Books and islands in oji.., p.7
Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country,
Reading Sebald’s Austerlitz in a cheap motel, insecure, with a chair pushed beneath the doorknob and the drapes held shut with hair clips, is an experience for which I will always be grateful. Books. Why? For just such a situation. Marooned in this uneasy night, shaken by the periodic shudder of passing semi trucks, every sentence grips me. My brain holds onto each trailing line as though grasping a black rope in a threatening fog. I finish half a page, then read it over again, then read the next half of the page and then the entire page, twice. Not many books can be read with such intimacy, nor are there many so beautifully composed that the writing alone brings comfort. I carry Middlemarch along with me on book tours because the elaborate twists in George Eliot’s sentences provoke in me a mood of concentrated calm.
Austerlitz is about the near dissolution of a man’s personality during the reconstruction of his memory. Austerlitz, who has forgotten most of his early childhood, follows threads of history, traceries of his own consciousness; he digs through lists of deportees and examines photographs and propaganda movies to find the truth of his origins. He learns that he was sent on a children’s transport from Prague to England at the beginning of World War II, and that his mother died in the humanly mechanized and phenomenally cruel “model ghetto” of Theresienstadt. He understands this slowly. The book moves minutely along this path toward knowledge, and seems at every sentence to deviate but always returns to the unfolding story. It is a very simple book, and unbearably profound. Page after page is about how history sinks into the mind, tormentingly sometimes, and what arrests and disturbances truth causes until finally the human heart can accept its sorrows, heal itself by enduring the unendurable, and go on beating.
The books we bring to strange places become guides and prevailing metaphors, catch-alls, lenses for new experience. As I read late into the night, moths whirling at the spotted shade, this book speaks to me with melancholy prescience, anticipating 9/11 in the first pages when Austerlitz speaks of how the smallest buildings—cottages, little pavilions—bring us peace, while we contemplate vast buildings, overdone buildings, with a wonder which is also dawning horror “for somehow we know by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins.” The description of the village of Llanwddyn, in Wales, submerged by the waters of a great reservoir, reminds me of the sensations I experience when talking to Tobasonakwut about the many settlements and cabins far out on Lake of the Woods, some of them drowned. Like Austerlitz, I too feel as though I’ve seen the vanished people walking, felt their eyes upon me, and that when I stare down into the opaque water, they are somehow calmly looking up from their ordinary tasks, which they have carried on, below us, for thousands of years.
I try to stay awake for as long as I can, getting up to wash my face at the rust-stained sink. Every time I turn on the tap unseen pipes clunk. Finally, one page sluices into the next and I start awake to find I have been holding my book upright, perhaps reading in my sleep, for I don’t know if my eyes were even shut. And I wonder as I turn out the light and settle into the sagging mattress if my sleeping self understood what it read, and indeed, if I will ever know who I am during these dark hours? Asleep, we are strangers to ourselves. Sometimes, as now, it seems odd that we go on day after day accepting this great dislocation, growing used to it, trusting that our night self resembles our day self, that neither will betray the other come morning.
On Minn. 11 driving east toward the border crossing at International Falls, I see a large billboard that advertises “a gathering place of historical interest.” Kah-Nah-Whi-Wah-Nung. I’m intrigued and as I have some time to dispose of, I decide to investigate. The road I am directed down is quite deserted, and for many miles I see only pastures, a few tawny brown cows, fence posts and gravel. Then suddenly I turn into a large parking lot filled with cars from as far away as Illinois and Florida. The place is still mysterious. From the lot I can see only a wooden door and part of a cedar shake roof. Upon entering the door, and facing a sudden and surprising curve of descending stairs, I understand I’ve come upon some sort of museum. As I walk down the long, wide, yellow stone staircase, the building opens into a cool, graceful, pleasant interior space divided into display sections, a book and craft shop, and an aquarium filled with live sturgeon, namewag.
I’m very glad to see the sturgeon close up, and watch them eagerly. They are, indeed, strangely ancient-looking with their rumpled snouts and whiskers. Their bellies are a cool off-white and their skins are gray, the color so soft and they look painted. They are here, in this building, because the Rainy River Band of Ojibwe is raising and releasing them into the Rainy River. These young namewag are the size of large walleyes, but they may grow to be underwater giants, like the one that Kiizhikok and I saw at the Eternal Sands, or even bigger.
