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|The Stories We Are
Old Meshikee and the Winter of 1929
This paper was originally published in The Subject is Story, ed. Bishop and Ostrom. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook-Heinemann. 2003.
Among many First Nation cultures, the time for telling stories is winter—at least after the first frost. Some stories, of course, are sacred and can be told only during certain ceremonies, but the stories that grandmother or grandfather would tell the children about animals, about ancestors or events in history, about how things came to be . . . these were told quite often on a winter’s evening.
Traditionally, the Ojibwe people, I am told, built their winter lodges (or "wigwams") in a circle, and the snow was piled high between them and behind them so that the center of the circle was kept clear for work during the day. In the evening, members of the family would gather inside to play or work around the fire at small tasks like repairing clothing or tools. If you’ve ever camped outside in the winter—or even simply enjoyed time on a winter evening with your family inside one small room without a television—then you know how cozy such a moment can be.
After a while, Grandfather might call you over to him.
“Little one,” he’d say. “Come here.” and reaching into a pouch, he might draw out a long pinch of kinnick-kinnick or tobacco, and he’d close your child-sized hand around it tight as a nut, and he’d say “Go now; you can tell them this time.” So this was how the word would go around: you would stop at each lodge in the family circle, and you’d give the grownups a pinch of tobacco, and you’d tell them to come, bring the children: Grandfather is telling the stories tonight.
When the old ladies in my family told me about it, they called 1929 in northern Wisconsin “the winter of all that sickness and all that snow.” By February, the snow was to your thighs in the forests, to your waist in the fields. The cows stayed close to the barns; the horses struggled to pull a wagon or a sleigh or a car down the lane. It was impossible to keep the few roads clear for long. As soon as the plow went through, the breeze would throw a drift across the road. It snowed until the train from Minneapolis couldn’t get through. It snowed until only people like Uncle Paul Babcock, who delivered the mail on his ’23 Skidoo, or those with snowshoes, like my Ojibwe relatives, could get around much at all. And still the snow came down. And sickness? All that sickness: influenza, pneumonia, croup, measles, polio. More than one family lost a baby or an elder. It was the winter of 1929, and the darkness and snow descended with a steady leveling.
Late in February, in the upstairs bedroom of the farmhouse (such a cold room, the ladies told me), a woman in her thirties labored with a difficult birth. Her name was Estelle, though the family called her Stella. She was a sweet woman, kind and practical, devout and patient and serene. More than seventy years later, they still speak of her gentleness and her joy. They speak of how she could sing and how beautifully she played the piano. But her struggle in the upstairs bedroom was not beautiful. Maybe it was a breech birth—no one can remember now—but it was a very difficult one; that much we know. Someone went for the doctor, but it was a long way to town, and the drifts were deep, and the snow still falling. So Stella gave birth without the doctor, in a cold upstairs bedroom, while the winter of all that sickness and all that snow descended outside her window.
One of the women who told me this story was Aunt Signe, the wife of Stella’s brother Paul, who carried the mail on his ’23 Skidoo. The other was Lolita, Stella’s niece by marriage. Lolita made it, probably on snowshoes or by horse and wagon, from her home on Connor’s Lake to Stella’s home on Devil’s Lake. Things did not look good. The child was fine—a healthy boy named Robert, who was getting all the attention that newborns deserve. But Stella was not fine. An infection had set in, and apparently for a while she was the only one aware of it.
“Leave the child,” she whispered to Lolita. “Someone should tend to me.” But this was 1929, winter in Wisconsin, and there was nothing the family could do for her. The doctor arrived, but too late. Stella died of what the old ladies called “childbed fever” in the winter of all that sickness and all that snow.
Stella was my grandmother. The child she would never know was my father.
