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New book explores the lives of Ojibwe elders

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Joseph Larson
Portrait of Joseph Larson as painted by artist Sara Balbin. Larson is one of the 32 Ojibwe elders showcased in the book "Spirit of the Ojibwe: Images of Lac Courte Oreilles Elders."
Courtesy of Holy Cow! Press

Duluth's Holy Cow! Press is celebrating its 35th anniversary with the release of its most monumental work to date. 

The new book "Spirit of the Ojibwe" is a comprehensive look at the history of a Wisconsin band of Ojibwe Indians. 

It was a 15-year-long labor of love for publisher Jim Perlman.

"When we first started working on this, we thought it would be 80 pages in length," said Perlman. "It's now 280 pages. Ha!"    Holy Cow! Press is Perlman's small but influential publishing house based in Duluth, Minn. "Spirit of the Ojibwe" profiles 32 prominent elders from the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe. 

"Most of the elders in this book were born in wigwams, and lived long enough to see the casino established on their reservation," says Perlman.

Of the 32 elders, 31 of them have died. But, said Perlman, the book ensures their legacies live on.

Among those showcased are tribal chairmen, experts in the Ojibwe arts and a sharpshooter who fought in Germany during World War I. 

Tony Bernard Butler Sr.
Portrait of Tony Bernard Butler Sr. as painted by artist Sara Balbin. Butler is one of the 32 Ojibwe elders showcased in the book "Spirit of the Ojibwe: Images of Lac Courte Oreilles Elders."
Courtesy of Holy Cow! Press

There's Joseph Larson, a self-taught carpenter, who survived a vicious fight with a wild bear and loved to watch professional wrestling on television. 

There's Josephine Crowe Grover, a dedicated foster mother who cared for up to 17 kids at a time. She was known for her scary stories, which she hoped would discourage the community's children from going out after dark. 

Grover, like the majority of those in the book, was forced to attend the Hayward Indian Training School, where Perlman said, the main goal was the assimilation of American Indians into the dominant Euro-American culture.  

"They've overcome U.S. government policies which tried to take away their language and their culture," he said. "The stories of the elders show how determined and courageous they were to maintain and preserve their Ojibwe heritage and culture."

The book's biographies are accompanied by images of the elders, all of them painted by Wisconsin artist Sara Balbin. Her works hang throughout the reservation, from the tribal government building to the junior college. 

"The kids would look at the paintings and say, 'This is my auntie, my uncle, my grandma,'" said Balbin.  "But then they really were challenged trying to elaborate on who their auntie or uncle or grandma really was. So I decided at that point they need more, they need the written language."

Francis Katherine Martin Mike
Portrait of Francis Katherine Martin Mike as painted by artist Sara Balbin. Mike is one of the 32 Ojibwe elders showcased in the book "Spirit of the Ojibwe: Images of Lac Courte Oreilles Elders."
Courtesy of Holy Cow! Press

After decades of capturing Ojibwe elders on canvas, Balbin started to compile their biographies. 

The culmination of 15 years of work, "Spirit of the Ojibwe" is the pairing of her portraits with the subjects' life stories. 

"I really like it," said John Anderson, one of the Lac Courte Oreilles elders profiled in the book.  

Anderson, 76, is the subject of the first profile in the book. He is the one honored elder who's alive today. His portrait shows him in the midst of one of his favorite activities -- dancing. 

"There's a lot of action," Anderson said about the painting. "The clouds are swirling and for some reason she has me dancing on water. Well, I've heard of someone walking on water but she has me dancing on water. I look very intent there, intent on what I'm doing and when I do dance, I guess I am very attentive."

Anderson helped create Native American studies programs at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks and The College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.  He also founded the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe Community College, where he served as president for its first five years. 

"One of the things I wrote on our first catalogs was, 'We need to retrace, recapture and restore our culture,'" he recalled.

Anderson said that's just what the book "Spirit of the Ojibwe" is doing -- reminding both Ojibwe and non-Ojibwe that "we too have a history and the history is rich." 

Twelve of the images from "Spirit of the Ojibwe" are on display at the Duluth Art Institute through Sept. 9.