Housing Conditions of One Hundred Fifty Chippewa Families

Kimberly Blaeser

White Earth Reservation, 1938:
wigwam
peaked lodge
bark house
tipi
log house
tar-paper shack
frame house
u.s. rehabitilation house.
sister hilger
you counted each one—
seventy-one tar-paper shacks,
eight united states rehabilitation houses
two wigwams
bark houses at rice camps—
you graphed
photographed
measured dimensions
calculated cubic air space
ennumerated every construction detail—
23 with broken windows;
99 without foundations, buildings
resting on the ground;
98 with stove pipes for chimneys.
house, dwelling, place, structure—
home. Endaayaang.

June to November
the year my mother turned five,
Mary Inez you walked these lands
the fervor of your order tucked
under one billowing black-sleeved arm,
amassing details of crowded quarters,
common-law marriages, miscegenation,
illegitimate children, limited education,
economic dependence on the WPA and CCCs
for charts that have outlived
those Anishinaabeg of the
one hundred and fifty chosen families.

Now you perch in my history
at one of  71 homemade or 79 factory-made tables
sitting tall and precise on one of the 84 benches,
49 backless chairs, or 81 arm chairs,
or standing, Mary Inez, in the homes
of one of the 16 tar-paper-shack families
or 8 frame-house families
for which you record none
under the heading of chairs.

Methodically you recite
like prayers of deliverance
each prepared question:
Why are these so many
unmarried mothers on the reservation?
Why are there so many common-law
marriages on the reservation?
What do you think can be done
to stop
the drinking to intoxication among the Indians?
I hear you interrogate each family
daily gathering indulgences
or ink smudged statistics
on what you label in caps SOCIAL PROBLEMS.
Any unmarried mother in the home?
Any intoxication in the home?
So dutifully you prompt each betrayal—
Father? Mother? Son? Daughter?
and then remind yourself, in print,
in a parenthetical aside
of the unreliability of the interviewee—
(Check this information
with some outside person.)
As if anyone then or now could forget
with whom resides the authority
for your social accounting

Ah, sister, I pity you
the prickly mystery of those questions
whose answers could not be checked
nor changed
by some reliable outside person.
So confidently you asked
Would you like to leave this home?
But seventy-three per cent of the occupants
of tar-paper-shacks on White Earth Reservation
in northwestern Minnesota in 1938
said no.
No matter, you wrote, how dilapidated
and inadequate the homes were,
the tar-paper shack families
were quite unwilling to leave them.

So they were asked again
asked another way
because it was thought
knowing the alternative
might change their mind:
Would you like to move into a rehabilitation
house; one of those fine new houses
the Indian Bureau built for the Indians?
But the negative answers grew.
Fewer still would think of leaving their home.
Not thirty-five-year-old Anna,
fifty-year-old Mary,
not a widowed mother, sixty-one years of age,
living on the outskirts of one of the highway towns,
not Old Man Mink, seventy-eight years of age,
nor his wife, ten years his junior,
who agreed they liked their one-room shack,
not Mike, twenty-nine and a regular League of Nations,
nor his white wife Jane, twenty-eight,
nor their ten-year-old son.
Gaawiin. Gaawiin niwii-naganaasiin.
Like Jim, forty years of age
and Ella, thirty-eight,
they wanted to stay
in the old ramshackled, tar-paper-covered homes.

And did you hear the bullrush psalms
of Gaa-waabaabiganikaag
as you painstakingly recorded each
softly intoned explanation?
And does the land remember you
Sister Inez, of the tar-paper-shack dwellers?
As surely it remembers Mary 
who felt well acquainted with the woods,
or Anna, who believed she was living
more like the old Indian ways?
Somewhere in that rolling land of rich loam
is the adorned body of Old Man Mink
and perhaps somewhere roams the spirit
of the Midē wiwin elder who vowed
I’ll stay right here. I won’t leave here.
I’ve lived here too long.
I wonder, Mary Inez,
did your BIA-commissioned sojourn
in the land of white clay
somewhere lay its soul mark
looming crow dark
at the ruled edges of report ledgers
spilling into cautious recollection
even as the measured drip of black ink
might draw tabulations
upon white pages?

Before Minnesota winter winds
rattled the 162 full-sized, 104 half-sized,
and 47 less than half-sized unbroken windows,
before that biboon nodin blew through
those 23 houses with cardboard-covered
broken windows or blew through
your tight-lipped post-allotment spirituality
you returned to the Order of St. Benedict
and to the list of standards set out in 1935
by the National Association of Housing Officials,
those standards against which all our measurements
fall short, become sub–sub-standard, sub-human.
You left Mary Inez, the Latin Mass
and rosary zipped safely in one pocket—
the names of each Midē wiwin elder
drumming and chanting in the other.
                    

*All italicized words are taken from Sister M. Inez Hilger’s Chippewa Families: A Social Study of White Earth Reservation, 1938.

More by Kimberly Blaeser

Cadastre, Apostle Islands

 

I.

A soap-opera rising and sinking of bodies,

melt of glaciers, flamboyant sculpture of waves—

west wind at thirty knots

this serial archipelago the drama of centuries.

