Ona Kingbird

Language and Culture Teacher

Interviewed on August 11, 2009

An Ojibwe elder who has taught for many years in local schools, Ona Kingbird teaches the same way she learned as a child—through stories. For many of the students who learned language and culture from her, Ona has been adopted as a grandmother, one whose affectionate teachings helped change their lives. Raised in a traditional village, Ona is a rare treasure, a teacher whose gift is providing her students with lessons from the elders who taught her how to speak and live as an Ojibwe. Her stories are a reminder that education is more about learning than it is about pedagogy, and there is no substitute for life experience. In this interview, Ona reflects on the need for values as a foundation for learning, a belief that is present within each of her stories as she blends vivid images, lessons, humor and sharp observations about her experience within the school system.

Additional thoughts and summary from Diane Wilson about Ona Kingbird

Getting Acquainted

Joe Rice (Center School director): We’re interviewing Native people who have educated for a long time to get their insights and their wisdom and their experiences. We feel like a lot of non-Indian teachers don’t really understand how to work with our kids. We’re hoping that if there are different people telling the story and giving examples that maybe it will help them to be better.

Ona Kingbird: That’s what Sally Hunter and I were doing in St. Paul at Hamline. Teaching the teachers how to deal with Indian kids. At Metro too. We used to go across that campus and see all those beautiful ripe crab apples. I said, oh I wish I had them. She had a silk skirt on. On the way back she said, here, hold my bag. She started climbing up the tree, her dress is flying all over. She put a whole bunch of them in her dress.

We used to get plums and we’d dig a hole in the ground and bury them for two days. Dig them up, they’re ripe and we washed them. My grandma used to tell us, go pick berries, plums. Chokecherries we had to pound. Those kids asked me, did you have electricity when you were a kid? I said no. We had no running water either. I said, you know what, if the lights went out I wouldn’t even miss it. I tell them, the Depression is coming again. They say, how do you know? I say I was born in the last part of the Depression. I used to go to the store and this great big bologna was hanging upside down, I used to just wish for it. That’s funny, they never rotted. Must have been a special way of curing the meat.

Joe: If not even the bacteria will touch it…

Ona: The bologna would be hanging there for a week. Today when you have bologna, you can’t even keep it out overnight.

Diane Wilson: Where did you start teaching?

Ona: AIM Survival School. It wasn’t called Heart of the Earth then. The Episcopalian church was interested in getting a school for themselves too. Right across the street there used to be a shoe shop. They got rid of most of the materials, the iron stuff, so they had reading, math, and then they wanted arts and crafts and a little bit of language. I would go back and forth, one hour there, one hour here. That’s how it was when we first started at Center.

Joe: This was over on Franklin?

Ona: Right by where that last apartment building is. Right by the library. Then they decided, we moved from the Heart of the Earth school and went to a different location. We kind of lost contact with Center School. Next thing I knew they were over here under a new director. They had a feast and I was invited and they wanted to give it an Indian name. We were all brainstorming what you call it. One lady said, I’m thinking about the center of the universe. I said, if you want center, that’s how you say it, nawayee.

Family Background

Ona: I was born in a wigwam on the upper Red Lake. My mother and them were fishing for whitefish for winter survival. That’s where I was born. Off and on I lived in the wigwam, 15 years of my life. We went fishing, camping, doing maple sugar. I never knew a word of English when I first started school. Everybody in my community spoke the language, the Ojbwe, Chippewa language they say. Everybody called each other by their spirit names. After being born in the last part of the Depression, there were a lot of things we had to do. We had to plant gardens. My dad would have two big fields of corn, potatoes, beans, squash and then we would have a small vegetable garden. We had to work the gardens every day in the summer time. We learned how to preserve food by drying it. They showed us how to make wood racks so we could dry our fish, our deer meat. Then we would pick chokecherries, crush them with stones, and make patties and stretch them out in the birchbark sheets. Then they taught us how to make birch bark artifacts: baskets, utensils. They taught us whittling.

When I was 10 years old, that’s when they started taking me out in the woods to teach me when they went out to gather medicines. The hospital was 35 miles away and nobody had a car. I don’t know if they were oxen because they had horns on them but I thought they were pretty big cows. Come to think about it, maybe they were oxen. We had a wagon, my dad made a sleigh out of cedar. He smoothed it out so that it just kind of rode. We didn’t have no cart tires. We had to saw wood, haul water, chop wood. We had to use hickory sticks, certain kind with a crutch that we cut out of both sides of the crutch, and then we held that top part up. We would push it like that and we would walk around and try and find water. Every time we found water that stick would fall. That’s where we knew where to dig. Sometimes we found streams underground. That’s how we dug our wells. Then we dug holes and lined them with hay. By that time we had tin so we put tin around there and we put potatoes in there. We braided the corn, we made corn shocks and hung them up. That’s where I learned to French braid. Great big bundles and we’d hang them up. We’d get whitefish and clean them up. We’d gut them and put a hole in the tail. Then we’d put a stick right through and hang them up. They’d be dry for the winter use. Some of them we would dry and pound the meat and make pemmican.

