Sense of Place
I stepped foot on the Leech Lake reservation when I was 19 years old. It was the first time I would visit my biological mother, at her home, on the Stony Point peninsula.
I woke up to a pack of wild neighborhood dogs chasing our car down Stony Point Road, minutes before arriving at my mother’s house. When we got out of the car, the air was thick, swollen with the hum of insects. Having grown up in meticulously groomed suburbia, I remember feeling a bit of culture shock, but it was mixed with a sense of wonder. Sort of like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. A mixture of familiarity and fear. My mother’s yard, like the dogs, welcomed the wildness in me. Climbing vines guarded her fence, and giant purple lilacs affably veiled the entry to her home. Her space was organic, lush, and humble, supported in strength by beautiful trees, two of which framed Cass Lake, accessible by a stairway of old tires my mother had built into the earth behind her house.
Cass Lake swaddled my mother’s home, making it feel island-like. Ash logs smoldered in a dug-out fire pit throughout the days and nights like great incense sticks. The scent was different from the sagebrush and juniper-perfumed Santa Monica Mountain air. Cass Lake’s aroma had a distinct character of green soft tones, connecting me to a part of myself I hadn’t remembered.
That first visit was overflowing with new family, shirttail cousins, and friends from all over who came to meet me. We shared stories, laughs and an ample feast with foods like manoomin (wild rice) and fried wagaawag (walleye), which were completely new to me. An offering of those foods was placed at the foot of a tree for our ancestors.
After that initial visit to Cass Lake, a curiosity ignited in me. I kept coming back to the Northwoods. My visits lasted a few weeks, then months, then years. Something was calling me home. Coming from a big modern city to a small rural town felt like a step back in time, but this appealed to me. There was a bundle living in the ethers of the past and I wanted to find it. It was here, living with my mother on Stony Point, where I experienced a spiritual and emotional awakening.
Stark differences between the way I had been raised, and the environment in which I was raised confounded my newfound relationship with my bio-mother, as we got to know one another on the land where she, and now I, lived. A lot was lost in translation. I was on her turf, and on more than one occasion I got bit for being the outsider. As a 20-something young woman who had been living in Hollywood, California, I was on the fast track to an acting career and had grown accustomed to living it up Hollywood-style: attending parties, clubs, film sets, and rubbing elbows with movie stars, artists, and musicians while awaiting my big break. Now I found myself living out in the middle of nowhere. If it weren’t for the warm earth beneath my feet, the cool plunges into the green lakes, and the wildflowers that seemed to croon, I’m not sure I would have stuck around. My defenses were down, and the land was healing me, singing to my bones, supporting me in the motherly way I so needed.
My mother shared her sacred spots with me—blooming trails, woodland hideaways, and her most beloved tree that stretched out over the water at her home on the peninsula. The peninsula had been said to have a serpent living beneath it, making it ever more a mysteriously powerful place, a place deserving much respect and consideration. My mother took me in her canoe around the rice beds on Cass Lake and to Star Island where she spoke of Lake Windigo, and the dynamic nature of this lake inside an island. She took me to sweat lodge, shaking tent, and pow wow. She introduced me to sugar bush, a berry-fast, and many women’s circles and ceremonies that embraced me, nurtured me, and gave to me, gently, along my way. She told me that “the spirits are always laughing,” and I found this to ring true. These experiences she shared with me are etched into my consciousness, gifts I hold dearly to my being.
There were evenings when we would tend fire in the yard and recline in our chairs watching the smoke. In the calm, quietness of those evenings, I saw the simple, yet complex visions of life expressed in the smoke’s shadows, sparking a fundamental shift in my perception of all things. What are we doing, I wondered. All this hustle and bustle, for what? We don’t need a TV, or elaborate film productions. These stories are unfolding all around us. All we need is to pay attention.
My mother has since walked on, and my time with her at this seemingly timeless space at Stony Point is tattooed in my imagination. A deep-rooted sense of connection to the water, the trees, and wildlife there is real. This place has shaped my growth as an Anishinaabe, as a human. Life, within the presence of my mother, culminated this great mystery that I continue to chase to this day.
A sense of place is felt with the whole body. It is sound, taste, touch, smell, vision, and the great beyond. Some places are like portals, having the capacity to catapult you into other states of consciousness, or even other realms. Cass Lake, Redby, Ponsford, and Bemidji are sacred lands in my experience. These are places in which I feel seen, heard, and, most importantly, at home. It’s guttural, like waking in the night and remembering the words to a forgotten song. It is touching ground after an arduous trip out at sea. It is getting a call and answering.
Ava Carpentier is a student at Leech Lake Tribal College.