Write a Story for the Next Generations
Late last year, I spoke virtually with elders in the Lac Courte Oreilles (LCO) Ojibwe community in northern Wisconsin. They were meeting to capture their stories about the destruction that an electrical plant caused to their community in the 1920s, leading to a nearly 50-year assault on their tribal sovereignty. They gathered to ensure that future generations could read about this traumatic event through the words of the tribal members who endured it. I was invited to join the conversation to speak about some techniques to initiate their writing. After hearing the group members share some of their powerful stories, I offered a few ideas I hoped might help them continue their important work. Before our conversation concluded, an elder asked if I thought she should begin to capture her decades’ worth of stories chronologically or through some other pattern of arrangement. I assured her that each writer’s process was different, but that she might find guidance in the maxim that some stories demand to be told first. Sensing that my response was more ambiguous than she’d hoped for, I added, “How about you begin with the stories you think your grandchildren most need to read?”
While it goes without saying that tribal stories are narratives that belong to everyone in the community, the truth is that the definition of such stories is more expansive. This is not a new observation, but rather an echo of Indigenous knowledge shared by others. In his poem “Making a Name,” Carter Revard (Osage) writes about who actually authored the piece— “The authors of this story are/ my Ponca folks, Aunt Jewel and/ Uncle Woody. I’m directing the movie/ made from the story.”
As scholar Dean Rader notes, “Of course, [Revard] wrote the poem, but that does not necessarily make him the author. The true authors are his uncle and aunt who tell him a story about him and about them.” In effect, Revard embraced the story of his elders, becoming so invested in it that he made it his own. In so doing, Revard made his family’s story available for others to share. LCO tribal members are working to do the same thing for their descendants.
Wisconsin-Minnesota Light and Power Company’s dam project began out of non-Native’s disregard for LCO’s treaty rights. Beginning in 1912, the company began purchasing permits and property that would lead to the flooding of 5,600 acres of reservation land. LCO leaders fought to block the dam’s construction, but the Federal Power Commission granted a 50-year permit to the company in 1921. Two years later, “twenty-feet of water covered the village of Pahquahwong and the resources that had sustained if for two centuries.” Specifically, the flooding devastated maple groves, cranberry bogs, and wild rice beds. Despite assurances to the contrary, the LCO community was horrified to see that “the remains of hundreds of deceased Ojibwe began washing ashore.”
LCO leaders continued to fight against the dam before unsympathetic legislatures and courts, but in 1971 they succeeded in winning concessions. Aided by members of the American Indian Movement, tribal members seized the structure as part of a protest over the extension of the lease that flooded their reservation. The occupation ended with the federal government returning 25,000 acres to the tribe and the power company agreeing to invest in tribal business opportunities. Photos from the protest show that Native people of all ages participated in taking a stand for their rights, making the action a powerful example of a community story of perseverance. That’s the story that needs to be told most often—the story of how the LCO community persevered.
Whenever storytellers share their stories, be it from their own life or ancient wisdom, the listeners’ attention is focused on whichever component the narrator chooses to highlight. Recently, a grade-schooler asked me about a tornado that tore through our community. I had witnessed the weather firsthand, he had not, but he had complied a handful of stories. As he shared what he’d heard from others, I recognized that every detail he shared was about the destruction the funnel cloud left without so much as a whisper about what came next. His mind was focused on downed power lines, flying yard furniture, and the path of destruction, rather than the fact that following the storm, the community came together—we checked on our neighbors, cleared debris, and lent a hand to those in need. I set about telling as many stories as I could to shift his paradigm.
Native nations have stories within their communities that chronicle unspeakable horror, but they have many more complimentary stories that speak of love, laughter, and perseverance. My limited time spent with LCO elders included both solemn reflection and quick-witted humor. Like so many Indigenous people across Turtle Island, they persevered through their people’s ancient knowledge and their community’s resilience. The legacy they leave for future generations are the stories that will focus their descendants’ minds on how they overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Those are the stories their grandchildren need to hear, but they’re also ones that will fortify anyone who stands against injustice. They’re the stories that can shift a paradigm.
Ryan Winn teaches in the Liberal Studies Department at College of Menominee Nation.
Loew, P. (2006). Indian Nations of Wisconsin: Histories of Endurance and Renewal (2nd ed.). Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press.
Rader, D. (2003). “The Epic Lyric: Genre and Contemporary American Indian Poetry,” In D. Rader & J. Gould (Eds.), Speak to Me Words: Essays on Contemporary American Indian Poetry (pp. 123-142). Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the Writer’s Corner or any other opinion columns published by the Tribal College Journal (TCJ) do not necessarily reflect the opinions of TCJ or the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.