and I’ve decided schoolteachers are just the best ever. Perhaps it’s because they have to deal with meeting and engaging with a whole bunch of really idiosyncratic new people every year (I think kids are just more individual than grownups most of the time: they haven’t yet had their edges trimmed to fit…) Anyway, it was excellent to meet up with Tony again in the grocery store, shopping with his wife on a Sunday afternoon. (Can I admit I also like that? just the idea of having the sort of calm and orderly life where the husband and wife go to the grocery store together once a week to stock up. Imagine!)

Anyway, so we headed off to the park with the nun-tended virgin pines that I so enjoyed yesterday, and we arrive and the Baptists are having their annual picnic, but that’s cool, we can share, so we’ve been spending the afternoon hanging out reading and listening to music, and suddenly there’s Karen! This is the woman Mac met Friday morning on the steps of the library, and we met her again yesterday and she told us about these cross rocks at Blanchard Dam, and then here she is at the park! Okay, this is really small-town life, no?! Three times in three days!

Another nice thing about Little Falls is that people really work on their houses: there’s a True Value in basically every mall in town, and I can see how they all stay in business! The picture above is just an example, a house right across the street from the library.

Anyway, in the park I read some more Schoolcraft and here are a couple of favorite additional facts he relates about the Ojibwe language:

Verbs, in the Chippewa, must agree in number and tense with the noun. They must also agree in gender, that is, verbs animate must have nouns animate. They must also have animate pronouns and animate adjectives. Vitality, or the want of vitality, seems to be the distinction which the inventors of the language seized upon to set up the great rules of its syntax. [Ch XVII]

Doesn’t that make WAY more sense as the core category? Life/non-life is kind of a more important distinction than male/female, after all! Similarly, the third person singular, ween, is used for both he and she: maybe we should take it up in English to solve that dumb problem in our language once and for all!


Okay, can I just say I am particularly loving Minnesota today?! Mac and I headed out this morning to Fletcher Creek landing and stopped on the way at Little Elk River, which the sign says had been inhabited by native people since at least 400 BC. The westernmost outpost of the French fur trade was located there in the 1750’s, and more recently, Chief Hole-in-the-Day (Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig) lived there, and a mission and townsite were there as well. It’s prairie now, and Mac and I had a bit of a walk as the fog dissipated. A beautiful spot, full of ghosts.

After Mac headed off in the kayak, I drove over to Belle Prairie County Park, where I am sitting completely alone in a pine grove that the DNR map tells me is tended by the Franciscan sisters who have a convent nearby. I waved at Mac as he passed in the kayak — the pine grove overlooks the river. And if all this weren’t enough, there is a power outlet in the shelter, so I am charging up my computer as I write. Gotta love it!

I think I’m going to have to learn some Ojibwe. I finished reading Michael McNally’s book last night, and the few little threads of Ojibwe language that he explains in the book make me understand that there is huge richness in this language I would like to know more about.

For example, the verb nagamo means both to sing and to pray; ”song and prayer being linguistically inseparable.“ [p. 119] The word gashkendam ”combines in one semantic field associations with lonesomeness, grief, affliction, dejection, homesickness, and melancholy.“ [p. 119] And ”Larry Cloud Morgan closely associated the drum (dewe-igan) with the heart (de-) and with truth (debwe-) and with sound (wewe-), a morpheme that itself connotes particular kinds of wavelike or circular, returning motion.“ [p. 187]

Mac and I have also been dipping into Henry Schoolcraft’s journal most evenings: he’s this totally entertaining combination of adventurer and nerd, and you can’t help but be tickled by him. Here are a few excerpts relating to language specifically:

from late 1822:

In going out to dinner at 3 o’clock, a sheet of paper containing conjugations of verbs, which had cost me much time and questioning, had fallen from my table. On returning in the evening, I found my dog, Ponty, a young pet, had torn my care-bought conjugations into small pieces. What was to be done? It was useless to whip the dog, and I scarcely had the courage to commence the labor anew. I consequently did neither; but gathering up the fragments, carefully soaked the gnawed and mutilated parts in warm water, and re-arranged and sealed them together. And before bedtime I had restored the manuscript so as to be intelligibly read. I imposed this task upon myself, but, had it been imposed by another, I would have been ready to pronounce him a madman.


