SWEET GRASS

Lives of Contemporary Native Women of the Northeast
by
Mildred Noble
Copyright 1997 Mildred Noble All Rights Reserved

Author

Introduction

We have a saying in Indian Country: "Knowledge is passed down to the next seven generations ahead."

In 1985 I initiated a process that led to my writing short auto- biographical sketches of contemporary Indian women; in 1997 1 have completed it. I started by jotting down notes of childhood experiences that I remembered during a stressful period of my life. Those memories unfolded in graphic pictures, almost as if I were looking through a kaleidoscope. Whether or not I had the technical ability to "write" was of no consequence. I just did.

In 1987 1 graduated from Boston College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in social science. Several years later I submitted an application to Mel King, Director of the Urban Community Fellowship Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I was accepted into the program. While at M.I.T as a Community Fellow, I embarked on several projects. One was to research my ancestry and the history of the Ojibway tribe, of which I am a member. That same year I interviewed "Rita" (whose story is in this book) and became acutely aware that information about Native American women-particularly those of the Northeast-was scarce and hard to locate.

There was a time during the writing of this book when I felt I could not go on. I was about to give up the idea completely. I had begun writing without ever contemplating what the end result would be. I was using writing as a therapeutic device. At one point, I hoped writing my story would give my daughter more understanding of her Indian mother.

My early efforts were written in a random and disorganized fashion, and, since I did not have the experience to rearrange it, the thought of completing the book was overwhelming to me. I contemplated this problem as I sat on a park bench, or watched TV, or walked about the city. I began to question the project's validity and whether I could finish it. "Why must I do it?" I asked myself. "What value is there in writing about Indian women's lives?" No answer.

Time passed. Eventually I made a decision. I would finish what I started. Why not? Perhaps I could document life experiences as other writers had for Jewish women immigrants and the women of Appalachian Virginia and Tennessee. I devoured their stories and felt greatly empowered by the strength such women evoked. I determined to continue, therefore, documenting what contemporary life was like for Native American women. It was at this time that I met Richard Carlson, who assured me he would work with me in editing the stories.

In mid-life, out of necessity, I developed new skills. I tell in the following pages of practicing typing and the effort it took. Typing was a challenge, and I realize now that if I hadn't made that effort I would not have had the ability to follow through with other interests I later developed. I have also learned to use a computer as a word processor but only because at the first class I attended at Massachusetts Institute of Technology the instructor asked if everyone was computer literate. Since I was not, the "Green Room" (a room designated for computer practice) and tutors were made available to me as a Community Fellow. I was afraid of computers and remained freaked out the few times I summoned up enough courage to make it to the room. I was fearful of coming into contact with all the "brainy" people I might meet there. What would they think of me, an elder entering their ivory tower? Weeks passed before I got up courage to go in; even then, I just went several times and only because my instructor prodded me weekly. Needless to say, the young men and women I met there were kind and considerate, and I realize now that having that experience has helped me immensely in developing my skills as a writer.

The first part of this book-"Sweet Grass"-is my own story. The second part consists of briefly told lives of five Native American women-three Micmacs, one Mohawk, and one Wampanoag. Some of those stories have been fictionalized; others are presented as interviews which I conducted with them.

Sweet grass

Sweet grass is a tall, wild grass, growing in areas of the U.S. northwest and southern Canada. It has long been a sacred plant for Native Americans. The dried leaves and flowers are woven into baskets, and the long, sweet-musty scented leaves are braided and burned in purification ceremonies. The smoke from sweet grass encourages positive influences and carries prayers up to the Creator. Once common, sweet grass has become rare due to development, cattle-grazing, and wheat growing. Native Americans in the northern plains have tried to protect remaining fields.

