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Oct/Nov 2006 Fiction

Myths of Minnesota

by Anna Sidak

Photo by Jim Gourley


Kathleen, the baby's mother, had moved a few feet away to window-shop the dime-store. When she saw the Blackfoot couple reflected in the glass, she was afraid to turn, afraid to move.

The Blackfoot couple were tall and gaunt in denim, canvas, and elk-hide moccasins with the ways of their forefathers in their eyes—the forefathers who'd lived through the long battle for the hunting grounds, through the death of the buffalo—and through something new as well, for they'd left the slow starvation of the reservation to strike out on their own.

They'd taken in the sights—the battered Fords, front wheels jammed against the sidewalk planks, listless horses shifting from foot to foot at the hitching rail, a barber's red-and-white spiraled pole—the forest primeval behind wooden storefronts—and were on their way out of town when they stopped beside the baby's carriage.

When their shadow fell on the baby, she smiled and opened her eyes.

"Papoose has blue eyes!" they said, leaning over the carriage. "May not live through the winter."

They moved on down the street, the Blackfoot woman three paces to the rear, her thin shoulders dragged down by two ten-pound bags of potatoes.

When Kathleen saw they'd reached the end of the block and were crossing the street, she ran to the carriage and wheeled it in the opposite direction to the general-store where JT was looking at hardware.

"They looked at her," she said.

"What if they did?"

"They could've kidnapped her. I'd never forgive myself—and all I did was look away for a moment."

"They can't feed their own. What would they want her for?"

"They just scare me."

"I need a new pick-ax," he said. "And a hand-saw. Could use a cold-chisel." He bought ten pounds of potatoes and a pound of coffee.

 

JT Van Owen had no luck with his rented Idaho ranch—and after the misunderstanding with his landlord, verified by a two-year time-out in Walla Walla, he collected Kathleen and Daisy from Kathleen's family's farm in Missouri and took them to northern Minnesota, a land of enticing wilderness where he could try to live in the aftermath of his crime.

He'd doubled back on the trail of the Blackfoot, across the great plains and into the forest, the land of their cousins, the Ojibwa, from whom the Blackfoot had fled centuries before. There, he rented a tax-delinquent farm twelve miles from town with a lake and river outlet on the back forty, a pond in the pasture, and a stand of sugar maple.

He'd thought the Blackfoot of Idaho had once known how to live, before the Agency stepped in; he thought the Ojibwa of Minnesota, if he studied their ways, perhaps could show him a way to coexist with the known universe. He liked the way they could sleep in the woods—under a cedar to keep the rain off—make birch-bark baskets and draw pictures on them, or better yet—this was JT's spin—write a letter on one of the bark's thin layers and mail it to his sister in Omaha.

In Minnesota, the baby, now Daisy—short for Marguerite, her parents said—learned about crying: not to do it.

"Ojibwa put their bare-bottomed papooses in open-ended backpacks, and the babies never cry. Something to think about." But JT smiled when he said it—Daisy was well out of diapers—and showed her his footprints in the snow, straight as any Ojibwa, slightly pigeon-toed on the left.

"The Ojibwa work long hours in icy lakes to gather wild rice," he said. "They bend it over the gunwale and beat the grain into their canoes. They put it in brown paper bags that say Product of Minnesota, Harvested Wild. They tap maple trees and make syrup from the sap—sometimes sugar, too, although it takes forever—freezing their extremities in the process," just as he was to do that first early spring. "Why the Ojibwa Have No Tails," he called that story.

"There aren't any Ojibwa people around here now, are there?" Kathleen asked.

"Used to be some," JT said.

"They scalped people and stole their horses," Kathleen said to Daisy.

"Before the railroad, before game got so scarce," JT said.

"Good," Kathleen said, thinking, no doubt, of the Ojibwa who were gone now.

JT'd been hunting four days in a row with no luck. He was sore about it, but he told Kathleen and Daisy it was because Clote Scarpe, the Indian deity, had warned the animals.

"'When the hungry brother comes among you with the long stick from which fire strikes,' Clote Scarpe said to the deer, 'you must run. You must hide,' he said to the snowshoe rabbit. He said nothing to the mink who had gone into disguise as ermine."

"Clote Scarpe is only who some Indians pray to," Kathleen said. "He's not real. There is only one real God."

"Clote Scarpe worked very well for the Ojibwa until the missionaries got here," JT said.

 

"When we lived in Idaho, the Blackfoot people came to look at you. Your eyes were bluer than anything. They'd never seen a blue-eyed baby," Kathleen said to Daisy. "They wanted to take you home with them, to keep you."

In Minnesota, land of the sky-blue water, Daisy's blue eyes were now seen to be brown. She quivered ever so slightly; she wanted her blue eyes back, she wanted to be a marvel again to the Blackfoot.

"They didn't want anything of the kind," JT said. "And who can blame them?" He winked at Daisy. "We'll go and see the Ojibwa. We'll see how they live, now."

They drove many miles to the south, into the region of Mille Lacs. They drove slowly along beside the great water in JT's old Essex.

Across the highway from the lake were the wigwams of the Ojibwa. Racks of birch-bark baskets stood in front of the wigwams. Behind the wigwams were clothes-lines. Alongside were the Ojibwa's Cadillacs and Chryslers.

"How they live!" Kathleen said.

"These people speak a language similar to that of the Blackfoot," JT said. He'd read up on the matter. "They are skillful at basket weaving and the making of birch-bark canoes."

