On this episode of Ojibwe Stories: Gaganoonididaa, Larry Amik Smallwood talks with host Erik Redix about approaching elders, and the role of traditional ceremonies in the Ojibwe community.
Larry Amik Smallwood grew up in Aazhoomoog, the Lake Lena District of Mille Lacs. He has worked as a language instructor for the Minneapolis Public Schools, Nay Ah Shing School, the Leech Lake Tribal College, and the University of Minnesota - Duluth. Since 1999, he has served as the director of language and culture for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.
So, it’s the time of year where we’re having ceremonies and I was just wondering, what were your thoughts on the protocol for approaching an elder if you wanted something like a naming ceremony or other type of ceremony if you want an elder to come and perform that for you?
That’s a good question because so many times people need to have something done for their families or themselves and they don’t know what to do, but they know there are people out there that can do these things so, you know, they always say, “Oh, what should I do, how should I do this? I don’t want to bother him.” This and that. Well, you know, years ago, in our communities, there were several people in that community that could do certain things, you know naming ceremonies, sweats, feasts, and funerals. Now it’s kind of far and few between, but it depends also on what kind of ceremony that you want them to do. It used to be that you would go to that individual’s house with tobacco and say, “Could you come over on such-and-such a date? Come over and do a naming ceremony for our child!” And they would pick a date and the person doing that would go there that day, but it’s always tobacco first. Tobacco is a number one item that you give when you want spiritual help.
And what kind of tobacco are we talking? Is it tobacco ties? Is it loose pipe tobacco, is it a pack of cigarettes? Any of the above?
We don’t use tobacco ties except for one time, and we put it on our kettles during Midewiwin, but usually, you go over there with some loose tobacco. A lot of times people will bring me tobacco and I’ll take a pinch of that for them, and then I have this big box of tobacco laying around so myself, I prefer that you come over and give me a cigarette. I am a smoker, but and it’s the same thing, I’ll use that cigarette to do my offering. But yeah you take tobacco over to the individual and ask them, “Come over on such and such a date for such as a naming.” And that individual will agree. Same thing goes if you want somebody to do a funeral ceremony, you go to that individual’s house and you tell him what has happened and a lot of times he’ll smoke his pipe there and do a prayer for you and give you some instructions as how he wants to do it.
And, you know, when you ask somebody to do a ceremony for you, you respect that man or that woman’s way of doing a ceremony. You see, a lot of times people ask somebody to go do something, a naming ceremony or a funeral or something, and they will sit there and they’ll say, “Well, we do it this way, we do it that way,” well fine, you know, you do it that way, but I was given a way, I was taught. You have to respect my ways. So, keep in mind to respect that individual’s ways that you have them come over to do this naming ceremony or this funeral. And don’t try to get him to change the way he does it.
Micromanage, yeah, there you go. Take Mr. Staples for example. If you go and ask him to do a funeral, well he has his way that he was taught and you respect the way he’s going to do this. So many times, we’re asked to go do a ceremony somewhere and during the funeral services, people are not allowed to wear their glasses when they come up to view the deceased. It’s a cultural teaching, there’s a glare there. That is why some of the people cover up all the windows and all the mirrors and stuff in their houses. Or they go to some places there and they get pretty upset. “Well I can’t see them. I want to see my cousin over here, I don’t know what he looks like and I can’t see without my glasses.” And they get mad you know and they shouldn’t do that.
Respect the teachings and don’t challenge the teachings. And doing the funerals you know we don’t mix any Christianity during our funerals, during our services. That’s just like saying your way is not good enough, we’re going to bring in this way too. So, well, don’t ask us to come and do that then if you want to do all of this stuff. It’s hard to do funerals because we were taught, and the people that taught us, were born probably in the late 1800’s, so the teachings go back a long way. Anyway, respect the person, how he does the things he has to do.
And the same with the naming ceremony you give them tobacco, he comes over and we have food if it’s a small child, you know, we have food, we put a mat on our floor there. And put a dish out for each one of the namesakes, or wenenh’s, we put a pipe full of tobacco by each plate, and then the man will take the child and he’ll start talking in Ojibwe how he got this gift of naming. You have to explain that to the people. He might tell you of a dream that he had or some spiritual happening that happened to him in his early years. And he has to talk for that. And gifts are important when you ask somebody to come over. You have to have your offering there. Now those offerings are not for him personally, he’s got to offer those when he talks, he’s got to offer them to the spirits that he’s talking about.
Nashke bagijigeyan omaa gagwejimad awiiya ji-wiidookook nashke ge izhinikaazowin. Booch omaa gegoo da-miigiweyan da-okosidamawaad a’aw waa-kaagiigidod mii dash inow Manidoon epagizindamawaajin iniw bagijiganan. Gaawiin wiin igo oga-ayaanziinan odapagizindamawaan Manidoon waa-tazhimaajin.
That’s why you have these gifts there. At the end of the ceremony he may take his gifts and take them home, and he might keep one or two gifts and give the rest out. Because they were meant to be offered.
Of course, nowadays, money you couldn’t get around without money. So, and money is a good thing to have you know. We’ve gone 100s of miles to do a funeral and people might have given us 20 bucks or 50 dollars or something, you know, and that doesn’t cover the gas. So, people have to learn to be a little more generous and give the amount for how important they think a ceremony is. You know, like a naming ceremony. I’ve gotten a lot of gifts, I’ve gotten a lot of cash sometimes, not a lot I would say 20, 50 bucks you know. But the gifts, you know, and that’s good! Sometimes I haven’t gotten anything, a pack of cigarettes and that’s it.
So, you say money is good, because I think, sometimes the Anishinaabe people, there’s this kind of, I don’t know if you want to call it, uh, that, you know, money is bad, in these kind of contexts.
Money is not bad. I mean, Erik if you had to go 130 miles round trip to do a naming ceremony and you’re broke. You’re an elder and you’re broke. You go over there and they give you ten bucks. What are you going to do? You have gifts you can’t stick them in your gas tank. You have tobacco you use that for prayers, can’t stick that the rest in your gas tank. So, the people should know and you know, we can’t charge. You know, a lot of times I get asked to do a naming ceremony or get asked to do a funeral. They ask “How much you want?” “How much you charge?”. Well, I don’t charge.
There’s no hourly rate.
Right, but keep in mind, I won’t charge.
There’s no hourly rate.
Right, but keep in mind I am coming 120 miles to come and do this, and I have my assistants, so just keep that in mind. I mean I heard of people but that’s not the way to do it. Otherwise, if we do that we lose our gifts, you know. We don’t do this for money we do this to help our fellow Anishinaabe.
Giijanishinaabeg giga-wiidookawaanaanig ingiw. Gaawiin gidaa-wiindamawaasiwaanaan chi-niibowa zhooniyaa maa da-miinik da-miinigoyan i'iw ezhichigeyan. Onizhishi wiin igo zhooniyaa nashke gaawiin awiiya odaa-gashkitoosiin ingoji da-izhaad noongom giishpin ayaawaasig iniw zhooniyaan ge epiichi-ishpagindeg iw waasagonenjiganaaboo. Miinawaa ingiw odaabaanag epiichi-ishpaginzowaad gewiinawaa. Mewinzha ko bebezhigooganzhiin ogii-ayaawaawaan maagizhaa ditibidaabaanan.
Nashke ge i’iw mewinzha ko omaa gaa-taawaad agiw anishinaabeg gaa-tazhi-oodenawikewaad.
Mii maa nebowa maa gii-ayaawag ingiw gaa-nitaawichigejig akina gegoo. Gaawiin waasa gii-izhaasiiwag. Booch dash igo gegoo gii-miinindwaa.
So, whatever you feel you can give is what you give, you know, however important you think your name is, however important you think that person is to give that person a send off in a proper manner.
You mentioned naming ceremonies and you mentioned funerals, what are some other, I guess, in between those two life milestones? Especially our young Anishinaabe parents out there should kind of be mindful of as they’re bringing their children up?
Well, they have a lot of memorial feasts. We don’t feast just once a year, sometimes we do it two or three times during the year when we think of our people that have gone on, we remember them. You know, “Well, let’s set a dish out tonight and have somebody come over and talk,” and you go give them tobacco and say, “I want you to talk for this feast that we’re gonna have, it’s in memory of our late father,” or whatever. They do that, that kind of thing.
There’re feasts they have before they go hunting in the fall of the year. They’ll put out a feast for that and thanking the creator for, you know, a good season that they’re going to have, and for safety. So, they have a feast for that. There might be somebody that’s seriously ill. They will put on a feast for that, asking the creator for some help. There are all kinds of feasts that Indians do. We are so spiritual, I mean, you know, we pray for everything, and, you know, when we pray, too, we don’t only pray for ourselves. We pray for everybody. I know when I do the prayers at a big drum ceremony, I pray for everybody’s health, I pray that everybody’s prayers will be answered, they put their tobacco offering in there, I pray to the soldiers that are fighting overseas, I prayed to the people that are incarcerated, people that are in hospitals, nursing homes, people that are just out and about and are not able to get to the ceremony, I pray for all those, you know? They need help, too. They need support.
For younger parents, talk a little bit about the importance of these first kill ceremonies. When a young person goes out and kills something for the first time: deer, fishing.
Yeah, it used to be when they first kill a deer, these young guys, whether ten, twelve, thirteen or whatever, they would put on a big feast for that. He’s showing people he can provide as a provider of the community there. So, what they do is they prepare a big feast out of that fresh kill. They feed all the elders, they have all the elders come over and that’s where he gives thanks and he’s recognized as a hunter, and he gives the rest of his meat to his elders. Then he can go out and kill deer and he can hoard it for his family or whatever, and the same with fish too. Anything you take, you share with the elders. Elders are very important to Shinaabe people, they’re the ones that supposedly, I say supposedly because they call me an elder now, know many things. Well, I don’t look at myself as one of those people, but I grew up with elders, listening to elders, and also, with the elders, them being elders, they hung around with nothing but other elders, so I got an ear’s full, years and years, you know, just crammed into me.
I wanna ask you a little bit about the environment you grew up in in Aazhoomoog and why you think that particular place was maybe a little different from Ojibwe communities at that time?
Well, as people were migrating from the east, you know they came through upper Wisconsin and down south a little way, and into Minnesota, and you know, as people grow older and families found areas they liked, they stopped and settled down. The other ones were still exploring, going westward, you know. And then they started organizing and using boundaries. I think that’s why Minnesota and Wisconsin, like I grew up on the Wisconsin border, on the Minnesota side, Minnesota-Wisconsin border, on the Minnesota side, and a lot of you people kept heading west. Well, when the boundaries came into say, you know, “have everybody on this side of the St. Croix River that’ll be Mille Lacs,” you know, up to, you know. It’s a government thing.
Yeah, the community there is what, about a good hour, hour and half drive to Mille Lacs?
Well, they call it Lake Lena, but it’s wrongfully called Lake Lena, it should be called Steven’s Lake after one of our chiefs there, and the Steven Lake community called Aazhoomoog should be called Steven’s Lake after one of our chiefs. That is about an hour fifteen, an hour and twenty minutes to Mille Lacs. So, we’re all a part of, we’re all Mille Lacs. All the way up to the big lake, and a little north of there, like McGregor. So, we’re all Mille Lacs people, and because of that boundary, St. Croix River, the Wisconsin people became the St. Croix tribe out that way. All the way up to Brainerd is where we go. It’s kind of spaced out, I mean, the main part of Mille Lacs being over Mille Lacs Lake and then 100 miles east we have Steven’s Lake and then 50 miles north we have East Lake and Sandy Lake and then we have Isle and so on.
And then, as far as your community, was there a leader during the treaty time that you know of that signed some of those treaties?
The first one I knew about would have been a gentleman by the name of Jim Stevens. Before that, say Buffalo’s got some descendants down there in Aazhoomoog and all over the place. So, it comes back from the old Madeline Island days.
One thing I wanted to ask you about today is your thoughts about sweat lodges and sweat lodge is something that, I think, for Ojibwe people and all kinds of native people, and non-Natives too, it’s something they’re familiar with as far as Native spirituality. I wonder if you could talk about the role of a sweat lodge when you were growing up and maybe how that’s different from today.
You know, when I grew up, I watched my people sweat, the elders sweat. They had their individual little sweat lodges outside sometimes, and I used to watch my dad. He would have a sweat right inside the house. He would heat up the stones inside the stove, those rocks, and he would make a little covering inside his… right in the living room, there. He would cover that up and crawl in there and he would sweat by himself. Individual sweats, you know, and sometimes later after I moved to the cities, I started hearing of people going to sweats and there were like 10, 15 guys going to a sweat, you know, and some of them, women have sweats and some people have co-ed sweats and I’m not sure if there’s a right or wrong why, you know, I don’t know that much about it.
I know my partner over here has sweats down by his house, co-ed sweats. You go to another place, it was only men only, and another place is women only, so, the purpose of a sweat is to go and purify your body and your mind. You go in there and you pray. You pray for everybody. You pray and it’s hot, it’s really hot in there. Everybody takes turns praying. I know my uncle told me one time, somebody asked me if I could do a sweat, and I said, “No, I haven’t been given the permission yet.” So, I was talking to my uncle one time and I was telling him that, and he said, “Yeah, I give you permission right now to run a sweat,” he said, “You know the language, you can run a sweat.” And I said, “Oh, okay,” but I’ve yet to run one.
And he told me, he said, “If you get people in that sweat and you hear each one of them praying,” he said, “Pray in English or another language,” he says, “All you have to do is talk in your language and pray that everybody’s prayers in there be answered. Okay? And that’s your job in there to hold that.” I said, “Oh, okay.” So, if I ever do, that’s what I’ll do, is I’ll pray for everybody that’s in there, you know? But it’s hot, it gets really hot. Some people go all the way through the four doors and some of them last one door, depends.
In order to go to a sweat, you should find somebody that’s been given the right to hold a sweat. There are certain individuals that have been given that right to hold a sweat, okay? I know a couple of guys back here in the ‘80’s, they said they were going to somebody’s sweat, and me, in the back of my mind, I said, “I wonder when he started doing these sweats,” you know? “He doesn’t speak the language.” Well, anyway. Some guys came back the next day. Man, their legs were all blistered and burnt, you know, and “I don’t know what happened there!” I said, “Oh, I know what happened.” You know? “You shouldn’t have been in there.” Or he shouldn’t have been doing the sweat. You take that guy down south here, Arizona, this guy made a 50 foot across sweat there. Plastic discs, and all kinds of weird tarps, and charging people money to go in there, and people going in there that shouldn’t have been in there, and well, look what happened. You know, you go fooling around with something spiritual that was given to the Anishinaabe, you don’t have any business going in there. Nor does he have any business charging money for people to go in there, and they get punished. I heard a guy from Ponemah one time saying, I liked his words, he said, “Giishpin gegoo mamaazhichigeyan giga-bapashanzhe'ig a'aw Manidoo.” I said, “Howa.” He said, “If you do things wrong, the Creator’s gonna spank you!” I like that word. Yes, he was good. Yeah, so if you want to go to a sweat, you know, find somebody that can properly hold one, you know, not just anybody can have one. Some people go in there for the wrong reasons. You go in there to purify your mind and your body, pray for people.
Is it different, though, why people went in when you were growing up? Why people would do that, just, their individual kind of sweat that they do? Was it more for like hunting and things like that?
Nah, it was just more for they weren’t feeling good, you know, and you know, they’re having something was bothering them, they would go into a sweat. They didn’t need a whole bunch of people, they just went in there themselves and did a sweat, but in the late ‘70’s, that’s when I noticed people were cramming into these sweat lodges. I’m not saying that’s wrong, it might be another tribe’s way, you know, that’s good,.
Well, let me ask you this, would you, personally, go into, like, a sweat lodge that was co-ed?
You know, I haven’t been in a sweat lodge since 1992. I guess it depends on who’s holding it, you know? Then I would go in, but I don’t think I’ve had the need or desire to go in to a sweat lodge.
Because some people are funny about that, they say that you should never go into a co-ed one. Because, you know, if you’re a man.
I don’t know. I just know there were some for men only, some for women only, and some have co-ed, you know?
So, it’s really the person, you’re saying.
Just like everything else.
It is. So, anyway, yeah, I haven’t been in one since ’92, and the man I went in the sweat with back then, his name was Jimmy Jackson, and of course, I traveled around with him for just a short spell there for a couple years, and I learned a lot from him. There was a lot of medicine men back then in the ‘60’s, 70’s, the ‘80’s, that could speak fluently, really good. I always wind up speaking about that language, I said, “Language is so important.” I take a lot of convincing.
Well, and it gets back at all the stuff we’ve been talking about because, I mean, you know, whether it’s sweat lodge or some of these ceremonies that people are offering tobacco and want to have, really, the first thing you should do is make sure the person, I mean, language is the key to all of that stuff.
Just like our Mide ceremonies, you know, people go through it and that’s good, you know, a lot of people are going through. That’s good if they’re going through for the right reason, you know, it’s a healing ceremony. You go in there, you have a problem or problems, you go in there and, you know, and you get healed. You get spiritual help that way. Some of the people are going just to go and say they’ve been through there. You know, and that’s the wrong reason. I know for a fact that it helps people, you know, that want to get help. That are going there for the right reason.
Something like that, I mean, what would be your advice there if something… if someone has the desire to do that, should they approach an elder and start talking to them about it before they kind of hop in and make sure they’re doing that for the right reason?
Well, if they have an illness or something, they should find out who does those ceremonies and then go talk to them and they can give them the advice. I can’t give that advice. I know it’s not my, how do I say it?
Gaawiin niin ingii-miinigoowizisiin i'iw da-midewi'iweyaambaan Gaawiin niin ingikendanziin i'iw. Awiiya bakaan daa-izhichige wiin i’iw gekendang.
There’s people around that do those ceremonies that are knowledgeable in that, so. And a preparation is long, I mean, you have to have a lot of blankets and a lot of gifts and stuff to give, you know?
Yeah, but I think, you know, that kind of ties into what we were talking about, sweat lodges, too, to a certain extent, because I think, what you see happening in our communities is that people that didn’t grow up necessarily in traditional families, they wanna get, you know, they wanna do things the traditional way as adults, which, I think is a good thing but I think they kind of look at it, at things like sweat lodge or even like going to Mide is like, this is something you have to do to be a traditional person almost. Do you think that’s?
You know, maybe to them, they have to defend their identity because they didn’t grow up with it. I’m talking about that Mide ceremony. If you have a problem, a health problem, then, by all means, that’s where you go. But yeah, I think a lot of them are looking for their identity, they’re finding it, and it makes them feel good.
See, I have a theory about that, I think for some people they think, “Well, Christians go to church, so if I want to follow Ojibwe ways, I have to go to sweat lodge or I need to go through Mide,” not really realizing that there are other aspects to it.
Well, these are things that were given to us.
Manidoo gigii-miinigonaan i’iw da-izhichigeyang da-maadoodooyang da-niimi’idiyang da-midewiyang akina gegoo. Mii ezhichiged a’aw Anishinaabe mii gaa-miinigowizid.
Gaawiin wiin a'aw ge inenimaasiin a’aw Chi-mookomaan imaa da-biindiged
endazhi-madoodooyang naa endazhi-midewiyang, giinawaa gidizhitwaawininaan i’iw. Bakaan wiin gii-miinaa Waabishkiiwed da-zhichiged.
So, that’s the best I can answer that.
And it’s not necessarily something that’s a rite of passage necessarily, right? It’s, again, it’s something you go in for specific reasons. Yeah.
The most important thing, though, is getting your name.
That is a standard thing, right? That we should all be doing?
And language, too, from what we’ve heard over these sessions, too, right? I mean, to me I think a lot of people, they want to follow traditional ways, but you know, correct me if I’m wrong, probably the first thing they should do is learn language, right?
Exactly. The first thing they should do anything is learn the language, you know? That’s what I’ve been saying all this time, but yet, they wanna go out and do things, you know, not knowing the language, so you can’t do those things. Language is first. Whatever you do, you want to get a name, hold a sweat, you want to hold a feast, all that stuff, you have to know your language.