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Early Life at Leech Lake
Just then, when the priest was talking at my best friend's funeral, I was thinking about my mother. . . .
. . . When she was a little girl, about ten or twelve years old, my mother was living at Leech Lake.(1) She was an orphan. She was taken over. She was taken from near Onigum north-east of Walker, and was staying by Five-Mile-Point with some older Indian people who didn't have children. They wanted her to stay with them and said they wanted to train her in the Indian way of life.
Those old people made her work, work. They made her do all the cooking, do all the washing, and do almost everything. I knew the people, but I forgot them. I guess the man's name was Ni-o-gáa-bó, "Two-men-standing." They didn't have English names. Ni-o-gáa-bó was supposed to be our grandfather on our pure Indian side. The full-blooded Indians were on her mother's side. Her mother's side was Indian, but she was a little French. My mother's dad was a French out of a Walker Indian. He was a breed.
My mother was a little light-skinned, and everything like that, and that's why she had a hard time at Ni-o-gáa-bó's. They wanted her to work at washing and cooking, and, anyhow, she worked too hard. Everybody told her, "That's too hard of a work you do." It was too hard for her younger age. Those people were wealthy,(2) but they were still putting too much work on her. And eventually she was wise enough to take off.
They travelled around according to the seasons in those days. My first father, my real father -- Buffalo, Jim Buffalo(3) -- came up the river from Ashland(4) with a group of Indians. From Wisconsin they came up through the rivers of Duluth. That's O-ni-gá-míi-sIn, Duluth. They came up by canoes(5) and they met the tribe at Cloquet, by the Fond du Lac Reservation.(6) There they had big powwows and everything. They met all the reservation tribes at the gathering there, and the great chief Pezeke spoke to all the chiefs.(7)
Pezeke, Buffalohead Chief, was my grandpa.(8)
He was a chief of a group of Ojibwa in Wisconsin, and was one of the chiefs of the Great Lakes. Each of the chiefs took care of the tribes(9) of the area where they lived. Each area had a chief who was the same as a representative or spokesman. These chiefs were spokesmen for the tribe of where they were appointed or elected from. They were spokesmen for the tribe, for the local people, and signed treaties with the whites. My great-grandfather signed the Rice Treaty and a lot of those other treaties. Buffalohead chief was good at speaking to councils. Men didn't demand to be a chief, they were picked as a great man. Pezeke was a great man. Pezeke was Jim and Henry Buffalo's grandpa.
Jim Buffalo and his brother Henry continued on from the gathering at Cloquet to Leech Lake, coming up the La Prairie River. My mother and dad met on the Mississippi River, at White Oak Point.(10) After they met, my dad went with my mother's family and helped them.(11) He helped paddle the canoe up the river, and then he helped mom cut wood and all that.
They had a blanket marriage,(12) according to our Indian custom, and before long my older sister was born. We later called her Mary. A second child, Nah-gáh-nab, "Head-one-sitting-down," was born a year before me, but he was born too young and a cold got him.
In the summer of 1900, when I was about to be born, my folks were searching for a living(13) along the Mississippi River. A group of relatives split off and went north to Third River, up by Lake Winibigosh.(14) My mom and dad kept going east on the Mississippi. They were going up the Mississippi, looking, searching, for berries, blueberries. They were looking to see where there were going to be raspberries. They were looking to see where there were going to be berries of all kinds. You can find them anywhere now, but then they were looking for berries and plums.
About the time they reached the place they first met, Náy-mI-tIg-o-mii-shíi-shi-káhn, White Oak Point, my mother said, "There's my pain." We were paddling up the river. She told my dad, "You better stop." In a little while the old man put up the wigwam, with just a few poles. There I was. That was a fast deal, boy!
