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Old Gardens and New Bark
It was wonderful talking to old people. I asked my grandma one time what problems there were in her younger days. She told me they didn't have many problems, but one of the problems they had was trying to locate a place where they could have a garden spot.(1)
The problem was that it took pains to search for a garden spot since they were also looking for a nice place to "harbor-nate" for the winter.
Another problem for them occurred later on in years when they began to build log houses, but if you had enough relatives around they would join together and throw up a log house. So there wasn't much of a problem with that. Sometimes they had some problem establishing themselves permanently in that area, but once you're established, that's your area. That's what's proven.
Generally you were allowed to pick out your own area of the ground along the rivers. In picking out a permanent location they looked for a place where they wanted to live, one which was neighborly and by their folks or by their children. They looked for a place where they could live neighbor-ly, and if it was neighbor-ly they were satisfied.
In grandma's time there weren't any boundaries or boundary marks, they just overlapped anywhere. Nobody bothered them because they were getting old anyhow. When the old people come and establish themselves you know they aren't going to stay long because their old age is going to get them. So the others were ready to help them at any time. If they had an ailment or anything they always helped them. The neighbors cooked up for them too.
Sometimes the people had a problem in winter when the river froze. Later on, that wasn't too bad because some of them had spuds made of steel by the frontier blacksmith. A spud is a sharp iron you chop ice with. It has a long handle, six or seven feet long. The bottom end of it looked like a little paddle, a little pointed paddle. It looked like a chisel. The bottom end of it would be about an inch and a half wide. If you get it too wide it's hard to chisel, but the narrow edge of it will go right through the ice.
The blacksmith used to make them for the lumber camps, and the Indians got those spuds and used them to chop a water hole. But if it was cold and drifted, it was hard to get water. If that happened, the only water they had for dishwater or for washing clothes was the snow-water they'd melt. They had copper kettles those days, made of copper and brass, and snow was melted in them. You still see them yet.
Clothing was all prepared at home, and for bedding they had mats. There was no problem, at least not what you call one that would be difficult. But they had a little problem finding the materials to make their clothing and mats and the other things they used. Sometimes they couldn't get anywhere to find the sort of timber they wanted to use for the bark. They always tried to get selected materials, but along the river the selected stuff was mostly picked off by other Indians. So sometimes they had to get back further into the woods. That was a problem sometimes. So before they settled in one spot for the garden planting and for winter they had to make sure that they had enough materials to station themselves there, for a while, since at that time they had to make roofing, and birch bark baskets for the sugar and wild rice and the other things they needed to store and carry.(2)
Since in my time most everyone had a permanent location for their winter homes, they also had regular summer camping grounds and they'd go back to those. Of course by then some Indians, particularly the older ones, were living in the same house year 'round. The ones who moved cleaned that summer home up. They put the bark shaker roofs on it, on the wigwam framework, and they had a good home for the summer.
By that home they had a good garden, some of them had a good garden. That's why we called that place gI-ti-gáy-ó-gaa-mÍg, "the place where they planted crops." For the summer our group stayed on Leech Lake, but moved up closer toward Bena.
The folks always knew when to plant a garden. The adults all knew, those that had a garden. I asked an old man one time, "When we didn't have equipment to plant a garden, how did you plant a garden?" He said, "We just cleared off the brush. Maybe we left the stumps around it, but we cleaned the rest off good. It didn't take much. The soil was enriched. It was rich them days, and the moisture was there. And when we had a good crop season, if we were lucky, we'd get a good crop."
"How did you work up a garden?"
He said, "We had a one big blade of garden hoe, like a cement mixer hoe, but it didn't have no hole. But it had a hole on the top where you shove the handle in. That big garden hoe was heavy enough that you could break the soil." That was pretty much the way we were still doing it then, about 1907, but we weren't moving around each year trying to locate a new garden spot.