Lolita was a young woman, a school teacher, but she was my baby father’s first cousin. When my father was young, she lived with his family and helped to raise him and his two older brothers. Their cousin, but the little boys thought of her as their aunt; Aunt Lite they called her. Later, she would tell me Robert was a quiet child. He spent a lot of time outdoors; never seemed to mind the snow. Lite was of Ojibwe ancestry on her mother’s side, and during winter evenings in the Great Depression, she would gather those three boys around the stove, and she would tell them stories she had learned from her Ojibwe grandfather.
“DRUMDRUM,” she’d say, and “drumdrum,” they’d answer.
Would you please tell me what is it about children that they are so infatuated with stories? When he was little, my son Isaac couldn’t even get through breakfast without making up some kind of narrative. “I have to go to the bathroom. I’ll be back as soon as I can, and do my homework.” He was three when he said that; don’t ask me where he heard about homework. And there’s the booster seat story about when I grow up, my parents will be babies: “When I get ten, from nine, Dad will be little and I’ll have to carry him.” I’ve met lots of kids who believe that one for a year or two. (In one sense, of course, they’re right. Parent/child roles do seem to reverse as we get older.) Then there’s Isaac’s version of the Jonah story from the Old Testament.
Those kinds of stories are important because they show a child’s imagination at work, and because they develop flexible minds. But, obviously, children like to hear stories as well as make them up. They like the stories in books, in movies and television (many of which I would just as soon they didn’t enjoy), but even more, they like stories about their own world, their own family, themselves.
When I was a child, the time I heard the best stories about my parents was after supper while my sister and I did dishes with my mother. We loved her stories about when she was little like us. How she lived in the city. How she cut her ankle on the sprinkler. How she broke her nose. How she used to escape into books. And then her stories about other family members, like her grandfather, who worked for the railroad briefly in South Dakota and was shot by some bullies who wanted his paycheck. (He lived.) And we always loved the one about her sister Elayne, whose boyfriend was stationed in the Pacific during World War II. The Navy would censor any reference to the exact location of their troops, but the boyfriend managed to let Elayne know where he was by using a different middle initial in her name on the address each time he wrote to her. She could put several envelopes together and spell out the name of the island where he was stationed. And you surely have stories from your family, too. We all do. It’s through stories like these that, as children, we gradually build our understanding of who we are, who our family is, where we come from.
If I tell you the story of Old Meshikee and the Shagizenz, it will have a plot and characters and point of view, and other elements we recognize. Still, in the way I’m using it, “story” isn’t formal terminology. There are some formal approaches to it you’ve probably heard, like “a story must have a beginning, middle, and end,” or “a story proceeds through the stages of conflict, climax, denouement,” or “it has five equal parts: introduction, complication, crisis, resignation, and resolution.” These are useful formulations for when we’re telling or writing a story, but they’re too formal and formulaic for just thinking about story. If I tell you the story of my father’s birth and how he first heard Old Meshikee, that narrative, too, will have plot and characters and point of view and so on, but those things probably tell us the least important meanings in the story. We need to listen instead to personal narratives like that one—and like those from your own family and your own experience—for what they tell us about pain and passion, humor and courage, disappointment and desire . . . in short, about life.
Ultimately, some researchers say, we understand life itself as a story. And maybe we think of life this way because we’re so used to hearing and telling (formal and informal) stories, or maybe when we tell stories we’re just creating small versions of life, the world, and time. Either way, story making and story telling is powerful and important work. The writer Ursula LeGuin reminds us that “there have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.”
This is no surprise, of course. We’re used to thinking of societies telling stories--especially societies from the past, or cultures that we might call “ethnic” or “traditional” or “tribal.” And we know a little about the function of storytelling in culture: how it conveys values and history and tradition and lore from one generation to the next, how it passes on wisdom about the world, about nature, about interpersonal relations. Just as stories work with children to tell them who they are, stories also work to help a society or a culture build and convey a sense of who it is, too: a cultural self-image that becomes not only the transcending story of who we are to ourselves, but also the voice by which we are known to other cultures and other times.