The car lurched to one side. He turned off the engine and opened the car door.

Two braves came out of the wigwams and watched as he opened the trunk for the tools: the jack, the pump, the can of patches, the lug wrench.

"Need some help?" one asked.

"Thank you, but I'm in practice," JT said. "Second flat this week."

"Bad roads," said the other Ojibwa. "Bad weather too, but nice today."

Daisy looked at the Ojibwa through her fingers and made funny noises to show she was friendly. The Ojibwa paid no attention. She sulked.

"Daisy wants a drink of water," Kathleen said when JT got back in the car.

He recommended that Daisy, "Shut up." They went home.

 

When Daisy was three, she went for a walk in the woods, moving silently, stealthily, like an Ojibwa. She had blue eyes again and wore the moccasins of Minnehaha, of Pocahantas, of Sacajawa. She wandered for many moons talking to the animals, sometimes listening to the animals. She stumbled and fell, tearing her dress, losing her shoes. The ground was cold. She was hungry. She went home.

"I thought maybe you hopped a freight for Chicago," JT said.

"I was afraid the Indians got you," Kathleen said.

 

Winter came. It grew cold and colder still.

"Just think," Kathleen said, "how those poor Indians down to Mille Lacs must suffer in weather like this."

"They don't live there in the winter," JT said, "they know better than to try to live through the winter in a summer wigwam."

"Where do they go, then?" Kathleen asked, already sorry she'd brought up the matter.

"They go south. They go to live in the city, probably. Minneapolis or St. Paul. Duluth."

Kathleen and Daisy gave him dark looks, as though wondering, why don't we do that?

He went out to the woodpile and brought in more wood.

"Colder than blazes—" he began but thought better of it. "This would seem balmy to an Ojibwa."

Kathleen and Daisy put their hands over their ears.

 

It warmed up a little.

"Indian Summer," JT said.

He took Daisy for a walk in the woods. She saw partridge whirr into the blue sky from a thicket purple against melting snow. The white bark of birch tied the clouds of heaven to earth. They stopped to examine the tracks of rabbit and fox.

"This is God's country," JT said. "We'll plant potatoes in the spring.

The cold came back. The lake on the back forty froze over. JT went ice-fishing and caught two small perch.

"Look at that!" he said. "Best fishing in the world, winter or summer."

He spent the rest of the day trying to warm up.

 

He went on snowshoes to Round Lake. There was a general store, a gasoline pump, and the post office where he picked up his WW1 disability check every month.

"I mean to plant potatoes in the spring," he said to Larson, the storekeeper.

Larson shook his head. "Too rocky for potatoes. You got the old Willows place—it was the rocks set Charlie Willows off that time, they say."

"Found out who used to live here," JT said to Kathleen at supper that night. "Fellow name of Willows—after they sent him away, he got loose, came back here and dispatched his wife and the other three kids. There'd been a four-year drought and all the game was gone. They were starving. He was half Indian, but his wife was from Armenia. They didn't take him alive."

"Oh, my," Kathleen said. "Right here?"

"Larson said an odd thing. He said, 'They don't come by and bother you folks none, do they?'"

 

When the potato planting began, JT said, "You plant them with the eyes up so they can see. Glaciers left the rocks." There were many rocks.

Kathleen thought there were too many rocks. She took time off from potato planting to plant the gladioli bulbs given her by their nearest neighbor, the old Armenian who lived alone a mile away in the log cabin he'd built soon after fleeing the massacres of his homeland. He'd had a wife and daughter years ago, he said, grandchildren, but they were gone now. Kathleen planted rhubarb, and strawberries to temper the rhubarb, while Daisy followed her father across the potato field with a pail of water, pouring a cupful into each hill.

 

Kathleen's gladioli reached six feet. Their funeral blooms swayed above the green leaves and red stems of rhubarb, above the white blossoms and green leaves of strawberries. She began to think about irises. Back home in Missouri, she'd have visited the Bethel graveyard, given those poor crowded rhizomes a fresh start by removing a few.

But when the time came to harvest JT's potatoes, half turned out to be rocks. When he was fooled that way, he thought of Charlie Willows. Sometimes he looked over his shoulder.

"No more than twelve bushel," he said to Kathleen at supper. "Please pass the potatoes."

"What else is there?"

He ignored her question and poured maple syrup over his hash-browned potatoes; he'd tapped thirty trees while three feet of snow remained on the ground, cutting a trail along the lake and into the woods. He'd boiled the sap down to syrup in a large sheet metal pan with wooden ends set over a fire-pit.

"There was an Ojibwa up near Kouderay," he said, for he was thinking of a story he'd heard as a boy from his father, who'd been a teacher and knew many stories.

"An Ojibwa medicine man. When this medicine man was told two braves were missing from the village, he asked that a special wigwam be built, just large enough to stand in."

Kathleen got up and began to clear the table.

"When it was finished," JT continued, addressing Daisy, "he went in and asked that it be set afire. It blazed up around him and he fell forward out of the flames onto the ground. In a little while, he came to, sat up, and said, 'You will find our brothers on the north shore of the small lake trapped beneath a pine that fell during the storm.' The villagers went to that place, which was six miles distant, and found the braves, still alive but unable to free themselves."

Daisy threw her plate on the floor and began to shriek.

"Now see what you've done," Kathleen said.

"I don't know why she's bawling," JT said, and felt the shiver he always felt when he thought of the burning wigwam.

 

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