“How much Indian are you?” is a question all American Indians have heard at one time or another, and not just from clueless strangers. After all, a certain percentage of indigenous blood is required for many legal benefits in the U.S., including most tribal memberships. But in 2013, Minnesota’s largest Ojibwe tribe, the White Earth Band, abandoned “blood quantums” altogether.
Linda LeGarde Grover — an Ojibwe elder and professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth — knows why: For a few decades, the U.S. government barred full-blooded Indians from selling their land, leading to widespread census fraud. It’s one of the many issues she explores in her new book, “Onigamiising: Seasons of an Ojibwe Year,” a brisk and intimate look at contemporary Ojibwe life in northern Minnesota.
The book is marketed as an essay collection focused on the four seasons, but let’s get something out of the way right now: Most of the chapters aren’t “essays” in the formal sense of the term, and only a few have direct ties to spring, summer, fall or winter. Instead, Grover’s dispatches from Duluth are a yearlong memoir in snapshots. Luckily, it’s still fascinating stuff.
More than 2,000 Indians live in Onigamiising — the Ojibwe word for Duluth — where Grover was born and raised. In her book, she catalogs everything she and her ancestors have preserved through centuries of prejudice and persecution. Young girls still sew ribbon skirts; artisans still make moccasins from moose hide and embroider them with symbolic beads; new mothers still carry children in padded cradleboards; handmade wild rice is still a delicacy; elders still drink raspberry tea.
Yet some of the book’s most interesting passages are when Grover encounters ostensibly “Indian” imagery in American popular culture. “What in the world was Indian corn?” she remembers wondering as a child. Similarly perplexing were the textbook illustrations of Thanksgiving, where “tomato-red, nearly naked” Indians walked through the snow without winter clothes. “From their appearance, they might have been from another planet. They didn’t look like any Indian men I had ever seen.”
Perhaps the best reason to spend 200 pages with Grover, though, is her sense of humor. Whenever she’s asked, “How much Indian are you?” she answers the age-old question “Ojibwe-style (courteously, indirectly, absolutely immovably),” with a prepared response:
“Hey, did you watch the Twins last night?”
Adam Morgan is editor in chief of the Chicago Review of Books. He writes about books, culture and Chicago in the Guardian, Literary Hub, Electric Literature, Chicago magazine and elsewhere.
Onigamiising: Seasons of an Ojibwe Year
By: Linda LeGarde Grover.
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press, 201 pages, $14.95.
Event: 7 p.m. Nov. 1, Birchbark Books Reading Series, Bockley Gallery, 2123 W. 21st St., Mpls.