Review: "Holding Our World Together: Ojibwe Women and the Survival of Community" by Brenda J. Child
When a friend and I set out to harvest wild rice from nearby lakes this year, we were taking part in a centuries-old tradition that in Ojibwe society was originally the responsibility of women. Men would help with traveling to and setting up the rice camp, but then they would go hunt or fish while women moved slowly through the rice beds, knocking the ripe grains into the bottoms of their canoes. In fact, Brenda Childs states that, “the wild rice harvest was the most visible expression of women’s autonomy in Ojibwe society.” It wasn’t until the late 1930s, during the Depression, that the federal government, seeking to make the rice harvest part of the emergency relief effort, employed Ojibwe men to do the work. It was unimaginable to white men in government that such physical outdoor work would be done by women. This was also the time in which non-Native white-folks like my friend and I started ricing.
The coincidence of my finding this book just as we were coming into manoominike-giizis, or “the ricing moon,” as the Ojibwe refer to the month of August, only reinforced my great interest in what there was to learn. I originally bought it because it has a chapter on Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, which is where I went to college and then stayed to live for a while; it is my wife’s hometown; and it is the setting for Child’s discussion of Indian boarding schools that were set up in the 1870s to “assist” in the cultural assimilation of Native children. This shameful period in U.S. history extended into the 1940s. It was a time when government agents threatened parents and downright stole children from their families in order to make them into what white society thought was the ideal for Native people.
Holding Our World Together is both a brief history of the Great Lakes Ojibwe and a detailed examination of the important roles of women in that culture. Those roles have changed over time, but most of that change is in how the roles are perceived or acknowledged. The responsibilities women held in Ojibwe society and the ways in which they learned from one another and passed on traditions and information to younger generations is the theme that runs through each of these stories about Ojibwe life. Women’s roles in the fur trade are portrayed through the life of Traveling Woman, or the one we in northern Wisconsin know as the namesake of Madeline Island in Lake Superior. Madeline married the fur trader Michel Cadotte, and the influence of their pairing still reverberates through the region today. In discussing the reservation era, we learn the Ojibwe word for a female elder, mindimooyenh, which literally translates as “one who holds things together.” It is a word that “best embodies how Ojibwe society has traditionally perceived women’s power … and it is a category of distinction that honors the pivotal role occupied by fully mature women in the social order.” This ability to hold things together served women––and all Ojibwe people––well during the time in which the government was forcing the people off their land and onto reservations. Wild Rice and the Great Depression share a history that Child conveys through a discussion about Nett Lake on the Bois Forte reservation in northern Minnesota.
The contemporary role of Ojibwe women and the urban nature of Native culture is the focus of the final chapter, in which Child discusses the movement of Native people from reservations into large cities of the region during and after World War II. This exodus to the cities coincided with the federal government’s plan to relieve itself of its responsibilities to tribal nations in the postwar years, and with its attempts to take back land that had been given to tribes. Eighty percent of the American Indian population would migrate to cities by the end of the 20th century, with many Ojibwe taking up residence in Minneapolis, St. Paul, or Duluth. [NOTE: this parallels a similar migration of blacks out of the Jim Crow South, which our group is currently reading about in Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. Stay tuned for a forthcoming review of that book.] Here, women would excel in organizing and mobilizing the Native-dominated neighborhoods. They would find jobs to support themselves and their relatives. They would work to protect children against displacement during the “adoption era,” during which social workers used boarding school-like tactics of removing Native children from families and placing them with white families to ostensibly give them a better life than the one they faced with their poverty-stricken Native parents. This work would bring about the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978. Women founded support organizations such as the Upper Midwest American Indian Center in 1961 and the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center in 1984, both headquartered in Minneapolis. They would also play a major, but underappreciated, role in the American Indian Movement of the 1960s and ‘70s. While the men in AIM attempted to raise awareness of Native issues through confrontational and high profile takeovers of places like Alcatraz Island, or were defending themselves against a violent federal siege on the Pine Ridge Reservation in North Dakota (an event our group read about in Peter Matthiessen’s In the Spirit of Crazy Horse), women were using “their skills, creativity, labor, and leadership to [educate] urban Indian children … [and to] create culturally and historically meaningful curricula [that] influenced a new generation of charter schools, language-immersion schools, and more mainstream institutions throughout Minnesota.”
The old adage “behind every great man is an even better woman” is probably sexist and paternalistic. It should be recast as “alongside every great man is an even better woman.” If the women are not the ones who are actually out front, they are most definitely not at the back. Brenda Child highlights this truism in Holding Our World Together. For all the discrimination, fear, and inequality that non-white men are faced with in contemporary society, women probably have it worse because they often face the discrimination both from outside their culture and from the men within it. This look into the powerful and important role of Ojibwe women is just a glimpse of what else we might learn if we lower our preconceptions and really try to see and understand other cultures besides our own.