Books and islands in oji.., p.2
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       Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country, p.2

           Louise Erdrich
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  My grandfather made the old-time kinnickinnick, red willow tobacco, a smoking mixture of shaved willow bark, sage, and other local herbs. Ojibwe people still use and make red willow tobacco, but the tobacco offered these days is most often bought in pipe shops or purchased in small foil packets. Sometimes I’m offered cigarettes to help with projects or to listen to someone’s problem. I quit smoking years ago. I began to cut down once I started running, for I soon realized that rolling a Bull Durham ciggie after a painful three-mile jog and puffing away to recover was counterproductive. So as I am now pure, I dismantle the cigarette, place the tobacco on the ground, then either bury or throw away the filter. My favorite tobacco comes from a pipe shop in Minneapolis and is called Nokomis, the Ojibwe word for grandmother. It is a rich, black, softly shredded moist stuff with a darkly sweet scent. Before I take a trip like the one I am taking now, I always buy a pound or two of this tobacco and divide it into smaller bags. Some are for the baby to give to other people, and some are for the spirits of the places we’re going to visit.

  There was a time when I wondered—do I really believe all of this? I’m half German. Rational! Does this make any sense? After a while such questions stopped mattering. Believing or not believing, it was all the same. I found myself compelled to behave toward the world as if it contained sentient spiritual beings. The question whether or not they actually existed became irrelevant. After I’d stopped thinking about it for a while, the ritual of offering tobacco became comforting and then necessary. Whenever I offered tobacco I was for that moment fully there, fully thinking, willing to address the mystery.

  Therefore, I’ve taught my children to offer tobacco (at the same time that I rail at them not to smoke it). The baby is adept at dipping her hand into the bag and waiting for the right moment to scatter the flakes. If allowed to, she’ll keep offering tobacco until the bag’s used up. She does it with such a sweet solemnity it’s hard to stop her. N’dawnis, my daughter. I still am amazed to find her here.

  Actually, I put down a lot of tobacco when I found out that I was going to have a baby. I needed every bit of spiritual help I could get. Maybe I’ll get used to the fact that she is here by the time I’m sixty-four years old and clapping wildly at her high school graduation. When I walked into my midwife’s office with a positive pregnancy test, one of my first questions was, “What kind of statistics are there on women who have babies at forty-seven?” Gently, I was told that statistics were unavailable because “there just aren’t that many women having babies at forty-seven.”

  Still, I was dazzled. I felt like Mary at the Annunciation. Mary with PMS. I wept, I snarled, I laughed like a hyena. I knew that I was frightening to others, filled with a bewildering array of hormones. I’d gone from perimenopausal to violently pregnant. On the wall behind my midwife there was a framed poster of that obnoxious poem about the woman who looks forward to getting old so that she can wear purple. I happened to be wearing purple that day, and I was old, and I was pregnant. What did this mean? Along with the dazzled feeling I was struck by the awful burden of it all. How would I do it? I don’t suppose the Virgin Mary felt sorry for herself, but I did. Then suddenly, I thought of a most wonderful consolation.

  Books. Why?

  To read and read while nursing a baby.



  * * *

  The Problem of Meeting Up in Ojibwe Country

  By the end of the first day we are in Bemidji, Minnesota, home of giant replicas of Babe the Blue Ox, Paul Bunyan, and, most importantly, where my brothers live now. Louis Erdrich, named for my German grandfather, is an environmental engineer who oversees all of the systems managers throughout the northern tier of Ojibwe country down here in the United States. He is in charge of making sure that reservations all through Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota have adequate water and sewage and waste disposal systems. This is a vast job, but Louis deals unflappably with toxic waste and buried gas tanks. My other brother, Ralph Erdrich, Jr., is the head emergency room nurse at Red Lake Hospital on Red Lake Reservation, just north of Bemidji. He sews up local brawlers, delivers babies, and extracts quantities of fishhooks from various parts of Red Lake Ojibwe bodies. We have some difficulty deciding where to meet for dinner, at Perkins or Country Kitchen. As we all worked at a Country Kitchen in Wahpeton, North Dakota, me as a waitress and hostess, and my brothers as cooks, there is a nostalgia factor. But as, therefore, we also know exactly what went on behind the scenes at Country Kitchen, we opt for Perkins.

