Memories of Lac du Flambeau Elders


The Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures’ first book publication, Memories of Lac du Flambeau Elders, is a collection of interviews with fifteen elders of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians in northern Wisconsin. The elders were all in their 70s and 80s when interviewed, and all experienced enormous changes in their lifetimes. In their stories, they talk about these historical changes, as well as the traditions and beliefs that the Ojibwe have continued to maintain, despite attempts at forced assimilation on the part of the US government and others. Their stories are testimony to the enduring strength of the Ojibwe people and their way of life.

These elders were all born in the early part of the twentieth century, some of them growing up in wigwams. Their families relied primarily on fishing, hunting, and gathering wild foods to survive. In their stories, they talk about learning these and other traditional activities, such as making maple sugar in the spring, and wild rice in the fall, making baskets and moccasins, gathering and preserving berries, as well as participating in “Indian dances” and ceremonies.

Their stories, vividly recalled, also show how historical events dramatically impacted their lives: the BIA boarding school that Native children were forced to attend; the logging camps and lumber mills, and the town that sprang up around them; hard times in the Depression, and WPA and CCC projects that later provided jobs. They describe how the reservation was emptied of nearly all able-bodied men in the 1940s, when they volunteered to serve their country in World War II. They tell of the construction and the subsequent decline of the railroad and the throngs of tourists, campers, and resort visitors that the trains once brought every summer to Lac du Flambeau. They also talk how they have attempted to instill in their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren the values and traditions they learned from their elders. Each elder ends his or her interview with words of advice to young people on how to live a good life.

There is a great deal of verbal artistry, and some very entertaining storytelling, in this collection of interviews. Language and communication have always been among the recorded strengths of the Ojibwe people: transcripts of speeches, treaty negotiations, and other documents have shown a centuries-old lineage of highly skilled orators. Since time immemorial, stories have served the Ojibwe people as educational tools, to instruct young people about traditional culture, values, and beliefs, and also as historical records, preserving family and tribal history. In the 1996 Lac du Flambeau Oral History Project, the genesis of the book, I wanted to tap those oral traditions to create a living history that might otherwise be lost. In that project, tribal members were trained to interview elders; interviews were transcribed and then published in the tribal newspaper, the Lac du Flambeau News. The final goal was to publish them as a book collection. Memories of Lac du Flambeau Elders realizes the final dream of that project, and I feel honored that it will be the first book published in the CSUMC series.

Most historical accounts of the Ojibwe people have been written by European Americans. This book tells the history of the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe in their own words. It also includes a historical introduction, going back 400 years to Lac du Flambeau’s original settlement, by Leon Valliere, Jr., Coordinator of the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe Language Program and a Lac du Flambeau tribal member. A black and white photographic portrait of the elder, by Milwaukee photographer Greg Gent, will preface each interview, and historical photos from the Lac du Flambeau museum collection will illustrate the text. The book is scheduled for publication in late 2003 – early 2004.

Beth Tornes is a writer living in Lac du Flambeau.

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Last updated: February 25, 2004