White Earth Reservation, 1938:
u.s. rehabitilation house.
you counted each one—
seventy-one tar-paper shacks,
eight united states rehabilitation houses
bark houses at rice camps—
calculated cubic air space
ennumerated every construction detail—
23 with broken windows;
99 without foundations, buildings
resting on the ground;
98 with stove pipes for chimneys.
house, dwelling, place, structure—
June to November
the year my mother turned five,
Mary Inez you walked these lands
the fervor of your order tucked
under one billowing black-sleeved arm,
amassing details of crowded quarters,
common-law marriages, miscegenation,
illegitimate children, limited education,
economic dependence on the WPA and CCCs
for charts that have outlived
those Anishinaabeg of the
one hundred and fifty chosen families.
Now you perch in my history
at one of 71 homemade or 79 factory-made tables
sitting tall and precise on one of the 84 benches,
49 backless chairs, or 81 arm chairs,
or standing, Mary Inez, in the homes
of one of the 16 tar-paper-shack families
or 8 frame-house families
for which you record none
under the heading of chairs.
Methodically you recite
like prayers of deliverance
each prepared question:
Why are these so many
unmarried mothers on the reservation?
Why are there so many common-law
marriages on the reservation?
What do you think can be done
the drinking to intoxication among the Indians?
I hear you interrogate each family
daily gathering indulgences
or ink smudged statistics
on what you label in caps SOCIAL PROBLEMS.
Any unmarried mother in the home?
Any intoxication in the home?
So dutifully you prompt each betrayal—
Father? Mother? Son? Daughter?
and then remind yourself, in print,
in a parenthetical aside
of the unreliability of the interviewee—
(Check this information
with some outside person.)
As if anyone then or now could forget
with whom resides the authority
for your social accounting
Ah, sister, I pity you
the prickly mystery of those questions
whose answers could not be checked
by some reliable outside person.
So confidently you asked
Would you like to leave this home?
But seventy-three per cent of the occupants
of tar-paper-shacks on White Earth Reservation
in northwestern Minnesota in 1938
No matter, you wrote, how dilapidated
and inadequate the homes were,
the tar-paper shack families
were quite unwilling to leave them.
So they were asked again
asked another way
because it was thought
knowing the alternative
might change their mind:
Would you like to move into a rehabilitation
house; one of those fine new houses
the Indian Bureau built for the Indians?
But the negative answers grew.
Fewer still would think of leaving their home.
Not thirty-five-year-old Anna,
not a widowed mother, sixty-one years of age,
living on the outskirts of one of the highway towns,
not Old Man Mink, seventy-eight years of age,
nor his wife, ten years his junior,
who agreed they liked their one-room shack,
not Mike, twenty-nine and a regular League of Nations,
nor his white wife Jane, twenty-eight,
nor their ten-year-old son.
Gaawiin. Gaawiin niwii-naganaasiin.
Like Jim, forty years of age
and Ella, thirty-eight,
they wanted to stay
in the old ramshackled, tar-paper-covered homes.
And did you hear the bullrush psalms
as you painstakingly recorded each
softly intoned explanation?
And does the land remember you
Sister Inez, of the tar-paper-shack dwellers?
As surely it remembers Mary
who felt well acquainted with the woods,
or Anna, who believed she was living
more like the old Indian ways?
Somewhere in that rolling land of rich loam
is the adorned body of Old Man Mink
and perhaps somewhere roams the spirit
of the Midē wiwin elder who vowed
I’ll stay right here. I won’t leave here.
I’ve lived here too long.
I wonder, Mary Inez,
did your BIA-commissioned sojourn
in the land of white clay
somewhere lay its soul mark
looming crow dark
at the ruled edges of report ledgers
spilling into cautious recollection
even as the measured drip of black ink
might draw tabulations
upon white pages?
Before Minnesota winter winds
rattled the 162 full-sized, 104 half-sized,
and 47 less than half-sized unbroken windows,
before that biboon nodin blew through
those 23 houses with cardboard-covered
broken windows or blew through
your tight-lipped post-allotment spirituality
you returned to the Order of St. Benedict
and to the list of standards set out in 1935
by the National Association of Housing Officials,
those standards against which all our measurements
fall short, become sub–sub-standard, sub-human.
You left Mary Inez, the Latin Mass
and rosary zipped safely in one pocket—
the names of each Midē wiwin elder
drumming and chanting in the other.
*All italicized words are taken from Sister M. Inez Hilger’s Chippewa Families: A Social Study of White Earth Reservation, 1938.