A Grandmother's Story:
By Simone Greenleaf
Cass Lake, MN
It is said that when Columbus arrived, there were approximately 12 million Indigenous Americans living within the contiguous boundaries of the current United States. By 1890, there were less than 250,000 (Stiffarm and Lane 28-36). Sixteen years later, my grandmother Dorothy was born. In 1916, the year of her birth, she was not even an official citizen of this country! Yet she has grown to become an accomplished Ojibwe woman.
My grandma lived through numerous federal policy eras such as the Assimilation Era which included boarding schools and the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act, as well as the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, and today’s Self Determination Era; not to forget the Great Depression and two world wars. She has inspired me with her struggles of survival as an Anishinaabe during her 92 years of life. Every wrinkle on her face shows me a stress she triumphed over.
My grandmother is a fluent speaker of the Ojibwe language. As a child, she attended a day school a few miles from her home. In eighth grade, she attended the Flandreau Boarding School. In earlier boarding schools, children were banned from speaking their language; English was the only acceptable language. This was all part of the federal government’s assimilation policy. Another requirement at boarding school was the uniforms. As David Adams said, requiring uniform dress was “yet another aspect of the school’s design to turn Indians into carbon copies of their white overseers” (108). In addition, she couldn’t go home for visits. My grandma’s father was murdered at a logging camp, and her mother couldn’t afford to visit her at school. How lonesome my grandma must have felt. My grandmother’s school experience has taught me how lucky Indigenous Americans are today.
We are no longer forced to be away from our families for months or even years. We no longer face punishment for speaking our own languages. In fact, in these times of self-determination, we strive to relearn and speak our languages. I greatly admire my grandmother for the struggles she faced to get an education. She showed me how important learning is to one’s future. Taking in stride my family’s hardships, I will continue on doing the best I can. That is why I chose to further myself as an Ojibwe woman and leave Minnesota for Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.
My grandmother was born in the Assimilation Era, in which federal policy was to strip Indigenous Americans of their language and culture. To paraphrase Lieutenant Richard Pratt, creator of the boarding school system, the Indian must be killed so “the man” can live (Landis). Of course, the man was white. The federal government, during times spawned from Manifest Destiny and the 1830 Removal Act, and then the 1887 Dawes Act in which Indigenous Americans lost 90 million acres of land (Wikipedia), wanted the Indians to be just like them. Even though born in the Assimilation Era, my grandmother did not choose to live like “the man.” By continuing to speak Ojibwe and attending pow wows, my grandma has taught me tradition is essential. My grandma continued harvesting wild rice and telling traditional stories about Nanaboozhoo, our teacher. It is the custom to pass down our stories and history through spoken word. I will take the Nanaboozhoo stories my grandma told me and write them down. I will craft our culture into novels, short stories, poems or plays. By attending Dartmouth College I can continue my dreams of becoming a creative writer. I will pass down my culture through my talents of the written word. I will publish them so our traditions will be told and admired throughout the literary world.
When my grandma was eighteen years old, John Collier, head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, spear-headed the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. This “Indian New Deal had three chief objectives: the economic development of the reservation and the Indian land base, the organization of Indian tribes to manage their own affairs, and the establishment of civil and cultural rights for Indians” (Bernstein 6). Even after these hopeful claims were instituted, Indigenous Americans still had trouble. “In 1940 the average life expectancy for an Indian was thirty to thirty-four years of age compared with sixty to sixty-four for the country” (Bernstein 12). That is a thirty year age gap! When my grandma was twenty-three, “the median income for all Indian males living on reservations was $500, compared to a median income of $2,300 for all males in the United States” (Bernstein 15). However optimistic sounding the Indian Reorganization Act seemed, it did not help much. Parents still needed food and shelter for their family because this was the time of the Great Depression. By merely surviving long enough to raise her children, she beat the odds.
What would help the United States economy was World War II, which ended the Great Depression. My grandmother endured these trying times when World War II affected every life in America. While my grandfather was deployed oversees to Italy, my grandma left her home and children. She worked 200 miles away from the reservation in Minneapolis. She was employed at the Donaldson’s Department store. She would send her money earned to my Great-Grandmother, who was at home taking care of the children. By helping her family in times of need, she has shown me what it means to be selfless. There is a traditional Cheyenne saying that goes, “A people is not defeated until the hearts of its women are on the ground” (qtd. in Jaimes 311). I believe in this saying sincerely.
The broken promises and ignorant assimilation efforts of “the man” did not leave my grandma’s “heart on the ground.” She has shown that no matter what I go through, I cannot let my heart fall either. I will become a writer. Being a strong Anishinaabe woman will only help me on my journeys. Today, my grandmother is ninety-two years old. She survived the Assimilation Era, World War II, and boarding schools without losing the culture. She continues to show me that our people have a voice. Together we attended the 2008 Democratic Caucus and placed our ballots. While I voted for the first time, she placed her vote for the seventieth time.
responsibility to leave this world a better place for future Ojibwe generations.
My grandmother shows me that I matter.
Adams, Wallace David. Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding
School Experience. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1995.
Bernstein, Alison R. American Indians and World War II: Toward a New Era in Indian
Affairs. Oklahoma: Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Date, 1991.
Dawes Act. 26 March 2008. Wikipedia Encyclopedia, 13 April 2008
Jaimes, M. Annette, Ed. The State of Native America: Genocide, Colonization, and
Resistance. Boston: South End Press, 1992.
Landis, Barbara. Carlisle Indian Industrial School History. 1996. 13 April 2008
Stiffarm, Lenore and Phil Lane. “The Demography of Native North America: A Question
of American Indian Survival.” The State of Native America: Genocide,
Colonization, and Resistance. Ed. M. Annette Jaimes. Boston: South End Press,