Devoted the day to the Indian language. It scarcely seems possible that any two languages should be more unlike, or have fewer points of resemblance, than the English and Ojibwa. If an individual from one of the nomadic tribes of farther Asia were suddenly set down in London, he could hardly be more struck with the difference in buildings, dress, manners, and customs, than with the utter discrepance in the sounds of words, and the grammatical structure of sentences. The Ojibwa has this advantage, considered as the material of future improvement; it is entirely homogeneous, and admits of philosophical principles being carried out, with very few, if any, of those exceptions which so disfigure English grammar, and present such appalling obstacles to foreigners in learning the language.


5th [Jan] Gitche ie nay gow ge ait che gah, “they have put the sand over him” is a common expression among the Indians to indicate that a man is dead and buried. Another mode, delicate and refined in its character, is to suffix the inflection for perfect past tense, bun, to a man’s name. Thus Washington e bun would indicate that Washington is no more.


The Chippewas are apt to connect all their ghost stories with fire. A lighted fire on the grave has a strong connection with this idea, as if they deemed some mysterious analogy to exist between spirituality and fire. Their name for ghost is Jeebi, a word rendered plural in ug.

I am hereby proposing that the early 20th century expression ”heebie-jeebies” is a rhyming expansion of the Ojibwe word for ghost. Richard, you’re the linguist, what do you say?!?!

cows and corn


Today I paddled to the Aitkin Campground from about 18 river miles north of town. Aitkin County is mostly farmland, and it was interesting, to say the least, to hear cattle lowing for a good 45 minutes before I rounded a bend and saw a good-sized herd hanging out by the river. At another point, I saw corn growing right up to the edge of the river, replacing the cattails and reeds that have lined the banks up to now. The huge distance between agriculture and nature has never been clearer to me, and I understand in a new way how strange it must have been for the Ojibwe to have had their lands divided up into 160 acre parcels, which were then bestowed on them with the idea that each nuclear family group would become farmers.

I managed to take a photograph of the cows, but I didn’t get out my camera for the corn, and I’m sorry for that. It raises a funny issue that Richard and Mac and I have been talking about since almost the beginning of our travels. It’s very difficult to overcome the urge to take pictures only of picturesque or iconic sights: the growing corn doesn’t make a particularly compelling photograph, so I’m too lazy to take my iPhone out of its waterproof container. But since I am interested in trying to communicate the river as it is, not as I would like it to be, I feel like I am failing in an important way if I neglect to photograph the corn.

I keep thinking about Mary Ellen Carroll‘s artwork where she strapped a camera to her back and walked down Broadway from the top to the bottom of Manhattan, snapping a photograph at each intersection. Because she didn’t frame the photographs, choose any particular feature, but just clicked a remote, the photographs are a random sample of Broadway as it radically changes character on its journey through Manhattan. It’s a fascinating trove of images of the city at a particular time (mid-90’s if I remember properly), and the ”bad“ photographs are precisely what makes it such a compelling piece of work.

I started out doing audio recordings inspired by this idea of random samples, but I found it less interesting than I had imagined. As I think about it, though, perhaps I should be patient and try doing at least one recording each day and see what unfolds over the whole journey. It isn’t about emulating the elegance and beauty of Annea Lockwood’s sound maps of the Hudson River and the Danube: it’s perhaps a more Cage-ian idea, one that requires me to embrace the process and let go of the results, as they say…

I did take some other photographs, and you can see what I mean about capturing the picturesque and the iconic: a nice farmhouse with trees, and one I really like of a living tree and a dead tree intertwined. I think very often these days about how the natural world is half-living and half-dead all the time. One set of stuff is fallen and decayed and another set of stuff is growing out of that decay, and the living is completely dependent on the dead. The muddy, organic river intensifies that sense of death-in-life, I think. I don’t really like the river water, it’s murky and scary even here at the early part of the river; and while it’s of course a river of life, the rich and varied wildlife are proof of that, it also seems to carry a daunting amount of death in it.