After looking through the displays of Ojibwe life and at the collections of artifacts, I treat myself to the gift shop. I find a number of handmade mocassins, the word is from the Ojibwe, usually spelled makazinan. These locally made makazinan are unusually fine, some made with brain-tanned moosehide, No. 13 beads or cut beads, and lined with blanket material or rabbit fur. I pick out several pairs, and then find a book of poems, Spirit Horses, by an Ojibwe poet I admire named Al Hunter. The woman who handles the sale proudly tells me that she’s Al’s niece, and that he happens to be downstairs.
I point out my name on the back cover of Al’s book, a blurb. Al comes upstairs and we sit down in the little café which serves fresh, beautiful, Ojibwe-influenced wild rice soups, casseroles, fruit salads. We drink the ubiquitous iced tea of this part of Canada. Al and his partner Sandra recently completed a walk around Lake Superior to draw attention to its pollution. That’s a long walk. Al says the days merged, and that time was beautiful. He works for his band, Rainy River Ojibwe, on a land claim that has had promising results—so far, this center, which is located on land containing huge burial mounds restored to the tribe, is one of those results. He tells me something very striking. He says that when he returned home after his education, to work, there were many terrible and pressing needs to address on his reserve—poverty, alcoholism, despair—so he called a meeting. At this meeting, he needed to tell people there was something that their reserve gravely needed. A library.
Because they are wealth, sobriety, and hope.
Al’s reserve now has a library bought with tribal contributions and slowly filling with books.
The Border Crossing
I try not to be nervous, but I can’t help it—I am carrying those eagle spikes and although I have a right to carry them and I have my band enrollment card, I hate the questioning, the scrutiny, the suspicious nature of the border guards. What I don’t expect is that the man, my age, very trim and professional looking in his blue uniform, will question me about my baby.
“Do you have any proof that you’re her mother?”
I stare at him in shock, it is such a strange question. I have to think.
“Well,” I say, “I can nurse her.”
He stares back at me. Gestures to the side of a building.
Am I going to be required to nurse my baby in front of some border-crossing guard? I pull over, wishing that I had a copy of the Jay Treaty, which guarantees Native People the right to cross the Canadian–U.S. border without hassle. A woman meets me. I undergo more questioning. I start to grip Kiizhikok a little harder, in alarm I suppose, and in response she holds onto me tightly. The guard asks a series of easy questions and then, suddenly, as though to trip me up, shoots the question, “And who is this?” at me, indicating Kiizhikok. Each time, grasping the strategy, I shoot right back, “My daughter!” Each time, Kiizhikok grips me even tighter. I’m so glad she isn’t going through one of those mother-rejecting stages, or branching out adventurously, or growling at me, as she likes to do as a joke, right now.
“What have they done to me?” I say out loud, buckling her in, giving her the baby cell phone and the Chinese blender and her sippy cup, then buckling myself in and guzzling water from a plastic bottle. It’s time to get out of International Falls and back onto a lake.
Meeting Up Again
Once again there is this meeting-up uncertainty. I am supposed to rendezvous with members of the Lac Court Oreilles Ojibwe Language Society. We are going to stay together at an island on Rainy Lake among Ernest Oberholtzer’s thousands of books. There was a phone call, a plan, a lost cell phone number, a time to meet. The words Super Stop or Stop and Super or One Stop or Super Shop and Save. Immediately after hanging up I should have written down the name of the meeting place! As I enter International Falls I am more and more confused by the similarity of gas station stop names and supermarkets. They seem to have the same name in various combinations. I make a slow examination of each one, but don’t find my friends. Finally, I haul Kiizhikok out and we do a magnificent shopping at a place called Super One. We buy fresh cherries and all the makings for a corn stew and for an innovative type of trail mix that we have developed on this trip—one that includes salted nuts, pecans, figs, cinnamon chips, and golden raisins. We buy milk, lettuce, and a box of arrowroot baby crackers. Slowly, we walk the aisles, waiting for our friends, until I realize that in one-half hour I have to meet the boat that will take us out to the island.
