Minnesota Memories, Part 4: Living the Ojibwe way with Grandma BakerSchool’s end, 1943. To get me out of his way for the summer, my dad sent me to live with Indians. He sent me to stay 10 weeks with Susan “Grandma” Baker, a dear friend of my mother’s who lived about 20 miles from Finland.
By: Paul Slayback, for the News Tribune
School’s end, 1943. To get me out of his way for the summer, my dad sent me to live with Indians. He sent me to stay 10 weeks with Susan “Grandma” Baker, a dear friend of my mother’s who lived about 20 miles from Finland.
“You’ll have a good time with other boys your age,” said my dad.
Said to be older than 100, Grandma stood with dignity after years of hauling and hard labor. About 5 feet tall, probably taller in her youth — she now had a slight hump back. Her hair, streaked black and gray in thick braids, bounced around her shoulders. She had warm, intelligent brown eyes and wrinkles like road maps across her face. Her voice was high-pitched, whispery, like the sound of hot water whistling from a tea kettle.
She spoke Ojibwe mixed with English, so I had to listen carefully to understand her.
Grandma wore moccasins, a long, billowing black skirt that made rustling sounds and a long-sleeved white shirt with Ojibwe designs of red, green and black.
“Clarence,” Grandma Baker said, “your mother and I were good friends. She was a wonderful lady. ... I’m sorry she’s gone. We often talked about the way us Indians lived in the old days. She liked the simple ways we did things. She’d like you staying with me this summer, spending some time with boys from the reservation learning about Indian life.
“Would you like that?” she asked.
“Yes,” I replied shyly. “Can we paddle a canoe?”
“Oh, yeah, you’ll be able to do that ... and a lot more,” she said.
Grandma lived with her son, Frank, at Wilson Lake in a big, primitive cabin with a world-class view of the Minnesota wilderness. This year she had allowed some members of the Ojibwe nation to use her property for activities centering on “The Original Ojibwe Way of Life.”
Grandma said, “This summer my class is you, Clarence, and six other boys about your same age. We’ll be joined by other boys and girls there, too.”
Her son, Frank, about 50, was tall and lithe, with dark hair, high cheekbones, large bony hands, a ready smile and a pleasant manner. He and my father were close. They hunted, fished and trapped together around Nine Mile Lake and the Finland area.
Daybreak the next morning, the other boys arrived, dropped off by their parents, crawling and tumbling out of pickups and beat-up old cars. I was the only white kid.
Frank loaded us into his open-bed pickup. Scattered in the bed were old blankets we used for sitting. Grandma rode in the cab with Frank. Moving slowly toward the lake and left down a narrow, bumpy dirt path, we were tossed side to side.
Stopping the truck next to a beautiful meadow near a slow-moving, caramel-colored stream, Frank unhinged the rear drop-down gate on the pickup and we jumped out. We were eager to get started.
Holy mackerel! It’s a whole tribe of Indians, I thought. They were everywhere. To my left, near the stream, were four or five men cutting, carving, shaping and building canoes. All were dressed in deerskin clothing. Away from the stream, near the center of the meadow, about 30 Ojibwe people sat in front of several tepees: women making and mending clothes, others preparing and cooking food.
Others sat in circles around campfires, making clothes, grinding corn and wild rice. In a clearing near a grove of pine trees, men were shooting arrows from hand-made bows at a target made of tightly bound grass. Men and women made snares or sat in small groups talking.
“What do you think, Clarence?” asked Grandma Baker. I was tongue-tied — I remained silent and stared. The Indians I was familiar with were the ones in Saturday morning films, the ones on horses in war-paint, hollering and shooting arrows at cowboys.
These Indians were different. How did they get here? I wondered.
Grandma explained that all the people on her property regularly lived in homes or cabins in nearby towns or on a reservation.
“Here, this summer, I’m going to re-create as best I can how our ancestors lived long ago. You will be seeing and doing some things other boys will never experience,” she said.
The village was huge. You could not walk around it in a day. It continued deep into the forest consisting of heavily wooded pines, hardwoods, marshy meadows, lakes, ponds and streams with few worn paths or roads.
A man named Madwe taught us about building tepees, and we spent weeks working to build our own. We learned about making canoes and clothing. The clothes and moccasins I fashioned were crude but usable. All of us were proud of our work. As soon as my outfit was completed, I put it on — it felt good — and I wore it for the rest of the summer.
“Boys, I’m proud of all of you for making a set of Indian clothes and moccasins. As a result of your hard work, you’ve earned the right to an Indian name,” said one of our teachers, Corrine.
She suggested several available names, saying we could use any name we like except names already used by others in the camp. At her suggestion, I chose White Eagle because my hair was long, curly, and almost white from the hot summer sun.
One boy chose the name of Soaring Eagle. He and I were good at making the tepee and working on the canoes. We became friends that summer. On weekends, Grandma let him stay with me at our cabin. From Soaring Eagle, I learned how to set a snare, build a box-trap and read the prints and markings of animals.
Spending weeks in Indian clothing, having an Indian name, and walking in moccasins I made myself changed me.
Wearing Indian clothes gave me a sense of belonging, of freedom, a feeling I was a part of the village. Walking and running with Soaring Eagle in my moccasins, I could feel the leaves, the stems of broken branches, anything that was smooth or irregular as my feet touched the ground.
Throughout the summer, Grandma would visit, stay awhile, ask how I was getting along, then move on. I was staying with her and Frank and saw her every night. The other boys went home each night.
My dad told me that Grandma was older than 100 — I found that hard to believe. He also said Grandma didn’t trust paper money. When she and Frank came into town to sell and trade their furs for spices, food and supplies, Grandma wanted only coins in change — she thought paper money was silly and worthless, he said. At her cabin, she liked her morning coffee, bread with jam and fresh scrambled eggs. She was proud of her dozen Rhode Island Red chickens.
Grandma had a huge garden. She grew and canned carrots, peas, green and yellow beans, pumpkins, squash and strawberries. She picked buckets of blueberries and raspberries. In the evening, she would sit in her rocking chair and sew and have a few drinks. Grandma was a fan of Jim Beam, often sharing a glass with Frank.
“What are those?” I said, pointing to some objects tacked to the side of her wall.
“Snowshoes — make them for the rangers,” said Grandma, referring to Forest Service rangers. The shoes were made from bent saplings bound together with deer hide lacings.
My sister, Marian, told me a story about Grandma staying up all night once to shoot a black bear that had been eating her chickens. Frank skinned the bear and she grilled juicy chicken-fed bear steaks over an outside fire pit. Grandma lived to be at least 103, said to be the oldest resident of Lake County. “A tough old bird,” said my brother, Ralph.
SATURDAY: For a time, I was an orphan