"That is who I am descended from, people who embraced the breath of life."

Photos by Megan Monday

Edith | Odanah, WI

“People assume just because I live here on the reservation that I’ve been here all my life. But I have to tell them no, I was born in Chicago, and I’m a product of the Indian Relocation Act.

The Indian Relocation Act was an initiative that displaced Native Americans from the reservations they were put on. As part of this relocation, before I was born, my mother left the Bad River Reservation to find work in Chicago. She got a job in Mayor Daley’s office. My mom wasn’t there too long before a couple of the women she worked with set her up on a blind date with their brother.

Their brother was from the island of Samoa in the South Pacific, and he was a world traveler. At age 18 he left Samoa, and together with his mom traveled to Hawaii. While there, he was exposed to ‘cultural tourism’ I guess you might call it, where visitors would attend performances to learn about the local culture. He started thinking about Samoan fire dancing and the slap dance and other things about his own culture, and realized he knew a lot about it. So he confirmed what he knew with his elders, and then he started doing traveling shows.

All that traveling ended this man up in Chicago, where he went on a blind date with my mom. The man became my dad, and he was a very good dad. This is how I came to have two cultures that I associate with, Anishinaabe, Ojibwe, from my mom’s side, and Samoan from my dad.

I was born in Chicago, but when I was still very young, my grandmother got sick with cancer of the lymph nodes, and so we moved from Chicago back to Odanah on the Bad River Reservation to be closer to her.

It was total culture shock, moving from the city. It was my first experience with an outhouse; there was no running water. Most people cooked by fire with wood. I had been living in a very diverse community in Chicago, where there were all kinds of different cultures. But Odanah was actually where I first was called a ‘pineapple picker,’ a slur and reference to me being Samoan. I realized that I am different things to different people.

We came to be with my sick grandmother, but a lot of people on the reservation were getting cancer at that time. One of the things we attribute it to was that we lived about five miles from the DuPont munitions plant, which was across the bay over in Washburn. I remember the glasses and cupboards shaking when the bombs would go off over there. Later, we found toxic run-off from that plant in the Chequamegon Bay.

I went to the Indian day school on the reservation for a little while, but then they closed it down when I was in the third grade. Turns out they didn’t have much of a plan of what to do with all of us next.

They said they were going to bus us all into Ashland to go to the Catholic school there, but when we arrived, the nuns came out to look at us, and we could hear them arguing with the other nuns that brought us there. They said, ‘What are we supposed to do with them?’

So they fired up the bus again and we drove to a second Catholic school in town. Same reaction: ‘What are we supposed to do with them?’ They said, ‘You can’t leave them here; we’ll just send them back home again,’ and things like that. We felt very out of place.

Eventually, the nuns came to an agreement. Some of us could stay, but not all of us.

They asked us to raise our hands if we wanted to go to the Ashland public school, but I didn’t know what that was. Catholic school was all I knew; I just kept my hand down. So I went to the new Catholic School, and there was a lot of disciplinary abuse that happened there.

I remember in particular this one young man who went to school with me. His name was Bobby Whitebird, and he was a wonderful artist. He used to do the funniest thing—he’d sharpen his pencil by just rubbing it on the paper on the edge. He’d sharpen up and then he’d draw the most amazing, intricate little drawings. He dropped his pencil once. I remember the nun stopping the class and stomping her way toward him. She grabbed him by the back of his shirt and pulled him into the coatroom. Everyone in the class had to sit there and listen to her hitting him, and Bobby Whitebird screaming.

Thing was she had just said, not ten minutes ago, to the whole class, ‘Do unto others as you would have done unto you.’ All us students looked at each other, like, ‘There’s something really wrong here.’ But those schools had a big influence in our area at that time.”

“When I was about eight years old and my grandmother was in remission from her cancer, I remember asking her to teach me how to ‘speak Indian.’

I think my cousins set me up for that one. They told me to go ask, so I went over and I asked, ‘Grandma, will you teach me how to talk Indian?’ Right off the bat, she gets completely infuriated. She was a very stern, tiny woman.

‘I don’t know how to speak Indian, and I’m not Indian,’ she says. Then she says to my grandpa, ‘Do you know how to talk Indian?’ He said, ‘Nope.’ She told me to go play outside, so I go out with my head down, dragging.

I told my cousins I got hollered at. They started laughing, and told me to go back and this time tell her I want to learn how to talk Chippewa. So I did.