As it turns out, it was just lateness, an Ojibwe trait so common it is not considered a failing. I’m relieved to see that everyone is gathering and consolidating gear once I go out to the point from which we will embark. My particular friends are a young couple with a baby boy just Kiizhikok’s age. They are Ojibwe teachers and very passionate about the language. They speak only Ojibwe to their son, and to my baby, too. She understands them and has quite a few Ojibwe words. Her shoes are maki for makizanan and her water is nibi, but we have a long way to go before sentence structure. We are going to drive out in a pontoon boat steered by the caretaker of the island, a very agreeable, sunny-haired woman from Ames, Iowa, named Mary Holmes.
Years ago, Mary fell in love with the island of the books, became a caretaker of that island, and is now on the board of the small foundation that administers a tiny trust and takes care of the estate that belonged to Ernest Oberholtzer. The trust allows a few small groups to visit the ecologically fragile island. Because Ernest Oberholtzer was a close friend to the Ojibwe, the foundation honors that relationship by allowing teachers and serious students of the language, as well as one or two Ojibwe writers, to visit on retreats. Most people who come to Ober’s island more than a few times become working members of the loose conglomerate of people who support the place in one way or another. It is the kind of place that inspires a certain energy that I can only term “Oberholtzerian”—a combination of erudition, conservationism, nativism, and exuberant eccentricity. Perhaps, I think, the air of Tinkertoy idealism here has something to do with the confluence of fascinations that occurs when Germans and Ojibwe people mix. This place reminds me quite a bit of my own family.
He was born in 1884, grew up in an upper middle-class home in Davenport, Iowa, suffered a bout of rheumatic fever that weakened his heart. He went to Harvard, where he made friends with bookish people like Conrad Aiken and Samuel Eliot Morison. His heart kept bothering him. Told by a doctor he had just one year to live, he decided to spend it in a canoe. He traveled three thousand miles in a summer. Paddling a canoe around the Rainy Lake watershed and through the Quetico-Superior wilderness was just the thing for his heart, so he kept on paddling. He lived to be ninety-three years old.
Ernest Oberholtzer packed those years with passions and enthusiasms, ceaseless physical activity, and loving friendships. He never married, though he lived on his island with a woman who supported him and apparently would have liked to tie the knot. He was trained to play the classical violin and he loved literature, book collecting, landscape architecture, bike travel, and photographing moose. The greatest political act of his life was to take on the massive lumber companies and save the Boundary Waters, the Quetico-Superior wilderness, I hope for all time. His friendships with the Ojibwe were abiding, he was a devoted and very curious companion. He was attracted to the unknown, to great deeds, and exploration.
In 1912, at the age of twenty-eight, he persuaded an extremely capable fifty-year-old Ojibwe man, Taytahpaswaywitong, Billy Magee, to accompany him on an expedition that he hoped would make his name as an explorer. He intended to travel the Barrens bounded by Lake Winnipeg, Hudson Bay, and Reindeer Lake. The area was unmapped, unknown, unexplored since Samuel Hearne’s 1770 expedition. They were, of course, going by canoe.
Oberholtzer wasn’t much of a hunter, so they had to pack an inordinate amount of food—seven hundred pounds. Every portage consisted of five round-trips. They had a small window of opportunity before the lakes and rivers would freeze solid, stranding them, and so began their journey in late June. By August they would experience freezing nights and woodlands covered in frost. By September, October, and at last November, they would be paddling for their lives. Filling in blanks on the map by using a compass and watch that his mother had given him, Ober mapped the terrain through which they passed. They paddled steadily, and thereby estimated distances hour by hour. Often lost, they desperately navigated mazey lakes, ultimately Nueltin, or Sleeping Island Lake, searching for a river called Thiewiaza that would deliver them in a path toward Hudson Bay.
