Anna Gibbs’ unmistakable laugh often echoed throughout the Red Lake reservation in northern Minnesota.
“That’s how you knew Anna was around,” said her son, Les Gibbs, 51. “[Her laugh] was a crescendo and would then come down again.”
Gibbs, whose Indian name was Waasabiikwe (Moonlight Shining on the Water Woman), will be remembered both for her laughter and for her work as the first woman from the reservation to officiate at the sacred medicine dance — the Ojibwe’s main religious society.
She died July 24 in Red Lake at age 72 of cancer.
Through her deep knowledge of ceremonial life, Gibbs became one of the Red Lake Indian Reservation’s foremost spiritual leaders, working to preserve Ojibwe language and culture. “The role she occupied was traditionally for males,” Les Gibbs said. “She broke that barrier.”
Gibbs grew up speaking Ojibwe in Ponemah, Minn., where her family made maple sugar and kept horses. In school, teachers disciplined Gibbs for speaking her native tongue, whacking her fingers with a ruler, her son said.
Only later did Gibbs’ status as a “first speaker” come to be treasured, along with her expansive insight into Ojibwe legends and songs.
“In the end, everybody wanted to know what she knows,” said Anton Treuer, a professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University who knew Gibbs for many years. “She was a forceful personality and an important leader.”
As a young woman, she married Robert Gibbs and moved to the Twin Cities, where she juggled motherhood and working at Honeywell. Once her children were grown, Gibbs returned to Ponemah, immersing herself in Ojibwe customs as she learned from Red Lake spiritual leaders like the late Thomas J. Stillday Jr.
In Treuer’s 2015 book “Warrior Nation: A History of the Red Lake Ojibwe,” he describes Gibbs as a woman who never eclipsed 5 feet tall but whose grand presence stoked abiding esteem throughout Ojibwe country. At the same time, her behavior glimmered with idiosyncracies, Treuer said.
Over the years, she officiated at manifold wakes and funerals — and left behind a trail of Juicy Fruit, sticky evidence of her well-known appetite for the Wrigley chewing gum. Once, Gibbs ran out of gum at a funeral and opted to dislodge a hardened chunk from a nearby bench. People gaped as she popped the chewed wad into her mouth.
“What?” she asked, laughing. “It’s probably mine from last time.”
That was Gibbs, Treuer said: both solemn and silly.
She also gave hundreds of people their Indian names and worked hard to preserve the language that teachers once upbraided her for speaking. She co-authored four Ojibwe language books and provided key information for two major dictionary projects. Children in Red Lake learn Ojibwe at a language immersion program named in Gibbs’ honor.
More than 1,000 people gathered at her funeral services last month, including Dakota riders who escorted the funeral procession on horseback. Voices lifted up Ojibwe songs deep into the night, conveying gratitude and honor in the language Gibbs loved.
Her survivors include her son, her daughters Anita Gibbs and Roberta Gibbs Major, and eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.