In her latest book, Brenda J. Child, a member of the Red Lake Ojibwe tribe who teaches at the University of Minnesota, describes a centuries-old battle to preserve Ojibwe culture. This battle has not raged over land alone, but over the preservation of an entire way of life: agriculture, language, religious traditions, ecological sensibility and views on the role of women. What Child meticulously portrays is a long-standing and systematic effort by European settlers, and, later, by the U.S. government, to "Christianize," "civilize" and "Americanize" the Ojibwe.
Child marshals an accessible blend of chronological history and American Indian oral tradition to illustrate how the Ojibwe have survived; she credits the powerful influence of the women "who hold things together" during cultural crisis. She begins by explaining the central role women have traditionally played in the tribe's agriculture and economy. For example, women have played a predominant role in the harvesting of wild rice, during which "collectives of women of all ages" organized every aspect of production, processing and distribution.
Child also describes how Ojibwe women shared resources and decisionmaking authority in a way that patriarchal European settlers found utterly unacceptable.
Early settlers and, later, the U.S. government, sought to undermine the Ojibwe way, including the traditional role of women. Child describes a creative, powerful resistance against cultural assimilation. For instance, she describes in heartbreaking detail how the U.S. government set up remote boarding schools and then forcibly removed Ojibwe children from their mothers so that they could be "civilized." One outraged Red Lake mother began a campaign to get her daughter returned home, telling a school superintendent, "it seems it would be much easier to get [my daughter] out of prison than out of your school."
The book's final chapter is called "Minneapolis," and Child uses it to show how Ojibwe women have contributed to a vital urban culture that has honored and transmitted Ojibwe traditions. Even in urban areas, Ojibwe women have become agents for social change that tends to promote tolerance, multiculturalism, strong families and ecology. As Child makes wonderfully clear in this important and inspirational narrative, it's been a long struggle for Ojibwe women, and that struggle continues unabated.
Chuck Leddy is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Boston.