Loneliness, anxiety, and the strangeness of the lake itself worked on Oberholtzer and at times his journal entries took on a desperate, dreamy quality. On the Barrens, the men hallucinated, lost themselves, but managed to plunge on. Ober saw trees as city smokestacks, people who weren’t there. Ever after, the journey was to haunt Ober and remain mysterious to others. At one point he climbed an esker and left in a can a note with his last words. In his journal, Ober notes that Billy Magee would tell him how, every night, he talked in his sleep or made horrible noises. The two came down the side of Hudson Bay. They missed the last steamer out of the country to run before the lakes and rivers froze over, and so they headed south just a hair before winter, freezing all the way and paddling fourteen hours at a stretch, often through the night, their feet and legs stuffed all around with wild hay. Incredibly, they paddled until the first week of November, through snow, along the shore of Lake Winnipeg, and at last made the small settlement of Gimli, Manitoba. There, the two beached their canoe, got haircuts, and returned to the world. They had been paddling and portaging nonstop, often deep into the night, since June 25.
It was a grueling, original, life-changing feat. Though Ober lectured on the trip, he never managed to write about it. Joe Paddock observes in Keeper of the Wild:
Though a conflicted desire to do so haunted him into old age, Ober would never publish or even complete a written account of the Hudson Bay trip. Over the years, whenever he did try to write of it he was overwhelmed with emotion. One is reminded of Meriwether Lewis’s inability to write of his great wilderness adventure. As with Lewis, Ober’s careful journal of the trip may in itself be the significant book he hoped would one day tell his tale.
That book, Toward Magnetic North, has recently been published along with many of the extraordinary photographs that Ober took of the places and of the people he encountered. His photographs of a family of Inuit hunters who took them in and guided them at the northernmost reach of their voyage are the most remarkable. In one, an ancient woman, probably about my age, is framed by a huge stack of wood on her back. She drags herself along or rights herself with two sticks. Another, of a ten-year-old boy to whom his father gave the pipe Ober offered the family as a
Ober’s House and Ober’s Books
On reaching the island, I find I am the last to choose a place to stay. I’m thrilled to find that no one else has decided to sleep at Oberholtzer’s house. Though each cabin has its own charm, I’ve always wanted to stay at Oberholtzer’s. I want to stay among what I imagine must have been his favorite books. The foundation has tried to keep the feeling of Ober’s world intact, and so the books that line the walls of his loft bedroom were pretty much the ones he chose to keep there, just hundreds out of more than 11,000 on the island. Heavy on Keats, I notice right off, as we enter. Volumes of both the poems and letters. Lots of Shakespeare. A gorgeously illustrated copy of Leaves of Grass. In some shelves in an alcove above the bed, curious volumes on sexuality including Kraft-Ebbing. I take down one work entitled Sin and Sex, and find that an old letter has been used as a bookmark. I read the letter, which is from Oberholtzer to his mother. The subject of the letter is the stock market. Oh well. I replace the letter in the book. Kiizhikok and I spread our quilts on the bed and then we lay down to admire the view from the bed, straight down a rocky channel into a lovely little bay.
Both of the islands next to this one, also owned by the foundation, are kept wild. This island, Mallard, is planted with cheerful care—pink petunias in bark planters. Baskets of salmon impatiens. Tiny perennial gardens of daisies and lilies are set against stone walls. It has seven cabins and two outhouses. But to call the buildings cabins and the privies outhouses is completely inadequate. To start with, Oberholtzer’s house is built against the side of a rock and rises three full stories with a surprise sleeping cupola on top, a secret room that can be reached only through a ladder leading into what looks like a chimney. For handles, the sturdy riveted doors are fitted with pieces of curved driftwood, or antlers. The very first floor, the kitchen, is reached either through a trapdoor from above, or an outside screen door above stone steps that lead directly down into the lake. Next to the kitchen door, against the cool of another rock wall, an ice house is set, disguised by vines that loop over a pale turquoise door. I love this door-leading-into-the-stone-hill. I have photographed it many times. There is a Japanese teahouse at the end of the island. To reach it, one crosses an arched stone bridge. Another set of stone steps leads into what is called The Roman Bath—a deep tub of silky lake. There is The Birdhouse, rising like a Seuss concoction into the pines, story after story, with a zigzag of steps and ladders. As the other cabins are, it’s heated with a tiny woodstove. There is one more house, made like the others of unpeeled cedar logs, there is a library cabin, which I’ll get to, and there are the outhouses. Mine is built with a tiny step up, a perfect screen door, a lovely window, and a long view down the center of the channel facing east.
Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country by Louise Erdrich / Actions & Adventure have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes