Q & A with Patty Loew
The following interview with Patty Loew, author of "Indian Nations of Wisconsin: Histories of Endurance and Renewal," was originally published in the Sept/Oct 2001 issue of "Columns," the Wisconsin Historical Society Newsletter.
When My Mother Was a Little Girl:
History from a Native American Perspective
Wisconsin Historical Society: Who do you hope reads your book?
Patty Loew: I hope that teachers will read "Indian Nations of Wisconsin." Wisconsin public schools require educators to teach Indian history, culture, and sovereignty. I have had friends who teach tell me that they can't always find the resources they need to fulfill that mandate. I think this book may help. Additionally, I hope that anyone with a casual interest in Native Americans of Wisconsin history will find it interesting.
WHS: Why is it important to have books about Native Americans written by Native people?
PL: I think that what is important is not so much that I am Native American, but that people in each of the 12 tribal communities discussed in this book collaborated in its development. After all, the fact that I'm Ojibwe doesn't make me qualified to write about the Ho-Chunk, or even other Ojibwe bands, for that matter. I think that what is significant is that the elders, historians, and cultural liaisons in each community shared oral history, suggested resources, and helped edit their histories. They helped shape my understanding of historical events and served as compass points. It was gratifying and humbling to think that they trusted me enough to do that.
WHS: Can you talk about some of the personally satisfying aspects of writing the book?
PL: The most personally satisfying aspect of writing this book was meeting the historians and culture keepers in each Nation and being entrusted with their stories and historical documents. I remember visiting with an 81-year-old former American Indian Movement (AIM) activist at Lac Courte Oreilles, who lifted her fist in salute and shouted, "Red Power!" For me, AIM will always have her face. I recall coming home to a package that an elder from Crandon had sent. It was an obscure manuscript transcribed from interviews with a Potawatomi from Canada at the turn of the last century, which read: "33,109 years ago" and proceeded to tell the history of the Potawatomi migration. So often Indian history is told through missionary reports, trader journals, and other documents filtered by non-Indians. It was exciting to sift through the minutes of treaty negotiations and read the powerful oratory of the chiefs who attended the sessions or to pick up a tribal newspaper from 1912 and discover Native perspectives about timber barons and logging practices. These experiences helped me to think about how we can think about the past in new ways.
WHS: Can you talk about what you mention at the beginning of your book concerning the cultural differences of writing history that you encountered (i.e. from a traditional time-oriented perspective versus a thematic organization of events presented in stories)?
PL: This experience reinforced what I already suspected: that Native people think about history differently than non-Natives. I was asked to write a history book. For most people that means a chronology of names, dates, and events. But many Native people I know don't think about the past in a linear fashion. For them, history is spatially driven. There is a strong sense of place around which people and events are remembered, often with songs and stories. Dates are reduced to "a long time ago" or "when my mother was a little girl." I remember interviewing a Mohican woman about her outreach activities in Chicago during the Relocation Era (1950s to 1970s). She described the terrible housing, the family breakdowns, and the informal networks Native communities created to provide social services. "What year was this," I asked. "I dunno," she replied, "is that important?" She told me that the date was insignificant. What was important was how disconnected people felt living in a place like Chicago and how creatively they came together to create a sense of community on a reservation away from home. During an interview with the hereditary chief at Mole Lake (Ojibwe), he showed me a ravine in which his grandmother had been hidden as a little girl while the Sioux and Ojibwe battled over the wild rice beds. The mass grave in which warriors from both sides had been buried was a sacred site, as were the stands of rice over which they had fought. For him, these events provided the context for the current struggle to prevent Nicolet Minerals from locating its copper mine adjacent to the rice beds near Crandon. For him, history was driven by a sense of place and remembered through family stories. In writing this book, I encountered a certain tension between writing something that looked like a history book and something that felt true to the way many Native people view their past. It ended up with elements of each, I think.
WHS: Have you considered writing a similar book for Wisconsin primary and secondary students?
PL: The Society has asked me to write another book that can be used in elementary school classrooms. I'll be working on the project with Bobbie Malone [head of the Society's Office of School Services], with whom I have worked on other Native issues. She is wonderful and I'm looking forward to it. My 10-year-old son brought home his social studies book on Wisconsin, which I thought had a dreadful section on American Indians. It still refers to Columbus "discovering" America. It also credits René La Salle [17th century French explorer ] with organizing the Ojibwe, Ottawa, and Potawatomi into a confederacy and "teaching them to fight against the Iroquois." My Ojibwe relatives got a good howl out of that one.
WHS: Anything else you want to share about "Indian Nations of Wisconsin?"
PL: This experience left me with a deep appreciation for the Native people in this state and the uniqueness of their communities. Given the all-out assault on Native culture for the last two hundred years, it seems nothing short of a miracle to me that these communities have survived with any vestige of their languages or cultural expression intact. I'm hoping the book helps promote interest in the heritage of Native Wisconsin. The tribes are becoming more interested in sharing their stories with outsiders. Many of them have opened museums and cultural centers and are beginning to tell their own histories. It makes me feel optimistic about the future of cultural tourism in Wisconsin.