And of course, we are in late high summer, the trees are fully deep green, no new life is left in them, they are at the fullest flower of their maturity.

touch beautiful places


It rained pretty seriously last night, and I woke up before six and set up in the convenient shelter Palisade’s town park offers its users and read some more of this really curious and interesting book, Ojibwe Singers: Hymns, Grief, and a Native American Culture in Motion, by Michael D. McNally. I found it in the giftshop at Itasca State Park visitor center, next to all the tourist stuff – go figure! Anyway, the book is about what the Ojibwe people have made of the Protestant hymns taught them by Christian missionaries. The book’s claim is that a specifically Ojibwe method of singing these hymns — in unison, very slowly and solemnly, usually at wakes or funerals — came into being, and is quite separate from the ordinary hymn-singing that happened under the supervision of the missionaries on Sunday mornings in church.

Hymns were among the first texts that got translated from English into Ojibwe, starting sometime in the late 1820s, but because various concepts central to Christian theology (e.g. sin, salvation, grace) just simply aren’t directly translatable into Ojibwe, one can imagine that the Ojibwe texts are not terribly literal embodiments of Wesley and Watts.

Here, for example, is my favorite re-translation of the Ojibwe in the book. First, the original stanza, from Come, Holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove (Isaac Watts), #510 in the 1982 Episcopal Hymnal, for those of you following along at home:

And shall we, Lord, for ever be
In this poor dying state?
Our love so faint, so cold to thee,
And thine to us so great?

And here is Larry Cloud Morgan’s re-translation of the 1910 Ojibwe version of the hymn.

As we are thinking,
As we sing,
Our prayers
Touch beautiful places in us.

The Ojibwe version may not have a whole lot to do with Isaac Watts, but it’s definitely taking me someplace I want to go!

remembering Big Sandy Lake


Big Sandy Lake is the site of one of the unforgivable events in US-Native American relations. The DNR map chooses to ignore the event altogether, which really disturbs me. In 1850, the US government decided it wanted the Ojibwe bands that were spread over the upper Midwest east of the river all to move up here to Big Sandy Lake. So they told them all to gather there in order to receive money and food from the government. In good faith, about 4000 people gathered in late October, the government’s deadline, and waited. No money was forthcoming, and the food the US gave the Ojibwe was spoiled and killed about 150 people from dysentery. In early December, the Ojibwe finally decided to give up waiting, and on the trip home another 250 died from exposure and starvation.

Somehow this story embodies for me all the greed and bad faith and yes, pure evil, that our government has manifested in relation to the Native peoples. I mean, come on, you want to trick these people into relocating, fucked up in the first place. And then you give them spoiled food and renege on the promised funds? The people in charge cannot even pretend to justify themselves: it’s genocide, pure and simple.

And I was terrified that I would show up at Big Sandy Lake Recreation Area, which is run by the US Army Corps of Engineers, and be confronted with a nice campsite full of RVs and overweight vacationers, and this appalling history would be conveniently invisible. And in fact, the campsite is exactly as I’ve described it. As I sit here looking out at the Lake, a powerboat full of folks is going by blasting 80’s classic rock, but there is also a memorial set up by the Ojibwe right in the middle of the campground, and at the overlook up on the road, there is another marker placed by the Minnesota Historical Society. I burst into tears at the overlook: the marker starts with a quote from an Ojibwe leader, Flat Mouth, saying “I hold the US government responsible for the children we have lost.”

I don’t know why this particular atrocity gets to me so badly. (After all, there is no shortage of terrible stories about the US government’s dealings with the Native peoples, including the government of our very favorite president, Abraham Lincoln.) Perhaps it’s because there are echoes of the Turks’ forced displacement of the Armenians from their ancestral lands in what is now eastern Turkey, another mostly ignored genocide, which is excused in sort of similar ways. The Native peoples (and the Armenians) were simply in the way, they needed to be moved so the new state could take root, we didn’t really mean to kill them off, it’s just an unfortunate by-product of nation-building.

And I end up getting very very interested in people like Henry Schoolcraft, and Archdeacon Gilfillan, [8/22/09: or maybe not Gilfillan; as Richard is reading further, he’s not such a sympathetic character] the white men who repeatedly argued for the rights of Native Americans at a time when everyone else seemed just as happy to kill them off or push them far enough away that they couldn’t make trouble. The analogous people in the Armenian genocide are Ambassador Henry Morgenthau and the American doctor Clarence Douglas Ussher, who wrote impassioned letters and articles documenting the genocide as it was unfolding, but sadly not successfully enough either to prevent a million deaths or to force an acknowledgment of what happened.