She says to me, ‘Why should I teach you how to speak Chippewa? What do you need it for? No one talks Chippewa now.’ I said, ‘But you do. So does Grandpa. I hear others talking it down by the post office.’ She said, ‘That’s not a good enough reason.’ So again I put my head down and walk outside.

I walk and I think about it — and then it came to me.

I went back inside and I said, ‘Grandma, if I don’t know how to talk Chippewa, then how am I going to know who I am?’ She looked at me, surprised. She turned away from me for a minute and she said something to me in Ojibwemowin. What she had asked me in the language was, ‘What’s your tribe?’

She tells me, ‘Say that.’ I ask her to repeat it. I ask her, ‘Please, say it again.’ It’s difficult, I need her to say it many times. She says, ‘Oh, this is too hard, it will take too much to teach you.’ At this point I plead with her, ‘Grandma, please, please, teach me!’

And so she started small. ‘Boozhoo’ [hello]. And then she started telling me our stories, about Wenaboozhoo. He’s the one this language came from. He taught our people everything they needed to know, how to cook, how to tease each other, how to make a wigwam, shape a copper vessel, and all kinds of lessons on how we should be as Anishinaabe people. He was placed here to provide those teachings, and to give humankind a voice. So slowly, although I’m still going to Catholic school, I start to learn from Grandma.

By the time I’m about 14 years old, in 1974, the American Indian Movement was moving across the country like a wave. The Hopis used to say that when the eagle lands on the moon, things will begin to change for the people. People thought it would never happen because eagles can’t fly that high. But then one day, in 1969, it’s broadcast over national television: ‘The eagle has landed.’ We knew it was a significant time period, that we would start learning to dance again, wear moccasins, bring back ceremonies.

I learned how to dance at 14 years old and started wearing the fancy dance outfit and going to powwows. I began to ask questions about traditions. 'Teach me how to bead. Teach me how to make this outfit. Teach me how to quilt a fringed shawl. Teach me how to make these moccasins, these leggings…' My grandma taught me some of it, and others who stayed with the traditional ways.

But a lot of people didn’t hold on to the ways, because for many generations people were being punished for it. I learned much later that my ancestors did public shows to covertly hold onto the traditions, to have ceremonies. They would hide the traditional teachings in shows, have them masquerade as entertainment. It was the only way they could drum, speak their language, and teach their children without being beaten or imprisoned for it.

When I started to learn the ways again people would ask, ‘Didn’t your mother teach you?’ But that had to pass between generations. I was like, ‘No, my mother had to work! My father had to work.’ All through their lives, they were never on any government subsidy, ever. They provided for us and worked their whole lives. Everything we needed, they provided.

So slowly, my grandma taught me our language, and shared many Wenaboozhoo stories in the few years we had together.” 

“I became pregnant at 15, was married at 16, and divorced by age 19. I had three children in the process. It was scary being a teen parent. All I could think of was my children. There was no work in the area, no wages, but there were food stamps and welfare. People became dependent on it. My parents were independent, but I was the generation of government subsidies.

My marriage didn’t last, but our marriage was intended to bring those three children into the world. In our culture we say that the children choose their parents. Before they are born they choose who their mother and father are going to be. It’s all for a reason.

I needed to get out of the area to find work, and so I moved to Chicago and went to iron worker school. In the divorce, we agreed that my ex-husband would take custody of the children. I went to Chicago for a 12-week program through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and they gave me a place to live and a stipend, enough to be able to visit my kids once a month and send child support. I signed all the papers and got accepted before I learned that I’d be one of only two women there. I learned how to put rebar in, build columns, connect steel, weld, and help build skyscrapers.

But I never got to do the work. After the program, they assigned me to Washington state, building bridges over 300-foot gorges. When the boss told me that over the phone, I asked if he was out of his mind. I wasn’t going to move across the country from my children to dangle over a 300-foot gorge. So I stayed and went into construction, instead.

That way I could stay close enough to my kids and visit them. It turned out that giving my ex-husband custody was one of the best things I did, because my children had roughly ten great years with their father, and then he passed away. I’m so glad they got that time with him. After that, I was left with three children to be both the mother and the father to. Luckily, I had relatives that were willing to help me raise them. The boys stayed with their aunt, uncle, and grandfather, and my daughter came to live with me.

I had gone to Catholic school, and so my kids were brought up Catholic, too. But I was also really aware of how much damage had been done.

The religious schools and boarding schools that were put on reservations in my great-grandparents', grandparents', and my parents' generations were part of the effort to erase our traditions. They were installed to try and ‘assimilate’ us, but what that meant was they stripped away our culture and identities. Those places were full of abuse.

