What does it mean to live a good life, the Ojibwe way?

Linda LeGarde Grover is a professor of Native American Studies at UMD.
Linda LeGarde Grover is a professor of Native American Studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
Brett Groehler | University of Minnesota Press

Ojibwe writer Linda LeGarde Grover's new collection of essays is titled "Onigamiising," the Ojibwe name for the place she has always considered home: Duluth.

She opens "Onigamiising," which means "small portage," with an essay about who she is and why she feels so connected to where she grew up.

"The place of the small portage was home to Ojibwe people who lived and walked here before Onigamiising was Duluth. Even longer ago than that, before the Great Ojibwe Migration from the East, it was home to other indigenous people who are long gone but whose spirits remain. Surely we sense this; surely we know that the essence of those spirits is a presence more real than the tangible in our lives every day in this beautiful place."

Grover, a professor of Native American Studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth, has already published a novel, books of short stories, and poetry. The spur for the essays was the birth of her seventh grandchild. She wanted to write about the important Ojibwe connection between the generations, and with the land.

The pieces originally appeared monthly in the Duluth Budgeteer newspaper. After a while, she found they could be neatly organized into Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter.

Onigamiising, the Ojibwe word for ‘place of the small portage.'
Onigamiising is the Ojibwe word for 'place of the small portage' which was applied to the area now known as Duluth. Ojibwe writer Linda LeGarde Grover has long called Duluth home, and she took Onigamiising as the name for her new collection of essays published by the University of Minnesota Press.
University of Minnesota Press

"So it's the four seasons of the year," she said. "But it is also the four seasons of a person's life."

The spring essays talk of children: her own youthful memories, mixed with stories of her grandchildren. Of course, there are also accounts of the joys of a northland thaw. Summer is for berries, families and attending powwows. Fall is for harvesting and preparing for winter. Winter is for shoveling, telling stories and enjoying the warmth of a rabbit-skin blanket. She laces all of the essays with stories of relatives and friends, of maintaining traditions while also enjoying the delights of the new.

"There are things that are about what it is like to be an Ojibwe woman here in Duluth," said Grover. "But that doesn't exclude other experiences like tea, or going shopping, or bringing the grandchildren to school."

There are themes running through the writing, like the Ojibwe concept of living a good life. The Ojibwe word is mino-bimaaduziwin. "Mino means good," she said. "The implication and the meaning of bimaaduziwin is that it is a good and sacred thing. So it's not just life, there's a holiness to it. So it's the living of a good life."

And that involves living life according to the virtues held dear by the Ojibwe.

"So to be modest and then humble but to understand that we have value, each of us do," she said. "And to be thankful. And to also understand that everything has been given to us. Everything has been given by the Creator. And so to understand this and to be thankful, we are also rich in this. And of course anybody so rich would be generous."

But she also writes of tough history: the damage done by the federal policy of sending Native children off to boarding schools, a practice that lasted from the 1880s until the mid-20th century. For a culture so centered on extended family, it was particularly devastating to split parents and children. She says it affected three generations of her own family.

"And so sometimes I think of the boarding school era as 'the Great Interruption,' she said. "But coming back from it, it's not like the Interruption is done. We are still dealing with this."

Grover will read from "Onigamiising" at 2 p.m. Saturday in the Zenith bookstore in Duluth. She will read at the Birchbark Books in Minneapolis on November 1st. It's a book about applying traditional values to modern life: honoring the past, but not reliving it.

"I remember in a conversation somebody was saying, 'We want to go back! We want to go back to the old ways and be closer to the earth in what we do,'" she recalled. "And an elderly man said, 'But we can still keep our flush toilets, right?'"

A position no doubt shared by most people.

Correction (Oct. 20, 2017): Linda LeGarde Grover's name was misspelled in an earlier photo caption. It has been updated.