So what is the point of all this, really? The point, I think, is that we should remember the dead of Big Sandy Lake and Lake Van the way we remember the dead of Dachau and Auschwitz. We should remember Schoolcraft and Morganthau the way we remember Schindler and Bonhöffer. Attention must be paid. It must.


Today was my first biking day; Richard took the kayak across Cass Lake and Mac scoped out an excellent new (free) campsite for us SE of Winniebegoshish that can be headquarters for a few days…

I decided to backtrack to the town of Cass Lake before heading on, and I am so very glad I went there.

It’s a very small town – the sign says pop. 170, so there are probably more people vacationing in the campsite a couple miles away than there are inhabiting the actual town. The main street has a municipal center with a cool mural, and a bunch of services: drop-in health center, senior center, daycare, library. at the end of the main street is a house with an array of handmade murals in front and the smell of sage wafting from the chimney. I stopped to read and take pictures of the signs, and a woman came from down the street to ask if I was a reporter, and she explained that a big oil company has paid the Ojibwe Nation $10 million to be allowed to run a pipeline through Ojibwe lands, and the signs are protesting this, asking for the deal not to happen.

The woman, Nancy, is a teacher in the public school at Cass Lake, where 85 percent of the students are Native, and they do teach Ojibwe in the school. There is also a BIA school, and a college as well. She told me something about the “boarding schools” where Native kids were sent well into the 50’s, which were more like re-education camps. You can learn more about this history here. With a history like this, it must be hard to regard education as the ticket to a better life, that’s for sure…

Nancy was really generous with her time and spirit, and I really enjoyed and learned from our time together. When I got back on the bike path, I noticed for the first time these posts, placed every 500 feet or so. clever, right? you do this nice environmentally sensitive thing of putting in a bike path, and you run your oil pipeline right underneath it.

”It’s so peaceful here. I just love it!“ said a woman heading into the showers at Cass Lake campground this morning, having driven there from her campsite a tiny walk away

the earth remains forever

While I was paddling from Bemidji to Cass Lake today, Richard spent some time in the library in Bemidji and found some microfilms of early nineteenth century local newspapers – a fascinating trove recording the lives and voices of lumberjacks, shopkeepers, etc. who were part of a temporarily flourishing economy in the area not unlike the gold rush farther west. It was a timber rush, and after the trees were downed and floated down the river, towns that had sprung up overnight to support the lumber trade disappeared nearly as quickly.

The first night of our travels, we stayed at Wanagan’s Landing, wanagan being not the name of a person, but of a traveling kitchen boat that moored along the river to feed the loggers. we learned this from Keith Butler, who lives just up the road from the campsite, and who came down to visit and tell us stories. He also told us about a ghost town called Mallard, a couple of miles away.

Here’s a picture of the town at its height (from an information board posted at the site):
Mallard Then
and here’s a picture I took of the same location on 2 August 09, after going to the church I told you about the other day:
Mallard Now

Makes me think of Ecclesiastes more than Jonah:

Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever. [1:4]

It’s an interesting thing: we read each night about Schoolcraft, Tolliver, and Sibley, about Chief Hole-in-the-Day and Little Crow, but as I paddle along this river during the day, no matter how well I keep in mind the layers of human history this river has witnessed, there is very little in the way of actual markers or voices to embody that history. The Mississippi River is not the Parthenon or Stonehenge or Macchu Picchu. Quite the contrary: it obliterates human history, or is at least indifferent to it. The bones that the Ojibwe buried on the ithsmus between Lake Andrusia and Cass Lake where I pulled out this afternoon have been washed into the river. And no traces of the mission the Episcopalians built there remain, either.

The birds remain, the reeds, and the new trees that have grown to replace the ones cut down in early nineteenth century. And the river itself: that definitely remains.

In a way, it’s all very melancholy to think about, but I find it oddly comforting. Walmart and the Super 8 and Applebee’s will also disappear sooner or later, and probably no one will lament their loss.