Editor's note: Every winter, the Star Tribune commissions an original piece of writing from a notable local author. This year's essay is by Brenda J. Child, Northrop professor of American Studies and American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota. She is the author of the award-winning "My Grandfather's Knocking Sticks" and other books. A citizen of the Red Lake Nation, she is the granddaughter of Jeanette Auginash, who was a jingle dress dancer.
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In 1919, the influenza pandemic reached Sugar Point and Bear Island. This unusual influenza was deadly to younger people, while elders were left untouched.
Five years later, with the pandemic behind them, a scholar from the Milwaukee Public Museum arrived on the island to research Ojibwe knowledge of plants and medicine.
Huron Smith wrote a chilling entry in his field notes: "The Ojibwe could not successfully fight the influenza attack of 1919 and the present population consists of only fourteen persons."
Among those 14 were White Cloud, his wife, Ellen Red Blanket, and their son. For a month in the summer of 1924, Smith studied with and photographed the elders who were spared and who still lived on Bear Island.
Before the pandemic, Bear Island was a microcosm of the Ojibwe world. Yet the history of Bear Island has been written as if every important detail happened in the fall of 1898. Eight years after the end of the Indian Wars in the U.S., a small fight broke out on the Leech Lake Reservation between a loose collection of Ojibwe men, who were outnumbered by U.S. soldiers.
Minnesotans overreacted. Bemidji residents trembled and huddled in the courthouse, while in St. Paul a Gatling gun was loaded onto a train headed for Walker, the nearest station to Leech Lake. At the end of a single day of fighting, 19 Ojibwe men allowed the 77 soldiers to withdraw with their numerous dead and wounded. One Ojibwe person was killed, a policeman shot by the soldiers.
At the time, Minnesota was developing a vision for hunting and fishing in the state — they were to be activities for recreation, with seasonal limitations. Ojibwe men and women were incarcerated for their work of hunting and fishing.
Unlike in the rest of Minnesota, where immigrants brewed beer and opened distilleries, it was illegal to sell liquor on reservations, another source of arrest. One Leech Lake man, Bagonegiizhig (Hole in the Day), was arrested and taken to Duluth, then had to walk all the way back home to Sugar Point on Leech Lake after his release from jail. It was a long trip, especially for a 60-year-old person.
When authorities tried to arrest Bagonegiizhig again in the fall, it led to a struggle. Ojibwe people hoped to protect him, as he was a spiritual leader in the community.
Bagonegiizhig, never in the fight itself, collected spent cartridge casings and strung them into an elaborate necklace to remember the event — art as commemoration.
The "Battle of Sugar Point" is a Minnesota story. What if we set it aside and rewrite the history of Bear Island to include Ojibwe women? What if the clatter of cartridge casings became the healing sound of jingle dresses?
The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19 is part of this story. Bear Island was a place where people went in spring to prepare their gardens and gather medicines and plants for tea. Sometime during the pandemic and its aftermath, women created a medicine dress, a new tradition of healing that appears to have surfaced simultaneously in Ojibwe communities of both the United States and Canada — the Jingle Dress Dance.
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Bear Island flint corn, wild rice and the deep Indigenous knowledge of the island's abundant plants might also shape this new narrative. We can rearrange the main characters on Bear Island and move away from military men and fighters as we refocus on women. Why not give them beautiful names? We can begin with Ellen Red Blanket.
Huron Smith referred to Red Blanket as White Cloud's wife, but he also noted her Ojibwe name, Waasaawaanakwad, meaning Far Away Cloud.
Ellen Red Blanket was born around 1870, the daughter of Red Blanket, a hereditary chief at Leech Lake. John White Cloud was recorded as age 69 in the census conducted at Bear Island in the spring of 1930. Amusingly, the census taker missed Ellen Red Blanket's age by a wide margin and recorded it as 44, though she was closer to 60. Maybe she was having fun at the census taker's expense. Ellen Red Blanket spoke Ojibwe, as did everyone else at Bear Island.
It is remarkable to see John White Cloud listed as the "head of the household" and a "farmer," since Ojibwe women in Red Blanket's time controlled the economic life within their communities. For the Ojibwe, water was a gendered space where women held what you might call "property rights" and they managed and performed most of the labor in the wild rice harvest.
It was hard for outsiders to see Ojibwe women for what they were: fisherwomen, harvesters of wild rice, agriculturalists and healers. Women like Ellen Red Blanket were experts at gathering wild plants. The census taker recorded her occupation as "none."
