The Serving Years

Entering the fifth decade of one’s life tends to bring on a new humility. The awareness of how much has been received through one’s times of blossoming, wandering, and awakening can bring a person to her knees and trigger a yearning to serve in return. This was so for me, and I was called to join in what became known as the Walleye Wars: the Wisconsin Ojibwe people’s struggle to reclaim their treaty rights to hunt and fish on territory they ceded to the federal government. We prevailed, and I was honored as an Ogichidaa (Warrior) by the Lac Du Flambeau Ojibwe.

The prime reason for our victory was the solid guidance of the Elders. One of the most prominent was Bawd-way-wi-dun, a Lac Court Oreilles Ojibwe and Grand Chief of the Midewiwin (Grand Medicine Society of the Algonquian people, which includes the Ojibwe, Potawatomi, Odawa, and others). From him I learned about the value of water, the Mother’s blood, and how to maintain balanced relationship with water through seasonal ceremony. He instructed us in the role of women as Keepers of the Water.

Perhaps the greatest teaching I received from Bawd-way-wi-dun is about respect — for the Ancestors, for the traditional medicines and the teachings that accompany them, and for the people who set themselves up as enemies of the Old Way.

During this time my skill with the language progressed markedly under the tutelage of Lac Du Flambeau Ojibwe Don Carufel. His concern for the appropriation of the language for personal gain helped me be respectful of the sources of my knowledge by giving them recognition and honoring them for their contributions.

The Gifting Way took on a broad, new dimension one fiery dawn upon emerging from Keewaydinoquay’s Sweat Lodge after an intense all-night ceremony. Diving into the lake, I lay suspended over the rocky bottom as though I were in a womb. The rocks beneath glowed with the florescent brilliance of the sky.

Upon breaking the surface, I found myself surrounded by a milky, luminescent fog that obliterated the world as I knew it. All I knew — all I now had — was this vibrant point in time and space. Maang (Loon) called from the West and I was touched with wisdom, from the North and I was drawn to introspection, from the East and I was taken with inspiration. I was reborn.

Demonstrating pelt stretching

Serving was no longer a particular act, but rather my life. Where once I would tan a hide or build a canoe for myself, that motivation left me and I now did it for all the people. As is typical of this time in life, my craftwork and other lifeway skills peaked. What better time to pass on what I had learned over the years? With renewed dedication I shared with all who were respectful and sincere: Australian Aborigines, native Taiwanese, Africans, and Americans (Cherokee, Oneida, Ojibwe, and others); along with aspiring non-natives from around the world. They honored me by giving me the opportunity to practice the Gifting Way, and at the same time I learned much from them.

For an organizing vehicle, the Teaching Drum Outdoor School was born, and I helped set up a similar institution on the nearby Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe reservation. Under the auspices of the school, I provided artifacts and consulting services to native and non-native museums, historical sites, and researchers.

A student receives pointers
on tanning technique