By Ryan Henry
Houston County News 

Author shares history of Ojibwe heritage


Ryan Henry

Ojibwe author Brenda Child talks about her book and her heritage during a book talk April 6th at Hokah City Hall.

For Brenda Child, the traditional jingle dress is something her generation of Ojibwe people is acutely aware of, though it's no longer an esteemed aspect of their culture. But the University of Minnesota professor and historian has come to find the historical significance of the garment through stories passed down through the generations and spread among the tribes of northern Minnesota.

Child, a member of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa who's currently working to help rewrite the Nation's constitution, was in Hokah on April 6 to talk a little about her book "My Grandfather's Knocking Sticks," a deeply personal insight into life and labor on an Indian reservation. But more so, she focused on the stories of the people she wrote about – stories she was able to tell following exhaustive research in the National Archives and elsewhere.

Child teaches in the American studies, American Indian studies, and history departments at the U of M. She received her undergraduate degree from Bemidji State University, which was just 30 miles from her home – the Red Lake Indian Reservation. It's one of few places, she said, that was relatively unscathed by the impact of federal government policies, one of which was the removal of Native Americans from their homeland.

"Red Lake was one of the few places in the United States that sort of escaped that allotment process," she said of the governmental policy pushing those on the reservation toward a more individual style of ownership, rather than the customary communal way of living. "In the late 19th century when a lot of Indian people were being removed from their homeland, that didn't happen in Red Lake. People kind of stayed put where they were."

Red Lake also bucked a Roosevelt Administration suggestion asking tribes to move away from their traditional styles of governance to more of an elected council of leaders. Instead, the people chose to maintain their seven hereditary chiefs.

"There are a lot of things we think about of our history at Red Lake that makes our story a little but unusual," Child said of the 800,000-acre reservation. "It's the largest Ojibwe place in the United States or Canada completely owned by its original people. That's not the story that you often hear when you study Indian history."

And study it, she has. Child's been researching and working on her latest book for years, pouring over archives in order to dig out the small, lesser-known stories of the people she's writing about. Only after she finds these stories, she said, is she able to get a better idea of the "bigger picture."

One facet of Indian history she was particularly interested in is the powwow, where women can often be found wearing rows of "jingles" on their dresses and the corresponding dance. As Ojibwe, said Child, whose 15-year-old daughter is a jingle dress dance, the traditions and songs associated with the dance are traditions of healing.

"We think it has a very strong therapeutic power," she said. "I started to think about, 'What is the history of the jingle dress?' I knew it was a tradition of healing and I knew it was popular with older women like my grandmother."

But in the 1970s, it appeared practicing the tradition was on its way out, and those Child's age weren't interested. A generation later, though, the practice was revived and became popular among powwow dancers around the U.S.

As the story goes, told similarly among the various Ojibwe tribes, a young girl fell ill and was nearing death. Trying to find some way for her to recover, the girl's father had a vision that included a dance and a special dress, so he made the dress he envisioned for his daughter and encouraged her to dance the dance wearing the dress.

"She does. She gets up and she started to feel better, and she survives," Child said. "That's the story we always hear and is always told at home about the jingle dress."

So while writing the book, Child decided to include the history of the woman's tradition of healing on reservations. While doctors and nurses are considered healers in mainstream society, on the reservation, those who are extraordinarily knowledgeable about plants – mostly women – are considered the healers, she said.

As she researched the circumstances around the girl's illness, she discovered the world was shrouded by a global influenza epidemic during that period, though there wasn't a vast historical log of the incident – although it likely originated in the Midwest. It devastated Indian communities, so Child surmised that when the jingle dance of healing is performed, it's done with this historic moment in mind.

Child, while researching the epidemic, happened upon information about a woman named Lutiant La Voye, who was a volunteer nurse during the outbreak at an Army hospital in Washington. D.C. Child was fascinated by her work, so she dug further to learn more about her, and in doing so, she found a letter she'd written to her friend at Haskell Indian boarding school in Kansas.

"After reading her remarkable letter, I wondered, 'Who was she? What was her tribe?'" Child said. "I was also very interested to know if she survived the epidemic," which killed many young people, mirroring the story of the jingle dress girl.

After finding her name in the U.S. census of 1910, Child discovered Lutiant, an Ojibwe, was living in Roseau, not far from the boundaries of the Red Lake Reservation. She learned Lutiant was the oldest of four children who attended a Catholic school in Minnesota that accepted Indians, and later, two government boarding schools. According to a letter Lutiant wrote about herself, she always desired to become a stenographer, to live on her own resources, and to be independent.

Though young, she had seen a lot as a nurse, including the countless soldiers she attended to at the hospital in Washington. So what does that have to do with the jingle dress?

It, Child said, was an example of how creatively Ojibwe women responded to the worldwide epidemic – and not, as some might suggest, banished to an isolated reservation in northern Minnesota. She was a healer.

"Decades after this tradition developed, Ojibwe women still regarded the dress, the dance and the songs associated with it as treasures of our cultural heritage," Child said. "Lutiant survived the epidemic. The first jingle dress dancer, that little girl in the story, is also a survivor.

"(Ojibwe women) reach into very creative places in their souls to pick themselves up, and that they did so during this global epidemic, maybe it's the least remarkable part of their story."


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