  The interior is crowded, steamy, loud with families. Between the two of them, my brothers have five sons and one tiny new daughter. We’re sitting around three pushed-together tables, ordering baskets of onion rings and hash browns and chili and sandwiches, when I am suddenly overcome by a great feeling of happiness. My brothers are loyal and kind fellows, and they have seen me through tough times. When my husband died in 1997 they took off work to come and stay with me, to answer the telephone and guard my children. They also made sure I didn’t stay in bed all day, chew the woodwork, or just sit in the corner and drool. They helped the household keep on functioning. They kept my world partly normal. They are tall and sturdy and they make me feel safe. Now, as we sit in Perkins eating deep-fried foods and dressing-drenched salads, I am again comforted by their solid presence. They don’t have to be analytical, they don’t have to be literary, we don’t have to talk about anything at all, really. It is enough to be around them, to enjoy the continuity and the weird Erdrich history.

  They are tireless professionals in their work, but sweet and nonjudgmental in their personal lives. They are what women in the Midwest call “guy guys.” They do guy things like fish and watch football, refurnish furniture, and tinker with dangerous electrical wiring. In their guyness they relate easily to my guy, Tobasonakwut, the sun dancer and the father of Kiizhikok. They ask about him and about my plans for this trip. I am forced to say that, as usual, I have no exact idea how I’ll actually meet up with him. Although, as always, I am sure it will happen.

  Meeting up is always complicated in Ojibwe country, and never seems to happen as it was planned. Tobasonakwut, who is a traditional healer, as well as a tribal politician, teacher, and negotiator, is always being called on life or death missions. He has devoted his life to helping people. He is a one-man spiritual ER. And so, when making plans, I have found it best to be prepared to wait. I have found it best to understand things will always change and take a long time. Important and essential items will be lost, mislaid, then found, and then they will need to be repaired. I have found it best to travel with everything I need in order to spend a comfortable night, anywhere, even in my car. I spend one, though at Bemidji’s Holiday Inn Express. The next morning, as soon as Kiizhikok and I have investigated the “continental breakfast” and partaken of four kinds of dried cereal, including Froot Loops, we drive straight north past Red Lake Reservation on US 72, heading for Baudette, where I’ll cross the border.

  I’m revved up on a cup of unfamiliar coffee. Holiday Inn Express coffee. Kiizhikok drifts off after operating a plastic blender that chimes “Old MacDonald” in the barks of dogs, the croaks of frogs, or the mews of cats, or all at once. This strangely complicated toy was made in China. I am very happy as I now get to glimpse some of my favorite country. The great mashkiig, or bog, between Red Lake and Lake of the Woods, is traditionally the great Ojibwe pharmacy. It is full of medicines. There is Labrador tea, or swamp tea, makigobug. Snakeroot, which I should be carrying for good luck and health on this journey. There is balsam, a laxative. Ininiwunj, or milkweed, used on whistles as a charm for drawing deer. Pitcher plant or omukikiwidasun, which makes great toys. The Ojibwe name means “frog leggings.” There is willow for indigestion, for basketmaking, the inner bark for kinnickinnick and headaches. Makibug, sumac, for dysentery. White cedar for coughs. Highbush cranberry, blueberries, Juneberries, wild currants, gooseberries. Winabojobikuk, for snakebite. That’s “Winabojo’s arrow.” Winabojo noko
mis winizisun, painted cup, or “Winabojo’s grandmother’s hair,” used for rheumatism and for the diseases of women.

  One medicine I do use is a ginebig, or snake medicine. I’ve got some in a plastic baggy. Puffball powder is the spores of dried puffballs, collected from those white, round, low-growing mushrooms that grow everywhere, even on city boulevards. Put this powder on a cut or a scrape and it heals immediately. All of these medicines and countless others grow on either side of the highway in the tamarack bog, an ecosystem so vibrantly rich that traditional Ojibwe teachers and healers still go out to fast there, to show their respect for the medicines and to learn from these plants.

