Onigamiising is the Ojibwe name for Duluth. In Ojibwe language, vowels and consonants don’t sound exactly the same as they do in English, but a fairly close pronunciation might be “AH nih gum AY sing.” I was born in Onigamiising, “the place of the small portage,” as were my parents, my brothers and sisters, my children, grandchildren, and many of my relatives by blood and endearment. My grandparents came here to Onigamiising from two different reservations, Fond du Lac and Bois Forte, more than a century ago. Today most of our large extended family lives here; the rest still call it home.
What is it about this place, this Onigamiising? Why do we live here? Duluth is beautiful: stunningly, breath-takingly, sometimes even achingly; but a lifelong love requires more than a physical attraction.
Our love of this place is more than the steepness of the hills with their startling assertions of rock, more than the big lake that changes color and surface under the skies of the seasons, more even than that spectacular variety of the four seasons, that number four so meaningful in the pattern and rhythm of timeless Ojibwe tradition.
A sense of place intertwines time, space, and purpose as well as reason for being.
This place of the small portage was home to Ojibwe people who lived and walked here before Onigamiising was Duluth. Even longer ago than that, before the Great Ojibwe Migration from the East, it was home to other indigenous people who are long gone but whose spirits remain.
Surely we sense this; surely we know that the essence of those spirits is a presence more real than the tangible in our lives every day in this beautiful place.
To be a mindemoye nokomis in Duluth is to remember that one day it will be the same for us: where we walk, others will follow after we are no longer here. What we live today we will leave to those who will continue our Ojibwe ways here in Onigamiising, the place of the small portage.
How did a sense of loss of land and relocation to reservation lands affect family life? Before reservations, Ojibwe extended families lived on a land base that was large enough to support a lifestyle based on seasonal sustenance: spring maple sugaring camps, summer fishing, cultivation and gathering, fall wild rice harvest camps, winter hunting, and trapping camps.
During the warmer seasons, families prepared and saved for the cold winter months, and everyone in the family had a job and role in the process. Every person was created with a job to do, everyone was born with the ability to contribute to the group and the obligation to do so.
In extended Ojibwe families, education began very early in life, accomplished by way of the oral tradition as well as experiential learning: children learned from their elders the satisfaction of helping family and community
Here in Onigamiising, and in the entire Arrowhead region, this lifestyle changed greatly after the 1854 Treaty, which established the reservations of Bois Forte, Grand Portage, and Fond du Lac.
The effect on the traditional lifestyle was immediate and severe. The government attempted to alleviate this with food supplies that held off starvation, but created physical difficulties such as malnutrition and digestive problems for a people not used to flour, sugar, and dairy products. Physically confined and growing less healthy every day, families and communities struggled to survive. To thrive, or even to maintain, was nearly impossible.
The Treaty era ended in 1871 and was followed by the Indian boarding school era, which lasted from 1879 to 1934. During that time Indian children were removed from their families and sent away for formal schooling that was based on a federal policy of assimilation. I believe that this policy had devastating and far-reaching effects on American Indian families that continue today.
For several generations of American Indian families, the loss and absence of children became the norm. Extended family relationships were injured and broken, some permanently. The time-honored ways of teaching and learning were interrupted, for some families never to be continued. The privilege and blessing of raising children were cruelly denied, which hurt tribes and communities far beyond the family unit.
The heart’s blood of a nation is its families, and the future of a nation is its children. In the years since the Indian boarding school era, and the policies and programs of the Termination era that followed, we have endeavored to retain some of what we lost and to maintain what we have.
We remember what our grandparents and all who came before us endured, and we try to live the good lives they would want us to, honoring what is important, Bimaddiziiwin, which is the living of a good life.
Linda LeGarde Grover is professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota — Duluth, and a member of the Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe.