Molly Miller | Bowler, Wisconsin
Church was our foundation. We went to church every Sunday. My grandmother was the church organist and my grandfather helped build the church. We had Sunday School and church picnics—it was the center of my life. I have memories of playing outside in the summer and making mud pies, playing house, using leaves for plates, rocks for cups, and sticks for silverware. I never had a bike; we just played in the yard, in the field, in the woods. We had a few neighbors that were relatives.
In the nineteenth century, The Stockbridge Band of Mohican Indians was pushed from the eastern seaboard across half a continent, forced to move and uproot many times to our present land in Wisconsin. Our logo is the Many Trails design, which symbolizes endurance, strength, survival and hope. Our reservation today is located in Shawano County. My dad was the chairman of this tribe for twenty-six years. He was for the unity of all tribes; he was not the kind of person who just took care of his own. He believed in taking care of his tribe and other tribes. I grew up with leaders of different tribes at our kitchen table, talking about Intertribal unity. I sometimes listened in, and my dad had the ability to bring the group back to unity with humor. They may have formed the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council (GLITC) around that table.
The first GLITC office was in the building next door to our house, an old government building. It had a wood fire in the basement. My first job was to start the fire to heat the building for them every day. I had to get up in the morning and make a fire before I got on the school bus. Today GLITC has a large, modern complex in Lac du Flambeau. It provides a mechanism for tribes to work through the challenges of governance and services to tribal members.
So, I grew up that way. We lived in Milwaukee for a couple years. It was okay, but we came home every weekend. My father had a disability, he had a heart attack at thirty-nine. He lived twenty more years, but we always knew Daddy had a bad heart. We couldn’t ask him to do anything too physical. I think that is why he got into government and was the GLITC president and then executive director.
I had a safe, warm, and comfortable growing up until I was fifteen. Then my Daddy died, and I thought that was the worst thing that could ever happen to me. He was at a Great Lakes meeting in Wausau when it happened. He was right near the hospital, but it was just his time.
It was a tough year. My dad died in January, my maternal grandmother passed in April, and our house burned down in June. All in one year. My mom went through some emotional stuff that I didn’t understand at the time. You can see why it was hard for my mom. I was worried about her, but she got through it.
A lot of important papers for our tribe were stored in our house. When our house was burning, the community came together and got all my dad’s papers out of the house. Everybody knew a lot of our history was preserved in those papers. We had this one chance to come together to save it. This was the beginning of what became the library and museum that today holds the archives of the Stockbridge Munsee Community. My mother is the one who actually started the museum because she had all of Daddy’s papers.
I met Lloyd, my now-husband, at that same time. We met at a basketball game, Gresham versus Bowler. He was a senior and I was a sophomore. He saw me, and I saw him. And he called me the very next day. But that was the same day that we got the call that my dad died. So I couldn’t talk to him. The timing just wasn’t right then. But he came around again, many years later, when the timing was right.
I got pregnant with our first daughter that first fall at college. I had no example of how I could stay in school and be a mom, so I quit and went home. We had a second daughter. My idea of growing up and having a good life was to get a job, get a house, get a couple of cars, and go out on Friday nights—and that’s pretty much what we did. When I realized how much my husband drank, though, I cut going out on Friday nights. We went to traditional feasts, powwows, and participated in ceremonies together. One of my best memories was sitting in the Woodland Bowl amphitheater. Paul Ortega, a Mescalero Apache medicine man and musician who became president of their nation, was reading, “What Is an Indian?” We were just enthralled. I worked as the social services director. My little girls were my life. My husband couldn’t stop drinking and I divorced him when I was twenty-eight. We had been together ten years, but I just couldn’t do it anymore.
After divorcing my first husband, I went back to college to finish up. At that time I had two daughters and was pregnant with my first son. But I stayed the course this time. My girls said these were the best years of their life. I co-chaired the American Indians Reaching for Opportunity organization on campus and we accomplished a lot of activities and teachings. We met friends and had feasts.
While I was in my senior year, I came home and met a guy in the bar. He was good looking, made me laugh, and he was tribal, so of course, I had to fall in love with him. The statistics show that if you marry one alcoholic, you’re likely to marry another. And I did. And it was worse. He was mean. We were only married for about two years. It was rough, but out of this union came my full-blood Mohican son, who is very precious to me.
After I finally graduated, I came home. I didn’t go back to social services at that time; I worked for Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council as a planner. When I was 44 years old, I lost my firstborn son. That was the worst thing that could ever happen. He had taken his sister’s car, left a note, and went somewhere. There were no skid marks, so we never did know for sure what happened. He was in his lane on route 29, which was just two lanes at that time. It was the other guy that was drunk, in the wrong lane, and hit him head-on.
