Preserving Ojibwe hymns means more than religious devotion

St. Columba Church
Parishioners gather for a service at St. Columba Episcopal Church in White Earth, Minn. on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

When 30 people gathered recently for an evening service at St. Columba Episcopal Church, they recited liturgy like thousands of other church congregations.

But when they began singing, it quickly became clear that theirs was not a typical Minnesota prayer service.

A visitor would have recognized the melody to "What A Friend I Have In Jesus," but the parishioners sang in Ojibwe, thanks to the translations early missionaries made to help convert Indians to Christianity.

Music is a time honored part of worship in most religions. For many Ojibwe people in northern Minnesota, hymns are much more than an expression of religious devotion. They represent a unique piece of Ojibwe culture tribal that members are trying to preserve.

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White Earth Tribal Chair Erma Vizenor, one of the singers at the service, said it's critical to keep the Ojibwe language alive.

"This is one way we can keep it," she said. "We can use it, we can share it, we can build community with it."

Vizenor grew up with Ojibwe hymn singing and traditional spiritual practices. She remembers neighbors gathering in her grandparents' tiny two-room home to sing, and her grandparents explaining traditional ceremonies.

White Earth Tribal Chair Erma Vizenor
White Earth Tribal Chair Erma Vizenor says singing hymns in the Ojibwe language helps people claim their culture and traditional way of life. Photograph taken Thursday, Jan. 3, 2012 in White Earth, Minn.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

Although Christian clergy tried to end traditional Indian spiritual practices, Vizenor said, the native-language hymns the church brought the reservation have become part of the complex Ojibwe culture

Vizenor said she is active in the Christian church, but still comfortable with traditional spiritual practices. For her, both can reflect the spiritual traditions of Ojibwe people.

"Our spirituality is one of prayer," she said. "And even our traditionalism is not a religion, but it's a way of life in how we respect Creator and take care of whatever Creator has given us and take care of one another."

Today, some of the most active groups of hymn singers are on the White Earth, Red Lake and Leech Lake reservations. Vizenor estimates there are more than 400 people who sing at funerals and wakes, church services and community celebrations.

"Even our traditionalism is not a religion, but it's a way of life in how we respect Creator and take care of whatever Creator has given us and take care of one another."

After the church service, parishioners gathered in the basement for a meal, and about a dozen people lingered around a table to sing more hymns.

Charles "Punkin" Hanks hunched over his song book, shoulder length black hair framing his deeply lined face.

"I've been doing this for 33 years," said Hanks, 72. "They call me to go Red Lake, Cass Lake. Any place there's a wake, funeral. I go into the schools, wherever they want me to sing. It doesn't matter what denomination, where I can help out, I go."

Hanks said he began singing because he thought it was important to keep the tradition alive. For him, it's much like the drum used in traditional ceremonies.

"You know, the drum is a healing thing that kind of helps you out," he said. "Same with our songs. When we start singing like that it's a healing process for the people and a lot of people that hear that say it's a nice feeling they get from listening to our songs you know."

Hanks was part of a group that recorded Ojibwe hymns for the Smithsonian Institution collection a few years ago.

Charles "Punkin" Hanks
Charles "Punkin" Hanks has been singing Ojibwe Hymns for 33 years and said he started singing to help preserve an important part of the communities culture. Photograph taken Thursday, Jan. 3, 2012 in White Earth, Minn.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

Ed Smith, who lives in Pine Point, a tiny community across the reservation, grew up with the Ojibwe hymns, but has been singing for about 12 years. Smith, 70, worries the tradition might be fading.

"I am somewhat concerned that the young people are not picking it up as readily as I would like to see," he said. "There is some concern this might be part of our culture that will be no more."

Although Smith doesn't speak Ojibwe, for him, the hymns are an important connection to culture.

A source of strength and comfort, the Ojibwe hymn tradition is certain to continue, Vizenor said.

"I've seen our singing be a part of social change. I've seen our singing bring our people together during times of the worst times of mourning and death. I've seen our singing celebrate on Easter morning," she said. "It strengthens us. I love the Ojibwe hymn singing. I hope I can sing it until I draw my last breath."

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