When I looked, that's the way they were still doing it. The Indians in my area had no horses anywhere at that time, but they found a way to plant a garden nevertheless. It wasn't very easy to get a team of horses in that area. It wasn't everybody that had horses. The men broke that ground with those big, heavy garden hoes. They were much heavier than they are now, and they worked good. We called those big garden hoes, básh-kwa-day-i-gán. That's the heavy hoe. A light hoe, the garden hoe, the one for weeding the garden, is bash-kwa-day-i-gãhn'se. The big hoe, like a grub hoe, chopped up the soil. They broke the soil and chopped it up enough for the potatoes to start growing. They'd hoe so that they'd finally smash up the ground. They cut it all up, just like discing, and put the seed in there.
The area that they had planted for a few seasons was pretty much cleaned out, and since we just needed a place big enough to plant potatoes and corn, they were able to get to the planting part right away. Of course, they just planted enough for their own use. They planted between stumps, between anything that was there that they couldn't move. At the first beginning of the garden they'd try to get the seeds planted in rows as much as they could, but that was hard sometimes because they didn't clear land altogether.(3) They took out what could be easily cut off by the roots. Usually this was brush and small trees, about an inch to an inch-and-a-quarter across. They cut the roots of these, but they didn't cut out the stumps of the bigger trees and brush. They just cut those low to the ground.
During the summer those stumps and little twigs deteriorated by the action of the rain and moisture. That held moisture in the ground and the crop would generally be doing good. The brush, the roots of the brush, gathered moisture and fed the moisture to the plants.
In my younger days we were making a garden spot which would last a long time. While that first part of the garden was coming up we'd break up the other part. That way we could work on one garden spot while the other one was growing. The men would chop the second spot too. Everybody'd take a whirl at chopping the ground, until they finally had a nice big garden spot. That's the way they knew how to clear a garden spot. They kept improving it, and little by little it got bigger. Every year they put in a little bigger area, finally they had a very good garden spot. I've seen that. I've seen them do it, and I think I helped in there a little bit too.
While the men were making a bigger garden spot, the crop in the first garden was growing. When it started growing we used to find where the growth was and chop the ground up around it. That way it made a pretty good garden spot. After the corn came up they would chop the dirt around the corn and rake it up. That's how they broke ground after the first hoeing. That's just like plowing. That's helping the crop. When the potatoes started growing they went between the rows and chopped that soil. They loosened that dirt by hoeing. They continued that hoeing two or three times that summer. Later on in the summer, as fast as they'd work in the garden they'd throw sticks out. While the garden was growing, the potatoes were growing, they'd throw those things out from underneath the plants. That's the old way of first gardening.
I think they got nice potatoes, nice garden stuff, corn especially. Boy would that corn grow! We called corn man-dáa-mIn.
Man-daa-mIn and potatoes were our main garden crops. A bushel of potatoes, or more than one, are called o-pIn-níig. O-pÍn is one potato. Of course we still used nay-may-pín, the wild potato, the Indian medicine potato. That plant has three big leaves on it and grows in hardwood, mostly. The wild potatoes are small and are connected on the roots. We used those for medicine, Indian medicine. There's two kinds of nay-may-pÍn. There's a strong kind and a weak kind, and the weak kind is best for people. When you're sick and want to eat something hardy to digest, you take a bite of that. That'll keep you in shape. Boy, that's good. You can carry that with you when it's been dried. That's safe to use for a heart attack too. You just take that and chew it. It has a good taste to it. We also grind it up and put it in with our other medicines, or boil it a little by itself and drink it. We don't strain it; it won't hurt you.
Indians in my time were still using those wild potatoes, but on the side, some of them had these little corn patches and little potato patches, which helped us. Everything grew good. I saw a time when they were raising potatoes right in a sand swell. I don't know what variety it was. Those potatoes, when they come up, turn to blossoms. After they turn to blossom, they commence to be like little tomatoes on top. They had a cluster of tomato-like berries, green berries -- at least they looked like berries. That was a well-matured potato, with berry-potatoes right on top of the plants. I don't know what kind potatoes they were, but boy they were good potatoes. You just don't see that any more. Nowadays things are so crossed, so experimented with, so researched for what they could get out of them, that I think they probably lost some of these things. They were good potatoes, and russ potatoes that we planted were good potatoes too.