There are not very many born like I have been born. I'm summer-born. Some people are winter-born, some of them are born in the fall, some people are born in the spring. That has something to do with the weather. Summer-born people seem to have some sort of a feeling when a storm is coming. They seem to know that something's going to happen by the act of the weather. They feel how the breezes change and these waves of heat come in, and they know when a storm's coming by the action of clouds and the stars the night before. They seem to know ahead of time what the weather's going to be. And when I saw them predicting things, telling ahead of time what was going to happen, I always asked them, the summer-born elders, "How did you know?"
"Well," they told me, "the summer-borns have a nerve in their body that telegraphs them. And that nerve that telegraphs in their body, a nerve on the knee or on the hand or in some joints of their hand, tells them that maybe this storm is coming. They know by studying their mind that there are going to be some changes in the weather. And they know that too by the action of the sun and the moon. They feel it."
Summer-born people are special because they take time to build up their blood for the winter. You know why? In their first months they get to eat a little more vegetation. What they get to eat is heavier on the vegetation. They get to eat heavy food. But they're not any better(15) than the winter-born. A winter-born is not any better either.
But the summer-born can feel it quicker on the rheumatic nerves, because they're more affected in rheumatic matters and they can feel that. They're more stricken with illness too, if they don't have their blood build up.
The summer-borns run low on the heat in the winter, but when the heat comes, the summer-born can take in more heat. And in the same way the cold weather doesn't bother the winter-born at all. It stands to reason, but that's a point you can't point out, hardly.
My grandfather always told my mother, "Someday you'll have two children. You take care of those two. You'll have a boy and a girl. You take care of them." Later on, she did have two children, a boy and a girl. She was a little girl when she came to them, the old people, Ni-o-gáa-bó, at Five-Mile-Point. She was just a little girl when she was told that. Then, later on, she did have a boy and a girl that lived. When she settled down and got married she had just what that guy predicted -- it was a boy and a girl, me and my sister.
My mother wondered all the time, "I wonder how did he figure that out?"
How did he figure that out?
I don't remember my first dad because he died just about when I was born. They say he was always dressed up in a white shirt. He was always in a vest too. He was always wearing a watch chain.(16) He didn't care about losing it. He didn't worry about that. My mom told him, "You'll lose your watch."
"But I have to have a watch," he'd tell her.
He talked Indian, but he was a breed. He was Buffalohead Chief's grandchild. He was a very wise man. And that's my first father, that's my dad.
He and my uncle Henry came up the river together. Henry made it up to Leech Lake, and got married up there too. He married ChI-nó-dIn, "Big Wind," "Big Storm." Katie Buffalo was her English name, and they got along together. She did beadwork. She made quilts. She made moccasins and everything. And my uncle didn't have to do much. She told him one time to go down in the hay meadow and start tying the wild hay. He went, but snuck away. Never did come back.
I can remember the vest of my mother in nineteen-two.(17) When I first really noticed her she was pretty young. She was getting grey, but she was well-dressed and right in style. She was young-looking and slender.
My mother was an herbalist and a doctor of midwife doctoring. She knew the nature of Indian medicine.(18) She knew how much it takes, how much medicine to put in. Wuaay!(19) She doctored white people and everybody. My mother did a good job. She was not a sinner. She was a good person and was well-liked. My mother sure was read-up(20) in Indian! She knew the Indian ways. She lived with the Indians and learned from them. She was born and raised and lived for eighty-six years with the Indians.
My mother raised me, but by the time I was born she already had her two arms pulling in different directions -- one was pulling toward the Indian way, and the other was pulling toward the white way. So she was right in the middle. She took both. She took the Christianity of Churches and then she brought in the Indian teaching of the Great Spirit and put them together. She was a Catholic, yea. She became a Catholic because her sister was a breed, half-white half-Indian. Her sister told her, "You should be a Catholic. You're good enough to be a Catholic." So my mother took a blessing with holy water too. When the priest came, which he did once a month, he put the blessed holy water on my mother: "You're baptized."
That's how she became a Catholic.
