We had been fasting for several days by the time we left Minneapolis. We drove straight through the three hours between home and the woods of north central Wisconsin. Joan noted that she could appreciate the fasting used by the Indians; she felt so pure and clean. I didn’t tell her that I was beginning to have slight visual hallucinations brought on by the lack of nutrients in my body. I knew that the shimmering butterflies in the car were most likely not real, and I recalled references to such occurrences in my Native American studies at the Hennepin County library near my apartment. Even the books written over a hundred years ago had explained how purification rituals are important in Ojibway culture for people seeking visions and trying to connect to the spiritual side of life.
Our first glimpse of Indian country was with the eyes of outsiders. When we finally crossed over onto the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibway reservation, we saw our first bilingual sign announcing Wiisinii-adaawewigamig - Grocery Store. We noted, too, that the reservation roads could be called paved only by a generous redefining of the word. Despite Joan’s excitement, I felt that our chance of finding any sort of meaningful experience was dubious. We had grown up without any sense of our Indian roots, both of us feeling the void. Back in Minneapolis, Joan had suggested that we might try our reservation. Now that we had made it, however, it didn’t feel like ours.
Driving through the woods, we followed a maze of arrows to a little business district. There was the Indian Community College. All orange brick and shiny glass, it could have been transplanted from any community campus. There were a few social services buildings leftover from the Work Projects Administration of the 1940s. There was even a small radio station with a stylized eagle painted on the window. The grocery store was small and in need of a thorough cleaning; it was probably not the pride of the Red Owl Corporation.
The two of us being fresh from the world of academia, the college seemed the obvious choice. We were greeted by a receptionist. Joan and I stammered, but couldn’t find the words to explain our purpose. The receptionist directed us to have a look around, thinking that we were prospective students. We wandered up and down the two hallways, florescent lights buzzing above us while competing scents of Pine-Sol and burnt sage struggled for dominance. We stole glances through the door windows at classrooms full of dark-skinned students. No white majority on the rez. We gathered a collection of quizzical looks from both students and faculty. We read every message board on campus, but found no clue as to our next course of action. We left.
The sun was slowly rounding overhead. We felt lost, so we went to buy a package of tax-free Camels. I was dragging hard on one before we left the wiisinii-adaawewigamig. Next we explored the other buildings, pressing more than once through the same line of Indians awaiting Welfare checks. We even found time to take a tour of the one room radio station, where they were helpful enough to give us pencils emblazoned with the WOJB call letters.
By late afternoon we were tired and white. We found ourselves whiter than we had ever been in our lives. Joan and I sat in the car deciding whether or not to give up on our quest for both familial connection and the sense of spiritual belongingness. Despite cursory conversations we had had with several people, we remained reluctant to even attempt to explain the vague reason for our having come to this increasingly foreign land.
Joan was ready to hit the Red Owl for Little Debbies, and head for Minneapolis. “We’re never going to see any of these people ever again,” I told her, “so why don’t we at least try one last time? We’ll go back into the college and try to explain what we’re looking for.” I figured that even if we sounded like idiots, we could leave knowing that we had truly given it a shot.
The receptionist greeted us with mild disdain. We were, after all, bothering her for a second time in one single afternoon. Joan and I rapidly spilled our story of spiritual searching and living as minorities in a white world. The receptionist helped us to feel that we belonged in that place from which we had traveled. “You people come here expecting to find Indians in teepees. If you had called ahead, we could have arranged something.”
With red faces, we apologized and started to leave. She stopped us. A heavyset man with the face of a happy and gentle child was standing in the doorway. The receptionist told us to talk to Sam Quagon. The large Indian man listened to our story while sipping coffee, nodding slightly and smiling. We spoke for some time, learning from Sam Quagon that many generations back, three brothers at the reservation had started distinct family lines. Joan and I were of one line, and our new friend was, in fact, our distant cousin. Excited by that revelation, we were only slightly disappointed when he told us that at the reservation all people are cousins. We all laughed. Eventually he suggested that we follow his minivan out to the woods where Jerry Smith was working.
As it was still early in the season for making maple syrup, Jerry Smith was out at the new sugarbush site putting up wigwams and chopping firewood. We drove down ice and snow covered trails in the woods while following Sam Quagon. I began to notice the handmade taps pounded into the occasional tree. Very soon the air would be thick with the sweet smell of maple sap simmering in twenty-gallon drums. We stopped where a red handkerchief was tied on a birch. From there we went on foot.
Jerry Smith was a longhaired man with thin wisps of facial hair. He spoke in a thick Ojibway accent, which has a unique rhythm and excludes anything similar to an R sound, as it was unheard by tribe members until only the latest few generations. We didn’t explain ourselves to Jerry Smith. He was quite happy to have extra hands to do the work, and he quickly set us to the task. Joan and I cut down young ironwood trees and stripped the few branches while Jerry Smith made holes in the ground following a large oval design. We inserted the lodge poles, bending opposite sides across to each other in arches while Jerry Smith and Sam Quagon tied them together with rope. We pulled blue tarps over the dome-shaped wigwam frames, as Jerry Smith’s grandfather had done with birch bark years earlier. Jerry Smith was happy that the work went so much faster having four Indians instead of two. Sam Quagon agreed.
After working for a while, Jerry Smith lifted a backpack and took out a bundle rolled in rabbit fur. From the unrolled item, Jerry Smith pulled a carved stone pipe bowl and wooden pipe stem, followed by a smudge stick of tied sage, a package of tobacco and a Bic lighter. He assembled his pipe, loaded the bowl with tobacco and spoke for quite awhile in his Ojibway language. Neither Joan nor I had any idea what Jerry Smith was saying, but the language was beautiful to listen to, and Sam Quagon smiled and nodded frequently. The pipe was passed to each of us and we smoked until the bowl was empty.
That afternoon turned into night. On breaks from working to prepare the sugarbush site we would warm ourselves around a fire and sip tea that Sam Quagon had made in a coffee can with melted snow and red willow sprigs. Jerry Smith told us stories about Winiibozho, the Ojibway spirit entity who permeates the tribe’s oral history.
As the night wound down, Joan and I exchanged a look of concern. We had no plan for where to stay, and we didn’t even know if there were hotels in the area. Sam Quagon had been assuming all evening that we’d stay with him. He took us back to his house in the reservation town where he lived with his wife. We slept on the shag carpet in the family room.
We stayed with our new friends for an additional week. Joan and I broke our fast on the second day in town. We fell into the rhythms of Ojibway life on the reservation: gathering berries, making birch bark baskets, walking in the woods, and meeting people at the casino for burgers. Sam Quagon introduced us to several other cousins.
On our last afternoon before returning to Minneapolis, Jerry Smith wanted to take Joan and me out to see a wild ginseng plant that he had found in the woods. He insisted that the ginseng is a rare occurrence, and that the root is strong medicine. We followed him through what felt like miles of dense forest, our boots sponging into the layered ground with every step. Jerry Smith laughed, telling us, “It seems like a long way to go for a root. Maybe it’s enough just to know that it’s there.”
Originally published in Yellow Medicine Review, Fall 2007