A friend of mine, tasked with collecting victim impact statements from a family on the Red Cliff reservation, was chided by one of the victim's family members for the paucity of forms. What about this person and that one, this woman and that man? They were all the victim's aunts and uncles, all her cousins -- all her family.
This sense of a Chippewa (the European rendering of Ojibwe) community as a family -- not just extended but immediate -- pervades Linda LeGarde Grover's book of connected stories about the imaginary Mozhay Point Indian Reservation and allotment lands of the Ojibwe situated a few hours north of Duluth. These people are all one family in a sense that is at once as simple as blood and as complex as myth.
Grover situates us with her first story, "The Dance Boots," narrated by Artense, whose purpose in life is, she believes, "to learn by rote and remember by heart." What she is learning is imparted by her Aunt Shirley, whose purpose was to remember by heart and teach by rote. Artense understands that Shirley had "watched and listened to what was going on all around her all of her life, that she had saved and cared for what she had received of others' lives, and that she didn't want the story buried with her when she died."
What Shirley passes on, the "rhythm and pattern of repeating and echoing, re-echoing and returning," makes up both the substance and the form of the stories that follow. As we weave in and out of lives and times, the "I" that emerges here and there reminds us of how these stories have been transmitted from one generation to the next, in the end creating one vast but finely detailed tapestry of the life and history of a community.
These stories reach back to the time of Ojibwe children being forcibly placed in first a Catholic missionary school, then an Indian school; and they travel through the 20th century to a recent bingo night on the reservation. Early on, Maggie remembers being punished by a nun, because "This is what happens to girls who talk like savages. Next time you'll remember English." But as the stories full of such indignities and oppression unfold, in English, the Ojibwe words spring forth again and again, not to be silenced.
Just as Aunt Shirley gives Artense the lives of this community, a host of voices to be reclaimed and preserved, she passes on her dance boots. Sculpted to the shape of Shirley's slender feet, the boots soon soften and fit themselves to Artense's steps. She enters the powwow circle to dance her part, taking her place in the story that she, and this collection, eloquently tell.
Ellen Akins is a writer in Cornucopia, Wis.