But she still believed that the Great Spirit gave us the world to live in, that the Great Spirit gave you life! In the Christian Book the Great Spirit says, "I'll be with you anywhere you think of me. Who remembers me, who believes in me, I'll be unto him." That's the same way it is in Indian.
"That's a big thing," she would tell us. "It's true, and from here on there's no excuse for you not to believe in these things. I have been able to understand things. When I was a girl, my father and mother died. They were giving the Indian belief to me already by the time they died, and then I went out to the world alone. Here I am." And she was eighty-four years old when she told me that. She had a rough time, but she didn't complain. I think that through her way of life she used the best of both the Indian and the white worlds.
All this time my Mother, my sister, and I lived with the old couple on the west end of Leech Lake. We travelled around a lot by canoe and I remember that one time we went to Leech River. We all camped there, and then we made cabins, log cabins. We camped along the river, years ago, before that time I can remember. And I was little then, very little. I was just born.
In later time we still travelled by canoes because there were no roads except in a few places. There was game that was something to be seen! Every morning we'd see the wild life. And that natural wildlife was our food.
We trapped some of the animals and took them up to the fur buyers, which was at that time a station by the Indian trading posts at Federal Dam.(21) That's where we got our salt and saltpork. We had rock-salt, busted all up, those days. We got rock-salt out of the barrels of salt pork. They(22) would re-boil and refine that. That made good salt, when it was busted up. "Coarse salt" we called it.
In those days Peterson Homestead and John S. Smith's place were the only places on the Leech River. Those were the only two who lived on that river year 'round. Years ago my father and my grandpa moved in there too, but they didn't stay. I think my father's buried there, along the Leech River.
My mother was still pretty young at the time -- at the time she stayed with the older Indians near Onigum -- but by then she was already very religious and had learned to pay attention to o-náa$-chii-gáy, unusual signs.(23) When it comes to religion the Indians have always believed in their religion full in mind. And they believe in seeing things, natural signs. They dream of things. They hear things. They see things. And by this, by seeing and hearing and dreaming things, they get results.
That o-náa$-chii-gáy is something that's coming to you that you notice -- that's the sign. That's "the sign that's going to be with you." That's o-naa$-chii-gáy, and because of that my mother left the older people she lived with at Leech Lake.
There was no water one time and my mother was supposed to go down to the lake and get some. She was lonesome for her own mother. She didn't have a mother any longer, and she knew all the rest of the young folks around there had a mother and father. "How nice it is to be with a father and mother," she thought. She remembered her mother. And when she was thinking about her mother the woman of the house she was staying at told her, "There isn't any water in the pail, in the buckets, the water buckets. Go ahead and take one of the water pails and go right down to the lake and dip a pail full of water."
They used about a ten quart pail in those days, and she had to walk down to the lake with that in the dark. She had to go about a half a block, or a block, yea, about a block or half a block, and that night it was very windy on that trail. Once she got down to the lake she had to step down onto the rocks. All the canoes were out of the water, and everything was put away for the night. She stood on the lake, looking out to the lake with tears in her eyes, wondering where her mother was. And all she could hear was a woman's voice repeating,
"Oh, my little girl."
"Oh, my little girl."
"Oh, my little girl."
She heard that just as plain as she could, and she stopped crying. She stopped crying, stood there a while, and never heard anything more. She was just right above the waters, you know, and she heard that voice out into the lake. The lake was rough too.
She dipped that water into her pail and took it to the house where we lived. Then she sat right there and thought. She said, "Maybe my mother doesn't want me to be here."
So she thought she would go to her sister-in-law.
The older people we lived with trained her in the Indian way, but they also abused her, and worked her. My mother realized that she worked too much and that it was time for her to go her own way. "They're never satisfied for what I do," she thought to herself. She called me and she put me on her hand. And I had a sister, my sister Mary. She followed us. My sister was bigger. She walked behind, alone.
