“By the shores of Gitche Gumee, by the shining Big-Sea-Water stood the wigwam of Nokomis, daughter of the moon, Nokomis. Dark behind it rose the forest, Rose the black and gloomy pine trees…”
Longfellow ~ “Song of Hiawatha”
There was a reminder of my heritage in the mail today–a welcome reminder, I might add. Once or twice a year I get notifications from either the Dept. of the Interior or the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It’s usually some legal papers regarding the small part of the reservation land that I’m heir to. I’m 1/16 Chippewa (Ojibwa) and my mother’s mother’s family–all 350 of us–own 80-acres on the Red Cliff Reservation, Lake Superior Chippewa (Bad River Band). My grandmother was born there back in 1894.
A very, very distant cousin, Joseph LaMoreaux, died intestate (without a will) and there will be a hearing in a couple of weeks in Ashland, Wisconsin, up on the shores of Gitche Gumee (Lake Superior), to probate any estate that he might have. Not likely that he had any estate, but I must say I’m intrigued by one of his two aliases: Goldmine Joe.
On two occasions I’ve gotten checks in the mail from the Interior Dept. One check was for 2 or 3 dollars many years ago and I can’t even remember what that was for, but last December there was a check that was enough that I did a double-take. Seems it was part of a settlement given to every member of the tribe. Many years ago an oil company ran a gas line across the reservation and apparently paid the tribe little or nothing for the rights–sort of a typical white-man thing. Anyway, the tribe sued, and though it took many years, there was an eventual settlement. Who knows, maybe old Joe got a big chunk of the settlement and that’s why they called him “Goldmine.” Anyway, I won’t be at the hearing but I’d like to be just to find out more about Joe and also a bit about a small part of my roots.
One vivid memory of my childhood is my grandmother, gaunt with a puff of silver hair, reciting the first few stanzas of Longfellow’s epic poem. She did this frequently, but I didn’t really understand that what she was doing was keeping me in touch with an important part of my heritage. Longfellow based his poem on Ojibwa legends, though the name he chose for the title “Hiawatha” is Iroquoian.
When I was a kid, grandma Mimi was the most important person in my life and likely the source of whatever ego-strength I have. She was strong and a survivor–a tall, big-boned woman who lost both her left arm and my grandfather in an auto accident in long before I was born. She died in 1960. She was the fourth of ten children, and as her siblings gradually passed on so too did our links to the Chippewa. When I was a kid various dark-skinned relatives would show up in Ohio and stay with us from time to time. The one who I remember best is Aunt Delia. She was either my grandmother’s aunt or first-cousin and dark as mahogany. Delia visited the family in Cincinnati when my mother was about eight or nine. At a dinner party my grandmother hosted for Delia my mother sitting next to her innocently asked, “Are you a Negro?” This greatly upset everyone. It’s humorous in retrospect, but in 1927, Cincinnati it was not chic to be thought to have colored relatives.
Ironically, this week–the week I get a tap on the shoulder about my native roots–is also the 500th anniversary of Ponce De Leon “discovering” North America. He landed somewhere between Melbourne Beach and St. Augustine, possibly at Ponce Inlet–only about 25 miles from here. However, it has always been a source of comfort that I have a claim to this land that goes back way beyond any European settlers–and there was always some strange mystical bond with the woods and lakes of my childhood. Of course, Native Americans don’t believe in private land ownership–the land owns us, we don’t own the land–and the land, of course, is a gift of the Great Spirit.
Anyway, I will close with my favorite Ojibwa quote:
“Sometimes I go about in pity for myself, and all the while a Great Wind carries me across the sky.”