After the Indians quit moving around each year to a new garden and winter camping spot they began to realize that the soil wears out. Sure it wears out; the production of the ground wears out. That's why they used fertilizer, natural fertilizer. I heard a guy tell me one time when we were talking, "Ya, I like to put in lime, fish, at a certain time. They're good fertilizer." We used to use that fish for fertilizer years ago. I've seen an Indian put corn in the ground; he just made a hole in the ground, and when he put that corn in the ground he stuck a piece of fish in there with the corn to fertilize it. At one point a well-read-up guy, a knowledgeable guy, spoke up to me, he said, "I don't like too much fish as a fertilizer."
"It enriches the ground so much that it draws the insects."
"Ya," I said, "there maybe is something to that. Too much is too much, and not enough is not enough." But this guy who was planting had just got enough. If you put in only a little fish it'll settle down and no insects or animals will get in there. There was a lot of experimental work around looking into that in our times.
That's how the Indians learned. They put stuff in with the crops to see what it would do. We know that with those natural fertilizers we added the crops continued every year to grow on that land. We know too that if you didn't supply the water and something to fertilize the area, it wouldn't produce after awhile. The animals help fertilize the ground, but a lot of times that isn't enough.
With the natural fertilizers we used those days the garden crops were wonderful. In raising garden, in working on the garden and eating the sugar, wild rice, and game, the Indians got along all right. We got along good. Sometimes, if they ran short, they'd go in to Bena and trade for corn. Then they'd smash up the corn to get corn meal. They ground it up somehow. They always had busted corn, even if they had to go trade for it. Besides potatoes and corn we raised pumpkin; we raised squash -- squash we like. In our language we called squash a "big cucumber."
When preparing food to eat, almost everything in those days was boiled. Indians believe in boiling the stuff that they ate. They boiled their meats and fish, and they boiled that pumpkin to eat it. They didn't bake it. Some of them, later on in years, started baking it. They started learning lots about cooking from the Whites later on, so they baked that in later years. But the boiling part was good. I think it was healthy for them.
While the younger people in camp worked on the garden the older class went out and got the bark sheets we used for roofing, baskets, canoes, and sheets used in the preparation of wild rice. We used a lot of birch and ash and cedar bark. They'd cut the bark when it's prime, when it's sappy. That was the best stripping time and was usually more towards summer, in April and May, for the ash and cedar, earlier for the birch. At the right season for birch, birch bark strips, but ash doesn't. At certain times of the year, even as late as May, the bark will peel right off. It'll just roll right off in strippings.
Cedar bark was taken from the big trees the same way as the birch, except that cedar was stripped according to the bark layers. The first bark, the rough bark, was taken off. Then the second bark was stripped. They'd cut the second bark around the tree in two places, just as they did with the birch, then peel off the bark between the two cuts. It comes off in big strings. I've seen cedars six feet peeled, stripped, standing. They took narrow strips out of the second bark of cedar, then rolled that up and hung it to dry. Then that was ready to be used. They were going to make threads out of it, to sew bark, to sew anything -- canoes or anything. They re-soaked the cedar bark first before they used it, so it would be flexible. They soaked it maybe overnight, maybe half a day or something like that. They soaked it so it would be flexible.
The narrow cedar strips made good threading. It was just like that wi-gob, that basswood threading, only the basswood threading was rolled up into a spool. They rolled it up into a spool with their hands when it was still wet, then hung it up to dry. When they wanted to use it they put it in lukewarm water, sometimes overnight. When they've soaked either the basswood threading or the narrow strips of cedar bark it was ready for use.
How did they thread it when they used threading? The question may be, "How did they sew with it? How did they shove the threading in through the bark?"
They had an awl. An awl was something made of a sharp nail, with a handle. If they were joining two or three larger pieces of bark there were two or three corners to thread. They shoved that awl through the bark and turned it. That drilled a hole without tearing the bark. Then they shoved the bark threads through.
