ChangeMakers: Brenda and Benay Child, channeling Ojibwe pride from one generation to the next

A young woman embraces her mother outside near dusk.
Brenda and Benay Child stand at the University of Minnesota's St. Paul Campus on Nov. 5.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Throughout November, MPR News is featuring Indigenous Minnesotans making history to celebrate Native American Heritage Month.

Brenda Child says she’s always been proud to be Red Lake Ojibwe. It’s something she learned from her mother and strives to pass on to her two children.

As a historian, Child has studied the day-to-day lives of previous generations of Ojibwe people, including her own family. She thinks about how her grandparents spoke the language and harvested wild rice, but also how hard it must have been for her grandfather to be dispossessed of his land. 

“I really take heart from those earlier generations, because if not for them we wouldn't be here,” said the University of Minnesota professor. “We have to honor that, what they went through, and their own survival.”

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Child is the author of award-winning books about Native American history. “My Grandfather's Knocking Sticks” draws from her own family’s story.

Born on the Red Lake reservation, Brenda Child says it's also been important to her to teach her children about the place where they’re from, their history and culture. And that’s not lost on her 20-year-old daughter, Benay Child.

“[She’s] really good at helping me understand our family's history, and how that fits into the broader history of Ojibwe people in Minnesota, and how I fit into that narrative,” said Benay Child. “That's something that I'm always thinking about, even when I'm not actually thinking about it.”

Benay Child is a sophomore at University of Minnesota, where she is studying Ojibwe language and art. Her goal is to bring the two majors together and create sculptures inspired by Ojibwe stories.

Editor's note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What does it mean to you to be an Indigenous Minnesotan right now?

Benay Child: As an Indigenous person specifically in the Twin Cities right now, I would say that that means standing in solidarity with the Black community and in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. It means actively listening to the needs of the community and responding to them. 

I think about the protests that I went to for Standing Rock here in the Twin Cities a few years ago and the Black community was very clear about showing up for the Indigenous community. I think that's why it's really important now. They showed up for us and so we have to show up for them.

Brenda Child: We talk a lot about this idea of Native people not being seen as modern people. And in fact, some of my work recently has been organized around that idea. I've been working on history related to jingle dress dancing, which seems to have emerged around the time of the global pandemic of influenza a century ago. 

One of the things I find interesting about that topic is that people tend to look at American Indian cultural traditions, even powwow traditions for example, as being something very ancient or very old. Aspects of powwows are very old. Aspects of them are new because powwows, just like Native people, are always evolving. 

I find the jingle dress dance tradition a really good example of this particular idea because it came out of the global pandemic a century ago. [It] wasn't something that just happened in Indian Country or Minnesota. It happened in Belgium. It happened in Africa. It happened in Mexico. And so it's remarkable to think about Native people as being part of the making of the modern world.

What figures have shaped you into who you are today?

Benay: My mom. I would say all of the experiences that [she’s] provided me, like traveling to different parts of Indian Country and teaching me our family's history, has been really important to me. And [she] always reminds me to be a proud Anishinaabekwe.

Brenda: I was also very shaped by my parents. My mother and father were both very interesting people. I have a lot of my father's scholarly tendencies and I think I have my mother's crazy sense of humor.

But I realized that in the work that I do how much I'm shaped by my grandmother. I'm always talking about her in my written book, I realized. She was the inspiration for my first book, which is called “Boarding School Seasons.” She was the first person to tell me about going away to a federal boarding school, which she did in the early 1920s. 

I was just writing an essay this week about the jingle dress dance tradition. Even though I was talking about it in a more abstract way relating to all Ojibwe people, at the end when I signed my name I said, ‘I'm the granddaughter of Jeanette Auginash, who was a jingle dress dancer.’

What's your vision for the future generations of Indigenous people in Minnesota?

Benay: My vision is that everybody speaks Ojibwe, or at least has the opportunity to go and learn it. Because it's something that connects us to our ancestors and it's the language that we use in ceremony.

A few years ago, before I really started learning Ojibwe, I kind of knew what was going on [during ceremonies]. People help you out and everything, but it's a lot harder to be fully immersed in the experience, I think, when you don't understand everything that's going on. Even after a year of taking classes, I understand a lot more of what's happening. It's just nice to understand.

Brenda: I'm teaching a class this semester at the university called “Chasing the American Dream.” Often we come up with the idea that parents, especially immigrant parents to the U.S., want things to be better for the next generation. I was thinking that's not at all the way Native people imagine the future for the next generation. Some of this has to do with what our grandparents experienced, or ancestors, and the way that they lived. 

I was just doing some research this past couple of weeks on a woman named Ellen Red Blanket, who was Ojibwe from the Leech Lake reservation. She lived in this community out at Bear Island for half the year. She had a very tough life. It was a time when Native people were being dispossessed of their land. The influenza pandemic happened on Bear Island. She lost children in her lifetime. 

I had an opportunity to meet with her great-granddaughter this summer and I said, ‘Well, tell me some of your Ellen Red Blanket stories.’ I was expecting her to tell me about the hardship and she said, ‘She always said that they had the best life.’ 

I thought that was such a wonderful idea because I think of my grandparents. They spoke Ojibwe. They harvested wild rice. They harvested maple sugar. They went fishing. They knew our homelands, even though my grandfather came to Red Lake because he had been dispossessed of his land at Mille Lacs. 

So when I think of what I want for my children [and] what I want for Benay: I want her to speak her language. I want her to go to ceremonies. I want her to harvest wild rice and maple sugar. I want for her what my grandparents had.