  Red willow, stands of maple, watery alder, and birch give way at last to neat little towns and isolated farms. Up near the border, at Baudette, we buy supplies and also phone cards. The phone cards are often useless in Canada, but I buy them anyway. And then we are across the border and heading up to Morson, Ontario, through Big Grassy First Nation Reserve on a familiar little highway dotted with construction crews repairing the constant erosion and washouts. I park the blue minivan at a dock in Morson. The owner of New Moon fishing lodge, Rocky Moen, helps me unload the van and transfers the duffels, the camera equipment, the portable crib, into the lodge boat.

  Rocky is a kindly and intelligent man and seems devoted to the ecology of the lake. We start talking immediately about the rock paintings as we proceed directly to the island that his family has owned since the 1950s. Rocky is intrigued with the paintings near his lodge, and he is still angry about the defacement of those paintings decades ago. “Stupid, stupid, stupid,” he says. “It bothers me a lot. I know the person who did it.” When I ask the person’s name, though, Rocky just looks pained. The trip to the island takes about forty-five minutes, and as the mainland is blazing hot this July the cool breeze is a relief. Kiizhikok stands in the whipping wind, and I hold tightly onto the handle on the back of her life jacket and grasp one leg, too, just to make sure.

  Boats make me very uncomfortable. At any moment, I think we’ll ram into a rock. The boat will sink. But I’ll still be gripping the baby. I’ll tow her to shore. There are plenty of islands around here, and I never go out onto the lake without carrying in my pocket a Ziploc baggy of waterproof matches. Once I tow the baby to shore, I’ll light a fire, fan the smoke, and eventually someone will come to investigate. We will be saved. During this short ride, I become so lost in my fantasy of boat wreck that it is only with a wrench that I return to the immediate fact that we are traveling along, so far so good, and we’re not capsizing. Rocky seems completely at home on the lake. We’ll probably be safe. I don’t relax my grip on Kiizhikok, but I do force myself to abandon my fantasy and look around at the stunning beauty.

  The islands jut from the lake, tall with hundred-year pines, rocky and severe. The water glitters with power and great tangles of second-growth bush ride by, cut with sloughs and passageways. High cliff faces shadowed with caves loom over us and there are dense island groupings, great lazy white rocks sprawled like animals just above the water. Clusters of birds, pelicans, appear to stand right on the water but are actually balancing on the tips of dangerous underwater reefs. Once I’m lost in the actual beauty of the lake, I relax a little and it isn’t long before we are drawing up to the lodge dock where a young Ojibwe man named Riel—for Louis Riel, the great French-Ojibwe Métis leader who came near to establishing a Métis Nation—helps us disembark.

  Kiizhikok and I settle ourselves into a cabin with a window that catches breezes off the lake. We’ll hear loons laughing madly all night, sometimes close and sometimes echoing from shore to shore. Outside, the great rock we’re staying on slopes dramatically into deep water. My baby actually could fall off this island. Still, living here will make it easy to set up our trips out to see the rock paintings. In the past, we’ve camped out on the islands, deciding from day to day where to pitch a tent. But I don’t want to camp with baby along. She’s quick, she’s curious, she’s smart, and she likes to put rocks in her mouth. Maybe when she’s older we can deal with open fires, slippery reefs, bugs, poison ivy, and wood ticks. Well, the wood ticks we’ll deal with anyway. Here’s one. Here’s another. They’re inevitable up here. Right now, Kiizhikok appreciates a bit of grass to run across and a predictable routine.

  A period of emptiness, unusual to my life, now begins, in which I can either fret or accomplish that rare thing, the doing of nothing. Or rather, with the baby, the doing of what the baby wants. This kind of doing is very much part of the trip, and although there is a dreamy blankness to it—the hours merge and the edges of the days grow fuzzy—these times when I devote my whole self to Kiizhikok are also times of great complexity and learning.

  I learn, for instance, that she can keep a little stone in her mouth for an entire day. The second morning on the island I see her bend over, pick up a little white oval stone, and touch her mouth with it. But when I pry her mouth open, I can’t find it. Perhaps I’ve just imagined that it went in. She gives me a betrayed look, clenches her jaws, and so I quit searching for the rock. We eat our breakfast and then we put on swimming suits. We sit for hours on one side of the island watching crayfish, ashaageshiinhyag, as they emerge in spidery shadows from the cracks of a half-submerged rock. They are fearless and dart for our toes, waving pincers. We remove them with sticks so we can ease off the rock and bob around in the lake together in our bright red life jackets.

