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A Grandfather Story


Pierre Girard

Grandfather would never admit we were Indian. Sometimes he would say we were French Canadian - sometimes not. They'd made him ashamed of his heritage. I would ask him, "If your brothers and sisters are Indian - why aren't you?" He'd tell me I asked too many questions. He was lighter skinned, was able to pass, and they'd made him ashamed of his heritage.

I lived in a different time and place. There were Finns in our small town, mostly all Finns. Finns are most often very fair and often white blond. There were some darker people too. I got on well with them - I obviously wasn't Finn. I don't recall ever thinking too much, one way or the other, about the darker people. There was one nice girl named Carol. She was very sweet. When I learned about books and read about the history of our area, I always meant to ask her if she knew there was an Indian tribe by the same name. Her name was Carol Ojibway. It never crossed my mind she might be of the Ojibwe nation. She didn't look like the Indians pictured in my books.

Grandfather was serious about taking care of his family. He'd moved down from the woods and took a job driving truck. He worked all through the depression, keeping the same job for 40 years, but his heart was always in the lakes and forests he'd left behind. Every chance he had to be in the woods - well, there was never a question where he'd be. I was often with him - the only grandchild who knew forests were "right" and cities were "wrong."

This time of year, he would look at me, with a twinkle in his eye, and say, "When the leaves of the tag alder are the size of a mouse's ear - the trout are biting," and off we'd go. Grandfather could "tickle" trout. If it was too warm and they weren't biting, he would wade along the shores of creeks and, with infinite patience, flip the trout up on the bank. We would roast them and eat them whole - without cleaning them. They always tasted like heaven.

Often Joe Artichone, grandpa's cousin, was along. Joe was Ojibwe, and proud of it. Sometimes he would give grandfather a hard time about his reluctance to admit his lineage. Being young, most of this went over my head at the time. Joe's knuckles were always covered with scars as he would not put up with one derogatory word about Ojibwes or Indians in general. There was a story about Joe loosing out on the Navy Cross, or some such medal, during his time in the service because an officer had said his bravery was pretty incredible "for an Indian." Joe decked him. I should say, I'm not sure I have this story right, and now no one seems to know for sure. All those folks are dead.

Joe would sometimes tell me I was a "good little Indian," high praise from him, and it would make me beam with pleasure - as I knew it was the highest compliment. He and grandfather gave me a name.

One thing I remember about trips with Grandfather, Joe, and all their cronies, was we almost never ended up doing what we'd come to do. If we were going for fish, and blueberries were ripe - we picked blueberries. If we came to pick nuts, and ducks were in a pond - we hunted ducks. Grandfather never really hunted, he just always carried a gun. He had no particular need of a shotgun as he was well able to hit flying things with a rifle. Though he sometimes had fishing rods, he was never without a pocket tin containing line and hooks. He didn't try to bend nature to his ways, only accustomed himself to the ways of nature.

As I think back on it, the longer time we spent in the woods, the more grandfather's native heritage and upbringing came to the fore. We became more and more silent and at peace. He would start referring to "what the deer think" and "what the fish think," and even on occasion, to "what the trees think," and "what the winds think."

Some of the best times I remember were after he retired. He was always in the woods. You could often find Grandmother. She stayed around camp, and after so many years you knew about where camp would be. Grandfather usually showed up after a while and we would paddle into some other lake and he'd show me some new way in which nature had delighted him. He never said much, but his eyes would twinkle when you saw what had caught his eye. After we'd been out for a few days he would start gathering stones. They had to be just the right stones. Sometimes it would take a couple of days to gather the right stones. Then he would build a sweat lodge, draping it with tarps, and we would heat the stones and lift them into the lodge with deer or moose sheds. You had to be careful of the hot stones. The lodge was so small, there would only be room for grandfather and me. Grandmother had to stay away. After we were hot, we ran to the water, or in winter, into the snow, then back in the lodge and then the steam. I don't remember feeling quite so free or clean since.


Over the portage of Ogichkemuncie we come carrying.

Over the hills of Ogichkemuncie we come carrying our canoes

Onto the waters of Gabbimichigami, the grandfather lake, we come carrying our canoes

Out of the morning mists on the waters, grandfather comes to me,

On Gabbimichigami, he comes to me and asks me, "Who are you?"

He walks on the waters of Gabbimichigami and asks me, "Who are you?"

"Do you do good to your neighbors?

"Do you catch only what you need and eat all that you catch?"

"Do you feed the stranger and care for your family?"

"Is your heart sweet toward all men?"

Grandfather comes to me and asks, "Who are you?"


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Text © 2002 Pierre Girard. E-mail:

Image credit: Photo close up of Ojibwe woman's leggings.
(from "Beads: Their Use By Upper Great Lakes Indians" exhibition produced by the Grand Rapids Public Museum and the Cranbrook Academy of Art (1977/1981).

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