At a sidewalk cafe, a disheveled man pulled out a chair at the table next to me. “Can I sit here if we’re very quiet?” he asked. I made room, and he sat down. Very soon, he was whispering, then muttering, then speaking aloud. We all talk to ourselves, but this man had several selves that were talking to each other. In a whisper, he would insist that you can’t trust them. In a “normal” voice, he would answer that they were only trying to help. A sarcastic voice would interrupt, and then the moderating normal voice would reply. The issue seemed to be whether it was wise or not to go back to Saigon, though I never understood why Saigon, what it meant to him, whether he’d really ever been there, or whether anything about him could be taken at face value. But one of his voices saw Saigon as the only answer; another voice advised against it; another kept cracking jokes. In all, I counted four different personalities in the argument.
In some ways, we can think of mental or spiritual health as being well-connected to our own story. So often, where something has gotten out of balance, it has to do with disruption in the continuity of our personal narrative. There are psychiatric researchers who describe it just this way. A part of the story—a story within the story—cannot be remembered or is yet undiscovered. Or, in other cases, a fantasy becomes the substitute for a life-story that has become disconnected from reality. And these disconnections affect us at our most fundamental level: our sense of our own identity. We can see this in broader ways, too. We know that historically, as one nation would conquer another, they often systematically destroyed and outlawed the cultural symbols that were important to the identity of the conquered people. When the American army set out to destroy the buffalo, they were trying to break down the cultural identity of the Plains Nations. When the Christians burned the books of the Islamic citizens of Spain, that was an attempt to suppress the identity of a whole body of believers.
My father never told me the story of Old Meshikee. The death of his mother that winter was only one in a string of family tragedies: his grandfather had died before her, and soon his father’s brother died, too, and then the Depression struck, and the family lost their house and land and pretty much all their worldly goods. As sometimes happens, I think his family had no way to cope with these trials but simply never to speak of them. They did not allow themselves to grieve the loss of their loved ones, nor to seek help from well-to-do relatives for their financial problems, nor in a hundred small ways to acknowledge the heavy emotional toll this period of time was exacting from them. Instead, they pushed these things down inside and never spoke of them again. My father never did learn much about his own mother, and never asked, as far as I know. His brothers (men in their sixties and seventies when I knew them) would leave the room if conversation turned to these subjects. Their generation and the one before them deliberately lost these stories. I don’t think they knew that they would consequently lose their voice, too.
I was twenty-six or twenty-seven years old when I heard Old Meshikee for the first time, and I heard it from Lite, the same woman who cared for my father when he was a child, who told the story to him and his brothers. Born in 1908, she was an adult witness to the generation of trouble in the family; she remembers the main characters vividly and fondly. But as a niece and cousin, she was far enough on the outside to maintain a perspective, to see what the family was losing. On the other side of her family, Lite is a member of the Eagle Clan, Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe in northern Wisconsin—the land of Gitchi Goomi, Nokomis, and Hiawatha—and she treasures those family connections as well. She is old enough to have experienced the last years of the traditional life, to know the old people, to live for extended periods in wigwams made of birchbark. She married a man who would become a tribal chairman, and their son would later become chairman, too. As a child, Lite learned the old ways and the old stories from her grandfather, and she learned the importance of passing them on to the next generation. She pursued an education and became a teacher and a local historian. As sometimes happens when a person lives a long life in a rural area, there are now people from several generations who claim her as their mentor, their favorite teacher. And not least of all, in time she took on the mantle of oral historian to the family. Though my father moved away as soon as he was old enough to hitch-hike, eventually settling in Alaska, Aunt Lite still lives in the same county where she was born. I had known her name all my life, because she was one of the few people my father spoke of from his childhood, so when I went to visit her in 1980, it was like making a pilgrimage.
I went to her seeking to reconstruct the stories of my family, and I think she enjoyed telling them to me, because finally here was someone from the Spooner side who was willing to hear and learn and pass on the stories of the family. It was from her that I learned about the death of Estelle, my grandmother, and about a dozen other important characters from the family’s past.