In the spring my grandma would get a boat, by that time we had a wooden boat, she had a machete, I don’t know where she got it from. I’d go with her and go cut cattails. We’d cut a whole bunch of cattails. We’d walk around in the water and cut a whole bunch and put them in the boat. We’d come home and lay them out on tent material to dry. She cut some saplings and before they dried too much we pushed that white stuff out of the cattail. That’s what we dried for flour. Otherwise we used some of that corn. We’d pound it on hot rocks. I didn’t believe them when they first told us we were going to cook with a birchbark basket. I thought it was going to burn. There was a trick to it. They used the inside part for the outside. The inner bark was the outside. They didn’t put it directly over the fire, they put it a little ways up. They started putting hot rocks in the water and that’s what made it boil. So we actually had one great big meal a day.

They taught us how to snare deer rabbit and hunt birds. We used to eat birds. I guess I lived pretty much the old way with my elders. My dad’s family was more productive than my mother’s. My mother’s family belonged to the Midewin. They were the high society of the community, they had all the religion and the ceremonies. Whereas my dad had all different kinds of things, they taught us how to survive. On that side they taught us how to fast. They showed us how to listen carefully, listen to the birds. They would teach us about astronomy, about watching the formation of stars, what kind of weather we were going to have. Everything was really instilled in us. You could not even ask why, when, where, just be quiet, just listen, pay attention. The way our elders taught us. Today when a kid asks you, you tell him the story of why it’s happening. They forget it fast. But the elders when I was young, they told us a story and we had to figure out exactly what happened. They kind of trained our mind to absorb what was said to us. When we were in our early teens, they started to invite us to the different ceremonies. We were not allowed to go to funerals or wakes or some of the drum ceremonies, different ceremonies that they had, they would not let us go there because they were too sacred. The kids had to earn the right to be able to go to these ceremonies. That’s when you got your feather if you deserved it.

They taught us how to make moccasins, how to skin a deer. But today I don’t know how to skin a deer. I always had either my sons or my brother help do that. They showed us how to track on the grass, in the woods, and on the ground to see which way the animal went. They told us about the bear and the wolf. If you’re hunting them, if you injure them some way and they don’t die, when you follow them, they circle around from behind to attack you. That’s the two animals that do that. When I grew older I was scared, it didn’t bother me when we built the wigwam. We had a blanket for the door. We had mats that we wove and put on the ground. Of course we had blankets then. We could hear thumping outside of the wigwam. I asked my grandma, who is that? Oh, that’s just a bear, go to sleep. I never realized that he could of just tore it. But snakes, frogs, and animals never went in that lodge. The reason why I knew about it is because my uncle, “I don’t believe in that superstition.” He said, “I’m going to build me a tar paper shack.” So he put all these poles together, nailed tar paper, made beds inside there. Then we went to the store on the lower part of Red Lake, lower part of Ponemah, to go get supplies. He must have left his sugar open. Here we forgot that we left ours open too. So we were gone half a day, we went and took care of our gardens, and did some other stuff that we had to do, weed the medicines and string them up. When we came back, his tar paper shack was all torn up, everything was all demolished. We ran up to our wigwam thinking we would find the same thing but he didn’t even go in there. So that’s why I believe that the animals never go into a wigwam.

As long as I can remember, when they had ceremonies, they had a wigwam where they had a bunch of elders that would talk to us while the ceremonies were going on. We were not allowed to go there. They would tell us about what happened a long time ago, how people survived. They even talked about survival skills, what you should do. Some of them even taught us medicines and songs. They said that music was an element of a good life. They even told us that people go through grief of death, that’s when people are instructed to start telling jokes and have people laughing. Bring the humor that relieves the tension. When Ponemah was a traditional village, that’s how it was. We’d go sit with those people that were sitting with the body. We’d stay with them all night and tell jokes to them. We’d tell them funny stories and have them laughing. Today I notice that when I go home, one time my brother-in-law’s wife died. There was only two of her sons sitting there. They had so many relatives and none of them were there. We’re losing our ways. One of the things that I would really like to stay in the cities is because when I went home to teach at Red Lake, by Ponemah, the students didn’t even know too much of any of their environment. We did a study on trees and I said I want you to find me 16 trees. I took them out in the woods, the woods was right close by. They only found 3 trees. I said, did your parents teach you? No. It seems like the children are just taking for granted they’re always going to have a reservation. They’re not aware of their environment or their cultural studies or their ways. When you come to the city, kids are really starving for knowledge, for culture. Especially these last two years, they’re always asking, how do you do this, why does this happen, what can I do when this happens. They ask about the pipe, how can I get it.

Teaching Values & Language


Joe: Can I ask you a question? What do you think works best with our kids? Everybody has different ideas on that but if you go to a mainstream school, a lot of our kids just get turned off. They decide they don’t want to go any more. They don’t like it there. They act like they have something better to do.