Ellen Red Blanket and John White Cloud lived on Bear Island half the year. They planted gardens in spring, harvested wild rice in late summer and hunted deer. Women made and repaired fishing nets by hand. Fully stocked for winter, they moved back to Sugar Point and the mainland.
For the Ojibwe, plants and medicine coexist in a symbiotic partnership with song and dance. In the Ojibwe world at Bear Island, spiritual power moves through air, so sounds hold significance. Metal cones are what make a Jingle Dress and produce its sound.
Smith photographed Ellen Red Blanket on Bear Island, and that portrait is perhaps the earliest photograph we can easily date of an Ojibwe woman in a Jingle Dress.
Ellen Red Blanket's elaborate Jingle Dress was lovingly made by hand, with a row of jingles at the shoulder's yoke, and three more rows on the skirt. In a dignified portrait, she poses so that the eye can take in every angle and detail of the ribbon work. Her jingles, each one made by hand, are perfect. Even her sleeves are adorned with rows of ribbon, large sequins and jingles.
In her mid-50s, Red Blanket's hair is still black and held in place with a headband. The dress likely was made of black velvet, which Ojibwe people prefer as a fabric for dresses and beadwork. The jingles from this era have a tighter roll and can be sewn closely together on a dress. Hers might be made of tobacco cans or baking soda cans. With so many jingles close together, the old-style Jingle Dresses produced a deeper resonance than those with later Copenhagen tobacco lids, which were rolled more loosely.
The Jingle Dress tradition began in the Mille Lacs region, spread to other Ojibwe communities, and within a short time was adopted by the Dakota. It was widespread in Canada, with an origin there around Whitefish Bay, Ontario. Decades later, in the 1980s, the tradition spread among many tribal nations on pow-wow circuits across North America. Jingle Dress dancers assembled at Standing Rock to protest the pipeline project. Today, the 200,000 Ojibwe people of the U.S. and Canada remember the pandemic in stories, song and dance, a healing tradition now more than a century old.
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In 1928, when the Chippewa National Forest was established over 85% of the Leech Lake Reservation, the injustice to the people who lived there was staggering. Ojibwe allotments ended in the newly named "Chippewa" National Forest, and new signs deterred Ojibwe berry-picking. The national forest status did not protect the land as the Ojibwe had, but rather the federal government exploited and profited from excessive timber sales.
One Ojibwe leader explained what it felt like to live on just 15% of their former reservation, "We are hardly able to breathe."
Over the ensuing decades, the federal government took possession of and sold more Ojibwe land. Recently, the House and Senate passed the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Reservation Restoration Act, allowing for the return of 11,000 acres of land, a modest act of justice considering what the tribe lost. The Ojibwe are the rightful landowners of the Chippewa National Forest.
Ellen Red Blanket and John White Cloud survived the influenza at Bear Island, and Huron Smith noted that their son survived as well. But Red Blanket also had an adult daughter, Grace. Two years after the pandemic, on June 23, 1921, Grace's daughter Daisy Johnson was born on Bear Island.
Marlene Johnson Mitchell of Longville, Minn., is Grace's granddaughter and Ellen Red Blanket's great-granddaughter. This past summer, during another global pandemic, Mitchell joined an outing that my friends and I had organized to Bear Island. It was a beautiful, cool evening in August.
Masked and trying to keep our social distance, the White family from Sugar Point, Ryan, and his father, Ron, kindly took us out on their pontoon boat. I noticed shorebirds I rarely see in more populated areas of northern Minnesota, and Ron White motored around the island so we could observe the stands of ripening wild rice, almost ready for harvest.
Mitchell brought along her granddaughter, Daizy Johnson, just 19 years old and the great-granddaughter of Red Blanket's granddaughter Daisy.
The Bear Island visit was a tribute to the Ojibwe survivors of the pandemic a century ago, our ancestors who created the Jingle Dress Dance tradition.
Ellen Red Blanket lived a long life, and Mitchell had strong memories of her great-grandmother's stories. Red Blanket said their horses were first to leave the mainland in the spring, and the White Cloud and Red Blanket family would simply follow them across the frozen lake. Mitchell told us that their entire family was born and raised near Bear Island.
Her ancestors survived the first global pandemic in modern history, surely a tragic era, but most of all, Mitchell remembered Red Blanket's hopefulness and frequent words, "it was the best life."
Brenda J. Child lives in St. Paul and Bemidji, Minn.