Our first residence was a crappy little pale blue trailer on the Red Cliff Reservation near Bayfield on the banks of Gitche Gumee. I immediately made friends with other Indian kids my age. They were really cool people, human beings as they referred to themselves. We played on the shores of the big water, occasionally dipping ourselves to cool off in the 38 degree lake. When I left Louisiana the temperature was 95 every day with 90% humidity. The Mississippi River hovered around 88 degrees. In Red Cliff if the temperature reached 80 everybody started complaining about the excessive heat. To me it felt great and relatively cool. To them it was torturously hot, hence the need to immerse in the frigid lake.
Lake Superior never rises above 38 degrees. I certainly didn’t expect that. The Gulf never dropped below 50 degrees in the depths of winter, hit 88 by my June 1st birthday and stayed that way until October.
The culture was as different as the temperature. New Orleans is rich in heritage forged from Spanish, French, English, and Creole influences since the 1500’s. Red Cliff had been the same for thousands of years until French trappers and Jesuit priests meandered into the area in the late 1700’s. Soon after came Nordic settlers from Norway, Sweden, and Finland as well as Europeans, mostly from Germany and Poland.
My new friends quizzed me constantly about New Orleans, a fascinating mythical world that they could barely imagine. I explained what life was like in my old home town, but my tales were met with wonder and much disbelief.
One of the funniest questions came from Billy Little Bear. He asked, “Did you see any negroes down there. We are told that they are plentiful but none of us has ever seen one.”
“You’ve never seen a black person? For real? Are you kidding me?” I was incredulous. “I’ve played with them every day of my life.”
“What are they like?”
“They are like any other kid. There is no difference. They were just as poor as we were. We played baseball year round.”
“You’re making that up. You can’t play baseball in the winter.”
“I’m telling you the truth. We played all day on New Year’s Day.”
“You played baseball in the snow? I don’t believe it.”
“It doesn’t snow down there.”
“No snows? I don’t believe it.”
I heard ‘I don’t believe it’ a lot from Billy Little Bear whenever I told him of life in Louisiana.
Many of my res friends had never been more than 20 miles from Red Cliff in their life. Their entire world consisted of Gitche Gumee, the Madeline Islands, and the surrounding pine woods. The biggest town they knew was Bayfield, population 600.
The fact that my Indian friends had never travelled wasn’t new to me, though. The time was in the midst of the 20th Century and though cars had been around for some 50 years most people didn’t travel far. We were one of the few families in Desire neighborhood that owned a car, dilapidated as it was. Most of my friends had never been outside of Orleans Parish, nor had their parents or grandparents.
It was true that the Ojibwa didn’t know much of the outside world, but they knew everything about living. Billy Little Bear taught me canoeing in the blue waters of Lake Superior. I distinctly remember feeling the coolness of the lake through the bottom of the canoe on my bare feet. In no time, I was paddling in concert with Billy.
On our first overnight trip we launched into Gitche Gumee from Pageant Road at dawn. Stroke by stroke we headed north out of Red Cliff Bay between York and Raspberry Islands on past Bear Island toward our destination, Devil’s Island, one of the outermost islands sitting directly on dangerous Lake Superior, an inland fresh water ocean. I could feel the spirits of my predecessors swirling in the water and the air. There were no mechanized sounds. No cars, or airplanes, or lawn mowers, or even motorboats, just the rush of wind, waves lapping against the sides of the canoe, and the quiet sound of our paddles entering and exiting the water as we glided over the surface. Occasionally, we would hear the caw-caw of a large hawk.
The smell of pine dominated my nostrils, a noticeable change from the pungent odor of the French Quarter – a combination of beer, puke, and piss fermenting in 100 degree heat. Indeed, this smell was truly refreshing and preferable.
We made camp on the west side of the island around noon. First, we established a lean-to shelter out of small felled pines and poplar stretched between branches of parallel trees. We embarked on our trip with only bacon drippings, bread and peanut butter. I was concerned that we were going to starve. Man, was I wrong. Next, we foraged for native roots and tubers. Billy showed me that the woods contained enough edible food to live indefinitely. We then dug for worms, which were plentiful in the sandy loam.
With the worms we fished standing knee deep in the frigid waters. Eventually, the body gets used to the cold and it is actually sort of refreshing and numbing. Billy caught the first fish a few moments after his first cast using just a line and a hook attached to a long, trimmed branch. I had a relatively fancy Zebco 202 rod and reel combination and caught nothing in the first hour while Billy piled fish after fish upon the shore. I finally caught a few small pan fish and sun fish, but nothing compared to the walleyes and northern pike that Billy was hauling in.
