As a teenager, Brenda Child held her grandfather’s cedar knocking sticks for the first time. It was these knocking sticks, a tool used by Ojibwe people to harvest wild rice, that would later inspire her interest in the history of Ojibwe labor and the writing of a book inspired by the family heirloom. Now, the current chair of American Studies at the University of Minnesota, Professor Brenda Child is a historian, curator of public history exhibitions and one of the tribal members rewriting the constitution of the Red Lake Nation.
“In some sense, I have always been a historian. History books were the first I checked out from the library. History has always fascinated me,” Child says. Her passion for history, particularly American Indian history, stems from what she describes as a debt to her grandparents and other ancestors. “I am the beneficiary of their survival, and that is why I wish to tell our family’s story.” Her most recent book is a family history entitled “My Grandfather’s Knocking Sticks: Ojibwe Family Life and Labor on the Reservation.”
On the power of Ojibwe women
While writing “Knocking Sticks,” Child got to spend her time thinking critically about Ojibwe women and the importance of gender as a tool of analysis. As Child puts it, “I never understood how Ojibwe society worked in the past until I learned how Ojibwe women controlled the entire economy.”
Originally, Child associated her grandfather’s cedar knocking sticks with tradition but later learned that her grandfather was in the first generation of men to harvest wild rice. Prior to 1940, wild ricing was traditionally done by Ojibwe women.
For generations, the women ran the wild rice economy and established mature legal systems to dictate who riced where. She wants people to study that history: “As Ojibwe people, as Native people, we have to take a very long view of history in order to see gender and women’s place in society.”
Why study history?
Child wants to ensure that people not only know the history in their family stories, but also study formal history. “American Indian people, young and old, seem to have a strong sense of history, because it’s so much a part of how we live,” she says. “But I encourage people to dig deeper into the formal history. Because when you deal with the big, complicated history, that’s when you get answers.”
While working on a podcast for the Minnesota Historical Society about a pair of knocking sticks from their collection, Child noticed that they were much smaller than most knocking sticks we see today. She quickly realized and informed MHS that the 1920’s era knocking sticks had to have belonged to women due to their small size. As a practice, Professor Child often takes her graduate students into the stored collections because of their important historical value. “That’s our stuff, it’s our culture. We have to study the collections, and not just the objects that make it into exhibitions.”
Working for a broad audience
Motivated by her family and tribal community, Child has exhibited her work in museums and galleries. Recent exhibitions include a cultural and arts show about the Red Lake Band of Ojibwe, which saw the most attended opening in the history of the Katherine Nash Gallery at the University of Minnesota. Prior to that, she helped curate an exhibit on the Indian boarding school system for The Heard Museum, Arizona’s second most-visited tourist destination next to the Grand Canyon.
She values the public-based scholarship as much as she does academic: “When you bring good scholarly ideas to wide audiences, amazing things happen. Let the people into the museum. Let the people tell their stories – the ones everyone wants to hear.”
Child intends to continue working in this public historian role with plans to curate shows on historical and contemporary tribal gambling, the 100th anniversary of the jingle dress, and a permanent exhibit on the Red Lake constitution – all taking place within the next year and around reservation-based cultural institutions. “When you work for a broader audience, you get people to actually read and engage with your work,” she says.
The ultimate marker of success for Child? “My uncle sees my work. My Red Lake tribal college teaches and uses my books. That’s what motivates me as a historian.”
Read more history as written by Brenda Child:
My Grandfather’s Knocking Sticks: Ojibwe Family Life and Labor on the Reservation (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2014)
Indian Subjects: Hemispheric Perspectives on the History of Indigenous Education (with Brian Klopotek, SAR Press, 2014).
Holding Our World Together: Ojibwe Women and the Survival of Community (Penguin, 2012)
Away From Home: Boarding School Experience (Heard Museum, 2000, co-author)
Boarding School Seasons: American Indian Families, 1900-1940 (University of Nebraska, 1998), won the North American Indian Prose Award.