It would be a disservice to describe "Spirit of the Ojibwe: Images of Lac Courte Oreilles Elders" as simply a book. Rather, it's a multimedia cultural artifact -- filled with wonderful paintings, terrific photographs and short biographies of tribal elders -- that illustrates the powerful identity the Ojibwe have developed over centuries.
The centerpiece of "Spirit" is the collection of 32 oil paintings of Lac Courte Oreilles tribal elders in northern Wisconsin, completed by Sara Balbin over many years. Accompanying each vivid painting is a short biographical essay about the life of each elder. Funding from the National Endowment for the Arts helped make this ambitious project possible, and the paintings have been exhibited widely, including at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.
Balbin's marvelous paintings capture the essence of each elder: She communicates the spirituality of James "Pipe" Mustache Sr. by showing him waist-deep in water while wearing traditional headdress. Elder Josephine Crowe Grover is painted inside her house, smiling on a couch while a winter storm rages outside. The mother of four kids and 17 foster kids, Grover wears a floral dress and holds an eagle feather, a symbol of leadership.
What's clearest about these tribal elders is their strength as cultural conduits sharing Ojibwe traditions across generations. The reservation schools they attended didn't even permit them to speak their native tongue, yet a surprisingly large number of them became teachers, sharing the Ojibwe language with younger generations. Whether they worked as journalists, public officials, teachers or soldiers, these elders fought against the official policy of the United States to "civilize" Native Americans by eradicating their culture.
An essay by Sara Balbin describes government programs that forcibly removed Indian children from their homes and educated them in the mainstream culture. She quotes reservation school founder R.L. McCormack: "The Indian seems to have relapsed into barbarism and indolent savagery," he said, and "the only effective method to improve their condition will come ... where the children are removed from the influences of the wigwam, dance, and the migratory habits of their race."
The legacy of these 32 tribal elders is in struggling against tough odds to keep Ojibwe traditions alive. The paintings drip with color and culture, displaying traditional tribal garb, gorgeous images of nature and the innate strength of the elders. There are no glorious triumphs here, no warriors on horseback leading war parties to victory.
Balbin's observant brush reveals quiet endurance -- small victories carved out over time through traditional practices such as rice harvesting, hunting and spirituality. The paintings, photographs and essays tell a thousand stories, but they can be summed up in a simple idea: These elders have kept the richness of their traditions alive, and their quiet strength continues to nourish and inspire.
Chuck Leddy is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Boston.