I learned that day that a knife is the most important tool that you can carry into the wilderness. And we were truly in the wilderness on this island. There is a lighthouse on the northernmost point of Devil’s Island, but from where we camped you wouldn’t know it. Looking northward I saw nothing but water. Canada was the nearest land to the north across the vast lake. With my knife I learned to scale and clean the fish, cut willows to act as skewers, cut forked limbs for use as a spit for rotisserie, and cut pine boughs to provide shelter from the elements in the lean to.
With water from the lake in a small cast iron pot we boiled the tubers over our campfire and roasted fish on the spits. What a great meal it was. What a blissful experience. I was living as our ancestors had for hundreds of years before the wasicu invaded our land. I had never before felt so complete, so at peace.
Night came quickly even though it was August. The crystal clear sky displayed more stars than I had ever seen. The setting sun caused the temperature to fall down to 55 degrees in a matter of minutes. As we warmed ourselves by the fire I asked the obvious question. “Why do they call this Devil’s Island?”
“It is called Devil’s Island because this is where Matchi Manitou lives. The Evil Spirit was imprisoned here by Gichi Manitou long ago and he has haunted this island ever since.”
“Sorry I asked,” I said.
“When the winds blow you can hear the Devil howl. If we’re lucky we will hear him howl tonight. Then, you’ll be able to say that you faced Matchi-Manitou and were not afraid.”
“Cool,” I feigned bravado.
On cue, the winds began to blow, the stars disappeared, and a light, cold rain fell around our shelter. Then, the Devil began to howl. Under and around the island are caves hallowed over tens of thousands of years by the waves. When the wind blows through these caves the howl is nearly deafening and one of the eeriest sounds I have ever heard. Chills ran through me as the Devil shrieked and howled his lonely, pained lament. I wanted to head back home, but that was impossible. We were trapped on this remote island until daylight. Fortunately, I had Billy Little Bear to talk me through the experience, a feat that I wouldn’t recommend trying alone. I was as spooked as I’ve ever been in my life. The voodoo ghosts of New Orleans didn’t hold a candle to Devil’s Island of the Apostles.
The Ojibwa were directed to the Red Cliff area by Gitche Manitou, the Great Spirit, to find “the food that grows on the water” otherwise known as wild rice. For centuries the Chippewa lived in peace on the banks of Lake Superior feeding on the plentiful deer, bear, and fish. Their descendants taught me some of the most important lessons in this life.
In September, I began studies at the reservation school – one room containing grades 1 through 8. One teacher, 30 kids in ages ranging from 6 to 14 occupied this grimy weather-beaten building. The promise of better educational opportunities fell far short of what I expected or what I was promised. In some ways this school worked quite well for me because by this time I knew how to learn from books and there was plenty of new reading on the shelves on the perimeter of the classroom. Plus, I wasn’t that concerned with school because I was learning far more important lessons in the woods.
I established several encampments in the pines as Billy had taught me. I could go out for an entire weekend with only a knife and my sleeping bag and eat hearty in the peaceful surroundings. I always brought a notebook with me so that I could journal my activities and practice writing, my newfound love.
What I truly loved about the school was that all of the kids had been taught the same values that my father and grandmother instilled in me.
By December, the largest fresh water lake on the planet was frozen for as far as the eye could see. The snow banks were piled 10 feet high. The spirit islands offshore that we had paddled to by canoe in August now had well worn trails where local Ojibwa had trekked to fish through the ice and camp on frozen shores in the Apostle Island chain.
Our trailer was cramped but somewhat comfy. It was heated by a fuel oil stove in the center fed by a fat tank that sat just outside the kitchen window.
A rope was strung from the front porch to the outhouse so a visitor wouldn’t get lost in a blizzard when trudging to and back. That’s right, we had an outhouse for a bathroom. Legend had it that many people had been lost through the years when they could not find their way back from the outhouse. What a shitty way to die.
Whiteout conditions are frequent in northern Wisconsin. It doesn’t even have to be snowing. The winds whipping off Lake Superior pick up snow from the ground sweeping it horizontally across the landscape. It is easy to become disoriented and lose one’s way in just a few steps; getting lost in those conditions very quickly turns deadly and often had for many unfortunate souls in yet another contrast to my former life in New Orleans. Down south, it would rain sideways obliterating buildings or any landmark, but you could only get so wet and it wasn’t likely to kill you.
Days before the Christmas break my father brought news that he had landed the job of supervisor at pump manufacturing factory in Superior. We were going to move again, but this time to a house in the town.