Art For Indigenous Survival

Chippewa Ojibway Of Turtle Mountain, North Dakota 1996

In September, Irma and I made the long drive to Belcourt, North Dakota, the center of the Turtle Mountain Reservation with its 10,000 people descended from the Chippewa Ojibway and the French trappers. They use to live all along the Canadian/United States border from the Great Lakes to the Rocky Mountains. Now they live in the smallest and most densely populated of the reservations - 6 miles wide and 10 miles long - with the southern half being Dakota plains and the northern, the rolling Turtle Mountains - resembling the backs of a thousand turtles.

We spent our month working daily in the Retirement Home Activities Building and living with 7 Benedictine Sisters in the Monastery on the hill named Queen of Peace. St. Ann's Catholic Church had been founded by Father Belcourt in the early days of North Dakota and during our stay was a constant hive of activities - daily mass, funerals, marriages, classes, a used clothing store, counseling services, a Bed and Breakfast and a center for spiritual retreat.

September 18: Taught morning class to 4 women, afternoon to 6 and tonight 8. Mary Mae is on a Sandhill Crane, Freya finished her sunflower. Stories starting to come out. Town water supply comes from area near Rollette - center of farming - heart of pesticide spraying. Tom, the Monastary gardener, is a victim of Agent Orange from Vietnam and said that the U.S. Govt sprays the US/Canadian border with Agent Orange and being only 10 miles from the border, it drifts. There is an appallingly high rate of cancer on the reservation. We saw 3 funerals in the first week.

September 23: Clouds are thick and gray on the horizon. We've been looking for the Whooping Cranes and Sandhills. They have left the Artic Circle and are heading to Texas. The radio stations report their daily progress and they don't fly in V formations like ducks and geese, they fly in continual spirals. The sky dominates the vista here taking up approximately 7/8 of the view out my window.

October 3: Project going superbly - 3 White Pelicans, 9 Sunflowers, 6 Yellow Ladies Slippers,
12 Prarie Rose arrangements, and 6 Bald Eagles in progress. Two newspaper stories coming out on Monday. Went to the Casino and lost .80 cents - lots of cars from Manitoba , Alberta, Saskatchwan.
Everyone talks politics as they sew - crooks running the tribe - large extended families determine election outcomes. No mafia involvement in the Casino - own crooks just as bad. Hasn't really helped the tribe, just a few individuals.

October 5: Jenny Schindler, an official story teller for the tribe, spun her magic words as we sewed. She told of a grandmother, a tiny wiry woman, who was a midwife that walked the plains of North Dakota delivering babies. One day the US soldiers came to her home and told her she would have to move on the Reservation. She refused. Again they came and again she refused. The third time they came and demanded she move on to the Reservation, the skinny little woman stood tall and said "No" emphatically. The soldiers responded "then we shall shoot each of your grandchildren starting with the oldest." She bowed her head and moved.

October 11: Good-by Party with the Bingo Club providing refreshments. Pat Wilke organized some fiddle music and we showed off our accomplishments to friends and family - Sunflowers, Prairie Roses, Yellow Ladies Slippers, White Pelicans, Sandhill Cranes and Bald Eagles. We had found good materials in Rolla and shops in Dunseith and Rolla that wanted to sell the women's work. We promised that if the world doesn't end, we would return in the year 2000.

Shirley Frey McConahay