Ona: I notice with my grandson that you have here, I’ve always tried to instill values but his dad is the kind of parent that was never taught about values. Even though he’s part of Red Lake and he’s part of Calispah. So he doesn’t live with his dad. He’s torn in between. He blames his mom for leaving him but she had to. When we have ceremonies, he’ll run. I say, no, you get down here. Now we’re doing ceremonies, I’m trying to get him back into the values. That’s what I’ve been telling those people. They say, well, they don’t listen to us, and I say, it’s all right if they don’t listen. Just keep telling them. They’re going to absorb that sooner or later. There were some Apache kids I taught in the ‘70s, a family of four. Here, 2005, I got an e-mail from those kids, they moved to Texas. That one boy, I taught him how to hoop dance, he sang with my sons, they were the Little Earth singers the first time. He wrote me an e-mail that he was surprised that I was still teaching there. He said, I want to thank you for all the stuff you taught me, it’s all coming back. I have dreams about it. He’s a lawyer now. Here I thought he wasn’t even paying attention. But it’s the parents that have to start straightening up. They say, well, we have to straighten up the kids but they have to straighten up themselves. They’ve gone so far away from their cultural values. We have a feast at Little Earth and I hear people, parents say, those kids won’t get anything. Like they only come there for a present and it shouldn’t be like that.

Another thing is the dream catchers. I teach them. I give them each material and go around watching them. Some of them will just hurry up. So I start talking about dream catchers, where that came from. And why they’re special to my Ojibwe culture. We don’t give dream catchers for nothing. The only time we give them is when the neighbor gets the belly button and gives the dream catcher to his namesake. Puts it on the cradle. I said, any medicine person can tell how you felt by the way you wove. I said, it shows right where you’re at. I said, I could walk around right now and tell you how you felt.

Then another thing too, we were studying feelings. I said, I want you all to look at your fingernails. Every one of you and tell me how many white spots you have on your fingernails. They said, why? I said, I just want you to tell me. This one boy he said, I’ve got five! That girl said, I think I’ve got about 10. What does that mean? Your fingernails tell on you. You can lie from your parents or your grandparents but one day look at your fingernails. They’ll find out how many times you puffed it. It comes up on your fingernails. I said, how many times did you puff it? He said, none of those language teachers ever told us that. They came in every week and said, we don’t have any white spots this week!


Joe: That’s one things kid want is to know their language. We did a survey and we asked them what they want. That was what came up the most. That’s how we started having Ojibwe language because we had so many kids who were asking. We wanted to teach it but we wanted to teach it to kids who wanted to learn. We didn’t want to force it on people.

Ona: The first time I started teaching I really didn’t know how to teach. But I did know my language. I started with a blackboard , they said this is the only tool that we can give you. At least give me one chalk! Here we had all the kids sitting on the floor. I didn’t know they were watching the rats. We only had one little lamp. I was teaching them simple words like hello, who are you , I’ll see you. I didn’t teach sentences. The first three years they started growing. One of the things that I found was more interesting to them was the history stuff. Ceremonies and stuff like that. Stories. When I talked to them they really sat up and listened. And then when I tried to write I don’t know if they could see the blackboard, I could hardly see it either. I had a hard time, there were times I really felt I failed because I was teaching single words and they couldn’t make sentences. As years went by, every year I learned something from last year. I began teaching full sentences like, if they want to go the bathroom they have to say it in Ojibwe or else they’re not excused. If they’re talking their rap talk, “Gaawin”, they’ll sit there and try to figure out what I’m saying to them. We had a lot of black boys, I don’t know if there was a gang or whatever, but their mouths were just… Then they were dragging their pants. Ho, I said, I never knew that was the style. I said, get out there, go fix your pants out there and then you can come in my room. Everyone was laughing, I didn’t know that was the style. I start talking to them about how they should treasure their bodies as a sacred soul, it’s their soul that makes them do things or see’s what they’re not supposed to do. Some of them cry when I tell them, I don’t beat around the bush, I just tell them the way it is. I don’t try to make it simple, make it like the way the elders taught me.

When you teach, if you only teach like bear, makwa, or wolf, maiingaan, you’re limiting the language to a certain degree. You’re not totally teaching it. Because they could learn makwa but how could they say, I see a bear coming, they wouldn’t be able to say that. That’s one of the things I learned is by teaching them complete. The thing that I find that turns off the students is their writing instructor at the university. Like it’s all one, they don’t space out the syllables. Whereas if you space them they can see it better. I was teaching those kids to say butter, [word, repeated], I was practicing because we had all those artificial foods on the table. We were pretending we were eating. Everybody had paper plates, they had to say, I want to eat some meat ( Niwe wisiniin weyaas) . Now, how do you say butter? I said, “doodooshaboo bimide”. I know it, that one guy said. Let’s hear it, those girls said. He said, [word mispronounced]. I bust out laughing. How come you’re laughing? Do you know what you’re saying? I’ll tell you how to say butter, I’ll say it really slow, then I’ll tell you what you said. So I said, [speaks syllables slowly]. You’re saying, the butter is driving by! You have to be careful how many syllables you use.

They used to like to correct me once in a while. I said, even though I’m your teacher, I’m not above you. We’re all equal.

Joe: That’s really important.

Ona: I teach them equally.

Diane: So you’re teaching values while you’re teaching language.

Ona: You know what, the value system is the old Midewin religion, that’s all it’s made of. Honesty, truth, wisdom, sharing, caring, loving. They tell you when you go through the initiation, they tell you all these things and you got to practice or live up to one or two of them every day. Then they call us pagans. They said, does it hurt you when they call you pagan? I said, no. When I first came to the cities in ’71, I was really shocked to find out people were swearing and everything, lot of racial…Just cause we had the Fillipinos, we had the Chinese, we had all different nationalities working in our hospitals, schools, there was no racial problem. It was kind of hard. Then I started to see it among my people, it’s really catching, I said.

Joe: When I first came here I was really surprised how urban Native kids talk like black people. I was really surprised because we never did that. My daughter said the same thing, I’ve never seen this, but now she’s lived here for three or four years and now she gets it, in her way she understands it differently. They would call each other the “N” word and I don’t think that’s a very nice word.

Ona: When I hear two of those upper grade black boys call each other that, I told them to stay in after class. I really told them what I felt was bad. I told them that when they say that, you’re making fun of your own culture. That belongs to you and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. I really lectured them. Afterwards, before school ended, they came down and they gave me a candy bar, the other gave me a pop. Thanks for talking to us, they said. But I don’t drink these things because I got diabetes. Lot of times they always had a party. I’d go to the Dollar Store and get all kinds of ornaments. Classes would have their parties. One time I had this great idea, we’re going to make gingerbread. I never made gingerbread. That one boy said, I know how. So what do we do? They made a list so I got all we needed and reserved our kitchen. That one big tall 11th grader, I’m not doing this, this is ladies work. Ok, you can sit and watch if you don’t want to do it. Can I have some too? Here my house was really perfect. I was turning around to brag about it and that thing collapsed. I said, see what the Creator thinks of me? I boasted when I’m not supposed to be doing that, I said. That’s why he threw my house down.

One of the things I don’t like about people who are now teaching the language, like when you go to different communities they have a different accent. Then when you’re talking the language the accent is really used a lot. Like if I went to Mille Lacs they’ve got a different accent. If I say something, they say that’s not how you pronounce it. But there’s no correct way of pronouncing the language. They speak according to the area, the community, that the people live. When I was growing up, my dad and his mom came from Canada, they were Ojibwe Cree. My mother was [Southern], she came from Madeline Island, that way. Some of the stuff was named differently according to the Ojibwe Cree, the Southern would say something different. But I understood them. That’s what I hear about people, maybe they want to be famous, but they say that’s not the way to say it. They shouldn’t even put down anybody that tries to learn.

Joe: I don’t know my language that good but I know in ceremonies sometimes there are songs and someone will say that’s not the way to do that ceremony or that’s not the way to do that song. One time we almost had a fight here about it because we were doing a naming ceremony and it was an Ojibwe naming ceremony. In this case, the one who was Dakota was saying I can’t be here for that because they don’t do naming ceremonies right. I said, who are you to tell Ojibwe how to do their naming ceremony. However they do it, that’s how they do it and you should respect that. But they said, no, that’s not right.

Ona: One thing I notice about our Ojbwe teenagers, they’re really picking up the ways of the Sioux. They cut their hair when someone dies, I can’t dance for a whole year. There’s other stuff that’s the Sioux culture, and that’s not their culture. But yet they’re the ones that are teaching. There’s not too many Ojibwe people, they’re silent because they’re always getting put down. Starting from Rosebud, there’s really a lot of programs, they give out discs of language, they do camps, they include all the kids. They’re really pushing their culture into them. Whereas the Ojibwe people kind of just sit back and watch. Like when their people die, they say, oh we got to bury him with his pipe, his feathers. We don’t bury our people with feathers and pipes. There’s a lot of customs that are a little different. It seems like I see a lot of, I don’t know if they’re Lakota, some of them just go buy a pipe and start doing ceremonies. And they pray in English. I was 10 when they started teaching me about the pipes. I was told that I would have to use my language to pray because the Creator wouldn’t understand me. He gave me a tongue to use. That’s the same way, now they’re bringing in the Canadians to teach in the Universities and they’re teaching them the Ojibwe /Cree. The professors that are teaching that should be smart enough to know to tell the students that they have an accent and they shouldn’t go by their accent. They should try to learn that other side of it too so they can understand them. Like United States they say [word] bottle, in Canada they say [word], different. When I teach, I try to teach them the two ways, the Northern and the Southern.

I do sincerely believe too there’s a lot of non-Indians who are going to school because there’s a lot of money involved in languages. A lot of them are there for the money. Because they’re non-Native, when Native children see a non-Native teacher, it kills their ability to want to learn. Somehow in their family tree, one of them might have been in the boarding school era. Or was in a foster home and treated badly. In the ‘60s and early ‘70s there was a lot of prejudice. When I was teaching at Anderson, the teacher had 28 students. During my break I walked in there to see how her classroom was going. Here she had the white and black kids, the Indian kids were sitting way down, here she was reading and asked if anyone knew the answer. These kids were going like that [waving arm] and she didn’t even acknowledge them. So they started fooling around back there and she sent them to the office. Well, that bothered me. I kept going to different classrooms, then Ritalin came in. Boy, they were telling the principal, this kid should be on Ritalin. That’s what happened to my one grandson. They gave him three kinds of Ritalin to take in the morning, evening and night. They told me one was strong and one was the weakest one but they wouldn’t tell me which one. After a week after he used that he wouldn’t even sleep. He was walking around all night. When he went to school, they suspended him. I had it out with the principal. I told him I was taking him out of Ritalin and out of that school too. They said, well, the Ph.D. is a known psychologist. I said, I don’t care if he is. He’s ruining our kids. They threatened to take me to court. I said go right ahead. I said, I know what you’re doing. He got so skinny too that he couldn’t even eat. Now he’s 26 and has a hard time trying to get a job.

Dealing with Difficult Behavior

Joe: Did you ever have kids that act up just really bad…

Ona: That’s why my room was always full of kids. Their teachers couldn’t handle them, sometimes I had two classes. If you came to my room, you could have seen some of them sitting in the hallway. And then before the class is over, there’s other ones standing on the stairway waiting to come in. What I did is, it was all teaching, all the time. I taught them how to hoop dance, I taught them how to make fry bread, we did fundraising for activities. I made them work. This was really funny. There was a little boy, oh, he was fat, just cute too. And he was mean. That’s how much papers he had about his behavior in the office. The teacher was pulling out her hair, she didn’t know what to do about him. When they came down the stairs you could hear him hollering at the kids, you could hear somebody hitting somebody and the kids were coming in crying. I asked that teacher, what do you do for behavior? She said, I can’t get him to behave. So I closed the door. I said, all right, let’s take attendance. I deliberately made out like I didn’t know his name. I said, what is your name? I have to know, I said, otherwise I won’t know what to call you. He said it right away, kind of snapped. I said, okay, let’s see how many of you, there’s 35 kids. Okay, I said, I need a helper, there’s a lot of you, your teacher has two women helping her, she’s got aides. But I need a helper too. First of all, I said, to be my helper you got to be courteous, you got to watch the kids, you can’t be mean, you can’t fight, you can’t swear. You know what, we don’t even have any swearing words in our Indian language. So I don’t want to hear anything like that. I said, every week, who ever is my helper will get an award. We had circle time on Mondays and Fridays and that’s when I gave my awards. I chose him and I put him right by my desk. Oh, he was just proud. He came in, standing right there, made all those kids come by and sit in chairs. Then he would pass out papers for me. Then if somebody was making noise he would say, shhhhh, go like that. I would go to Office Max and find different kinds of pens that you push the top and it would say a verse. Little stuff you can use for school. Oh, he really liked that. After a week the teacher came down and said, he couldn’t even wait to get to your room. Today when he came in he said, oh, today we go to Ona’s room. He was anxious to get to your room. What are you doing to him? I said I treat him like a human being.

With high school boys, one time there was almost a fight in my room. I was sitting there taking attendance and they were going at it. Finally, I dropped my book hard on the desk and I got up. I said, that’s it! You’re going to force me to use my karate chops on you guys. They started laughing. I teased them and I lectured them and I complimented them. I even put decorations that they liked. We had flowers and everything.

Joe: You know, it sounds like you put your arms around them.

Ona: I hugged them too. They had a rule, don’t hug the kids! I couldn’t help it.

Learning By Doing: The Art of the Play

Ona: Then I put a play on. This one handicapped guy, the year before he came into the school to get a drink and he saw all these little kids. He said, I work in the factory, there’s rolls and rolls of felt that they’re always throwing away. There was some kids already in their dancing outfits, they were going to go out to do a presentation at the school. He was asking me so I was telling him. The next day he came he got a great big roll of tan felt, light, and little dark brown, and he had pieces of leather and stuff like that. He said, I’ll bring some more tomorrow. I asked the receptionist, did he have a truck? No, he was carrying it on his bike! I said, what should we do with this, I asked those kids. That one boy said, we should do a play. We all come up with different ideas. I said, let’s do a play about the signing of the treaties. I told those boys, I want you to go to these thrift stores and get a white curly wig with a bandana. And get suit jackets, blazers, get about three of them. I cut out a pattern and every girl made fringes, they sewed the dress and they made fringes. We had others do, we got some of those stencils and I bought magic markers, that was their beads. They were all working, they made big ones, they even made breech cloths and leggings, vests. Then we needed a pipe so I had some of my artistic students make a pipe, oh, that really looked real. They made it out of a paper box and masking tape. When you saw them carry, it looked like there was smoke coming out. I don’t know how they did it. Then they made an ax out of those mapholders, that inside part. Then they went out in the woods and got a bunch of stuff for, like that grass that looks like wild rice. We had some students put it in paper and kind of shook it around in greenish paint so it looked like wild rice. The girls made baskets out of paper boxes and they painted them to look like birch bark. Then the ventriloquist came from the U and did a show. I gave her $50 to teach two of my students the art of ventriloquism. She said it was easy. This girl, she was in 7th grade, I had her and a boy, 6th grade, and a boy, 9th grade, took that course from her. They learned the art of ventriloquism. Then I said, we got to have a doll. We made an Indian cradle, we got two boards from the maintenance guys and you know those wicker baskets they have that round thing, they cut it off and they tied it to the front. They put a foot part on the bottom. We looked around for a baby and couldn’t find one. I went to Hennepin County, the gift shop, and there was an Indian doll there. Seven dollars so I bought her. They made dresses for her, they even made moccasins. They put bead work on her and earrings. She had long hair and long lashes. They cut the felt and they made the binders just like the old days, they tied her. That was the girl who learned the ventriloquism, she was supposed to be the mama. She had the first graders, the little kindergarteners, that was her kids. In the play, it said that the people were ordered to go to Duluth to sign treaties. We had a soldier, that Charlie Johnson, he dances in that old Civil War uniform. He was our soldier, I paid him $50 so he would walk in with them. That girl came into the room and the little ones were following her, holding onto her dress. They all had dresses too and they even made some moccasins, we couldn’t make all of them. Then she cried, it looked like that baby she was holding was crying. All the teachers said, where’s the baby? Here, Joe Pourier said, “We got to go now”. We weren’t even done with our play yet. The kids were really mad at him. The next year here we found out they threw out all the outfits those kids made.

Diane: They learned a lot doing the play.

Ona: I enabled them to because when they wouldn’t give me money, we did fundraising. We made tacos, we had runners running all over Dinkytown bringing the white people to test our Indian tacos for the first time. Pretty soon we had orders all over. We made $350 that first time. But then in May, the Indian month, I wanted to take my class to all these different things that were going on. They wouldn’t even allow me to take my students. I was stuck at the school.

Joe: You weren’t getting good support from him, were you.

Ona: I wasn’t getting support from anybody. Except for the children. They’ll always be my kids, those kids. When George Coon said he was moving here, I said, gee, you’re leaving me, you were one of my best students.

I had to do a lot of counseling with different kids. They would stay behind, can we talk to you? Tell me and I would help them spiritually if I had to. One boy in the 8th grade told those kids, that’s my grandma. Nah-ah, that’s our grandma! Today the different girls come up to me with their babies, do you want to see your grandchild?

Joe: LeMoine was saying the same thing, he teaches that way too. Every time we go somewhere, he says this is my son, this is my grandson. I say, geez, how many times were you married? He said they’re not all like that, it’s because when I taught them or knew them they kind of adopted me as their grandfather or dad.

Ona: They would bring me gifts too at times. Then if I saw something really nice I would think about which girl had really earned it. I felt bad when they only had two days to find a school. I hope that guy pays for it.

Learning By Doing: Science Camp

One thing I miss, I started a science camp. I went with Richfield, Apple Valley, Rosemount, Edina students. We camped out in Pembina. We took them out in the woods and showed them the plants. I showed them how we gave an offering to the plants using Ojibwe language. Then we took whatever we picked and made salves, we’d make potions for medicines that we used for smallpox, whooping cough, diarrhea, sore throat. The kids would make them and they would taste them. They liked that throat medicine. It must have been sour because they’d go like that [make a face]. Those nettles, they were sure scratching. We taught them how to get rid of that itch. That last camp we had, this one director from Richfield decided we should have a regular game warden come and show the kids the plants. But we already showed them, I said, just wait. They took us out to the woods. That little girl was going to play with the nettles and the guy said, don’t touch that. He said you’re going to itch and itch and itch. Not for long, that little bitty said, she was kindergarten when they first taught her the year before. She was like a first grader. Not for long, she said. What do you mean? She said, all you have to do, I gave her gloves, she took that plant and shook it. This is what you do, she showed him. Where did you learn that? Ona taught us last year. We used the roots to cure the sting.

They went and got birch bark, we taught them how, and here there were 33 bears in that area. It’s like a junkyard, people dump there…here that white teacher stayed in the van because she saw all the bears coming out of the woods. Here we were in there getting birch bark. She said, hey you guys, there’s a whole bunch of bears coming out of there! Oh really, we didn’t see any. There’s a lot of bears that time.

We tested water. Then we planted wild rice and now it’s coming up in that one river. What we did with the wild rice is we had it soaked, this was the seedlings. It’s not fully grown yet. I got it from George from Mille Lacs. So we had it soaking in the water. Here that Mike Newman, he was more like a scientific teacher and gardening. So he told the kids to put it in water, leave it soak until we get to the camp. I told him we won’t soak this until we get over there. That’s what I told him but he went ahead, I didn’t know it. They went on that little Apple Valley bus. We went and dug some clay and had the kids shape bowls, then we put that wild rice—man, that stunk!—but those kids wanted to learn so bad that none of them said, aah, or nothing like that. They didn’t gag. We had them wear rubber gloves. Then they made the top and they put it on the side of the tree to dry it, harden it. They even made designs on it. To the spirits mouth, some kids made. Some of them had moon and stars, all kinds of stuff. They even asked for paint to paint them. After they got hard we threw them in the river. Now it’s coming up after four years now.

At science camp, somebody gave my son a buffalo hide. We had all those kids from the suburbs work on that buffalo hide. That’s really tough! But they liked it. Then we ran out of money, I couldn’t get no money any place. We stayed at my son’s house and the school gave us those great big buses. Here we took them out in the woods and showed them the plants. We got that big bus stuck out there. We took kids from Edina, Rosemount, Apple Valley, Litchfield. Then Heart of the Earth. We had 300 kids signed up from Red Lake and we didn’t have enough staff.

Suggestions for Teachers

Ona: Don’t embezzle the kids’ money.

When we were teaching the St. Paul teachers, this was one of the mistakes that non-Indian teachers make. I want you to point at me. But traditional children are told to not point. Because you’re throwing the power of your spirit at a person. We were told don’t count with your fingers towards you, count them over. There’s a lot of taboos. They say, look me in the eye. It’s impolite to stare. We’re taught not to stare. Teachers have to watch if the child is noisy and really active, he’s not taught the values at home. Whereas, the one that is being taught values is really quiet. He’ll answer you in a good way. But sometimes teachers misinterpret their ways, their acts as disrespect. The white people look at each other all the time, point at each other. We’ve had quite a few students like that, just quiet. One thing you have to do is, no matter how you feel, when you see them come in the door, smile at them. If they have problems at home, their parents or somebody might be swearing at them or whatever, hitting them, when they come to school they expect to see a smile or something. When they see that evil look it just makes them madder.

Joe: It’s disheartening to have that at the place you’re looking for a break. They’re really sensitive, they really know what’s going on. You can’t fool them, you shouldn’t try.

Teaching Through Stories

Joe: You know who my favorite teachers were? The ones who told good stories.

Ona: That’s how it is. That’s how I learned is through story. Our people told stories to teach us. They were really interesting. They even talked about the animal behaviors. My dad had 23 pigs we used to have to take care of them. Oh man, they were fat. This one guy from Redby, he killed a mother bear. Just took the claws only, left the meat. He didn’t know that was a mother bear. The cubs ran off when he was after that mother bear. When he went to look for that bear to take the claws off, that’s when the cubs came. He put them in a cage and brought them home. He had a store in Ponemah. I used to just pity them. They had a little small cage, back and forth, back and forth. Seemed like they were saying, ma, ma, and they would hang on. That one day that guy came over, he was going to borrow something from my dad. He saw those pigs. He said, how much you want to sell your pigs. My dad said, I don’t know if I want to sell them. I can always use the meat in the winter time. I’ll tell you what I’ll do. Give me that big pig and I’ll give you those bears. My dad said, okay. They took off with that pig. A while later they came back, they had those cubs in the cage. They took them out and asked my dad where they wanted him to put it. Just open it. He said, open it? Yeah, that’s what I said, open it and let them run. That guy said, all right, if that’s what you want. The bears took off. Our dogs, we had a whole bunch of them, the bears took off. My dad said they shouldn’t be caged like that. My dad said, have fun with my pig. I hope he tastes good. Round about 12 o’clock you could hear like that on the door. My grandma’s bed was right by the door. [ojibwe words, her dad’s name]. What should I do? Open the door and let them in! She opened the door and they came running in. They went right underneath my bed. I was scared. We got used to them though. My dad made them a bowl, carved it out of cedar. He put berries in there and gave it to them. They sat down like that and they’re eating. They got done, my dad said watch them. They licked that bowl and then they turned it over. They always did that, every time they had food. They would lick it and turn it over and leave it there. They never bothered the pigs. My ma said they’re going to eat the pigs! They didn’t bother them though. The one thing always mattered, we tried to sneak off and go fishing. Nobody had motors, they had oars. The fish were alongside the hedge and you could just fish from there. The bears would find us and take away our fish. Then my dad took them out the first time, they were gone about four hours. They came back. He took them out again, he went further this time in the woods. Still come back. Finally that fourth time, before he put them out he had a bear feast. He talked to them in Indian, we always used to talk with them in Indian. He told them that we couldn’t take care of them at home. They didn’t belong with humans, they belonged with their kind. There was a lot of stuff my dad said to them. He gave one of them a red ribbon and the other one a blue ribbon. They even had Indian names too. I felt bad that I just knew they weren’t going to come back. He took them and never come back.

I used to try and straighten my leg, grrrr. Those dogs were scared of them. Of all the things my dad used to go look for medicine, he came home with a big bobcat. He said, this is Mugsy. The cat and dogs used to follow my mom to the outhouse. That cat would drive them away from her. I never got used to that Mugsy. We asked him where did you find her? She came to me when I was in the meadow.

Then we had a little mallard, oh he was mean. He’d go chasing after those dogs. We had a raccoon, my ma didn’t like him. Destructive. Then we had the two bears, then we had the squirrel, fox and a wolf. And a crow. That one day we found Charlie [the squirrel] gone. We didn’t have no meat, we only had vegetables. I’ll give you a treat today, she said, I roasted some meat for you. Oh that tasted good. When we got done we said, where’s Charlie? My grandma said, I don’t know, I haven’t seen him all day. Here we were…After we were done eating we had to chop wood, saw wood, haul water. Spill the garbage, my brother was spilling the garbage, here was Charlie’s hide. We ate Charlie. That’s one thing our parents they would say, here we’re going to eat skunk or we’re going to eat owl. They said, eat. That one time this looked like a black spongy meat. My grandpa cut it and gave us each some. Here we didn’t know we were eating a moose nose. Here he cleaned it and cooked it and gave it to us. The owl was like that too. The only thing that made me sick was the bear and the porcupine.

We used to fish with nets and get a whole bunch of walleyes. We’d gut them and send them to the fishery. I’d clean the guts and save the livers and take some of that stuff that didn’t taste good and really clean them. I had this big cast iron kettle on the stove. My nephew come there and said, what is that? Fish guts. Fish guts? What are you going to do with fish guts? I’m going to eat them. How do they taste? Well, they taste good to me, I don’t know how they’ll taste to you. That’s up to you, I said. I got done cooking them, put a whole bunch on a plate for myself and I was eating. He was sitting there, can I have a piece? Go ahead. He took a piece, put a little bit of salt, looking at me. Where’s a plate, I want some more! There’s where we used to get all our grease for frying bread.

I didn’t have diabetes until I came to the cities. I didn’t even start smoking until I was 35. I said, darn the cities, that’s the worst thing that happened to me. Smoke, I didn’t drink, became an alcoholic, I was smoking three packs a day, I couldn’t stop.

I used to always have a garden. One time, no one was taking care of it and it started to lose its [teeth]. I had great big corn because it was by a lake. I told my oldest son, you know, Joe Kingbird, he was babysitting his brothers and sisters so he come back, mom, he said, there was a horse in your garden! A horse, I said. Here I went and all the fences were on. Yet there were horse tracks, the corn was eaten here, eaten there, stomped on. Here Joe must have let that horse in the corn field to eat. Even though I was mad he had eaten that corn, I figured he’s showing respect for the animal, the animal was hungry.

It seems like in the year 2000 there’s more people getting cancer. Ever since they found that radon. There’s whole bunch of people from my reservation dying from it.

Joe: I was reading about that. What they don’t tell you is that they did so much above ground and below ground nuclear testing. They’ve done thousands of those. That radiation doesn’t just go away. They say, oh it dissipates, it’s not true.

Ona: They even found oil at Red Lake. They had those helicopters. I said, shoot them down! That one time they invited us to come and eat an Indian breakfast so they said that was on Lyndale, right by the YMCA. They said, we serve oatmeal and bacon grease. They were talking about hominy soup and stuff like that. We went over there, we checked out their…I said, I don’t know if I want to eat here, I told that woman. They said, why? I said, do you have any fish guts? What are those? Every culture has a delicacy, I said. Like the Sioux people, they have those intestines, tripe. I had it. I told my kids, I said, when you go to a feast, when you’re able to go on your own, lot of people if they want to make that feast really proud or something to teach the people how they treasure their culture, they’ll cook something that’s a delicacy to them. Even though you don’t like it, if it’s something strange, take a little bit of it. Because it will be an insult to the person if you say, no, I don’t want it. That’s rude. So you try to eat a little bit of it. What if we gag? I said, well, swallow your gag!

We used to clean that moose’s stomach. That’s what we used for a lamp. I said to those kids, you had to do whatever otherwise you wouldn’t survive. What did you wear for shoes if you didn’t have shoes? I said, I wore three pair of moccasins. The first pair, then we had a second pair with thick soles, then we put rabbit fur over our foot. That was our shoes. They said, did you have blankets out of rabbit? No, I said, but my ancestors did. How much rabbits did they have to kill? They said it took about 500 rabbits for a blanket, I said. That must have been pretty small rabbits, I said.

Do you know those Aztec dancers? I invited them to Ponemah that one summer, that was about three years ago. I had to go do a water ceremony. I still do ceremonies like I did when I was younger. I invited them to come and do their dance for my people. We did the drum ceremony, we had a drum give away. People got their stuff and we told them we were going to have a water ceremony. I know they do those too. They’re going to do that their own way. Then they pulled up but there was about three families left there that wanted to watch them. They start doing their dances. Those old people said, that’s really nice. I told them, they’re praying, they’re dancing to the east, they’re praying to the spirit. Just like we do, I was explaining as much as I could understand. So they got done and people left. I told them, I got to go do my ceremony. Do you want to come along? They said, can we watch? I said, sure you can. We went inside and I put out the offerings. They had a little bit of food and did the pipe ceremony and talked to the spirits. Then we left. That one man said you got to give an offering to that mermaid. He said that’s why he had a heart attack last year, you’ve got to have an offering. So I brought everything a woman would need: a scarf, lipstick, rouge, fingernail polish, rings, earrings, necklace, bracelet. I painted them and put tobacco on them. They followed us to the peninsula where it ends, that’s where I go. There’s a little island that appears sometimes, it’s called a spirit island. I was telling these people. I talked to the mermaid and I told her, here’s the offering I’m giving you. I’m sorry I didn’t do this before. From now on, I’ll do this. I was talking in Ojibwe to the water spirits. I start throwing the stuff around and it started floating away. All of a sudden we heard whoosh, the water just rose up like a funnel, it was about this high. It got just steamy like, just misty like you couldn’t hardly see. They all come up behind me, I didn’t know what was going on. We heard a great big splash, here this woman come up like that, she had great big scales. All those Mexican dancers saw her. That’s the mermaid, like she was praying. All the offerings are going towards her really fast. We had about seven bundles, they’re all floating towards her. I moved because I was going to take a better look at her, her hair was really long. I tripped and I fell and they picked me up so I wouldn’t fall in the water. We looked and she was gone. I kind of got scared because that’s the first time but they did tell me that there’s a mermaid there. Those people said they never saw anything like that. On the way back they found two eagle feathers, some really nice ones, on the sandy beach. They got scared because there was a pure white owl on the tree. They said, are you scared of him? I said, no, I’m not scared of him. I said, some cultures think that’s a bad omen but in our culture the only one that’s a bad omen is the screech owl. The other owl, we ‘re not scared of them. That was a beautiful owl. I thought it was a white eagle.

I suppose I could go.