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Lessons from Ojibwe Country: Four things we learned from our American Indian Immersion Trip

By Kelly Meza-Prado and Love Soun

Ojibwe and Dakota men keep their hair long while women wear multicolor beaded earrings. As international students from Peru and Cambodia, these are the first two things that we learned to associate with American Indian identity. Despite having lived in Minnesota for a few years, it is not until we participated in the David Larsen American Indian Immersion Experience, that we encountered another dimension of the Midwest culture that we did not know before.

In this trip we visited Ojibwe sacred places, native Nations, and schools across northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. We visited during the late spring, when the Superior Lake and Madeline Island are just beginning to thaw, and when the cold is still bitter. Nonetheless, we were welcomed by Ojibwe communities to the sound of drums and dancing. We learned to say “Miigwech–thanks” to each of these gestures. We want to extend our miigwech by sharing four lessons we learned in our first American Indian experience.

  1. Learning from elders: a trip guided by ancient wisdom

In Ojibwe culture the elders represented tradition, knowledge, and wisdom. We met the elders of each reservation we visited during our trip, but we were also fortunate to have our own elders for the duration of the trip –a Lakota and two Ojibwe elders, all of whom shared stories, traditions, and the meaning of the places we visited and the ceremonies we partook.

Immersion trip 2018 with elder Jerry, at right end of the first row. Credits: Robbinsdale Area Schools

Outside Hennepin College, we began our Immersion Trip with the Pipe Ceremony led by Jerry, our Lakota elder. In a circle, we smudged with the smoke of burning tobacco and other healing plants for cleansing, and took turns holding the ceremonial pipe while Jerry prayed for an auspicious trip. Women “in their moon–menstrual period” were not allowed to participate. Though some of us felt shunned by this, Valerie, our female elder explained that in Ojibwe culture, menstrual periods are women’s own ceremony, which are much stronger than and with the power to eclipse any other Ojibwe ceremony. It is the source of healing and power of women. As women, we felt empowered by this Ojibwe understanding of womanhood, and we step aside mindful of the power within us.

  1. Relationships with Mother Nature: understanding its meanings through sacred places

We often hear about the close relationships that American Indians–and other indigenous peoples across the world–have with Mother Nature. But what does this “relationship” really mean? Through our trip, we learned that nature, and some natural sites in specific, underpin the spirituality, cosmovision and way of life of the Ojibwe people. “Moninwunakauning–Madeline Island” is perhaps the most sacred site for the Ojibwe. Aboard a ferry, we crossed the lake in the bitter cold of the early morning to visit Moninwunakauning for the first time.

Kelly Meza Prado with Madeline Island in the backdrop. Credits: Love Soun

This island was inhabited by the Ojibwe that arrived there following a prophecy, our elders told us. The island is regarded as a sacred place and home for Ojibwes everywhere. This is the place in which the Ojibwe connect with Mother Nature, find their roots and connect with each other across time and space. As a manner of giving thanks, our elder performed the traditional water ceremony. We smudged,  prayed in Ojibwe, and drank the sacred water. Similarly, we visited other native Nations, forests, and participated in traditions with a new understanding that natural spaces served as a bridge between us, the past, future, and Mother Nature.

  1. Keeping traditional tobacco sacred: teaching traditional practices the right way

We learned that the Ojibwe  name for tobacco is “Asemaa” and is extracted  from the red willow plant. As we drove from one reservation to the next, we spotted red willow everywhere–and always next to water. Water is life and it heals, said on of our elders, and this is why red willow is the source of the sacred tobacco. At the University of Duluth, we learned to derive tobacco from red willow sticks; knife in hand, we removed the superficial red bark and found our sacred tobacco underneath, which we collected to use as offerings the rest of our trip. Some of us took our tobacco all the way to Madeline Island, the most sacred place for the Ojibwe people, and made our offering there.

A key lesson we learned during this trip was the difference between traditional and commercial tobacco. Because tobacco is a sacred  element to the Ojibwe and other American Indian nations, Jerry–one of our elders–told us that many American Indian youth turn to commercial tobacco because they want to practice the tradition. But the use of commercial tobacco in non-traditional ways such as smoking and chewing puts many American Indians at a high risk of health diseases. Ojibwe people and other American Indians groups are fighting to keep tobacco sacred by teaching young generations where to find it and how to use it in the traditional way.

  1. The good and the bad: understanding Ojibwe challenges

After an unlucky spearfishing outing, we sat at the shores of the frozen lake at the Lac Du Flambeau or Waaswaaganing Nation to hear from Greg–an educator of the community–about his perspective of what life at the reservation is like–both the good and the bad. As oblivious visitors that we are, it is easier to focus only on the good: we collected birch back from the forest to make our own Ojibwe baskets, marvelled at the beauty of the sacred sites and native Nations, ate delicious Ojibwe food, danced to the sound of drums, and felt connected to nature. But Greg set us straight.

Educator of the Lac Du Flambeau or Waaswaaganing Nation, Greg, with students after spearfishing. Credits: Love Soun

Ojibwe territory and practices are still contested on many fronts. We heard stories of people in the community that are harassed for fishing and hunting in their own lands. Among others, one reason for these disputes is the old myth that Indians take from the land with no constraints. We learned from the scientist of the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commision that this is not true, that American Indian permits for fishing and hunting are among the most regulated out there backed with more than 30 years of data.

Even more puzzling was to hear about new conflicts between the native Nations and resource management organizations. Though we visited organizations making efforts to work alongside native Nations, Greg told us that the community does not feel that local knowledge is incorporated in a meaningful way. As students aspiring to work in the environmental field, we ask ourselves, can we practice science that benefits American Indians and other underrepresented groups? Will western science and local knowledge ever be ready to make decision over natural resources in an even field? We viewed our trip as a first step in a broader effort to understand Minnesota and its diverse identities and to integrate this knowledge in the future environmental work we aspire to accomplish in Minnesota and beyond. Miigwech.

Acknowledgments: We thank the organizers of the David Larsen American Indian Immersion for shaping a meaningful educational experience and for welcoming us into the program. Special thanks to the Sustainability Education of the Institute on the Environment and Natural Capital Project for funding this trip and allowing us to learn from Minnesota’s diverse indigenous culture.

Interested in an opportunity to participate in Spring 2019? Complete this form to let us know.

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