Ash has a thicker bark than birch and was used more for the rugged things around the camp, like banking the side of the wigwam and for mats on the floor. Because of its thicker bark, ash has to be stripped by cutting the tree zig-zagged to produce sort of diamond shapes. You can't cut the bark around the ash tree straight. You'll rip that ash bark if you cut it straight across like the birch. If you cut it straight there's a bind on that and it'll bust open. You cut ash in a zig-zag pattern so it's flexible. With ash you need to criss-cross the hatchet as you chop. You cut it camouflaged. You cut it this way, and that way, and that way, on up to the top of the tree. This is the way you go to cut it, for instance, when you're going to use it for the siding of your wigwam. And if you're getting too-wide a piece of ash you just maybe take two chunks out rather than have the one piece. The right-sized tree will give you the right measure you want. Your bark strips very according to the size of the tree, and sometimes the ash bark starts to peel off in bigger sheets than you need. It's better to get a four-foot strip, if you can get it, but if you can't, that's all right.
Usually those ash pieces are a foot-and-a-half to two feet squares when they come off, that's why in order to use an ash tree it has to be a big enough tree. They have to be twelve to fourteen inches through at least. Those one-and-a-half and two-and-a-half feet strips are all right too, because you can lap them, one on top of one another. The sheets they'd lap together would then probably be two-and-a-half, three feet, four feet. When ash peels off the tree diamond-shaped it lays flat. To keep it that way you take this ash bark and you lay it with the rough side up, and put four- or five-foot sticks on top of that. The weight of the sticks holds the bark down, and then later on the moisture will dry up underneath. When it's dry you can pick it up and it will stay in that flat form.
The birch trees we used were most often bigger than ash. The bigger the slab of birch they got, the better it was. I've seen birch bark in sheets eight and ten feet long. Sometimes they go twelve, sixteen feet! Why? Because we'd cure wild rice on top of that. We'd put our green rice, our unprocessed rice, on those birch bark sheets to dry. We used those big sheets on a rack for bedding to dump their rice on.
Whatever tree we're using, birch or ash, we peel that bark and lay the sheets out to dry. We dried that bark right away. In drying this bark we put weights and poles across it, pushing it into what form we wanted. Most generally we'd open it up and flatten it right out in sheets, and then lay blocks of wood on top so it became usable for a wigwam. We saved these long sheets from year to year too. If it was ripped we'd just patch it with another piece of bark. Birch strips tear awful easy, but ash doesn't; also, cedar doesn't.
When the sun and weather dried it there was no moisture on the bark. It dried cured. And the bark stayed surfaced on the inside. It was surfaced so that you'd think it was varnished. It looked new all the time. After they prepared this bark, they stored the sheets. They had a storage room like the little wigwam-warehouse at the maple sugar camp to put these barks in so they were ready when they needed them. These were some of the sheets that they rolled up and tied, and carried with them when they moved from camp to camp.(4) Later on when they went to use the birch sheets for a wigwam they'd sew them together with those basswood strips, holding the birch bark by a fire to keep it a little bit limber. This birch bark is flexible when it's redried with the heat.
We stayed at the place where we picked bark and planted crops until the garden started growing good. Everybody was working all of the time. The womenfolks and the men always had something to do. The kids followed them along, and played. During that time we took care of the garden, hoeing it until along in June, July. Then things began to shape up with the berry situation. That was the time which we could get some berries and trade for food and other things. That was the time too where we saw a lot of bears.
Those days were wild. We had a lot of game and fish. And everything that you could imagine you could see up in this north country. If you wanted to see a bear, you went out in the woods and you'd run into one -- if you went at the right time and knew just about where they were. At that certain time of the season you'd see them. That time was late spring and early summer, our bark and berry times.
1. See Tim E. Holzkamm, "Ojibwa Horticulture in the Upper Mississippi and Boundary Waters," Papers of the Seventeenth Algonquian Conference, 1985. Edited by William Cowan. (Ottawa: Carleton University, 1986), pp. 143-154.
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