Tahlequah Daily Press

Local News

April 14, 2014

Child discusses survival of Native communities

TAHLEQUAH — When Dr. Brenda Child, Ojibwe/Red Lake, tells people she is from the reservation at Red Lake, Minn., she explains, “We’re the ones who didn’t lose our lands.”

Her tribe’s story is unusual among Native Americans, many of whom have been displaced throughout history. But history is complicated, she said. That’s why, as a historian, she is interested in “the small stor[ies].”

“I’m someone who can’t really get a grasp of the big picture ... unless I look at the individual stories of people on the ground. How were they living? What shaped their lives?” she asked.

In the Ojibwe language, the word for “elderly woman” translates as “one who holds things together.” That’s exactly what women did for the economy and culture of the Ojibwe tribe, according to Child’s 2013 book “Holding Our World Together: Ojibwe Women and the Survival of Community” as well as her upcoming book, “My Grandfather’s Knocking Sticks.” The new book is about the role gender plays in the history of her tribe’s traditional rice-harvesting methods.

Child, professor of American studies at the University of Minnesota, presented the keynote address, “Holding Our World Together: Ojibwe Women and the Survival of Community” at the NSU Symposium on the American Indian on Friday, April 11.

“Women did hold things together, especially in this time period that I’m interested in – the early 20th century and the post-reservation years,” said Child. “[In] this time after we were settled on the reservations, women were people who merged tradition as well as innovation, allowing families and future generations to maintain communities in our homelands, and I think that’s such an important idea for those of us who think and work in the field of American Indian history and for all of us who live in this country.”

She said it’s easy for people to forget that, through all the tragic events in history, Native people continued to live contemporary lives.

“We have this terrible history of Indian dispossession in the United States, but it’s also important to remember the story of making new homelands, as people did when they were removed to places like Oklahoma – the stories like we have, in the part of the country where I’m from, of folks who held onto their homelands,” she said.

“We have to remember how important this story is. It goes along with the story of Indian dispossession, this contemporary presence of Native people on lands that we were removed to, creating new homelands or maintaining communities in our new homelands.”

She said her book “makes a case for the significant involvement of women as society builders, which allowed their communities to persevere in an era dominated by the expansion of American colonialism.”

Child said it is important to realize how important it was that women marshaled so much of the economy.

“Their roles and traditions were critical in sustaining Ojibwe communities in the face of forces that not only aimed to caused physical destruction, but through the assimilation policies, to stamp out an entire way of life,” she said.

Child discussed the difficulty of finding reliable historical sources that discuss women’s lives because so many documents “misunderstood, trivialized, or misrepresented” women – especially Native women, even in terms of moral character.

“But even those kinds of historical documents can shed light on the lives of Ojibwe women,” she said.

Child described her own historical research through letters, historical documents, and interviews, and said it’s important for all people – not just historians – to learn the “small stories” of individual lives that make up history.

“Read widely,” she said. “Read history. Read Indian history and really know the stories of Native people in North America and in all the Americas. ... Don’t just look at your own history, even though you should know that, but other examples are really critical to all of us.”

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