And she taught me about the Ojibwe side of the family, too. She told me the children’s stories that she learned at her grandfather’s knee--the same ones she had told my father fifty years before. She told me about Winabozho the trickster, about the Spirit of the Corn, about the gift of vision which Great Spirit gave to the first people to see them through the trials of this life. And she told me about Old Meshikee and the Shagizenz.
My wife and I were hunting with my father and a friend of his in the Talkeetna Mountains. Peaks of red and gray thrust up at sharp angles, with aspen, blueberry and dwarf birch coloring the slopes, and icy streams crashing over boulders at our feet. Not far away, the Matanuska Glacier, a field of blue ice hundreds of feet thick spilled among the canyons, valleys and hollows for hundreds of square miles. We were there hunting mountain sheep, because we didn’t want to work too hard and knew we’d never catch them. But this was also a gathering place for the caribou herds in the fall. We saw them splashing through streams or grazing along the ridges, their antlers outlined against the sky, and once in a while a roving band of them would high-step through the brush just a few yards beyond our camp.
In the evenings, we sat in a circle around the fire, talking quietly as we ate or repaired tools or dried our wet clothing. One night, talk turned to family things. I had been to see the old folks in Wisconsin more recently than my father had (no surprise there), so I brought him up to date on their doings and their greetings. He asked about Lolita, of course, who had turned eighty years old that summer. Finally, I had to ask him.
“How come you never told me the story of Old Meshikee?”
“Don’t you remember Lite telling stories when you were little? Especially a story about an old turtle and his drum?”
“I don’t think so,” he said. “How does it go?”
You’d think you could see such a moment coming, yet so often it’s unexpected—you’re into it and done before you know it. But if you’ve been on either side of this exchange, it is such a gift. Not always life-changing, but something deep and full, like a small stone from another continent passing from someone’s hand into your own.
As the dark came down around our campfire, I told my father the story of Old Meshikee and the silly Shagizenz. “DRUMDRUM,” I said, and “drumdrum,” and “what you gonna do?” I said, and “can’t do that, can’t do that.” I told this folktale to my taciturn father, and I felt absolutely foolish. Imagine reciting a children’s story to frowsty grownups against a mise-en-scene of mountains, rough brush and antlers, guns and gloves and wet wool socks, not a child within a hundred miles. But I felt the power of the moment, too; what a sacred nibble of time it was.
Of course, I couldn’t read my father’s thoughts one bit. When I was all done, he just smiled to himself, looking away into the dark. Then he said yes, maybe parts of that did sound familiar, and he reached down to stir the fire gently with a stick.
The theoretical way to get at what we’re saying is that every one of us has a need to understand our self, whether we frame that understanding in terms of the traditional unitary authentic self or the postmodern disintegral shifting subject. And one important way that we learn who we are is by telling ourselves about ourselves. We construct an autobiographical narrative. Some psychological researchers think it’s an imperative natural process: we just do it—continually and unconsciously we are working on this narrative. It’s our life story. It’s our drum. We play it because it’s what we have, and because it goes with the only song we know.
If we turn this slightly and think about life as a story that we construct as we live it, then we begin to think of ourselves and other people as artists—maybe inadvertent novelists with a work in progress. Where our lives intersect with others, we become more aware of our own roles as characters in the stories and the lives of those around us. We can have an extraordinary range in this respect. If we choose to see the other as someone creating and telling a life-story, our relation to that person deepens, and we begin to wonder what our role will be. Usually, we’ll be a minor character, but we want to be the sort of character who makes a difference. We want to offer them something they need, some small thing that will help them connect to themselves and enrich the telling of their own life-story. We want them to hear Old Meshikee’s drum, the irrepressible power of the story that we are.
“Hey hey, hey hey!"
Drumdrum, drumdrum. Hey hey!