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PAGE 10B                              NEWS FROM INDIAN COUNTRY: THE NATIONS NATIVE JOURNAL

BOOK REVIEW______________________________________________________________________

Sweetgrass:Lives of Contemporary Native Women of the Northeast
review by Winona LaDuke

     Canada.
    She begins her own story with an account, a memory of her ancestor: "Pamobaai (1769)...Somewhere between the dream world of light and dark of life, Pomabaai slowly awakened..."
    With great compassion, she explores the changes of the north from Cree and Ojibwe communities which find themselves in the center of a trading economy, interactions with Her writing is compelling and heartfelt. As she retells her own story and chronicles and pays tribute to other women, Mildred Noble heals the wounds of their life through taking her weathered hands back to her own history, her own community far to the north of the Hudson Bay company, interracial marriages, and discrimination.
    In descriptions of a way of life led by our old people, a reader can almost taste her words and the rabbit stew, bannock and blueberries.
    We understand our ancestors better as she describes bi-racial great grandfather who wrestled with the racially discriminatory policies of his employer and others who bore the oppression.
     A delightful collection of autobiographical, biographical and fictionalized essays, Mildred Noble chronicles the lives of Native women primarily in the 1930-1980 period. These are stories centered around Boston and Cape Cod.Self published, Noble's writing is easy to follow and a fast paced patchwork of traditional stories (ie: Gluskap), vignettes of historic episodes (Longest Walk, a Micmac woman who froze to death in Boston, and the founding of various Indian centers in the northeast). She uses both fictionalized and actual interviews to document segments of their lives, and through her words, the stories of the urban and reserve-based Native communities of that region.

    Sweetgrass, following in the steps of other traditional writers, like Ella Deloria and others, is an important contribution to Native women's writings.
    In an era where "wordsmithing," and sounds seem quite often to be more important than actually telling a meaningful story, Mildred Noble brings back the true oral history of the Native community.
  
"When mother and father were victimized by racial injustices in town, they remained passive. They accepted their condition whenever they were effected and overwhelmed by the racist attitudes, my parents rushed back to a familiar place, the bush..."
     Noble speaks with an incredible refreshing, and yet hopeful frankness of a women who has persevered through abusive relationships, substance abuse, loss of two of her children, and finally a deep depression.
     Through her words, and the collective memories, this generation is better able to understand the complexities of our experience, our rapid transition over time, and the nuance of the urban Indian experience.
    What is more than her own story, is her attempt to give voice to the stories of other women in the region, from the more well known, Barbara Namais or Helen Manning, or those who remain anonymous, Ann and Rita. Their stories are our stories.
        Anne, a MicMac women, one of many MicMac families who migrated from northern reserves to the Boston area, tells us "...Four to five thousand Indians were living in Boston and the suburbs (1970),...In 1979, 55 percent of Boston's Indian males and 45 percent of the Indian women over 16 did not fulfill a year of employment. Median household incomes were $12,530 for the population as a whole."

     Anne's story is born from this experience. Banished from her reserve, a result of her brother's killing of a young Indian woman, Anne and her husband find themselves on the streets of Boston, living beneath the expressway, at the shelter, at the Boston Indian Council, and at the whim of social service agents. Sharing meager portions of box lunches and tea bags, they survive as best as they can. Anne eventually moved into an apartment in Dorchester and was there for five years before she returned to her reserve in Canada. Morris died on the streets of Boston three years after he arrived in the city.
     Rita's story, like others, remembers game wardens and Indian agents arresting Native men for feeding their families, stories no so unfamiliar to the Native people of the Columbia River and elsewhere today, who find themselves behind bars for fishing...
    "They could no longer fish in the Shubinakie River in the traditional way of their forefathers, and they no longer had access to the rich fertile soils along the riverbank. Pictures taken on the reserve at that time depict the people as looking thin, gaunt, and emaciated..."Rita, like many others, finds herself in small towns and larger cities, selling mayflowers and then later with 12 pregnancies.
    "Most compelling, however, is how the women persist and survive, through all of their hardship-alcoholism, deaths, or depression. Mildred and her sisters are testimonies to all of our mothers testimonies, to the strength of Native women, adding an important piece in the quilt of Native oral tradition.

 

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