I started to be hungry for a spirituality that meant something to me.

Eventually my sister invited me to go to a Midewiwin ceremony with her. Midewiwin is our traditional spirituality. Over the years of the boarding schools, Midewiwin had been hidden—people didn’t practice out in the open. Our spirituality was once intact completely within our community, but by the 1970s and '80s it was decimated into just remnants along the road.

But since the American Indian Movement there’s been a big effort to reclaim the ways, and people are going to Lodge again, going to ceremonies. As soon as I experienced Midewiwin I knew that’s that’s who I am, that’s what I believe in. That’s where my heart is.

So at that time I started to walk the path I’m on today, the pathway of Midewiwin spirituality. My kids were baptized Catholic, but I have since gone back and found my kids their Indian names. My kids are still seeking their way. Some will go to church, some have found Midewiwin, it is their choice. The past catches up with the present. We’re finding all those things that were left alongside the road for us to use to live a good life.”

“One of the things I do as Midewiwin is to offer tobacco every morning. We put out a little ceremonial tobacco, to be grateful for the day and say our prayers.

After I did that offering one morning, I lit up a cigarette, because I used to smoke at that time. I lit the cigarette, but I didn’t like the taste of it or the smell of it. I didn't like the smoke on me. I had been struggling with giving it up, and that morning it just really hit me that I was addicted and I didn’t want that addiction anymore. I had just said my prayers, and so I added on. I said to the Creator, ‘I need help in letting go of this addiction. I don’t know what I can do, short of having a brain aneurysm, to get rid of this. Creator, I need help letting it go.’

Then I went and took a shower and something really strange happened.

I had been having dizzy spells all throughout the holidays, but it was a busy time, and I thought I was just dehydrated, so I drank lots of water. After my shower, I bent over to put a towel over my head and suddenly I felt like there were needles in the towel by the back of my head. I took off the towel and looked at it. I thought maybe I dropped my beading needles on it. But then when I tried to stand up straight, it felt like the top of my head was going to blow off, so I bent over again and stayed in that position.

I started feeling faint and knew I needed water. I grabbed water, prayed with it, asking for help, then called my sister and told her there’s something wrong with me, and then I call 911. I got picked up by an ambulance at 7:30 in the morning, diagnosed by 7:45, and by 9:30 I’m being helicoptered into United Hospital in St. Paul for emergency treatment. I had had a brain aneurysm. Two of them.

I had two procedures: a craniotomy and an angiogram. Then I had to stay in the hospital until there was no more threat of stroke, and so I ended up staying there for about a month. That month in the hospital was a long time, but good things happened to me while I was there.

In my room I had a shelf with gifts that people had brought to me. There was an essential oil mister from my daughter, and all these flowers, and I also had the Little Boy Water Drum that I asked to be brought to me, so the drum was sitting there on the shelf, too.

The Little Boy Water Drum is special to Midewiwin, special to our teachings and healings. So, one night, before I go to bed, I say to the drum, 'I just need to know you’re doing your work.'

Then I went to sleep. In the middle of the night, I was woken by the nurse. I’m afraid she’s going to stick me with a needle or something, and I’m bothered because I’m supposed to get uninterrupted sleep until 4 am. I open my eyes and see that she’s looking at the Little Boy Water Drum.

I said, ‘Hello’, and I startled her. She asked, ‘Are you okay?!?’ and I said, ‘Well no, I am in the intensive care unit!’ She said, ‘Okay, well, have you gotten out of bed?’ I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? I can’t move.’ She said, ‘Are you sure you weren't over there? And motioned as though she was pounding on the drum. She said, I heard somebody pounding on that drum so loud, I thought it was going to wake the entire ward.’

She was completely freaked out. I explained that the drum has medicine in it, that it was providing me an intangible healing. I thought that she must’ve heard the drum just so that I would know it was doing its work. As for me, I didn’t actually hear a thing! But I said, ‘It was probably so loud because it had to bring healing to everybody on this ward!’ She said, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to log this in tonight.’

That drum was the first thing I thought about when I woke up the next morning. I thought, ‘Was that a dream? Did that really happen?’ But the morning nurse came in and said, ‘Well, I heard you had quite the evening last night! I heard, how shall I say it…there was some paranormal activity here last night?’ and I knew it had really happened.

I had two brain aneurysms, but my doctors said I essentially came out of it unscathed. My brain function is the same. And, I haven’t smoked a cigarette since."