Forgotten Steamboat Island

swallowed like the sunken ships—

one episode of tide and time,

now another buried underwater treasure.

How to plat the ancient—27,232 submerged acres;

mark or name the temporary—newly formed seastacks,

shifting sand spits and tombolos?

 

Imagine the geared toy of evolution:

twenty-two islands swimming in 40 degrees, in aqua,

honeycombed with vaulted chambers, with caverns

whose deeply carved crevices house whisper

and splash, echo cormorant and eagle scree

(breeding habitat for 150 bird species)

harbor the keening of human loss—

distress signals at 2:05 a.m..

How to measure this littoral expanse—man miles or

decibels of the drum-like surf on mythic Devils isle?

 

Imagine henna wheat copper buff and umber arches—

this billion year old layered sandstone rises

red and cathedral gothic

at Swallow’s Point, Mawikwe Bay.

Yes, each epoch a burnished stratum, a wave of color.

We flat map with metes and bounds—Manitou Island,

Hermit, Ironwood—trace ownership in treaties and deeds,

but cannot account each mystic transformation:

the graceful circumference of wind twists in white pine,

or how the friction of time and waves shape song—

emitted frequency 450 Hertz.

My feet a plectrum on the quartz lyre of Stockton Island

this globular singing sand is nature’s genius,

the whistle, squeak, or eerie bark—ephemeral.

 

II.

Beyond flat fact Apostle Island histories overlap, stack

like horse skeletons at the bottom of each ravine:

the glimpse of steamer spines in clear water,

the sunken and mummified hemlock and birds-eye maple—

salvage logs now kilned and carved to fine-grained guitars.

The past is hollow bellies of Anishinaabeg canoes

is the echo of old names and weighted fill of rocks—

birch bark given to winter waters for preservation.

The piled stone, the stories—Midewiwin lodges,

Voyageurs and fisheries, lighthouses and loggers

trace another measure, paint the palimpsest of place.

 

Among abandoned brownstone quarries on Basswood Island

each cubed hollow the math of absence and distance—

of courthouse buildings rising square by brown square

in mainland cities like Bayfield and Milwaukee.

This beanstalk-tall barter is also loss:

of peerless brown furs

traded to drape bodies of moneyed matrons,

or 500 million board feet of disappearing timber each year.

When history is a bedlam of John Jacob Astor commodity

and weather a storied purple destiny of ships run aground,

who can name island gods or number sands on Raspberry,

Otter, Gull, and Oak?

How ruler each breathless angel edge

of ledge rock, record equation for velocity of change,

mirror the fetal scroll of fiddlehead ferns—

or praise with proper song each turtle-shaped survival? 

 

 

Apprenticed to Justice

The weight of ashes
from burned-out camps.
Lodges smoulder in fire,
animal hides wither
their mythic images shrinking
pulling in on themselves,
all incinerated
fragments
of breath bone and basket 
rest heavy
sink deep
like wintering frogs.
And no dustbowl wind
can lift
this history
of loss.

Now fertilized by generations—
ashes upon ashes,
this old earth erupts.
Medicine voices rise like mists
white buffalo memories
teeth marks on birch bark 
forgotten forms
tremble into wholeness.

And the grey weathered stumps,
trees and treaties
cut down
trampled for wealth.
Flat Potlatch plateaus
of ghost forests
raked by bears
soften rot inward
until tiny arrows of green
sprout
rise erect
rootfed
from each crumbling center.

Some will never laugh
as easily.
Will hide knives
silver as fish in their boots,
hoard names
as if they could be stolen
as easily as land,
will paper their walls
with maps and broken promises,
scar their flesh
with this badge
heavy as ashes.

And this is a poem
for those
apprenticed
from birth.
In the womb
of your mother nation
heartbeats
sound like drums
drums like thunder
thunder like twelve thousand
walking
then ten thousand
then eight
walking away
from stolen homes
from burned out camps
from relatives fallen
as they walked
then crawled
then fell.

This is the woodpecker sound
of an old retreat.
It becomes an echo.
an accounting
to be reconciled.
This is the sound
of trees falling in the woods
when they are heard,
of red nations falling
when they are remembered.
This is the sound
we hear
when fist meets flesh
when bullets pop against chests
when memories rattle hollow in stomachs.    

And we turn this sound
over and over again
until it becomes
fertile ground
from which we will build
new nations
upon the ashes of our ancestors.
Until it becomes
the rattle of a new revolution
these fingers
drumming on keys.

After Words

Because the smallness of our being
is our only greatness.

Because one night I was in a room
listening until only one heart beat.

Because in these last years I’ve
worn and worn and nearly worn out
my black funeral shoes.

Because the gesture of after words
means the same thing no matter
who speaks them.
Because faith belief forever
are only words, no matter.
Because matter disappears
always and eventually.
Because action is not matter
but energy
that spent, changes being.

And if death, too, is a change of being
perhaps action counts.
And if death is a land of unknowing,
perhaps we do well to live with uncertainty.
And if death is a forested land,
it would be good to learn trees.
And if death is a kingdom,
it would be good to practice service.
And if death is a foreign state
we should loosen allegiance to this one.
And if the soul leaves our body
then we must rehearse goodbye.