I believed we stopped first with the Josh Drumbeaters who lived at the outlet of the Leech River at Federal Dam.(24) They lived alongside the high road in a log house. There were two places we stayed that she'd always tell about, but I could hardly remember much about that. I was pretty young at that time. She stopped at the Drumbeaters when she made it away from those older people's place, but she didn't stay there too long because the Drumbeaters didn't believe much in Christianity. They believed in Indian there. At that time my mother believed in the Catholic Church more than anything else.
The mother there, Mrs. Drumbeater, was my mother's mother's relative. I think she was her cousin. They were some sort of a cousin, a second cousin or something. Mrs. Drumbeater and my mother were always together though, and Mrs. Drumbeater always called me "nÍng-wa-nÍss," nephew.(25)
Their boy, Jimmy Drumbeater, is still living yet, and when they come to see me, they know I'm related to them. And they always think a lot of me because we're cousins. We've seen such hard times in our days. We also heard about the olden days from my mother and my aunt, when they were talking together, and we saw how life was in my mother's area, from the olden days until now.
We had an aunt in a town about ten or fifteen miles away, and my mother footed that ten or fifteen miles with my sister and me. She went to Betsie Crow in Bena. That was my aunt. That'd be my mother's sister-in-law, Jim Buffalo's sister.
From there on then she lived in a happy home. She found someone.
See, she didn't give up when she heard those unusual sounds to her ears, the sound of the lake. There are people like that, people who believe in signs like that. It comes to them naturally. There are some people that don't believe in anything, and when they do see something real, then it's a shock.(26)
A sign like my mother saw is a kind of a warning. It's something unusual telling you that you have to be careful.
Or . . . that you have to do something.
2. "Wealthy" means living comfortably in terms of basic food, shelter, and a few modest practical material possessions such as a gun, some kettles, and the like.
6. See Fig. 1.1, "Map of Indian Reservations in Minnesota."
8. Older people were called "grandpa" or "grandma", even if they were not related. "Great-" or "great-great-" was not used when speaking to an elder. Pezeke was Paul Buffalo's great-grandfather.
10. See Fig. 1.3, Map of Bena-Ball Club area on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation.
13. Hunting and gathering.
14. See map of the Leech Lake Indian Reservation, Fig. 1.2.
15. This is a sociological "better" rather than a physiological "better."
16. Later on a man dressed like this, with a watch chain, appears in a vision.
17. Paul was born on 4 July 1900. He was two years old at this time.
19. Whuaay and Wh^^h are expressions of great approval. They are often used to show support and admiration. [ ^ ] is pronounced like the "u" in cut.
20. I.e., knowledgeable.
21. See Fig. 1.2 map of Leech Lake Indian Reservation.
22. The old folks. Paul Buffalo carefully distinguishes between what he personally has done, and what others did. In this case the adults would take the salt from the salt pork barrels and work it into salt. At this point in time he was too young to help, thus he uses "they."
23. Unusual natural signs -- including dreams -- play a very important role in Chippewa cultures. See also Ch. 27, "Dreams and Visions," Ch. 34, "Messengers and Unusual Events," and Ch. 35, " Fireballs, and The Shadow Man."
24. See Fig. 1.2, Map of Leech Lake Indian Reservation.
25. Generally the traditionals thought of relationships in terms of the kinship terms that they used to refer to one another rather than to the actual biological relationships. The point of reference in trying to translate biological relationships into English will generally be the Anishinabe linguistic term. However, since the kinship systems vary considerably, this is often quite difficult. Chippewa peoples, for example, usually clearly separate cross-cousins (mother's brother's children and father's sister's children) from parallel cousins (mother's sister's children and father's brother's children). In the end, the most important factor is that they were related and that they commonly addressed each other by kinship terms rather than non-kinship terms. These kinship terms would be immediately understandable to all concerned.
26. If you don't believe in signs, then things happen and they come upon you unexpectedly. The belief is that one can anticipate what is going to happen by carefully observing the signs. Then, when what was foretold by signs actually happens, it is no surprise to you.
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