My son has been in the Spirit World for fifteen years now. In the beginning, I was so broken-hearted. They had a healing sweat for me because I was depressed and in bad shape after he died. In that sweat, his spirit came and said, “Ma, I didn’t do that on purpose.” He told me he loved me, and that he had not taken his own life. I believe that, but I still struggle. He once said to me “I’m just going to end up being in prison the rest of my life.” That is how down on himself he was.
After he died, we immediately went into motion and started talking circles with our kids so that nobody followed him. All of a sudden sweat lodges were appearing. Because of his death, the culture came back. I guess he was sent here for fifteen years for that reason. I know the kids are watching us adults and what we do. I want them to have a better example, so I’m trying to be that for them. We started a women’s group. We’re a matrilineal society, and it’s the elder women’s responsibility to make this community better. Pretty much everything I do is dedicated in memory of my son.
One woman was going to be a warrior, another the messenger, and another was going to be the owl with wisdom. And I said, “Well, what’s my position?” They said, “Well you’re going to be the head woman or clan mother. Which you already know you are.” The clan mother is the keeper of tradition and a helper for the people.
I have always wanted cultural knowledge. When I went back to college at the age of twenty-eight I took a Spanish class. In the first class, the professor must have seen how lost I was. He said something to me in Spanish, and I didn’t even say, “si” or “gracias” or anything. He asked me, “Why are you in here?” I said, “Well you have to take a foreign language, so I thought I’d try Spanish. But what I really want to learn is my own language.”
Munsee is one of the original languages of my tribe and is one of two Delaware languages. It is now an endangered language. My Spanish teacher recommended that I go see the head of the language department. So I did. I told that department head, “I’m going to Canada this summer to learn my language from a fluent speaker. I want to be able to write it down so I can read it when I get home.” I spent the whole summer in Canada, living with Emily Johnson, an elder first language speaker. She and I traveled thirty miles every day to where she was teaching with the Musee tribal youth program.I helped as her assistant. My first son was in my womb when I was learning language up there. His first word was “truck,” but he always said it in the guttural Delaware language way. I was able to get my foreign language credit in the Munsee language because that department chair listened to what I needed and steered me into phonetics so I could write down what I heard that elder say in our language. I got my degree in political science and Delaware history and language.
As a clan mother, the keeper of traditions, people look to me for some direction in the Big House, the place for our ceremonies. I do a lot of things. Sometimes I’ll open prayer. People ask me, almost on a daily basis, by email or text, asking how do you say this or that in the language. Or “What should I do if I’m going to a funeral?” Or “Can I come see you with tobacco? I want my Indian name.” Now that I am a language manager it is expected.
I think pursuing my master’s as a community counselor has really helped prepare me for this clan mother role. It’s also helped prepare me to be a mover and shaker about our culture. We’ve been reclaiming our history, our traditions, our culture, our language.
During the centennial, my mother worked with a grant writer to get money from the state to build an entire library and museum. We were a historical library first, an archive for our tribe. It started in just one room with my dad’s papers that we saved from the fire.Today we have The Arvid E. Miller Memorial Library and Museum, named after my dad. It is the official repository for the archives of the Stockbridge community. All those people who helped get our tribe’s papers out of our house when it was burning down years ago laid the groundwork for what we have now. Our primary goal has always been to preserve and protect our history and culture for our community and the general public. Until Covid, we were open daily to the public and hope to be open regularly again soon.
Over the years, many members of our tribe took trips out east to visit various museums, historical sites, and archives to get all the information they could about our people. Whatever they brought back is in the library. Our museum contains collections of objects and documents related to the Stockbridge Munsee people that date from Pre-Contact to the present. Our library includes books, manuscripts, correspondence, handwritten letters, maps, microfilm, microfiche, photographs, and more to assist in historical and cultural research.
We’ve worked for years to get our cultural artifacts back, and much has come back, just as our language, our culture, and our traditions are coming back. And we are doing it our way, from our stories, our elders, our language, our research. As a clan mother, I have a big responsibility to help wIth that work. Because I have found healing in my life, I can be a helper for my people, a healer of the mind and heart.
A lot of traditional teachers over the years have told me that everything is connected. When I look back over my life and my relationship to my tribe and our culture, I would have to say, in my experience, that is true. And I am blessed to have found healing and happiness personally as well. About twelve years ago Lloyd called me again. This time the timing worked, and we got married in a traditional pipe ceremony in 2012. He’s a good man. We have a good friendship and love. My life has kind of come full circle.
Molly’s story was produced by Carol Amour. Photos were taken by Corey Howell. You can visit the The Arvid E. Miller Memorial Library and Museum here.
A video of Molly’s story was created by The Ways, an ongoing series of stories from Native communities throughout the central Great Lakes. Her video is called, Clan Mother: Healing the Community. The Ways is a production of PBS Wisconsin.