“I have a few names. One name is Edith Leoso. Leoso is from my Samoan side, and indicates chieftain status. My nickname is Bardot, which my dad gave me. Brigitte Bardot was popular when I was little, and at that time a lot of baby girls were being named Brigitte. My dad started calling me Ms. Bardot. Now, many know me as Bardot.

My Indian name is Niigaaniigaabowiikwe, which means Leading Woman, or the woman who stands in front of others as if to lead them. I am from the Eagle Clan. I am from Mashkii Ziibii, which does not mean Bad River. The translation is Swamp River, which really means Medicine River, as the swamp is where the medicines are found. I am the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Bad River Tribe.

The tribe assumed authority over historic preservation on the reservation through the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. Prior to the tribe taking it over, it was up to the State’s Historic Preservation Officer to decide. In other words, we weren't allowed to decide for ourselves what was culturally significant to us here. That doesn't sound right, does it? So it was right that the tribes finally got that authority.

The work I do as the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer is that I review federal undertakings based upon the information provided to me by the federal agencies or companies conducting the undertaking, and then I determine how their federal undertaking might impact tribal historic properties, either directly or indirectly. For example, how a federal agency’s permit to dredge a wetland might impact natural medicines growing in that wetland, which our tribal members still harvest. A lot of it is knowing the law—federal, tribal and state laws—and knowing what applies where during which circumstance and in conjunction with what other law. It’s complicated, but necessary to preserve our living history.

In addition to my role as the THPO, I am also a fourth degree Midewiwin woman; my role is to take care of the lodge, especially the water.

Women are the water carriers. We are the ones responsible for the water. We feel the water every month, throughout our child-bearing years. Taking care of the water is part of my work in the Lodge, but it’s the work of all women, all womb-men, who bring new life.

The work I do for the water is about awareness, so I do water ceremonies and water walks. It’s about showing how water is a living entity, just like a plant or an animal or an insect. This goes back to several teachings we have, that water is the life blood of our Mother Earth. We see it today—changes in the water create a change in our world, in our climate. Lots of shifts are happening, and what we do as human beings can impact what happens on the planet, because we’re all connected.

Water can live and die, and needs oxygen, just like us. The first time I ever heard about dead water was when I learned about the 140 miles of the St. Louis River that now doesn’t have the components left in it to support life because of mining runoff that seeps through it into the river.

You realize how alive water can be and how its life is contingent upon ours, just as ours is contingent upon it. We are healthy when our water is healthy, and when water is unhealthy, we’re unhealthy.

I have five grandchildren now. My grandkids call me Koko.

Once my grandson said to me ‘Koko, I’m going to stop calling you Koko cause it seems too baby-ish.’ I said, ‘Dude, you know you’re speaking another language?’ Koko is short for Nokomis, which means grandmother. I said, ‘You are speaking Ojibwemowin when you call me Koko.’ Ojibwe language. So he says, ‘Wait, what? I’m speaking Ojibwe when I call you Koko? I don't need to stop calling you it then!’ I said, ‘I should hope not!’

One of the most powerful things I learned early on was from one of my Elders, Mrs. Josephine Corbine. She has since traveled on to the Spirit World, but she gave me one of the first teachings I ever received as a young adult. She was part of a long list of Elders who have taught me how to live a good life. 

That teaching is called Zhawenidig. It means to love one another, take care of each other. It’s so profound, but it’s so simple. All we have in this place is each other, and we should learn to love and respect each other. Be kind to one another. It’s so simple when you think about it, but there’s so much resistance in doing that.

We see the resistance to it worldwide. I don’t know how long they’ve been fighting over across the big salt water, but with Zhawenidig, we have nothing more to fight about. We can learn from one another. In fact, learning from other cultures brings knowledge that can’t really be taught from anybody else, except from the person who has the full breath of the culture and language.

Culture is knowledge, and learning other cultures should be embraced, not blocked off with a wall. If that ideology was around during European onset, there wouldn’t be a United States. We love learning about other cultures and languages, there has never been anything wrong with doing that in our culture. There were nine different Native languages being spoken in Odanah at the time of first contact with the French explorers Radisson and Groseilliers. How many other communities can say they speak and understand nine different languages? That is who I am descended from, people who embraced the breath of life.

We all have to keep trying to move the tribe, with its customs, values, and language, forward. My hope for my community is that the past catches up with the present. That we find all those things that were left alongside of the road that we need to live a good life. We know what we need to do now."

-Edith | Odanah, WI