  We surprise an otter who has come to feast on the ashaageshiinhyag. He circles a cabin with a sinuous lope and then in confusion starts toward us. He pauses on the clipped grass of the island lawn. A huge glossy boy, his whiskers quiver comically as he takes our measure. With a fabulous flop he is down the rock, in the water, paddling off on his back. He watches us for a long time before he ducks under and is gone.

  I’m very happy now. I wanted to see an otter on this trip because they are among my favorite animals and we know their feasting ground, just ten miles north. This place is in Seamo Bay. There, Kiizhikok’s grandmother and namesake, the original Nenaa’ikiizhikok, played as a child. The otter’s picnic ground is a large rock where we always find empty turtle shells. It is rather sad, but I can’t help thinking how conveniently packaged a turtle is to an otter. Like a kind of Big Mac in a crushproof box. When visiting the otters’ lunch spot, scattered with perfect empty shells, it is impossible not to imagine the otters lolling around sucking the turtles out and maybe munching a side of lichen or crayfish.

  Late that night, as I am getting little Kiizhikok ready for bed, I see an unfamiliar flash of white and fish the stone from her mouth. I hold it in my hand and look at her in distress. My sister and brother-in-law are pediatricians. This stone is a classic choking hazard. Do you understand that, Kiizhikok? Choking hazard? I look into her warm round face and try to explain. She puts her hand on my arm in a motherly way and shakes her head indulgently. I recognize the look. My teenage daughters give it to me. Oh, Mom, I’m fine and you just worry too much. My head whirls. Yes, everybody else was drunk and high on crack and heroin and many other drugs you haven’t heard of don’t want to and worst of all they were keeping stones in their mouths, choking hazards, while having unprotected sex, so I sat outside the party on the porch with the fireflies and thought about how I don’t need to do these things to have a good time.

  I’m getting anxious about my daughters.

  The fact that they are utterly responsible and I know they are safe doesn’t matter. I have got to worry.

  I’m also getting anxious about Tobasonakwut.

  All of this time, Tobasonakwut is trying very hard to get to us. I always know that. I imagine that he must find a way to tow his boat to the lake, and then to dry out some spark plugs in the motor, probably. As well, he will encounter various other delays, all based on quirks of the boat and requests from other people. Besides, it is summer and that is the busiest time for Ojibwe people.

  For the past two months, Tobasonakwut has been helping people meet their spirits
. He does this by putting them out to fast for visions. He puts people in his sweat lodge, then into his boat, drives them out to an island, leaves them there for four days, worries and prays for and checks on them during those four days, then picks them up and feeds them ceremonially and assists them in understanding their experience. He has put out hundreds of people and picked them up hundreds of times and listened to their dreams and helped them understand their insights and their suffering. When he picks them up, as they have not eaten or drunk water during those four days, as they have heard or seen things unexpected, as they have been alone in the night and often frightened, they can barely speak. They have a certain look in their eyes. He is very careful with them.

  He has been very careful with the three people, friends, who arrive the next day. I’m very glad. Now I have people to wait for him along with me. These people have fasted at the pictographs that we will visit. Every time they come to Lake of the Woods, they come prepared to become extremely hungry. This time they have decided to experience the lake in a new way—full. On the way here, however, they couldn’t help stocking up on food and drink. They have developed a Pavlovian response to the lake and find it hard to believe that they will be fed. But they are fed, and copiously. The food at the fishing lodge, provided by a dedicated cook named Donna, is right out of small-town North Dakota—it is haute cuisine if you lived in Wahpeton during the mid-’70s. A relish plate. Prime rib, thick cuts of ham, tiny bowls of cauliflower drenched in cheese sauce, always some form of potato—mashed, fried, scalloped—and pitchers of iced tea. Homemade bread. Baked chicken. Pie. Salads of iceberg lettuce and pale tomato. Kiizhikok sits high on her booster seat and eats with a fork. (She’s talented at this. We think it betokens an unusual and preternaturally advanced hand-eye coordination. Perhaps she’ll be a famous baseball player. I won’t allow her to become a fighter pilot.) Her red napkin is tucked around her neck. All around us great stuffed fish leap and gape on the walls. I feel increasingly like one of them.

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