Thomas Stillday Jr., spiritual leader of Red Lake Ojibwe

  • Article by: BEN COHEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 15, 2008 - 11:05 PM

The Ojibwe leader worked on behalf of Indian country and once served as chaplain in the Minnesota Senate.

Thomas (Tommy J) Stillday Jr., the spiritual leader for the Red Lake Ojibwe Nation in Red Lake, Minn., helped heal his people in good times and bad.

Stillday, who had served as tribal council member, school board member and former Minnesota state Senate chaplain, died of unknown causes on Oct. 14 in Red Lake. He was 74.

An expert in American Indian cultural and religious matters, Stillday was sought for counsel from people around the world, said Floyd (Buck) Jourdain, tribal chairman of the Red Lake Ojibwe Nation.

He was an expert in the Ojibwe language, a championship grass dancer and a singer at cultural events. He served on numerous boards and commissions, many of them devoted to helping young people, and was a home school coordinator. He also had been a logger and fisherman.

"His life was always focused on Indian country, and he gave his all to his community," Jourdain said. "He dedicated his life to helping people."

Stillday was born at his family's home between Upper and Lower Red Lake. He served in the Army for 12 years, and was a combat engineer in the Korean War, where he and other Ojibwe used their native tongue in coded radio communications, much as Navajo code talkers did during World War II.

In February 1997, he began a two-year stint as chaplain of the Senate in St. Paul, the first person outside the Judeo-Christian tradition to serve in the post.

"To me, I observe that it's always the same in both Indian and world religions. We talk about the same creator, God almighty himself, and all the spirits we know," he said in the Feb. 14, 1997, Star Tribune. "Other traditions and customs differ. Some people don't believe in gambling, some people don't believe in coffee, some drink whiskey tonight and ask forgiveness tomorrow morning."

After the 2005 school shootings at Red Lake, in which he lost a young relative, he served as a counselor to many of those affected and oversaw healing ceremonies.

In good times and bad, he never said no when asked to lead events and spiritual gatherings, said Gwekigaabo, also known as Bill May, cultural director of the Ojibwe Language-Cultural Preservation Department of the Red Lake Ojibwe Nation.

"He was always there for his people," Gwekigaabo said.

For the past year, he had helped lead a proposed language-revitalization plan. He had long tutored younger generations in Ojibwe traditions.

Mark (Tony) Erickson of Bemidji said he and many other residents of Red Lake considered him an uncle.

"He had a broad knowledge of the language and ceremonial practices," Erickson said. "He was a highly respected spiritual leader" who generously shared his knowledge.

Part of the reason he was so well respected is "because he thought so well of others," said Erickson.

Stillday is survived by his wife, Mary Lou; three daughters, Elaine Armstrong, Karen Natewa and Valerie Stillday; three sons, Robert Natewa, Thomas Stillday and Dexter Stillday; a brother, Wilbur Stillday; 10 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. All are residents of the Ponemah District of the Red Lake Nation.

Services will be held at 9 a.m. Saturday at the Ponemah School, Ponemah. A wake will begin at 7 p.m. today at the school, and will continue until the time of the funeral service.

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